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Robert H. Gundry

Jesus, the Halakic Jew

The quest continues.

The quest of the historical Jesus is turning out to be like my wife's search for the perfect coffeemaker: unending. Albert Schweitzer traced the quest critically from the 18th century up to his own time (the early 20th century) and added an apocalyptic wrinkle to that quest, now called "the first quest." Largely because the temporary ascendance of existential theology made historical concerns seem relatively unimportant (what counts is what impacts your existence here and now), questing for the historical Jesus lapsed into something of a coma till Ernst Käsemann revived it with an influential lecture in 1953. This second quest fizzled quickly, though. Its historiographical skepticism kept it from producing very much more than a question mark. In reaction, a cadre of scholars said we can do better by concentrating on the Jewishness of Jesus. For we now have an increased understanding of 1st-century Judaism, against which background we can evaluate the canonical evangelists' portrayals of Jesus. Hence the so-called third quest.

Enter John P. Meier into the ranks of third-questers. Law and Love makes up volume 4 of his A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Meier intended to write only one volume, but two more volumes followed. He then determined to make volume 4 his last by taking up in it the enigmas of Jesus on the Mosaic law, Jesus' parables, Jesus' self-identifications, and the reason(s) for his crucifixion. (Apparently because it would entail the supernatural, a resurrection of Jesus, along with his miracles, lies outside the confines of enigmas open to historical research "using scientific tools," in which case David Hume wins—historiographically speaking—before an examination of testimonial evidence even starts.) Alas, volume 4 manages to cover only the first enigma; and it is hard to imagine that Jesus' parables, self-identifications, and crucifixion, about each of which others have written voluminously, can be covered in a single fifth volume by so learned and meticulous a scholar as Meier. The perfect coffeemaker is turning into an elusive pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

To his credit, Meier differentiates the historical Jesus, limited to what can be learned about him through accepted criteria of historical research, from the totality of Jesus' words and deeds; and he disavows presenting his historical Jesus as "the new and improved version of Christian faith in Christ." The supposedly accepted criteria of historical research used by Meier have recently suffered considerable qualification and criticism, however; and his use of those criteria shows some inconsistency. Take, for example, the criterion of dissimilarity, or discontinuity: what "cannot be derived either from the Judaism(s) of Jesus' time or from the early church" is likely historical, because it's unlikely to have been made up. Yet Meier hails as historical several of Jesus' legal pronouncements not only because they differ from Judaism (and early Christianity) but also because Jesus' very making of legal pronouncements characterizes Judaism: "First-century Palestinian Judaism being what it was, how could a religiously oriented Jew who tried to lead a religious movement … among his fellow Jews be anything else [than 'the halakic Jesus,' that is, a Jesus who made pronouncements concerning the Mosaic law]?" So it's dissimilarity that supports historicity for Jesus' halakic pronouncements, but it's similarity that supports historicity for the halakic Jesus himself. Hmmm. Why couldn't someone argue that Jesus' Jewish followers falsely made him appear halakic so as to tone down his off-putting, unfulfilled apocalypticism and thus appeal to a wider audience for whom halakic teachers were acceptable?

Meier trumpets his own dissimilarity by averring that though he may not be right in his positions, "every other book or article on the historical Jesus and the Law has been to a great degree wrong." Yet similarity to majority opinion among current scholars marks Meier when without argument he treats none of the canonical Gospels as written till 40-70 years after Jesus' death and treats the traditions about Jesus as reworked many times prior to even our earliest records of those traditions in Mark and Q (a putative sayings-source reflected in Matthew and Luke). Never mind the arguments of some current scholars that the very early church father Papias' description of Mark's Gospel as enshrining Peter's recollections favors a severe limitation of reworking, for example, and that favoring earlier dates of writing are the lack of any reference in the reports of Jesus' Olivet Discourse to the burning of the Jews' temple in ad 70 and Matthew's repeated insertions of Sadducees into paralleled material though the Sadducees lost their importance (and most of them their very lives) in the destruction of Jerusalem at that time. The dating of our sources affects judgments about historicity, of course.

