Sunday, June 28, 2015
Book review 349: The Jews in the Time of Jesus
Rabbi Wylen’s survey (written for an undergraduate course) is balanced, humane and backwards.
In “Jews in the Time of Jesus,” one of his two main themes is that we don’t know much about the subject. Almost anything you might wish to think about the topic has to be hedged about with warnings about missing or obscure sources, accreted misunderstandings and prejudice.
Just so, but we do know one thing for certain sure: There never was a Jesus, if by that we mean a man who wandered around Judea (as it was called by the Romans) raising people from the dead. In 200 pages, Wylen never mentions it, though he does allude, briefly, to stories of other Jewish masters who were reported to raise the dead.
I’d have thought that was important, but Wylen says it is outside the scope of historical inquiry. I can imagine believers saying, well, so much for historical inquiry. Non-believers will say, so, what’s your point?
Wylen’s other points — if you can get beyond that big one — are good: that it is impossible to understand Christian scriptures without knowing Jewish practices (though these are more than a little unclear for the relevant period); that Christianity was not a development of and definitely not a replacement for Judaism but a parallel growth from earlier practices along with rabbinic Judaism — both enjoyed their great creative period about the same time.
The crux is, what was what Wylen calls “Second Temple Judaism”? How different was it from the pre-Exilic religion, and whence did it come? (Wylen would object to “religion” here; in our sense, it did not exist in ancient times. Each group followed its own “way,” but there was no sense of a separate religion, although Jews did believe in a separate covenant with one God.)
Summarizing recent (late 20th c.) scholarship, Wylen is scathing about the misunderstandings caused by ignorance of Jewish texts. He is on firm ground here. The funniest example was a Christian, Jeremias, who proclaimed that Jews addressed god as Father but never as Abba (Daddy) the way Jesus did, so opening a huge gap in the moral quality of the two religions, Judaism and Christianity.
Jeremias did not know Hebrew, so his cocksureness was ridiculous (but, in my experience, 100 proof Christian); but it was worse even than that. Jeremias sent his grad students (who did know Hebrew) searching for a Jewish Abba. They did not find one.
They would have had they looked in the Talmud, Wylen says in his most acid statement.
(It is hard to believe they would not have looked in the Talmud unless they were determined not to find what they claimed to look for.)
Wylen is not generally acid, preferring instead to hope for a mutually cordial interaction between Christians and Jews once they get to understand each other. For a Christian reader who is not conversant with Jewish thought, one of the benefits of reading “The Jews in the Times of Jesus” could be learning why Jews have been and still are insulted by common Christian conceptions, including some maintained by Christians who think of themselves as friends of Jews.
For someone who is not an evangelical Christian but was surrounded by them (as I was), the main lesson to be drawn from Wylen’s little book is that they really are the ignoramuses I always thought they were.
It is a main point for Wylen that the Pharisees were not the dry, cold, legalistic prigs that the early Christians said they were. Somewhat ironically, then, we know more about Jewish legal practices of the time because the Pharisees may not have been dry legists but they were intensely concerned with the law.
As a result, one of the few areas of Jewish life in the time of Jesus that Rabbi Wylen is quite confident about is court procedure. And it turns out that the story of the central drama of Christianity — the arrest, trial, conviction and execution of Jesus — cannot have occurred as described in the gospels, because, unlike non-capital trials, in Jewish procedure a trial and the sentence of death could not occur on the same day. Thus no capital trial could have been held on the day before Passover.
And so much for the inerrancy of the sacred texts.