Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book review 349: The Jews in the Time of Jesus

THE JEWS IN THE TIME OF JESUS: an Introduction, by Stephen M. Wylen. 215 pages. Paulist paperback, $18.95

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.


  1. "And so much for the inerrancy of the sacred texts."

    So what? How many believers are convinced of "inerrancy" of the texts? I've never met one.

  2. Tens of millions. Virtually everyone I grew up around asserted the inerrancy. That's what the Fundamentals are about. Don't tell me you've never encountered a Fundamentalist.

  3. I should amend that to I've never been aware of meeting one. It's possible that I've met someone who believes in biblical inerrancy, but the concept wasn't mentioned by that person in my presence.

    My experience is that while "tens of millions" of people belong to "fundamentalist" christian sects, not all that many of them buy the inerrancy thing hook, line, and sinker. To the extent they do buy it, it's because they haven't given it much thought.

    And the reason they haven't given it much thought is that it really doesn't much matter. For example, who cares (except for passing curiosity) if the world is billions of years old or thousands of years old? I certainly don't because it simply doesn't matter at all for my day-to-day or year-in-year-out life.

  4. How explain Ken Ham and his amusement park then?

    In my experience, they do think abvout it (not deeply, by my lights but seriously by theirs), and it is important to them

    They will not appreciate your approach, since it undermines their claims to moral authority (Hobby Lobby, homosexual marriage). 'God said it. I believe it. That settles it.' A common bumper sticker in the South.

    jhe ones whop take it seriously, take it so seriously that they have had schisms (Lutheran Church in America, Missouri Synod, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

    They also have whole expesnive endeavors devoted to the idea -- Liberty U for example.

  5. It is a subject I have given some thought to. The weasel words are 'inerrant in the original autographs.'

    But with the exception of Mormons, no religion I know of even claims to have a record of anyone who ever saw anyone who ever saw original autographs. This is a remarkable thing in itself.

    Inerrancy is not the sort of thing that comes up in ordinary intercourse, but apparently people take it very seriously. The fundie radio program 'To Every Man an Answer' is available in every part of the country, and ylu will hear about inerrancy there. You will also learn there that it is about more than the age of the Earth. Those people are prime haters (of Catholics, Seventh[-day Adventists and Mormons, especially), and inerrancy is behind all of that.

    Their cult, Calvary Chapel, claims to be the fastest-growing in the country. Scary.

  6. [OP:] 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..

    I don't think "cannot" and "could not" are the words you are looking for; procedure is rarely inviolate.

  7. Bret, inerrancy is a more complex concept than Harry allows for.

  8. Skipper, you mean Christains try to weasel out of their positions when challenged? Heaven forfend!

    If, instead of using Wikipedia, you ask Mr. Google 'Is the Bible inerrant?' you get a far simpler answer:

    Wherein we learn of

    "The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy [which] in its Chicago statement affirmed inerrancy in a brief statement that the “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching.…” Then followed nineteen articles to further describe and explain inerrancy.

    This brief statement would be unsatisfactory to errantists. If there were any doubt about that, certainly the nineteen-article elaboration would exclude errantists’ agreeing with it.56

    It is important to bear in mind that belief in inerrancy is in keeping with the character of God. If God is true and He is (Rom. 3:4), and if God breathed out the Scripture, then the Scripture, being the product of God, must also be true. This is why the Psalmist affirms, “All your words are true” (Ps. 119:160a).

    * * *

    The averge American evangelical is a simple boob who don't need all them fancy college twist'ems. The simple Bible is good enoulgh for him. And if it isn't good enoough for you, he will fix that in te next election.

  9. It isn't so hard to find out that inerrantists are numerous, loud and have their own seminaries: