“Jesus,” the rebel against Judaism

Prof. Daniel Falk University of Oregon

Prof. Daniel Falk
University of Oregon

For the last several decades a wrong-headed and tiresome refrain has emanated from the theological podiums (or is it podia?) around the USA: “Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew.” So I myself learned on the first day of a New Testament course at the University of Oregon some years ago. The professor—Daniel Falk, a respected specialist in Qumran studies—quickly elaborated a little: Christianity was “a very significant modification of the religion of ancient Israel… It and Judaism are two offshoots of ancient Israel. Both came from rabbinic Judaism. Later, Christianity became a gentile religion.” The bottom line was clear: Jesus brought nothing radically new. He was in fact quite orthodox! What was “new” was Paul’s mis-interpretation of Jesus’ Jewish message…
 
A number of prospective students (probably disappointed Christians) simply got up and exited the room, as students often do in the first session of a course. I, too, was tempted to leave and wondered if I would learn anything useful from Dr. Falk. But I stayed and even wound up taking other classes from him, learning a good deal—and discovering that he’s much better when it comes to the Old Testament.
 
That first day of class was my introduction to a widespread pedagogical posture which exists today specifically in the field of Christian studies. I heard it not only in the lectures, but saw it in the textbooks used and have since noted it in a wide array of books published on the “Jewishness” of Jesus, including E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (1976); Geza Vermes (various books 1976, 1981, 1993) beginning with Jesus the Jew; Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1993); and Daniel Boyarin The Jewish Gospels (2012). A prominent thread running through all these extremely influential tomes is that Jesus’ core teachings were not a break from Jewish beliefs but were in essence their continuation…
 
The result of all this is an effective devaluing of Christianity. The religion does not stand on its own but is an errant offshoot of Judaism, something like a misguided experiment. I too believe Christianity was (and is) misguided, but have always felt that, at its core, its essence is not at all Jewish. Understanding that essence will help us understand the radical beginning of Christianity as a breakaway from Judaism—accomplished, in my view, by a headstrong and rebellious prophet.
 
In my New Testament class, the textbook of choice was Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (third edition, 2004). In it, we read:
 

Jesus was himself a Jew, as were his earliest followers. He was born to Jewish parents and raised in a Jewish culture; he worshiped the Jewish God, learned the Jewish Scriptures, kept Jewish customs, became a Jewish teacher, and preached to Jewish crowds. (P. 35)

Elsewhere in the book Ehrman states that Jesus “believed that what mattered most was at the heart of the Torah, the command for people to love God with their entire being and to love their neighbors as themselves” (268). This seems quite inoffensive, for it is the Golden Rule. But—despite Hillel’s famous dictum pronounced long ago—the Golden rule is not at the heart of Judaism. If it were, then the Jewish people would not need to worship Yahweh (and no other God), to observe the sabbath, and to venerate the Torah. Things are not quite so inoffensive as Ehrman makes out…
 
An entire generation of university students is being inculcated with the view that Christianity is merely a wayward sect of Judaism—as it were, a long lost and misguided child. The implication is that, at its inception, Christianity went wrong by departing from its Jewish heritage. Perhaps this is an effort to undercut the age old animosities between the two religions, to ‘level the playing field’ between the relatively few Jews in the world and the vast multitude of Christians. What better way to do this than to make Christianity disappear, as it were, by subsuming it into Judaism?
 
Even a cursory reading of the canonical gospels gives the lie to the above thesis. The tenor of the Christian texts emphasizes subordination of law (Torah) to moral behavior (Mk 3:4; Mt 5:23-24;12:11; 23:23, etc.). I won’t review here all the conflict pericopes regarding the sabbath, purity, divorce, etc. I’m sure that Vermes, Boyarin, etc. have elaborate explanations as to why the most obvious meaning of these texts is somehow incorrect… At any rate, the gospels are admittedly something of a pastiche, for they also portray a ritually tolerant Jesus who goes to the synagogue on the sabbath, who attends festivals in Jerusalem, who teaches in the Temple, celebrates Passover, and who does not speak disapprovingly of fasting, prayer, and charity.1 There appears to be something in the gospels for everyone.
 
Is Christianity a form of Judaism?
 
Unfortunately, the view that Christianity is fundamentally an offshoot of Judaism is not limited to the classroom and to influential scholarly literature. It is also found among current mythicist opinion. I recently read (on the JesusMysteries list that “the Sermon was artfully compiled, but it still did not introduce anything new. Note Friedlander’s Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount” (Message 69526).
 
I went to the library and got Friedlander’s rather dated book, first published in 1911 and reissued in 1969 by Ktav Publishing with an insightful Prolegomenon by S. Zeitlin. Upon reading it, I discovered that the author’s thesis is not at all what the book’s title might lead one to believe. Friedlander is emphatic that, in many and significant ways, Jesus’ teaching departs from Judaism (below).
 