Let it be said, though, that Meier's book contains a wealth of useful information, acute observations, and penetrating argument, much of which appears in lengthy footnotes. Consider the superb explanation of Old Testament purity laws, buttressed by 500 lines of bibliography in a single footnote of fine print. What appear to be digressions make sense as comparative backcloth for the purported legal pronouncements of Jesus. Regardless of disagreements, the breadth and depth of Meier's scholarship call for high admiration.

As to the Mosaic law, Meier helpfully notes (1) variant readings in its texts; (2) the later addition of commands to the Law as though they originally appeared in it (take Jesus' transforming Moses' assumption of a divorce certificate [Deut. 24:1-4] into Moses' commanding such a certificate to be written and given [Mark 10:2-5; Matt. 5:31]); and (3) diverse interpretations of the Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Old Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, writings of the 1st-century Jewish philosopher Philo and the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus, and rabbinical literature dating from considerably later—all these for comparison with Jesus' legal pronouncements. As to primitive Christianity, Meier commendably denies that the apocryphal Gospels and the Nag Hammadi materials, including the Gospel of Thomas, provide independent historical sources concerning Jesus, rejects the Jesus Seminar's portrayal of Jesus as "a wandering Cynic philosopher in the Greco-Roman mold," and speaks of "mainstream Christianity" in the 1st century as opposed to the notion of a crazy quilt of disparate Jesus-sects.

After discussing the question, What is the Law? Meier takes up the pronouncements of Jesus on divorce, notes that Jesus' making adultery a consequence of divorce presumes remarriage, and judges that the historical Jesus forbade such divorce totally. Supporting this judgment are (1) the multiple attestation of these pronouncements in various kinds of literature (Gospels, a sayings-source [Q], and a Pauline epistle); (2) the pronouncements' dissimilarity to what is said about divorce in all relevant background literature (so that it's unlikely Jesus' pronouncements were read onto his lips from elsewhere); (3) the coherence of such radical pronouncements with the radicality of Jesus' other pronouncements and celibacy; and (4) the embarrassment caused Christians by the stringency of Jesus' pronouncements on divorce, an embarrassment evident in Matthew's redactional addition of "except for immorality" (even if this exception were to apply only to remarriage-less divorce [Matt. 5:32; 19:9]) and in Paul's acquiescence to the divorce of a Christian by his or her non-Christian spouse (its remaining unclear whether Paul allows the Christian to remarry [1 Cor. 7:15]). I would quibble with Meier over his treating as unhistorical the narrative surrounding Jesus' pronouncements in Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-12, and over Meier's brushing aside the Mishnaic evidence of a 1st-century debate between Hillelites and Shammaites over sufficient grounds for divorce (there being astounding correspondences between the Mishnaic rules for judging cases of capital blasphemy and Mark's account of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin, to take a parallel case). Nevertheless, Meier is justified in his scoring of those who allow their pastorally lenient concerns to lower the bar set by the historical Jesus on the topic of divorce.

Next comes Jesus' absolute prohibition of oaths. Meier traces this prohibition back to the historical Jesus on the ground of its attestation in both a Gospel (Matthew 5:34-37) and an epistle (James 5:12); on the additional ground of the prohibition's dissimilarity, particularly in its absoluteness, to all relevant background literature (the Law allowing and sometimes commanding oaths); and finally on the ground that throughout the church's history most Christians have loosened the prohibition out of embarrassment over its stringency, so that early Christian invention seems unlikely.

If then the absolute prohibitions of divorce and oaths derive from the historical Jesus, he dared to prohibit what the Law allowed and commanded even though (it goes almost without saying) he affirmed the Law as a whole. How does Meier handle this inconcinnity? A full answer awaits his discussion of Jesus' self-identifications. Already, though, Meier portrays him as a self-consciously eschatological prophet. But would such a prophet have arrogated to himself the authority to abrogate certain elements of God's law given through Moses? Wouldn't an even more exalted self-image have been required?

