Saturday, October 27, 2018


I don’t think there is any historical field which uses terminology as much as historical Jesus studies. And most of these terms come from Christian theology, making it all the more odd that this field considers itself to be engaged in objective historical analysis. These names were invented at a time when Christian theology was extremely hostile to Judaism. The continued use of these terms means this hostility continues in historical study.

These names include Passion week (which primarily points to Jesus’s suffering at the hands of Jewish leaders; Passion was not only the title of Mel Gibson’s film, it also served as the title of a scholarly book), the antitheses of Matthew 5, the cleansing of the Temple or the symbolic act of destruction of the Temple, the fickleness of the crowd (when a Jewish crowd supposedly picked Barabbas over Jesus to go free), the trial of Jesus (that is a mighty big assumption, that it was a trial), and the subversive or offensive Jesus.

What all these names have in common is that Jews and Judaism do not come out looking very good. Jewish culture is put in a negative light by making it function as an antagonist for Jesus. Not only do these terms misrepresent the culture, they do not fairly represent the evidence in the Gospels. True objectivity becomes harder when the evidence is colored in a biased way. In fact, the naming serves as a kind of mock evidence, so that scholars can avoid looking at the real evidence in the Gospels.

Scholars will claim that each of these names is intended as a kind of shorthand reference to an event or series of events or sayings, but since these terms stamp a certain view on the evidence, it is disingenuous to claim that terminology is merely a reference. I don’t use terminology at all in my work, but it would be easy to introduce names that are much more faithful to history.

The cleansing, or symbolic act of destruction, of the Temple should really be called the defense of the Temple because that is precisely what Jesus is doing. Though the Gospels never tell us exactly what Jesus was upset about, it is most likely that he felt the vendors and moneychangers were too close to the Temple and too loud, upsetting the proper decorum, or maybe he thought they were charging too much for their services. (Examples of the same kind of criticism can be found in rabbinic literature.) Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus always speaks highly of the Temple and will send a leper he just cured to make a sacrifice at the Temple. Of course he would do that. One of the functions of the Temple was to act as a public health service, making sure that people who had been cured by healers like Jesus were clean. There was a clear division of duties between healers and priestly public health officials. There was absolutely no antagonism between Jesus and the Temple. Even a prediction of destruction was a sign of love. Jewish prophets made their predictions so that the potential catastrophe befalling a beloved institution could be avoided. The Gospel evidence of Jesus’s support for and veneration of the Temple is exactly what one would expect.

The so-called antitheses would be better called the elucidations. Scholars portray Jesus in Matthew 5 as defying Jewish teaching and offering his own superior ideas. That is a complete misrepresentation of history. The Torah was the Jewish Constitution. The Pharisees and rabbis encouraged debate over its meaning. Jesus is not defying anything. He is engaged in Jewish constitutional interpretations. The rabbis frequently expressed themselves this way. They would announce an older teaching and then use “and I say” or “but I say” to introduce what they thought was a better view of the meaning of the Constitution. Jesus is doing the same thing. He is elucidating the Constitution. I believe almost all of his interpretations in Matthew 5 can also be found in the Talmud.

The names that scholars have chosen to use in their work do not reveal any historical truths. They are used to obscure rather than reveal the actual evidence. If they reveal anything at all, it is scholarly biases, but they tell us nothing about the historical, Jewish Jesus or historical Jewish culture.

© 2018 Leon Zitzer

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