Jesus was more Jewish than you think, says Bible prof

When Rice University religion professor Matthias Henze visits local Houston-area churches and synagogues to promote interfaith understanding between Christianity and Judaism, he focuses on discussing one particular time period: the four-to-five-century gap between the Old and New Testaments.

“It’s been overlooked for a number of reasons,” said Henze, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism, with an emphasis on the Second Temple. “Both Jews and Christians don’t pay much attention to this period.”

According to Henze, the “gap centuries” between the fourth century BCE and the first century CE are crucial to understanding that there may be less of a chasm between the two religions than many people might think. He contends that Hebrew religious texts from this period, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, helped influence Jesus, whom he describes as a Jew who practiced the Judaism of his day.

This argument is alluded to in the subtitle to his new book, “Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus.”

With an awareness of Hebrew religious texts from the gap years, “Jesus now has a context,” Henze said. “We put him where he belongs. He’s no longer a character by himself, he’s no longer sporadic.”

And, he said, “once we understand Jesus as part of a larger Jewish world, I think we’re doing much more justice to the New Testament.”

Sides of a coin

Henze is a veteran of interfaith outreach. A Lutheran from Hanover, Germany, he is the director of Rice’s Jewish studies department, which he founded in 2009.

“I have a long deep-seated interest in Judaism and Jesus history, and certainly the Hebrew language,” Henze said.

“I’m very comfortable giving talks in churches about Jewish issues, building community,” Henze said. “People want to talk about Christianity, particularly about Jesus. They have a great desire to learn more about the origins of Christianity, the early Jesus movement.”This prepared him well when discussing Judaism and Christianity at local religious institutions.

This made it central to understand the gap years — roughly speaking, “the latter part of the Second Temple period,” Henze wrote in an email.

The gap began after the last books in the Old Testament were written in the fourth century BCE (the lone exception is the Book of Daniel, from the second century BCE). Closing the gap, the New Testament was written in the second half of the first century CE.

“My thesis is that in the gap,” Henze said, “Jews felt free to write new texts, think new thoughts, develop new literary forms of expression.”

It was a time when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were ruled, successively, by the Persians, Greeks, Hasmoneans and Romans — with only the Hasmoneans, the Maccabean dynasty, representing domestic rule.

At the end of the period, Henze said, Jews bravely tried out new ideas, and “Christianity emerges… Jesus comes along, the inheritor of those ideas.”

But this was followed by retributive acts — the crucifixion of Jesus and the destruction of the Second Temple. The generally accepted date of Jesus’s crucifixion is between 30 and 33 CE. The Second Temple fell in 70 CE.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, compiled by the Essene community at Qumran, are among the best-known Hebrew religious texts from the gap period. Henze cites others as well.

The Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Tanakh, includes the Apocrypha, which Henze called “a well-defined list of certain ancient Jewish books” not found in the Hebrew Bible, such as Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Other, older Jewish texts from the same time period, or slightly before, were not part of a fixed list and were designated the Pseudepigrapha, a Greek term meaning “written under a pseudonym,” Henze said. In this case, “they were written under the name of an ancient Bible figure.”

He mentioned 1 Enoch, which evokes “a character mentioned in Genesis 5, a very important figure for Jews in the third and second centuries BCE,” as well as the Book of Jubilees, “a Jewish book from the second century BCE retelling the Book of Genesis and Exodus.”

A product of his times

Collectively, said Henze, these works shed light upon Jesus’s Judaism.

“We open up the New Testament and find Jesus as part of the Judaism of his day,” Henze said. “He was a Jew, born in Israel of Jewish parents, raised [there], presented to the Temple, died Jewish.”

But the Judaism of Jesus’s day often differs from that of the Old Testament.
“In the New Testament, Jesus goes to synagogue in Luke 4, ‘as was his custom,’ on the Sabbath day. There are no synagogues in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible,” Henze said.

“Jesus being called ‘rabbi’ by his disciples. There are no rabbis in the Tanakh. Jesus spends much of his time discussing Torah and the Pharisees, as every Christian knows. There are no Pharisees in the Tanakh. Resurrection is said to be the end of life. It’s not in the Hebrew Bible except the Book of Daniel, the last in the Bible.”

Henze said “that when Christians read this and turn to the Old Testament, and there are no texts that explain it, they assume Jesus was really breaking with everything. … The argument of the book is that yes, it is extraordinary, but only if all you read is the Old Testament. We’re overlooking that Jesus was part of a Judaism derived further from the Hebrew Bible.”