Yet precisely because Mark 2:28 plays "the Christological trump card" in favor of Jesus' letting his disciples violate the Sabbath ("And so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath"), Meier judges the saying inauthentic. But if the historical Jesus attacked, subverted, or annulled the laws regarding divorce and oaths, as Meier affirms he did, why should Meier judge it "too ludicrous" to think Jesus did the same in regard to Sabbath law? Furthermore, all supposed violations of the Sabbath by Jesus himself take place in stories of miraculous healings. Since miracle-stories are ipso facto historically suspect, those violations are likewise suspect. But Meier judges it historically true that Jesus and his followers thought he performed miracles whether or not he actually did. So what is to prevent our judging those stories to be dealing with the historical Jesus? Might the failure of all relevant background literature written prior to AD 70—might its failure to prohibit healing on the Sabbath prevent our judging those stories historically authentic? Meier thinks so. To the contrary, we might ask why first-generation Christians would have invented stories that made recognizable nonsense as regards contemporary understandings of Sabbath law. And why don't the New Testament stories count as evidence that Jesus' opponents regarded healing on the Sabbath as a violation thereof? It seems as though Meier would regard similar stories about others as such evidence if those stories appeared outside the Gospels.

Because of well-known differences between Jesus' appeal to David's action at the house of God (Mark 2:25-26) and the story as it appears in 1 Samuel 21:2-10, Meier thinks it impossible that Jesus, halakic as Meier portrays him to have been, would have "proceed[ed] in the presence of those scriptural experts [the Pharisees] to mangle and distort the text of the story" and make "embarrassing mistakes." To take but two of many possible examples, however, since Matthew, no slouch when it came to mining the Old Testament, freely used Hosea 11:1's reference to Israel's exodus from Egypt in the distant past as a messianic prediction (Matthew 2:15) and since Paul, an ex-Pharisee and scriptural expert, freely applied the rejection and restoration of Israel as God's people according to Hosea 2:23; 1:10 to believing Gentiles, who had never been God's people, then the historical Jesus could have used Scripture with similar freedom. Meier's argument rests faultily on a modern canon of interpretation.

Mainly because it expresses "creation theology within the context of the end time," as does one of Jesus' authentic pronouncements on divorce, Meier does give the saying that "the Sabbath came into being because of humanity, and not humanity because of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27) "a good chance of coming from the historical Jesus." Mark 2:27 doesn't negate Sabbath law, however. Nor does Jesus' asking what man wouldn't pull his son, ox, or sheep out of a well or pit on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11; Luke 14:5; see also Luke 13:15). Rather, these sayings give expression to the historical Jesus' "commonsense approach to Sabbath observance" so as "to shield ordinary pious Jews ['who could hardly afford to stand by when they were in danger of losing one of their livestock, to say nothing of their children'] from the attraction of sectarian rigorism" as taught and practiced by "the Essenes or other sectarians." Oops. I thought radical rigorism is supposed to characterize sayings attributable to the historical Jesus, as in his absolute prohibitions of divorce and oaths. Now relaxed common sense does the trick. Oh the vagaries of the quest!

The topic of Jesus and Jewish laws of purity comes up next, with a focus on Mark 7:1-23, the whole of which Meier considers inauthentic with the possible exception of verses 10-12 concerning the vow of Corban (the dedication of a gift to God). As to this exception, Meier says "the conflict [between the dedication to God and the command to honor your needy parents by letting them use the gift] does not seem to annul the very practice of making a vow." But if the historical Jesus forbade all vows, he had no need to say that honoring your parents overrides the vow of Corban. The vow shouldn't have been made in the first place. So either Meier should consider these verses inauthentic along with the rest; or we should regard these verses as simply an exposé of the Pharisees' hypocrisy, in which case historicity not only for verses 10-12 but also for their narrative framework, where the Pharisees figure, becomes a viable possibility.

