Jesus the Jew: A Christmas Message, Part 2

The “Jesus Boat”: a first-century boat uncovered by archaeologists in 1986 from the mud in the Sea of Galilee.

(Continued from Part 1, posted yesterday)

Jesus as Social Radical

In certain respects, Jesus held conservative views regarding the Law, such as his positions on divorce and oath taking. How could such a conservative teacher that advocated the love of one’s enemy and infinite forgiveness be condemned to death by Romans as a subversive? But Jesus was not just a teacher of love. Jesus was a social radical who challenged those in power. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. One cannot serve God and mammon. While clearly speaking from Jewish society and law, Jesus’ approach to life and his teaching were extraordinarily creative, and threatening to the social elites.

Jesus was a complex Jew. There is evidence from multiple attestation in multiple literary forms in the Gospels that Jesus supported one of the centers of power in Israel—the operations of the temple. He offered his support in various ways—visiting the temple, celebrating Passover, acceptance of the temple tax, sending those he healed to the priests, and so forth. Yet, while supporting the temple, he did not agree with the leadership of the temple or everything the priests did. Jewish sources tell us that the High Priest, Caiaphas, had moved the business part of the temple (the selection and selling animals for sacrifice) from the nearby Garden of Gethsemane to the temple compound in the face of popular opposition. [Correction: The last sentence should read: “…from the nearby Mount of Olives to the temple compound . . .” ] The temple also served as a central Jewish bank in which (among other things) various currencies were exchanged into the currency acceptable for the temple.

Jesus’ disruption of this commerce (the cleansing of money changers and those who sold sacrificial animals in the temple compound) may have been the act that sealed his fate on the cross. If the Romans were nervous about Jesus’ popularity, Caiaphas would be in no mood to defend Jesus after creating such a bold attack on his policies and administration. But it was the Romans who executed Jesus for political reasons.

The most threatening teaching of Jesus was the apocalyptic prediction of the utter destruction of the temple. Even the evangelists tried to soft-pedal and spiritualize the prediction.[i] The threat of large crowds that Jesus attracted, the cleansing of the temple, and the prophecy of the destruction of the temple as the center of Jewish life and banking were enough to seal his fate as a potential revolutionary.[ii]

Jesus was crucified under Pilate’s command. Pilate was known for his brutality. In a letter, Philo complained about Pilate’s cruelty and his senseless executions without trial. Josephus tells us that Pilate was eventually relieved of his position by Rome because of large scale and unnecessary executions. Clearly, the Gospels portray Pilate in a much too favorable light. Jesus, along with many apocalyptic teachers, Messianic figures or revolutionaries of his time met their fate on a cross or at the point of a sword in the first century.[iii]

Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. But he was also creative, complex and difficult to understand. Even his Christian followers did not know what to make of him:

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a just angel.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.’ ”

(Gospel of Thomas 13:1–4, written sometime between 50 and 200 CE)[iv]

These comments by a baffled follower of Jesus must have been a typical reaction from some who chose not to follow him, as well. Jesus, like most of us, cannot be put in a box of predictable form.

This search for Jesus the Jew may be helpful. But in the end it is as confusing as Albert Schweitzer’s original quest for the historical Jesus. In his quest, Schweitzer set aside the easy and the false Jesus of liberal theology with its insistence on the purity at the meal of love and light. He found, instead, a difficult Jesus, a Jesus as apocalyptic prophet who died with prophecy unfulfilled. But his followers did not give up on the coming of the Kingdom. How can we follow an executed leader, this experiential guide to the Divine, a man that we admire, but apparently cannot quite know?

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

(Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)

 On this celebration of his birthday, we all share the longing of Mormonism to restore anew the clear voice of Jesus the Jew. It is more than nostalgia. In Jesus, we place our longing to find the fundamental symbols of survival and compassion which he so gracefully manifested: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36)

Who does not long for that hammer that will break the chains of death, guilt, and meaninglessness? Who does not await at midnight for the pouring of the water of hope into the apocalyptic mix of our social and environmental collapse? While we keep searching texts, while we listen for His voice in the silence, perhaps we have enough on this day to choose and to celebrate what he was, and still is:

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

(Robert Frost)


[i] Mark 13:1-2, 14:58, 15:29, Matt. 24:2, 26:61, 27:40, Luke 19:44, 21:6, John 2:19, Thomas 71, Acts 6:14. The prophecy proved untrue. One wall of the temple still stands—the wailing wall.

[ii] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 1995) pp. 249-276.

[iii] See John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant  (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

[iv] Stephen Patterson argues that this saying is independent of the synoptic tradition.



Jesus the Jew: A Christmas Message, Part 2 — 23 Comments

  1. Footnote i states incorrectly that Jesus’ prophecy that not one stone of the temple would be left standing upon another “proved untrue. One wall of the temple still stands—the wailing wall.” Mark is incorrect. The NT and Josephus both consistently use the word naos to describe the central building/sanctuary of the temple, and hieros to describe the broader plaza of holy precinct (= the Arabic haram). No stone of the naos is left standing; the Western Wall is part of the ancient hieros.

  2. “Jewish sources tell us that the High Priest, Caiaphas, had moved the business part of the temple (the selection and selling animals for sacrifice) from the nearby Garden of Gethsemane…”

    Which sources?

  3. Thanks for these very interesting posts, Mark! The historical Jesus is definitely an elusive and difficult character, and I’m not at all sure what to do with him. I love many of the values he taught, and I’ve little doubt he played an instrumental role in bringing about the Western culture I love and enjoy today. Yet he also seems, in so many ways, a man of his time.

