Book Review: The Symbolic Jesus

arnalReview of William E. Arnal, The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity (London; Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2005).

Like Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment, this could have been titled The Uses of the (Jewish) Jesus. William Arnal has a couple of aims. The first is to bring to our attention a debate in academia, which he calls a non-debate, between scholars who affirm the Jewishness of Jesus and a second group of scholars whom the first group claims denies the Jewishness of Jesus. By the Jewishness of Jesus is meant not simply the fact that he was born a Jew, but his full situation in the Judaism and Jewish culture of his time. The second aim is to show that this pseudo-debate really exists in the service of various agendas and subtexts, in which Jesus and his Jewishness are utilized (not “manipulated”—Arnal does not judge individual motives) as symbols to serve a cause other than what they appear to be serving.

The book starts out with, “Introduction: Mad Mel and the Cultural Prominence of Jesus,” intended to give an example of the power of Jesus as a cultural symbol. To this end Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is viewed through the subtext of “the sadistically violent nature of contemporary North American culture” inasmuch as it shows “a bizarre equation of ‘spirituality’ with pornographic excesses of pain.” Psychoanalysis is invoked, and Freud pops in for a visit several times in the course of the book. The uses of The Passion film as a symbol includes its employ in the service of anti-Arab sentiment as well, though not its use as a vehicle of Roman Catholic faith or, for Protestant evangelical Christians, the possibility that it calls all Christians to suffer and carry their own crosses. At a kind of meta-level, then, the chapter proves its point as the critique of the film seems to carry its own agenda with it. It’s an interesting opening that includes the story of a church that had an Easter bunny whipped (don’t ask, just read it), but though a fascinating read on one kind of approach to the film, it can tend to derail the reader from the real subject matter of the book.

In any event, Arnal’s observations in the Introduction emerge as a setup to the main points of the book about scholarship surrounding the Jewishness of Jesus. The historical background to the current “non-debate” is laid in chapter 2, “Bad Karma: Anti-Semitism in New Testament Scholarship.” Beginning with Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1899, we proceed to the views of Walter Grundmann, a New Testament scholar living in Nazi Germany, during which time Jesus was made judenrein, in part to justify the existence of Christianity under Nazism. Then we are on to Gerhard Kittel, editor of the famous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which to this day is known simply as Kittel to many a seminary student. Kittel affirmed Jesus’ Jewishness, but refused to countenance equal political rights for Jews, since in his view God was sitting in judgment on Israel.

All this was overtly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. More recently, we encounter another, more subtle, type of anti-Jewishness in Jesus scholarship. These sorts of scholars uphold their ideas of Jesus’ uniqueness by contrasting Jesus and his Jewish environment. Such views are held even by post-Holocaust academics who are not anti-Semitic, yet it ends up as a kind of “wish-fulfillment,” caricaturing Judaism. This approach gets traced from Renan through Bultmann and the “new quest” for the historical Jesus (Käsemann), and into more recent scholarship (Jeremias, Norman Perrin, C. K. Barrett). Arnal has strong words for such scholars who inaccurately portray Judaism even absent anti-Semitism: “a willingness to distort and denigrate the religious beliefs of an entire people . . . betrays, in addition to its scholarly deficiencies, a moral bankruptcy that cannot be rationalized” (p. 15).

So far, then, we have the overt anti-Semites and the well-intentioned but morally bankrupt distorters of Judaism. (I find Arnal’s characterization of the latter as scholars whose ethical compass is in Chapter 11 to be rather over the top; given the state of research and their own contexts, did they know differently?)

In contrast to these two perennial varieties, a good deal of recent scholarship plants Jesus firmly in Jewish soil. Here the roster extends to Vermes, Sanders, Meier, Crossan, and Fredriksen. Let’s call this Jewish Jesus-scholarship (JJS). Yet at the same time, the underscoring of Jesus’ Jewishness has taken on a curiously polemical tone, including charging other scholars (e.g. the Jesus Seminar; proponents of Jesus-as-Cynic-philosopher) with promoting an “un-Jewish” or even anti-Jewish Jesus. Let’s call this latter body of work non-Jewish Jesus-scholarship (NJJS).