To make his case, Henze focuses on what he describes as four big topics of early Christianity: “Messianism; demons and unclean spirits — a living world densely populated with angels and demons; Torah, its significance and correct interpretation; and the belief in resurrection or life over death, life with angels.”

“Yes, they come from the Old Testament,” he said. “But they are not really fully anticipated in the Old Testament. They were more systematic, from the very rich literature that followed the Old Testament and predates the New Testament.”

The idea of Jesus as the messiah of Israel arose from “the expectation of a messiah at the end of days, history as we know it, an agent of God, moshiach [the messiah],” he said. “It’s a kind of thing not found in the Tanakh per se.”

But, he said, “there are a number of texts, primarily from the Dead Sea Scrolls, about early Jewish messianic expectations comparable with the description of Jesus in the gospels. It’s obvious that the gospel writer was trying to make a case that Jesus is the messiah for whom Israel has waited, terms that would have been familiar with Jewish audiences.”

And he said that while “resurrection was so central to early Christianity at the time, there was no belief in resurrection of the dead in the Tanakh,” except for in the Book of Daniel at the end of the Second Temple period.

“In between the Old and New Testament, a number of Jewish texts talk about resurrection, life in the company of angels. We need to understand it in the context of other Jewish texts,” said Henze.

A riveting chronology

Fellow scholars find Henze’s arguments intriguing — with caveats.

“The sources for our [understanding] of Jesus are complex,” said Notre Dame associate professor David Lincicum, who focuses on biblical studies and Christianity and Judaism in antiquity, and who is collaborating on a project with Henze. “It’s not clear what kind of education [Jesus] had.

“I feel it’s fair to say that a lot of the [Hebrew ‘gap’] texts reflect discussions in the air in the first century. The Apocrypha seem to have been widespread in early Judaism. There was a knowledge of outside texts,” Lincicum said.

And “while the Hebrew Bible is relatively silent on a messiah, [after the topic becomes] familiar, all of a sudden everybody talks messiah. There are gaps in the Judaism that develops. In some strands, there’s an anointed figure to save Israel. It might not be that Jesus knows a particular text, but it might attest a broader mainstream that he otherwise might not have access to,” he said.

However, Darrell L. Bock, executive director of cultural engagement and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, cautions against overemphasizing the gap centuries.

For example, Bock said that just because rabbis “don’t emerge in a significant kind of way until the centrality of the Temple is lost, the destruction of the Temple, does not mean there were no rabbis.

“Be careful about [calling rabbis an] anachronism,” he said. Bock’s knowledge of Jesus is perhaps best-known from his 2004 bestseller “Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s Asking.”

He also noted that the developments of the gap period might not have been caused exclusively by religious factors, but by political and social ones as well.

The biblical Israel was “in control of the political and social situation in [the] land,” Bock said. “That was not the case in the time of Jesus. Greco-Roman influence was omnipotent, pervasive. These differences make a big deal. Concepts are developed — the messiah, a hope, a return to the effective dynastic rule of the Old Testament.

Bock told The Times of Israel that Jesus ends up differing from all of the groups of his day — Sadducees and Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots.“There is a focus on the messianic cult, in inter-testamental texts, that will pick up hope and vindicate. Jesus puts himself as the messiah for not just Israel. He also concentrates on how others are treated as well. It’s similar on one hand and distinct on the other,” said Bock.

“I think Jesus hoped that he would be somewhat distinctive from the variety of approaches,” Bock said. “He developed a tradition that reacted to some degree against all those groups.”

Bock did agree that “Jesus did not come into a vacuum. He did not do it as a Jew who walked away from everything that being Jewish embodied. Clearly, Jesus thought independently of things — Jewish tradition, that kind of thing.”

What would Jesus think

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Henze, the author hopes to encourage independent thinking with his book — including in its concluding section.

“I pose a few challenges to Christian readers,” he said. “How does our understanding of Jesus and the New Testament change if we take seriously that Jesus was a Jew?”

“Many Christians believe that Jesus is exactly like them, the same theology, he looked like you, he was the same denomination and lived in first-century Israel,” said Henze.

Henze calls for Christians to become more familiar with Judaism — that of their neighbor’s today, and also the 2,000-year-old version practiced by Jesus and other Jews of his era.

Henze hopes that all readers regardless of their religion will “become open to the possibility of historical and religious context” and “read the New Testament in a more responsible, informed way.”

“My hope for the book is that it will find a broad readership and people will start to rethink what they thought they had known,” he said.

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