Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jesus: Myth, Man, or Messiah?

When I was in seminary, I was required to take a course in the New Testament. It irritated me at the time, going to a Jewish institution and having to learn about Christianity, but it was really a very wise requirement, and not just because the instructor, Dr. Michael Cook, is a great Jew, an excellent scholar, and a real stitch. It was wise because, like most rabbis in America, I end up spending a lot of time talking about Jesus. And, as often happens at this season, I've had a flurry of recent conversations about Jesus with curious Christians. So what do Jews think?

Confusion about Jesus and Jews abounds, which really should come as no surprise. I mean, Christians have, by recent count, several thousand denominations, a good percentage of them born of disputes over the nature and person of Jesus (the others resulting from disputes about Church governance - Jews like to argue over the calendar, if it makes you feel any better). So if they are confused about Jesus, what chance to Jews have?

Most people, even a few Jews, seem to thing Jesus has the status of a prophet in Judaism. I have to explain to them that that's Muslims who hold Jesus to be a human prophet, in the line of prophets to Muhammad.

Truth be told, we have done our part to contribute to this particular confusion. Back in the 19th Century, when all kinds of new theories were being floated about Jesus, "the historical Jesus," Jews got into the fray. There were those skeptics, for example, who posited that Jesus was not a historical figure at all, that he was a myth constructed whole cloth out of the imagination of the early Church. Some Jews at the time jumped on that bandwagon (a few are still on it), insisting there was never a historical figure who bore any real resemblance to the literary Jesus at all. Almost at the same time, however, some rather prominent Jewish thinkers, like Kaufmann Kohler and Martin Buber, wanted to reclaim the "historical" Jesus (but not the doctrinal Jesus) for Judaism. A couple of rabbis even wrote essays about Jesus the "Jewish prophet." I think these efforts set into motion this persistent idea that Judaism regards Jesus as a prophet.

But that notion was 86ed almost as soon as it was proposed. Most Jews regard Jesus neither as a myth, a prophet, or a (successful) messiah. Judaism certainly gives him no religious status (Though Jewish scholars have lately given more serious thought to Christianity as a whole - see the document Dabru Emet posted on the Web). So how do we think of him? Well I think of him as Jesus IHS. Not Iesus Hominum Salvator, "Jesus Savior of Humanity", but IHS meaning - "Interesting Historical Semite."

When people ask what I mean by that, I explain it this way: "For Jews, Jesus is like Albert Einstein." (I used to use Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx also, but too many people got hostile about those analogies; everybody apparently feels positively about Albert). To Jews, Jesus is like Albert Einstein: A Jew who formulated new ways to think, and in doing so, transformed the way the world thinks and works. Like Einstein, Jesus offered up novel ways to understand the world. Like Einstein, he had many Jewish disciples; like Einstein his ideas were embraced by people outside of Jewish circles, and like Einstein, none of this makes him a religious authority for Judaism. He's just an IHS, an "Interesting Historical Semite."

C.S. Lewis is famous for formulating the "3L" argument: given what he said about himself in the Gospels, Jesus has to be one of three things: Lunatic, Liar, or Lord. I for one hate these forced choice questions, questions like - "Given the choice, would you rather be blind or give birth to the Anti-Christ?" Well, circumstances are such that Jews don't have to make that choice, and by the same token Jews don't have to make the 3L choice either. Lewis is, I suppose, relying on us not to be so impolite as to tell our Christian friends we think their savior is a fraud or delusional. But, in fact, we don't have to argue either of those positions. Since the Gospels are not sacred scriptures to Jews, we are under no obligation to assume that the Gospel authors provide us with an inerrant transcript of Jesus' actual words, much less his thoughts. We know from the Gospels what the authors thought Jesus thought of himself, but absent an autobiography, we needn't take the Gospels as, well...gospel.