    May we all wrestle honestly this Christmas season with Jesus the holy man, the apocalyptic teacher, the social radical, and the messiah!

  4. Brother Hamblin,
    The propehcy of Jesus about the destruction of the temple is in line with prophets of the Hebrew Bible who predicted a similar fate. Hence, Jesus serves as a Jewish prophetic figure.

    To your question about the failure of the prophecy, I stand by what I wrote. Here is what it says in Mark 13:1-2 (REB): “As he [Jesus]was leaving the temple, one of his disciples exclaimed. ‘Look, Teacher, what huge stones!What fine buildings![plural]’ Jesus said to him, ‘You see these great buildings? [plural] Not one stone will be left upon another; they will all be thrown down.” The Greek phrase in the text is “tautas tas megalas oikodomas” or “these great buildings,” plural, meaning the buildings on the temple compound. The text is clear at this point in Mark and there are no textual variants to complicate issues. The text is pretty clear that Jesus was speaking of all of the buildings on the temple compound.

    Here is what EP Sanders states when discussing the same prophecy in Matthew and Luke: “The principle thing to note is that the prediction was not precisely fulfilled. When the Romans took the city in A.D. 70, they left much of the Temple wall standing; indeed much of it is still there, supporting the present Muslim holy area. Most of the stones in the surviving wall weigh between two and five tons, but some, especially those in the corner, are much larger. . . Jesus said that not one would be left on another.” (Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p257)

    The message is even clearer in Matthew 24 where Jesus refers to “tas oikodomas tou ierou” —-the buldings [plural] on the temple compound would not have one stone on another. Again there are no textual variants.

  5. Jonathan,
    The Jewish sources for Caiaphas transfer of sacrificial animals to the temple site (apparently on the grounds of greater efficiency) can be found in the following article:

    Bruce Chilton, “Jesus’ Dispute in the Temple and the Origin of the Eucharist,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 no. 4.

    Dr Chilton has a PhD from Cambridge, is a professor at Bard College and a scholar af New Testament and first century Jewish texts. He has co-written a book on the New Testament with Jacob Neusner, also at Bard. He has written books and artcles on Jesus as a Rabbi. He has a specialty in early Christian communities and the Targumim.

  6. Hi Mark,

    You’re missing the point. Your original claim that the existence of the Western Wall demonstrates the failure of Jesus’ prophecy. The Western Wall was never a “building” on the temple mount. It was a retaining wall creating a plaza on which buildings of the temple mount were built. So the continued existence of the Western Wall has nothing to do with Jesus’ prophecy.

    At any rate, the prophecy is hyperbole, meaning “the temple will be completely destroyed.” It was.

  7. Page 24 of the “Dialogue” article mentions the “Hanuth” being “on the Mount of Olives”. I’m still not clear where the idea that the market place for the animals was once in Gethsemane is coming from?

  8. Jonathan,
    You are right. That is an error in my part. The Mount of Olives was correct. Thank you for checking up on me.

  9. No worries. I could already see a Sunday School lesson being given- “And did you know that at one point in time the Garden of Gethsemane was the place where animals used for sacrifice were bought? Just think of the symbolism…the Lamb coming there to sacrifice….etc.” I don’t mean to mock any well intentioned individual, as I have no problem with that assertion myself and could see how it would be a nice anecdote, but only as long it’s factual.

  10. I guess it really has to do with how nit-picky we are. Did Jesus literally mean *every* stone, or was he going for broad strokes of speech, creating a dramatic picture of utter destruction?

    The Western Wall is not the same wall that the early midrashim spoke of. They meant the western wall of the temple itself, not the outer precinct. It wasn’t until the medieval era (some time between the Arab Conquest and Nahmanides) that the traditions were transferred to the current wall. I spent dozens of hours last year researching that development for myself.

    Anyway, this is a picture of the remnants of what seems to have been the original wall. Most of it was built over.

  11. While the title “Jesus Boat” is a cheap tourist gimmick, I am very proud of the fact that I went to elementary school in Ginnosar, and that three of my teachers were among those that found the boat (Yuvi and his brothers are living legends). My class even got to see the boat while it was still being treated, and just before it was closed off for a few years. Fun stuff.

  12. William,
    I have read the “not one stone on another” as refertring to the whole temple compound. But if you take the words literally, one need not see a failure of prophecy here, since the western wall was a retaining wall. Thanks for your thoughts.

  13. To All of You,
    I am pretty amazed with the quality feedback that you have provided–thoughtful, insightful and informed. Merry Christmas.

  14. Has anyone here read The Five Books of Jesus by James Goldberg? I saw some high recommendations for it around the bloggernacle, and and jumped on the bandwagon. It’s a new, wonderful, very thoughtful look at the ministry of Jesus mostly from the perspective of those observing and following – and at times, leaving. I’m only about a quarter through it, and I’ve already had some great insights from reading it. Currently only $2.99 on Kindle. It’s a great compliment to these series of posts.

  15. Sounds interesting enough. I tend to avoid New Testament fiction as too much of it is maudlin, but am willing to allow for exceptions.

  16. I plan on picking up Daniel Boyarin’s new ‘The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ’. His ‘Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity’ was very eye-opening and helped place the Jesus ‘Logos’ theology in context.

  17. That Boyarin book does look interesting. Another book which I highly recommend about the Jewish Jesus is “The Halakhah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew,” by Phillip Sigal.