Jews and Christians (1)

24 April 2009
Coin of Bar Kochba: the temple with the Ark of the Covenant and a messianic star

Coin of Bar Kochba: the temple with the Ark of the Covenant and a messianic star

Historical fact: Jesus of Nazareth founded a new religious movement. But what kind of religious movement exactly? A new religion that competed with Judaism? Yes, used to be the common Christian view, stressing the use of expressions like “New Covenant”, the polemic against the Jews that can already be found in the Gospels, and the story that Jesus appointed Peter as leader of his church. Yes, agreed the Jews, and answered the polemic with several stories in the Talmud.

Now, we’re not so certain anymore. The expression “New Covenant” can also be found in the Death Sea Scrolls, and was probably common within Judaism. The Christian polemic is, when we look more carefully, often directed against the Judaeans (Jesus was from Galilee) and specific groups. And finally, Jesus appointed Peter as leader of his ekklesia, but this word could be used to describe any Jewish community (for example in the Diaspora) or the adherents of any Jewish religious leader (the World English Bible translates “assembly”, not “church”). None of this points to Jesus as founder of a religion that competed with Judaism – or even superseded it, as Christians have often thought.

I am preparing a book in which I describe how Judaism was, at the beginning of our era, very pluriform, consisting of Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, the sect that appears to be responsible for (parts of) the Dead Sea Scrolls, the movements of men like John the Baptist, Jesus, Bannus, and Theudas. This pluriformity came to an end when the Temple was destroyed, a disaster that only the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus could cope with: the first, because they had a network of teachers; the second, because salvation was possible through faith in Jesus, the Temple being of only secondary importance.

In this way, Roman imperialism was the cause of the rift between the two remaining types of Judaism, one of them still called Judaism, the other now known as Christianity. Both claimed -and usually still claim- to be the only continuation of Temple Judaism. Often, they have chosen diametrically opposed positions in the theological debates of the late first and early second century: e.g., when the Christians opened their ranks to pagans, the rabbis decreed that one could only be Jewish when one had a Jewish mother. And because rabbinical Judaism could claim the title of rabbi, the Christians -who worshipped someone who had also been called a rabbi- gave the leadership to priests, which is odd because there was no temple left.

These examples show that the two branches were still communicating – after all, you need to communicate if you chose opposite positions. But there must have been a more friendly dialog, and I think that the teachings about Good Works that are attributed to Yohanan ben Zakkai (‘Avot de rabbi Nathan 4.5) and are mentioned in the Epistle of James 2.14, may be examples of this. As I see it, this dialog continued as long as there were Jewish Christians, which appears to have been the case until the revolt of Bar Kochba.

[To be continued]

Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World

22 March 2009

What is worse: six hours of claustrophobia in an Airbus 319 or five hours of exposure to Heathrow Airport? As I recently traveled from Tehran to London and Amsterdam, I might have been able to solve one of the greatest scientific problems of our age, but unfortunately, I was too distracted by the final chapters of William A. Simmons’ Peoples of the New Testament World. An Illustrated Guide (2008). It is a book that I can sincerely recommend.

In twenty chapters, the author introduces the reader to, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, Herodians, centurions, and scribes. Sometimes, the book becomes a social history of ancient society: among the peoples of the New Testament world are trade guilds, slaves and freedmen, clients and patrons too – the chapters devoted to these classes are particularly strong.

Like biblioblogger Jim West, who recommended this book, I was especially impressed by Simmons’ chapter on the sinners: they were not, as I always thought, people who were unable to live up to Pharisaic standards, but “moral profligates who had, by their lifestyle, effectively rejected their religious lifestyle” (p.108).

It may be helpful here to refer to the vulgar professions listed by Cicero (De officiis 1.150): he sums up all kinds of people who have forfeited claims to respect – people like tax collectors, prostitutes, and gladiator. In Rome, these people were kept at some distance: in the theater, amphitheater, and circus they were to sit on the highest tiers, far away from the spectacle and the senators on the first ranks. In ancient Judaea, the sinners were equally excluded, and Jesus’ sharing a meal with them in the name of God must have shocked Jewish sensitivities as much as the emperor Commodus shocked Roman sensitivities when he presented himself as a gladiator.

Time and again, Simmons stresses the importance of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, the Exile, and the return in the Persian period. He presents this traumatic experience as the background of the emergence of groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Personally, I would have started the book with the Maccabaean revolt, but Simmons has convincing arguments, although he is aware that the names of those groups do not occur in our sources at this early stage and uses careful expressions like “proto-Pharisees”.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from poor editing. On page 182-183, a part of the text appears to be missing; on pages 36-37, a substantial part is printed twice; the little state Chalcis is consistently called Chalsis, adrogation becomes androgation; Cyrus repeatedly captures the city of Babylon in 538 instead of 539; of the seventeen buildings mentioned on the map of ancient Rome on page 226, fifteen were built after the youngest part of the New Testament was written.

Worse is the unnecessary chapter on Roman emperors, in which I counted dozens of factual errors, some of them especially painful in a book on peoples from the New Testament: e.g., the Colosseum was not financed from assets seized by the emperor Titus, but from the silver and gold captured in Jerusalem. I hope that this chapter will be completely rewritten when this book is reprinted.

A reprint, yes. In spite of the disastrous treatment of the Roman emperors, Peoples of the New Testament World deserves to be reprinted, and it may, with a bit more care, become a handbook used on many schools.