Before we can answer whether the logia and parables of the Sermon on the Mount are “Jewish,” we must take a step or two back and ask: What is “fundamental to Jewish teaching?” and “What is a Jew?”
 
Admittedly, many ‘Judaisms’ existed at the turn of the era, some overlapping—Enochian Judaism, Essenism, Sadduceism, Pharisaism, diaspora Judaisms, and so on. Hence, it is difficult to devise one definition which encompasses all those diverse movements. Yet, I would venture a working definition:

A Jew is someone of Hebrew stock for whom the Torah is the revealed word of God, and for whom the Hebrews are Yahweh’s ‘chosen people.’

This definition is broad enough to encompass heterodox and orthodox Judaisms—it even includes the Samaritans with their unique Pentateuch.
 
Numerous artful explanations have been applied to the teachings of Jesus in order to bring him into the Jewish tent. However, it is clear to me that many of the logia and parables of Jesus hardly conform to the above definition. In Christian scripture we find antagonism to standard Jewish rite and ritual including mores of purity, sabbath, and authority (Mk 7:1-23; 10:2 ff.; 12:13 ff.), as well as antagonism to the Temple and the concept of ‘chosen people’ (Mk 11:15; Mt 3:9). The gospel Jesus is an independent teacher who repudiates the corporate standards of Judaism and who endorses ‘seeking and finding’ over obedience to Yahweh. If the historical prophet underlying the logia and parables was indeed Hebrew by birth, a good case can be made that he was not a ‘Jew’ by praxis and teaching.
 
A good case can also be made that the prophet was a gnostic. The Jesus of the gospels taught “secret meaning” (Th 1; Mk 4:11; Mt 13:35), a secret Father (Mt 6:6), and a kingdom which is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36)… Now, gnosticism has always been outside the pale of Judaism. In rabbinic eyes the gnostic is arrogant, while in Jewish scripture we often read how he who relies on his own intellect and effort unaided by Yahweh is deluded. At the same time, Judaism values wisdom and the search for understanding. Hence, a great dilemma has ever existed in the religion: how to encourage the seeking of understanding while, at the same time, maintaining the requisite distance between man and the divine. After all, Yahweh is worthy of worship only if he is transcendent.
 
The gospel Jesus taught the efficacy of effort and that divinity is within the person. Moreover, he endorsed a most un-Jewish asceticism. G. Friedlander candidly admits this in his book, Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount:

Quite contrary to the spirit of Judaism is the principle of non-resistance, inculcated by the Sermon (Mt 5:39). Equally un-Jewish is the asceticism demanded by Jesus (5:29-30). The principle of having no care for worldly things (6:25-34) is also original. In all these cases Judaism prefers to adhere to her old paths, and for this reason the Sermon on the Mount cannot be regarded as the ideal meeting-ground and bond of union between Jew and Christian. (Pp. 264-65)

Friedlander’s chapter VIII is entitled “The unJewish asceticism in the gospels.” The author notes “the New Testament view of wealth as part of the Evil One, who is ever at war with God. This is quite opposed to Jewish teaching” (169). He writes further:

Why did Jesus and the Gospels (especially Luke) attack wealth as something necessarily unrighteous? Here is a new standpoint utterly at variance with the Jewish and Rabbinic teaching. (171)

Friedlander notes the radically anti-social aspects of Jesus’ teaching:

This is the refrain which continually recurs. A man must surrender all his possessions to follow Jesus (Mt 19: 21); he must even renounce the closest family ties. This is no mere figurative expression. A man, in order to become a disciple, must renounce father and mother, wife and children (Mt 10:37; Lk 14: 26)… All this and much more of Jesus’ ascetic teaching is foreign to Jewish religious thought and practice. (175)

An abomination in Jewish eyes was Jesus’ dictum endorsing self-mutilation: “The doctrine of self-mutilation (Mt 19: 12)—‘there are eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven’—is an abomination according to the Mosaic Law (Deut 23:1; cf. Lev 22:23 ff.)” (175). Friedlander correctly concludes: “Christianity is not of the world—Judaism is of the world” (180-81).

And there’s the heart of the matter… Christianity, in its essence, is not of the world. It is impractical. It is self-effacing. It is not social. It certainly is not corporate, as is Judaism. Gnostics would argue (and did argue) that Christianity is entirely spiritual—even as gnosis is spiritual. Asceticism is intimately linked with gnosticism, for the gnostic repudiates material satisfaction in favor of spiritual satisfaction—world-transcending understanding. The emphatically ascetic strain in Jesus’ teaching aligns not with normative Judaism but with gnosticism (see below).
 