I can also imagine that Jesus sincerely thought himself to be the eschatological messiah. But that doesn't make him a lunatic, it just makes him wrong. Jewish history gives us multiple examples of well-meaning, sane Jews who thought themselves to be positioned in such a unique time and place in history that God had placed messianic power in their hands. Its just never worked out. The world is still unredeemed. While Jesus has transformed the hearts of his followers, he has failed to transform the world at large. Changed it, yes, but not to messianic dimensions.

So until the world changes to the extent that lions lie down with lambs, men beat their M-4 carbines with undermounted M-203 grenade launchers into composite plumbing fixtures for the poor; until oppression and cruelty ceases, we Jews, at least, know the Messiah has yet to come.


Blogger Baconeater said...

There is no contemporary evidence that Jesus ever existed. From 1-50 AD not one writing or archaeological find confirms his existence.
That being said, Jews tend to stay away from this issue because when it comes to lack of evidence, the Exodus is right up there with Noah's Flood.
In fact, archeology and other historical finds show that something else was happening at the time the Exodus was supposed to happen.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Aharonium said...

What does it mean in Judaism, for the world to be redeemed (hb. ga'al)? In the Torah, first born sons have to be redeemed... because like first fruits, they belong to G!d and would otherwise need to be offered up like the first fruits. So what is the world being redeemed from? Considering how Christians view Jesus as a kind of ultimate redeemer for the world because his status is something like an ultimate firstborn son, how do Jews understand redemption as it relates to the idea of the Messiah?

12:15 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Dear Spaceling,

Thanks for your question. The term "ga'al," redeemer, is really a clan term. By which I mean, the ga'al "redeemer" is the member of your family/clan who by custom is obligated to assist you, defend you, rescue you, pay your debt, or take revenge for you if you are impoverished, attacked, kidnapped, fall into slavery, or killed. The idea that a redeemer must rescue you from yourself only applies in so far as the idea of debt-slavery implies your fault in getting there in the first place. but even that is not a prominent feature of Biblical thought. Stuff just happens and people need help (the entire book of Ruth illustrates this idea).

In the case of the first fruits, these belong to God. But you can redeem them for yourself.

The term redemption applied to world is this: that God, who is Israel's spiritual kinsman, will rescue us from our distress. It is Israel who is God's first born son (As we are described in Exodus), and as such, it is He who claims the right to redeem us.

Christianity has constructed a particular version of this idea of personal soul-salvific redemption premised on their notion of humanity's depraved condition. Judaism does not ascribe to Original Sin or innate human depravity, so this is not an issue. What is an issue is the dangerous and destructive nature of the world at large. The Messiah, who is only a human, will be the leader of the reorganization of human society to bring an end to such suffering, inequality, and oppression.

Hope this helps.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi -- thank you for a fantastic post on a difficult subject. I love the "Albert Einstein" metaphor. I will definitely use that and your definition of "IHS" when this subject comes up in the future -- as it always does.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beaj (and others),

Why do we need to have imperical historical evidence that Jesus existed at all? Even carbon dating, which is the most accurate way of telling WHEN something happened, isn't exact. Whether Jesus truly existed as a historical figure, for me, is inconsequential. His stories are told to tech a lesson. The existence of Jesus is a matter of faith, much like the existence of God (or Goddess). It must be taken as a matter of faith whether he (or she) exists or DOESN'T exist.

I would like to thank you for the tremendous article. Not being raised as a jew I know little about it beyond what I learn from Carly who posted down there. And at the very, very, very least I was exposed to a new word today, eschatological. I had to look that one up in Webster's online dictionary.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

Reasonable post (to an atheist) as far as it goes; but it doesn't deal with the questions of a) whether any of Jesus' actual ideas were original or merely Zealotry, and b) how much of Jesus' reported ideas were subsequent fabrications by Paul.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The Bible [not the Torah] has been printed and sold more than any other book, ever. The name of Jesus has been preached in all countries. i don't expect you to believe that Jews missed their Mashiach, but like it or not, Jesus changed the world. God bless.

8:55 PM  

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