A battery of objections dog that possibility, though: (1) Extra-biblical literature doesn't support that all Jews rinsed their hands before eating. Yet examples of hyperbole occur in Mark 1:5, 33, 39; 6:33 (compare John 12:19). Why not in Mark 7:3, too, especially since, despite a similar lack of literary support, the immersions that Mark also mentions in 7:4 are supported by archaeological evidence? If 7:3-4 occurred in pre-70 Jewish literature outside the New Testament, would Meier count the passage as valid evidence? Why would Mark or some Christian before him engage in the hyperbole that all Jews rinsed their hands before eating if not enough of them did so to justify the hyperbole? Surely it would be generally known that they didn't. And the mysterious phrase, "with a fist," speaks against unhistorical invention. For wouldn't a fabricator of the story make it culturally understandable? (2) In verses 6-7, Mark writes for the most part the Greek text of Isaiah 29:13, which excoriates the teaching of merely human commandments, whereas Jesus would have used the Hebrew text, which excoriates the merely mechanical practice of commandments. But it's the practice of human commandments according to the Hebrew, so that the shift from practice to teaching simply sharpens the point of the commandments' human origin; and the evangelists often redacted an authentic quotation to suit their own emphases. (3) The shift from hand-rinsing to food laws is unnatural. Not at all! Shifting from how to eat to what to eat makes for a natural progression. (4) Though an abrogation of kosher laws satisfies the criteria of "both discontinuity from the Judaism of Jesus' day … and a style coherent with those sayings of Jesus that are generally considered authentic," "it hardly seems credible that the popular Palestinian Jewish teacher named Jesus should have rejected or annulled in a single logion [the saying in v. 15 that nothing going into the body can defile a person] all the laws on prohibited foods enshrined in Leviticus and Deuteronomy …. If Jesus did actually annul the food laws, how did he remain so popular and influential among the common people …?" Well, it seems credible to Meier that Jesus prohibited divorce and oaths absolutely yet remained popular (despite the frequency of divorce and oaths, one might add). (5) Early Jewish Christians kept kosher, so that Jesus mustn't have abrogated that feature of the Law. But why did the table fellowship of Peter, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christians with Gentile Christians come under criticism from Judaizers if it wasn't for the eating of non-kosher food (Galatians 2:11-13)?

So much for Jesus and the Law. Now for Jesus and love. There is much to laud in Meier's discussion of this topic. He argues that the historical Jesus reaffirmed the Old Testament commands to love God and your neighbor. Dissimilarity favors historicity in that neither any Jewish writing prior to Jesus or soon after him nor any New Testament book outside the Synoptics quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18b word-for-word and back-to-back, ranks them in order of importance, and rates the two of them superior to all other commands, as Jesus does. A kind of multiple attestation likewise favors historicity in that the double love-command in the earliest Gospel (Mark 12:29-31) is joined by the command in a sayings-source (Q as reflected in Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27) to love your enemies. Jesus' welding together widely separated love-commands, ranking them in relation to each other, and rating them superior to all other commands show that he reflected on the totality of the Law, possessed halakic competence, and probably knew how to read. But given Matthew's redaction in 22:40 ("On these two commands hang the whole Law and the Prophets"), Meier observes that the conjoined love-commands do not provide the historical Jesus' key to interpreting the whole Law. Nor does "your neighbor" mean anyone near you. For the immediate context in Leviticus distinguishes aliens from neighbors and thereby limits "your neighbor" to a fellow Israelite, and Jesus does not expand this meaning. (The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37 refuses to define "my neighbor" and challenges me to be a neighbor.) In addition, John 13:34 commands only the loving of one another in the Christian community; and 1 John 2:15 prohibits loving the world, that is, the world of unsaved human beings, whom only God (and not even Jesus) is said to have loved (John 3:16). The command to love your enemies has in its favor dissimilarity: it doesn't occur in the Old Testament; and though parallels are found in other early literature, Jesus' command, like many of his commands, is distinctively laconic whereas the parallels add elements of self-benefit and divine vengeance.

Talking about love, I remember that my beloved teacher Marchant King once said, somewhat dismissively of the quest, that all we have is the biblical Jesus. Naturally, Christians want as much correspondence as possible between the various biblical portraits of Jesus, which we still have in our hands, and the historical Jesus, whom we no longer have in person. Theologically, nonetheless, more stress should fall on the biblical Jesus than on the historical Jesus, so that believing scholars might well beware lest a zeal to establish the historicity of every jot and tittle in the Gospels lead them to harmonize the texts unnaturally and thereby miss the rich variegation of God's love in Christ. And since, grammatically speaking, the quest of the historical Jesus can mean a quest by Jesus as well as a quest for him, the evangelist in me wants to say that as a shepherd, the biblical-historical Jesus is lovingly searching for us, lost sheep that we sinners are.

Robert H. Gundry is scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, published by Eerdmans in 1993; a forthcoming paperback reprint by Wipf and Stock of The Old is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Traditional Interpretations, first published in 2005; and Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation, forthcoming from Hendrickson.

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