Even Jesus mythicists sometimes suggest that the figure of “Jesus” was drawn entirely from Judaism. Thomas Brodie’s recent book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus shows that the tenets of the Great Church can indeed be traced to Jewish scripture. Brodie similarly shows that the biography of Jesus of Nazareth is largely drawn from the Elijah-Elisha narrative. However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Brodie is only half-right: he concludes that Christianity was produced out of normative Jewish elements, a thesis which obtains for the Pauline kerygma (and the Great Church based upon it) but not for gnosticism which, in fact, lies at the heart of pre-Pauline Christianity (“Nazoreanism”).
 
Similarly, some scholars (Mack, Crossan) point to parallels between “Jesus” and Greek cynics. They may be correct, yet cynicism is not identical with gnosticism. The gospel Jesus is not merely a cynic. His sayings regarding the kingdom of heaven, loving one’s enemy, and receiving as one gives lie outside of cynicism. Indeed, they may have been entirely new to the western world.
 
Regular readers of this website are aware that—like Friedlander—I agree that important elements in the Christian scriptures lie well outside of normative Judaism. It is time we put to rest bald statements such as: “there is nothing new in Christianity”, “the Christian scriptures contain nothing original,” and “Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew.” On the contrary, Christianity was something radically new, and that may be precisely why it succeeded. It was radically new because a prophet long ago empowered anyone and everyone to find saving gnosis, and to do so without temple, ritual, or priest. That message is at once extremely potent and extremely subversive of the Jewish religion—which may be why the prophet was apparently executed.
 
Did Gnosticism come from Judaism?
 
Efforts have also been made to locate the precursors of gnosticism within Judaism. Thus, Moritz Friedlander (not to be confused with the Gerald Friedlander above) wrote Der vorchristliche jüdische Gnosticismus (“The Pre-Christian Jewish Gnosticism,” 1898) arguing “the thesis that Gnosticism is a pre-Christian phenomenon which originated in antinomian circles in the Jewish community of Alexandria” according to Birger Pearson (Friedlander Revisited: Alexandrian Judaism and Gnostic Origins, 1990). M. Friedlander’s book has been largely ignored, but Pearson finds the monograph both prescient and worthy of reconsideration.
 
Writers are also currently exploring proto-gnostic traits (often termed “Jewish mysticism”) in the Dead Sea Scriptures and in the Jewish pseudepigrapha. The special focus is on the element of spiritual ascent (cf. especially the work of C.H.T. Fletcher-Lewis). It is clear to me that, indeed, proto-gnostic traits existed in intertestamental Judaisms. We have seen, however, that the teaching of “Jesus” in significant ways lies outside the the Jewish self-definition. Thus, even though we may be able to map a direct line of development from pre-Christian (heterodox) Jewish mysticism to (also heterodox) Christian gnosticism, that development cannot include the ‘non-Jewish’ elements already noted. It is clear that in some ways the founding prophet behind Christianity crossed a spiritual line in the sand, one beyond which he was no longer a Jew. After all, no person who believes in salvation through gnosis while disparaging Temple, priesthood, rite, Torah, and chosen people can still be called a “Jew.”
 
The entire question of pre-Christian gnosticism must be reopened, for it is clear that proto-gnostic elements already exist in the New Testament—a ‘pure’ gnosticism without a redeemer figure and lacking any cosmological mythology. In the gnosticism of the gospels, salvation is by gnosis, renunciation, and effort. This is apparently what ‘the prophet’ taught.
 
There is clear evidence that heterodox Judaism itself offered fertile ground for the development of pre-Christian gnosis. Birger Pearson concludes: “Gnosticism is a pre-Christian phenomenon that developed on Jewish soil.”2 This is correct, but we unfortunately live in an age when scholars routinely disparage gnosticism and still insist that it is a later ‘aberration’ of Christianity. The shoe, however, is on the other foot—normative Christianity increasingly appears to be a later aberration of gnosticism. The first step is for scholarship to cease denying the existence of a “pre-Christian gnosticism,” a topic which I discuss elsewhere.
 
The outlines of a prophet
 
The blurry image of Christian origins are now beginning to emerge: a Hebrew-born prophet who believed in saving gnosis lived towards the turn of the era in Palestine. Where he derived his gnostic beliefs is still unclear—they may have come from Jewish soil (“mysticism”), from faraway Buddhism (via Alexandria?),3 from his own reflections, or from some combination of these three. Whatever the source(s) of his belief, however, this prophet (who was certainly not “Jesus of Nazareth”) repudiated Yahwism—the religion of his heritage. A general image coalesces from reading the Christian scriptures, including the orthodox and the heretical texts (e.g., the Nag Hammadi writings). The prophet taught that no one needs a temple, that there is no chosen people, that everyone has an avenue to the divine (gnosis, truth), and that each person must seek with his or her whole being in order to find saving truth. The Christian scriptures contain clear signs of these four propositions, and every one of them is anathema in the Jewish religion.

