Wednesday, June 28, 2017


I just want to make one brief comment in this month’s post. There is an imbalance in historical Jesus studies. When I call it an imbalance, that is an understatement. You can see it in discussions of historical Jewish culture and in views of the historical Jesus.

The most common scholarly analysis of the culture states that the three most important things to Jews were Temple, rituals, and purity concerns. That is very far from the truth. As for the historical Jesus, we are often told that the three important political issues of the day were “kingship, priesthood, Temple,” as Paula Fredriksen puts it. I would not entirely dismiss these categories, but their value and accuracy is highly overrated.

Whatever happened to the Torah as Constitution? Academics forget that Torah was the foundation of everything else in Jewish culture—not Torah as a collection of statutes, but Torah as a collection of constitutional principles.  If you really want to understand ancient Jewish culture and the teachings of the historical, Jewish Jesus, that might be the most important category of all, and yet, it receives hardly any attention from scholars. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most scholars erase it from history altogether.

All of Matthew 5 is a perfect illustration of Jesus as a constitutional lawyer. He is deeply immersed in the controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees about how liberally or narrowly the Constitution of Israel should be interpreted. Jesus takes the Pharisaic position that every verse in the Torah is a constitutional principle and should be interpreted so as to fulfill its spirit. Jesus and the Pharisees believed that God gave the Torah so that we could be creative with it and not merely follow it slavishly. A good interpretation upholds the spirit of Torah and a bad interpretation is one that abrogates it. The Torah is a living thing that must constantly be developed. I discussed this in enough detail in my book True Jew, so I won’t go over it again here.

What the Pharisees and Jesus stood for is that Jews should be governed by a humane Constitution and not by kings or priests. Even a king, even a Messiah, has to follow the Constitution, otherwise he’s out. We are ruled by this Constitution, and that means we are ruled by debate over its meaning. In Jewish society, the rule of power must always be challenged by the rule of law (constitutional law, that is). If you miss that about Jesus, you miss the most important thing about him.

© 2017 Leon Zitzer

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