23rd February 2021

Book in Focus

Judaism and Jesus

By Zev Garber and Kenneth Hanson

Since it was originally published in late 2019, the volume Judaism and Jesus has been praised for, among other things, "bridg[ing] the gap between the typically isolated disciplines of Jewish and Christian scholarship and forg[ing] a fresh level of understanding across religious boundaries". For this edition of Book in Focus, co-author Zev Garber further opens up on the essential need for encouraging dialogical encounters in Jewish and Christian scholarship when faced with the question of who the historical Jesus really was.

Successful teaching, I believe, is a learning exchange. Learning involves not only information given, but the recipient’s critical application of what that knowledge means to oneself as an individual and as a member of a community (faith-bound, or not). As a classroom teacher, my major concern is that I am less of a knowledge-dispenser and more of a knowledge-facilitator, who leads his student to make discoveries and articulate values and conclusions. From my teaching experience, I find that students learn better and appreciate more their understanding of the subject matter if they are actively involved in learning rather than being passively taught.

Flexibility, innovation, implementation, enthusiasm, and relevancy are characteristic of a good teaching methodology. The college classroom should not serve as a podium for intellectual exhibitionism or be a forum for undisciplined free-for-all ranting. Some information and delight may result from such activities, but they are achieved at the expense of student learning and scholarship. Instruction in the classroom ought to be student-oriented so that they are involved in comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, rather than becoming amen-sayers to authoritative professorial ranting.

Dvar Yeshua: A Word on Jesus

Religious beliefs and practices are often couched in religious creeds and outlooks which for many traditionalist Jews and Christians are rooted in the Bible, seen as monolithic and complete. Decades of academic biblical scholarship, however, show that the biblical canon is a product of historical, political, and social forces, in addition to religious ideology. Recent quests for the historical Jesus are eroding the teaching of contempt from the Cross at Calvary by finding the New Testament Jesus in the context of the Judaism of Erets Israel in first century. Viewing Jesus as a proto-pharisaic rabbi-nationalist closely aligned with the anti-Roman zealot insurrection is a proper, though controversial, learning topic in teaching Second Temple Judaism.

My reasoning for advocating the legitimacy of dvar Yeshua in Jewish Studies classes is straightforward and transforming: dialogue, celebrating uniqueness without polemics and apologetics. As a practicing Jew who dialogues with Christians, I have learned to respect the covenantal role that Christians understand to be the way of the scriptural Jesus in their confessional lives. Also, Jew and Christian in dialogical encounter with select biblical texts can foster mutual understanding and respect, as well as personal change and growth within their faith affirmation. Moreover, interfaith study of Scriptures acknowledges differences and requires that the participants transcend the objectivity and data-driven detachment of standard academic approaches, encouraging students at whatever level to enter into an encounter with Torah and Testament without paternalism, parochialism, and prejudice. My dvar Yeshua is infused with the teachings of the Sages: talmud torah `im derekh eretz, here meaning ‘study Torah and respect ideological differences’ (derekh erets).

Testimony of Jesus (1)

There is a line of basic continuity between the beliefs and attitudes of Jesus and the Pharisees, between the reasons which led Jesus into conflict with the religious establishment of his day and those which led his followers into conflict with the Synagogue.

Two of the basic issues were the role of the Torah and the authority of Jesus. Rabbinic Judaism could never accept the Second Testament Christology since the God-man of the “hypostatic union” is foreign to the Torah’s teaching on absolute monotheism. As the promised Messiah,(2) Jesus did not meet the conditions which the prophetic-rabbinic tradition associated with the coming of the Messiah. For example, there was no harmony, freedom, peace and amity in Jerusalem and enmity and struggle abounded elsewhere. This denies the validity of the Christian claim that Jesus fulfilled the Torah and that, in his Second Coming, the tranquility of the Messianic Age will be realized. As Rabbi Jesus, he taught the divine authority of the Torah and the prophets,(3) and respect for its presenters and preservers,(4) but claimed that his authority was equally divine and that it stood above the authority of the Torah. I agree with others who see this testimony as the major point of contention between Jesus and the religious authorities that ultimately led to the severance of the Jesus party from the Synagogue. However, I maintain, that the quarrel began in the words of Jesus on the road to and from the Torah.