Arnal concludes that the “shrill reiteration” of Jesus’ Jewishness by the JJS serves as “a screen onto which other, more current, and unresolved matters are being projected.” Chapter 3 therefore follows along: “A Manufactured Controversy: Why the ‘Jewish Jesus’ is a Red Herring.” Why the intra-academic debate between JJS and NJJS? After all, “No one is disagreeing that Jesus was Jewish. Why the choler? What is going on?” (p. 29). The whole kerfuffle is “a straw man,” and is really a debate over whether Jesus is being “cast as the wrong kind of Jew,” namely by those for whom Jesus’ being the right kind of Jew is important for one reason or another. A long and interesting discussion ensues. In the end, Arnal defends the NJJS school: “the charges of a ‘non-Jewish’ Jesus appear to be based on a definition of Judaism that is insupportable. It is contradicted by the actual evidence, it is theoretically misguided, and it is anachronistic . . . [and leveling such charges] trivializes real anti-Semitism, and, as a corollary, racism in general” (p. 37). This last sentiment would certainly seem to be true. What we have, according to Arnal, is a case of crying wolf.

Finally, having shone a spotlight on the current academic debate, we arrive at chapter 4, “The Jewish Jesus and Contemporary Identity.” What agendas are underlying this whole debate? Judaism, Arnal proposes, is standing in these debated as “a cipher for other, unstated, issues of concern; to use psychoanalytic language, a displacement, a manifest content both concealing and expressing a latent content” (p. 39). In other words, each side in the debate really wants to put the Jewishness of Jesus to different uses revolving around identity issues.

I found this chapter fascinating, as Arnal lays out several possible agendas that are at work in the attack on NJJS by JJS (and remember, the “non” in NJJS is only an alleged “non” that Arnal finds unsupportable, hence his exploration of what’s really going on.) First is the scholarly agenda. The attack on NJJS may be an effort to get out from under the dominance of European, especially German, New Testament scholarship, to produce a new kind of academic work with its own distinctive voice. This scholarly self-identity includes a more secular and historical rather than theological approach. So this represents a sort of reaction to an older scholarship that was both anti-Semitic and heavily theological. The JJS folks prefer to speak of a Jesus loudly rooted in a Jewish environment, an environment that can be spoken of in secular terms without a theological overlay.

Second is the possible political agenda of repudiating of German Nazi anti-Semitism, though the Judaism invoked by the NJJS bears no resemblance to the Judaism that Nazism attacked, namely the Judaism of eastern Europe and Germany. However, this agenda is well-served by the JJS, which finds Jesus to be Jewish in a way that comports better with modern Jewish life, e.g. by emphasizing the title “Rabbi” or drawing attention to his Jewish clothing. In JJS Jesus studies, Jesus comes to represent 19th-20th century European Jewry. This kind of Jesus functions in the image of Eastern European Jews, a stereotyped image originally anti-Semitic but now co-opted by means of showing the outsider (the European Jew) to be actually central to the dominant Christian culture. The JJS Jesus also distances Christianity from “complicity” in the Holocaust (an agenda that Arnal is reluctant to embrace as he does not want to let Christianity off the hook so easily). Arnal then defends the NJJS against their JJS opponents: their Jewish Jesus is different than the Jewish Jesus of the JJS, but no less Jewish or more anti-Jewish for that. For one thing, they don’t assimilate Jesus into and co-opt the Jewish stereotype but rather show that the stereotype is altogether wrong because there are a variety of ways to be Jewish—in contrast to the JJS’s more uniform picture of Judaism.

The third agenda has to do with religious identities: who or what is a “true” Jew? Here the NJJS and JJS debate has implications for the validity of Reform Judaism, though that particular agenda would likely be of interest only to Jewish scholars. Another aspect of this agenda more relevant to non-Jewish scholars is that postulating a certain kind of Jewish identity is useful for Christians in constructing their own Christian identity in distinction to that of being Jewish.

Finally we come to cultural identities. As postmodernism redefines the nature of culture, both the JJS and the NJJS conceive Jesus in distinct ways, depending on whether one wants to retain the “stability of culture” by defining Jesus’s Jewishness in more or less sharp contours.

Enough to give the sense of the book—there is also an extended discussion on the place of historical research. As Arnal says, “The Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history, but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.” It is not Jesus himself, but the uses to which he is put, his “reception history” in the current jargon, that matters. In the event, he also dissociates the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, the validity of which is an old subject for debate.

I found the best takeaways to be the historical review, the glimpse of the current debate between JJS and NJJS, and the notion that particular subtexts underlie that debate. Arnal and I part company on epistemology and the validity of historical inquiry to exactly help us understand Jesus and the Christian movement. If all we are left with are subtexts, I for one would have no interest in Jesus at all.