Eisenman at the mouth of Cave 4, Qumran.

Eisenman at the mouth of Cave 4, Qumran.

In addition, my own suspicion is that a link exists between the prophet who inspired Christianity and the Dead Sea Scriptures, pace Robert Eisenman. The controversy pericopes in the gospels, the recurring acrimonious interactions of this prophet with “scribes and pharisees,” his bold activity in Jerusalem, his remarkable defiance of authority—these point not at all to a country bumpkin who grew up in a small galilean village… Rather, they attest to a man highly educated in the Jewish faith. The prophet in question not only challenged the leading Jewish doctors of his time, but he bested them in argument. The record of that victory is evident and even celebrated in the gospels… That victory has resounded down through the ages and is an indelible element of everyone’s impression of “Jesus of Nazareth” to this day.
 
Speculation will take us only so far, and fragile inferences can easily lead astray. Yet, surveying the possibilities and probabilities from the disparate witnesses to “Jesus”—Christian, Jewish, Mandean, Gnostic, and even Samaritan—I suspect that the prophet in question was intimately acquainted with the Jerusalem Temple hierarchy, that he spent some time in Egypt (Alexandria), and that he was versed in ‘pagan’ religious thought. A model emerges: A young Jew from Jerusalem, highly educated and well placed in society, is groomed by the Ab Beit Din (the religious leader) for the Sanhedrin. In the time of Alexander Janneus there is a severe persecution and many of the Sanhedrin flee to Egypt. This would have been about 88 BCE. The young man ‘defects’ while in Egypt, to the great chagrin of his erstwhile mentor—possibly Joshua ben Perachiah who, the records tell us, had a remarkable student, Yeshu. Henceforth the young man is a traitor to Judaism, one expertly versed in the religion and intimately acquainted with its power structure. He remains in Egypt until after the ‘evil king’ Janneus dies in 76 BCE (cf. Mt 2:19). Those twelve long years would have deepened his acquaintance with non-Jewish religious traditions—probably including the gnostic religion of Buddhism—especially given the contemporary existence of the fabulous library of Alexandria. The highly educated young man, now full of heterodox ideas, eventually returns to his homeland where he is a force to be reckoned with as a uniquely savvy antagonist to the Temple hierarchy.4 The prophet bypasses the power structure and goes directly to the people, teaching not Yahwism but the way of gnosis. He may himself have written some texts—recorded in Samaritan records5 and possibly even preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls (“Thanksgiving Hymns”). He gathers a following in his homeland while the Temple authorities plot his demise—and eventually succeed.6
 
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1. Sabbath: Mk 1:21; Lk 4:16; 13:10. Passover: Mk 14:12 ff. Teaches in synagogue and Temple: Mk 1:21 ff.; 14:49; Lk 4:16; 13:10. Endorses fasting, prayer, charity: Mk 2:18-20; Mt 6:1-18.
 
2. B. Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.
 
3. The literature on Buddhist-Christian parallels is considerable. A small selection follows:
– Albert J. Edmunds, Buddhist and Christian Gospels, (Innes & Sons, 1914);
– Roy C. Amore, Two masters, One Message;
– Marcus Borg, Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (Ulysses, 1999);
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (Riverhead, 1999);
– Thomas Ragland, The Noble Eightfold Path of Christ – Jesus Teaches the Dharma of Buddhism (Trafford, 2003);
– René Salm, Buddhist and Christian Parallels Compiled from the Earliest Scriptures (Kevalin, 2004).
 
4. See the passage in the Talmud (Sanh. 107b, uncensored edition) which refers to a “Jesus” in the time of Alexander Janneus. Cf. also the medieval Toledoth Yeshu (sometimes referred to as an “anti-gospel”) which portrays unique confrontations between Yeshu and his uncle Yehoshua ben Perachiah who—significantly, was also a leader of the Sanhedrin. In the Toledoth, Jochanan (i.e. Joseph, Jesus’ “father”) goes to his “preceptor” Simon ben Shetach—the Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin in the time of Janneus (Zindler 369). English translation here and in F. Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew (AAP 2003) pp. 365 ff. One tradition dates the birth of Yeshu to 106 BCE (Zindler 365, n. 1). This appears approximately correct to me.
 
5. See J. Bowman, Samaritan Documents Relating to their History, Religion and Life, Pittsburgh: Pickwick Pr., 1977:164.
 
6. The above scenario, of course, is highly speculative. Perhaps the prophet in question was not at all linked to the Jerusalem hierarchy… He may have been a Samaritan from the start, for it seems that upon his return from Egypt he was active in Samaria (the gospels have “Galilee”). See Bowman, op. cit.

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