Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Let’s not call him “The Jewish Jesus”

Like research in other fields of human achievements and activities through the ages, the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity must be done objectively, employing accepted and unbiased methods of scholarly endeavor. The starting point is a truism:

Christianity arose among the Jews —
it was once a part of Judaism.
Therefore if you want to analyze Christian origins,
you have to study ancient Judaism.”

Those are the words of the scholar I place at the top of my list for knowledge about the Second Temple Period and Early Christianity -- Dr. David Flusser (b. 1917 - d. 2000). He was an Israeli professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period (538 BCE to 70 CE) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His pioneering research on Jesus and Christianity’s relationship to Judaism won him international recognition. In 1980, Flusser, who spoke nine languages fluently and could read 26, received the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious honor.

As Israel’s foremost scholar on Jesus and Early Christianity, he was often asked to comment on “the Jewishness of Jesus” or to provide the “Jewish perspective.” Few requests irritated him more.

Flusser reminded his students that his is
not the study of “the Jewish Jesus” but the Jesus of history.
That Jesus was Jewish is a matter of historical record.

Flusser popularized the idea that Jesus never intended to start a new religion but was born and died a faithful Jew. It must be noted that whether reading the Greek philosophers, medieval theologians or the words of Jesus, Flusser did not work as a detached historian. He worked as “a man of faith” who saw his scholarship as having relevance to the complex challenges of the present age. Flusser was a devout Orthodox Jew who applied his study of the Torah and Talmud to the study of ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic texts, as well as the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Something that set Flusser apart from other scholars, however, was that while he understood Jesus to belong fully to the diverse and competing streams of Jewish thinking of the first century -- he felt no need to deny his role as the cornerstone of the faith of the early Christianity. Thus, Flusser did not hesitate to question assumptions which are foundational for many contemporary New Testament scholars.

He was an original thinker willing to give fresh consideration to the evidence
— even if it meant challenging long-held opinions, sometimes even his own.

For Flusser, a better understanding of the ancient sources of two world religions — Judaism and Christianity – is needed to eliminate innate prejudices.

A study of the New Testament and early Christianity without
an intimate knowledge of Jewish sources
leads to inaccurate and fragmentary results.

Hence it is essential for a New Testament scholar – and readers -- to have access to all the available Jewish sources, as well as sound knowledge of the trends and groups of Judaism in antiquity.” Often people are surprised to learn the whole New Testament reflects Jewish thought and life from a time period earlier than most of the rabbinic texts -- not just the synoptic gospels. And likewise, evidence from New Testament research is also very fruitful for Jewish studies of that period too.

While reviewing notes from my earlier research recently, I realized I needed to change something I have been doing a lot in recent years. In the future, instead of referring to “the Jewish Jesus” I will refer to “Yeshua, the historical Jesus” or “Yeshua, the Jesus of history.”

Just as Christianity has changed over the past 2,000 years, so has Judaism. Two very different religions have emerged. Therefore, “the historical Jesus” or “the Jesus of history” better defines “the Jewishness of his world.” I hope you found this informative and thank you for reading it.

Jim Myers

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● Jesus by David Flusser © 1997 The Maness Press , the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; pp. 10-11.
● Judaism and the Origins of Christianity by David Flusser © 1988 Magnes Press, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, p. xii.

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