Finally, this intra-academia debate hardly touches the lay person. As Arnal remarks at the end of his Passion chapter, “We scholars, in our conversations about Jesus, tend to ignore or dismiss the vast majority of the public, who return the favor and show little or no interest in or even cognizance of our discourses. Jesus is indeed a valuable cultural commodity. It turns out, though, that if the sheer weight of numbers means anything at all, the rarefied opinions of scholars—to which this book is devoted—contribute almost nothing to the public conversation about the symbolic Jesus.” Whether this book represents navel gazing is for the reader to decide; I for one found it stimulating.

© 2014 Rich Robinson

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Short Stories by Jesus, part 2

How open-ended are the parables?

How open-ended are the parables?

The Introduction is titled “How We Domesticate Jesus’ Provocative Stories.” It’s a good title and a reminder that many readers do in fact try to tame Jesus’ words.

AJL’s contention is that we have no interpretations of the parables from Jesus himself, though it remains to be seen how she will treat the set of parables that the gospels do portray Jesus as explaining. She sees this lack of explanations as an asset, since the gospel writers “left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them.” And, “reducing parables to a single meaning destroys their aesthetic as well as ethical potential.” I venture that AJL is influenced by the tradition of midrash, which mines stories, gaps in stories, and individual words and phrases to maximize their meanings. Open-endedness is a characteristic of the midrashic approach. (I even suspect that the insistence that a modern education should lead to asking lots of questions but rarely settling on single answers has roots in Judaism and its midrashim.) I question though whether the parables are meant to be as open as AJL wants to make them, all the more so when she wants us to see them in their original context without our modern overlays. The gospel writers tell us that they are about the kingdom of God. That restricts the range of possible meanings right there, though in agreement with AJL, there are surprises and challenges in the parables — their meaning is not as simplistic nor as easily arrived at as some would make them. But it seems to me that some of AJL’s takes on the parables are actually another kind of modern overlay. I’ll talk more about that in due time.

But AJL is on target when she says that the parables are difficult and challenging, making us look at “the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives.” Also, “we might be better off thinking less about what they ‘mean’ and more about what they can ‘do’: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb. . . .” True enough, though meaning and response cannot be divorced. But yes, they are meant to drive us to a response, not to just be nice stories.

Your hosts to understanding context!

Your hosts to understanding context!

A section follows on “The Parables in Israel’s Scriptures,” with examples taken from Judges 9:8-15; 2 Samuel 12:1-7; 2 Samuel 14:5-8. Parables, in fact, form a large part of Jewish culture in general, found in rabbinic writings as well. AJL again reiterates her hermeneutic: inasmuch as the parables employ comparisons, “no single meaning can ever be determined, just as no single metaphor or simile can be restricted.” She does not actually go as far as statements like that would suggest, since she refuses “problematic” or “abusive” readings that ignore the historical context of the parables. On the other hand, I’m not sure that embracing the historical context leaves them quite as open-ended as AJL would like. I have to say, I admire AJL’s creative humor — I don’t know anyone else who has used The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show to explain the significance of original context!

More on the Introduction next time, as it sets the stage for her analysis of the individual parables that follow…

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Amy Jill-Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, a critical review: A Jewish Journey through the parables of Jesus (part 1)

shortstoriesIn this series of posts I want to make my way through Amy-Jill Levine’s latest contribution, a book on the parables of Jesus. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi was published this year (2014) by HarperOne.

For those not familiar, Levine (hereafter AJL) teaches New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is, according to her website , “a self-described ‘Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt.’” She is also an Orthodox Jew who, as she says somewhere else, can be somewhat unorthodox. AJL is known as co-editor of the recent Jewish Annotated New Testament and author of The Misunderstood Jew (that is, Jesus). I conducted an e-mail interview with her some time ago for the Havurah publication which I edit, and you can find that interview here.

There are many things I like about Levine’s writing, not least that she’s entertaining, even cheeky in a good way, her prose engaging and above all challenging. And she is committed to unearthing wrong-headed interpretations of the New Testament that are anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic—interpretations that can be found in evangelical circles, though born more of ignorance than malice. Sometimes it takes an outside voice to shake things up. Those whose fashion or haircut choices make them resemble Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory can benefit from the honesty of someone who knows clothing and hairstyles—witness the various “Makeover” reality TV shows. AJL, at least in the area of Jesus’ Jewishness, wants to “make over” how Christians read the New Testament. And in many respects, she succeeds.

In this new book she tackles Jesus’ parables. In the days to come I’ll make my way through the book and interact with what AJL has to say on the subject. Could it be that Jesus’ “short stories” are The Misunderstood Parables? Come back here and find out with me!

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