March 27, 2005
Sometime in the 1960s the Chinese statesman Chou En-lai was asked his opinion of the French Revolution. “It’s too early to say,” he replied. It may also be too early to know what to say about Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ by his two billion followers and acknowledged as a holy man by another billion Muslims. There is now a solid scholarly consensus that he existed, but none about so fundamental a matter as whether or not he intended to found a new religion. The three books reviewed here, for example, offer three different opinions on the latter question: Yes, no, and we’ll never know.
It has always been known, of course, that Jesus was a Jew. But until the 20th century, this fact did not figure very prominently in most Christians’ understanding of him. The Jews discovered monotheism and had a special covenant with the One True God, enshrined in divinely inspired scriptures – the Old Testament – which also foretold the coming of a Messiah who would extend God’s rule over the whole earth. Jesus’s coming fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, but he insisted that he had come to redeem all of humanity. The Jews could not accept this, and so, in one of history’s supreme ironies, they were left behind. Tragically, they could not – unlike Jesus – get beyond Judaism. This was, for nineteen centuries, more or less the Christian story.
Two things have changed that story: the dating of the books that make up the New Testament, with all this tells us about their likely sources and purposes; and a vast increase in knowledge among non-Jewish scholars about Judaism in Jesus’s time. The former has helped scholars decide which, among the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, are authentically his. Armed with this knowledge, combined with their new knowledge of 1st-century Jewish thought, many of them have concluded that Jesus, too, did not get beyond Judaism.
People who are of this opinion usually regard the apostle Paul as the founder of Christianity. John Dominic Crossan, a prolific New Testament exegete, and Jonathan Reed, a classical archaeologist, believe that Jesus founded Christianity but nonetheless consider Paul a spiritual innovator of genius. The message – the gospel – is Jesus’s (or as Paul would say, is Jesus), but it was Paul who elaborated the message into a full-scale challenge to what was then the spiritual framework of global civilization: Roman imperial theology. Paul “opposed the gospel of the divine Caesar” with “that of the divine Christ.”
If, like me, you had scarcely an inkling of “the gospel of the divine Caesar,” then “In Search of Paul” will prove quite a revelation. From watching “I, Claudius” we knew that Roman emperors had themselves deified; but wasn’t that just a mad lark – a typically Italian extravagance? No, indeed; they took it very seriously, and so did the rest of the ancient world. With impressive erudition and expository skill, abundant well-chosen illustrations, and vivid prose, Crossan and Reed conduct us on a book-length field trip through the highways, amphitheaters, temples, forums, villas, brothels, and bathhouses of the ancient Mediterranean, explaining statuary, describing mosaics, examining coins, deciphering inscriptions, and in general bringing life in the Roman Empire during the Age of Augustus into remarkably clear and deep focus. Everywhere, it seems, we find visual evidence (as you would expect in world where hardly anyone could read) of an ideology legitimating Roman rule. Crossan and Reed call it “peace through victory.” Unpacked a little, this becomes: The manifest benefits of modern development and civilization rest upon the peace guaranteed by Roman military hegemony, which in turn derives from the societal vigor produced by faithful adherence to traditional morality and values, which dictate a hierarchical social structure with a strong chief executive whom it is disloyal for citizens to challenge.
Sound familiar? Yes, Roman imperial theology, in Crossan and Reed’s brilliant reconstruction, bears an uncanny and dismaying resemblance to contemporary American imperial theology. In counterpoint, the authors weave an ingenious interpretation of Paul’s writings, which they claim opposed Roman ideology on all essential points. Paul’s formula was “peace through justice.” Against military force he sets grace; against the Roman vision of “hierarchy within the scenario of global victory” he develops a vision of “equality within [the scenario] of global justice.” Crossan and Reid argue that Paul’s views on slavery and patriarchy were far more egalitarian than those prevailing in his time; and they convincingly show that apparent examples to the contrary, which account for Paul’s equivocal reputation, are nearly all found in epistles mistakenly attributed to him. Even Paul’s emphasis on the title “son of God” for Jesus is meant as defiance of Augustus’s claim to be “divi filius” – and would have been understood as such in Rome’s dominions.
“From Jesus to Christianity” is a far more cautious and less colorful book than “In Search of Paul.” Informative almost to a fault (the text sometimes disappears behind a panoply of boxes, charts, and other visual aids), it is all background and scarcely any argument. (It does take a firm position on one matter, though: “Jesus did not appear as the founder of a new religion … [He] was a Jew, and the Jesus movement originated as a Jewish sect … strictly within the framework of Palestinian Judaism.”) Still, White’s low-key, balanced walk through the sources and scholarly controversies may come as a relief after Crossan and Reed’s audacious synthesis.
David Klinghoffer, though extremely well-informed, is not a scholar but a columnist and best-selling author. After two rather bad millennia, Jewish-Christian relations are at last good enough, at least in the United States, to permit a little plain speaking, Klinghoffer thinks. “You seem like such a nice person,” his Christian friends are always telling him. “You know your Bible. How can it be that you don’t see the need for Christ in your life?” “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus” is Klinghoffer’s reply. His Christian friends may be sorry they asked.
The main thrust of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus” is a comprehensive demonstration that the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies do not fit Jesus. Some cases are obscure, necessitating recourse to interpretative traditions, which Jews call “oral Torah.” Some are not obscure at all, like the straightforward mistranslation that gave rise to the legend of the Virgin Birth. In nearly all cases, Klinghoffer presents a strong brief against the Christian position. He certainly knows his Bible.
He is less persuasive, to my mind, arguing the thesis contained in his subtitle. Klinghoffer believes – or at any rate wants his crestfallen Christian friends to believe – that it was a lucky thing the Jews rejected Jesus. If they hadn’t, Christianity would have remained a marginal Jewish sect, the Roman Empire would not have become Christian, Western civilization would not have occurred, Islam would have conquered Europe, and worst of all, the United States would not have attained its present glorious form.
All historical counterfactuals are dubious, and this one strikes me as more dubious than most. But if it will help keep Christians from further murderous harassment of Jews, I’m willing to suspend disbelief.