Sunday, November 28, 2004


Only two posts:

11/20 -- To Be Unique or Not Unique - How uniqueness can distort Jesus' teaching.

11/9 -- A scandalous saying of Jesus found in rabbinic literature.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


Jesus' uniqueness is important to a lot of people, I know. They feel that if he is shown to be like other rabbis, or wonder-workers, or healers, or wise teachers, something precious will be lost. But it does not occur to most people that if uniqueness is forced upon him (a uniqueness he may not want), something very valuable about Jesus may also be lost.

I do not just mean that we will lose his historical context and his connection to his own people, though that is true as well -- we will lose the real man that he was if we fail to understand his Jewish culture, a culture that he loved and participated in. I mean that we will miss an important part of his teaching if we insist that he was bringing something new into the world, something unprecedented.

There are many places in the Gospels where Jesus tells people that they are children of God and can have a special relationship with him. In Luke, there are two parables (at 11:5-8 and 18:2-8) which make the point that you can make demands on God and he will answer you. In the second one, Jesus compares God to a human judge who has to give in to the repeated demands made upon him by a widow seeking justice. Jesus concludes by saying "And will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night?" You can cry to God and God will answer.

That's what the seeking/knocking sayings mean (Matt 7:7-8; Lk 11:9-10): Keep seeking and knocking, don't stop, and God will eventually answer your needs.

Now think about this in context. Think what this meant to Jesus' fellow Jews. Many Jews of the time recognized that there were some Jews like Jesus and Honi the Circle Drawer (who lived in the century before Jesus) -- healers, wonder-workers -- who were specially beloved by God. God would do things for these demanding children. And what is Jesus saying about this? He is saying that you are wrong to think we are so special -- anybody can have this loving relationship with God. You too can approach God with chutzpah and make demands on him.

According to Jesus, being Honi or Jesus is not that unique, or rather, it does not have to be. Don't put us in a category by ourselves. You can all become spoiled children of God. Uniqueness gets in the way of seeing that. You can see why, with a message like that, his fellow Jews loved him and why possessed people were cured of their demons (they felt loved and secure again, not separated from others by their terrible nightmares).

Now if you want to say that this message makes Jesus unique, that would turn this into an endless argument. I do not want to prove Jesus was unique or not unique. It gets in the way of listening to him and understanding him. It is not a helpful category. What matters is to see what he was pointing to -- and it wasn't to himself that he pointed. All great artists and scientists and teachers point away from themselves. Uniqueness points in the wrong direction. Jesus points in the right direction.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Hey Sean, this is the blog I promised you about that saying of Jesus. You were right that it is from the Babylonian Talmud (Abodah Zarah 16b-17a), but the original circumstances were reported in the Tosefta (Hullin 2:24), which is the older source. The saying was preserved by R. Eliezer in an unusual way.

It seems that R. Eliezer was arrested by Roman authorities on suspicion of belonging to the Christian group. (It says "on account of minut"; "minut" is often understood to mean heresy, but in this case, Christians in particular are meant. In general, when "minut" refers to Christians and when it does not is still in dispute.) The Tosefta refers to the hegemon who, I believe, is a Roman official, not a Jewish one. The charge is eventually dismissed and Eliezer wonders why anyone would think he had something to do with that group.

R. Akiba suggests that perhaps he once expressed approval of something that was said by this group of "minim". R. Eliezer says that must be what happened and he remembers that a follower of Jesus once told him one of Jesus' sayings. The saying pleased him very much and that is what he told this follower of Jesus. But the Tosefta does not report the saying itself. The later Talmud supplies the missing saying.

As you know, the question in dispute is what was to be done with money donated by a prostitute to the Temple. Could it be used to build a toilet for the high priest? And Jesus' answer was yes, it could. From a place of filth to a place of filth. Many scholars are shocked that Jesus could ever have said such a thing. John Meier says, "The saying is a polemical invention meant to make Jesus look ridiculous" ("A Marginal Jew", Vol. 1, p. 97). But that is clearly wrong. R. Eliezer is very pleased with the saying. He thinks it is clever, and, no doubt, funny. There is no sense of ridiculing Jesus here. It is the high priest who is made fun of, not Jesus. R. Eliezer's reaction to the saying is positive.

I think it is more likely to be authentic than not. People are just shocked that Jesus could be a human being of his time. The circumstances as a whole fit the times.

Pharisees and rabbis loved debating about the Temple. Even after the Temple was destroyed, rabbis continued to debate what was proper procedure at the Temple. Jesus taught around the Temple a lot. Questions about the Temple were bound to come up. The Pharisees, which includes Jesus, believed they, not the priests, were the authoritative interpreters of Torah even for the Temple. They, not the priests, decided what was the procedure to be followed in the Holy of Holies. So it makes a lot of sense that Jesus would comment on any questions concerning the Temple.

Also, the Pharisees and rabbis loved making fun of the priests. There is a famous saying in the Mishnah: A learned bastard takes precedence over an ignorant high priest. Jesus' opinion that a prostitute's donation could be used to make a toilet for the high priest fits right in with this kind of thing.

And it shows Jesus with a sense of humor -- something I think we miss when we talk about him. The saying that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, probably struck people of the day as very funny. If most of the rich were Sadducees, what makes it funny is that Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, which makes it very difficult to get into it. In America, it would be like making a joke about how difficult it is to get a Republican enrolled in a national health insurance program.

On the whole, this probably is a genuine saying of Jesus. I do not see any good reason to doubt it, other than that it disturbs people. It fits the context of the times. And it is unlikely that someone else said this and it was wrongly ascribed to Jesus. Remember that R. Eliezer likes the saying. Why would he or anyone make up a saying they liked for Jesus, when they were did not want to encourage anyone to join the Jesus movement? Jesus most likely said it. It makes us wonder how many other of his sayings got lost along the way.

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