The distinction between the positive articulation of the Golden Rule as given by Jesus(5) and its negative form as given by Hillel(6) serves as an example in this regard. Jesus’ ethic as seen in Christianity is altruistic. It denies the individual objective moral value and dwarfs the self for the sake of the other. Hillel’s moral code as understood within Judaism eliminates the subjective attitude entirely. It is objectively involved with abstract justice, which attaches moral value to the individual as such without prejudice to self or other.

Hillel’s argument is that no person has the right to ruin another person’s life for the sake of one’s own life, and, similarly, one has no right to ruin one’s own life for the sake of another. Both are human beings and both lives have the same value before the heavenly throne of justice and mercy. The Torah teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”(7) means for the sages just that, neither more nor less; that is, the scales of justice must be in a state of equilibrium with no favorable leaning either toward self or neighbor. Self-love must not be a measuring rod to slant the scale on the side of self-advantage, and concern for the other must not tip the scale of justice in his/her behalf.(8)

Hillel’s point stands in contrast to the standpoint of Jesus, whom Christians believe is above the authority of the Dual Torah. The disparity of self and other in the ancestral faith of Jesus is abolished in the new faith in Jesus: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”(9) This may well explain the words of Jesus on retaliation,(10) on love of one’s enemies,(11) and on forgiveness at the crucifixion.(12)

The difference between Hillel and Jesus, the Synagogue and the Church, on the purpose of Torah and the person of Jesus, acquired new intensity after the passing of the Jewish Jesus and the success of Pauline Christianity.

Zev Garber is Emeritus Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College, and he has served as President of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew. He has authored hundreds of articles and reviews, and his publications include 14 academic books, including Mel Gibson’s Passion: The Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications; The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation; and Teaching the Historical Jesus.

Kenneth Hanson is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. His many scholarly articles focus on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the historical Jesus, and Jewish Christianity. He has published several books of popular scholarship, including Dead Sea Scrolls: The Untold Story and Secrets from the Lost Bible. He teaches a wide range of courses, including the Hebrew language and literature, the Hebrew Bible, and the historical Jesus.

Judaism and Jesus is available now. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.

1My view on the historical Jesus is spelled out in Zev Garber, “The Jewish Jesus: A Partisan’s Imagination,” in Z. Garber, ed., Mel Gibson’s Passion: The Film, the Controversy, and Its Implications (West Lafayette, IN: 2006), pp. 63-69.

2 Cf., among others, Matt 26:62-64; Mark 14:60-62; Luke 22:60-70.

3 Cf. Matt 5:17-20.

4 Matt 23: 1-3a

5 Cf. Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31

6 The origin of the Golden Rule is Lev 19:18. Evidence of the Golden Rule as an essence of the moral life is found in Jewish tradition long before the period of Hillel and Jesus. For example, the books of Ben Sira and Tobit (both second century BCE) expound: “Honor thy neighbor as thyself” (Ben Sira) and “What is displeasing to thyself, that do not do unto any other” (Tobit). Similarly, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (first century BCE.) warns: “A man should not do to his neighbor what a man does not desire for himself.”

7 Lev 19:18

8 Cf. the Baraitha in B. Mes. 62a, which pits the view of the altruistic Ben P’tura against R. Akiba, and Pesah 25b where a man asks Raba (280-352) what he should do if an official threatened to kill him unless he would kill another man.

9 Gal 3:28. Also, 1Cor 12:13; Col 3:11.

10 Matt 5:38-42; Luke 6:29-30.

11 Matt 5: 43-48; Luke 6:27-28, 32-36.

12 Luke 23:34.