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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Jewish Gospels

Sometimes, things to many appear to come out of left field, when they are most assuredly not.  Many might not be aware of the big picture, but it has a tendency to make things more complicated.  For me personally, it also makes things more interesting and reasonable. It doesn't solve everything, but it changes the equation.

Such is the case with the title book, which was referenced yesterday.  About half-way through the small volume.  The book argues that the idea of "Jesus Christ" would not have been novel by the time of his historical existence as well as when the gospels and the rest of the New Testament (a past book dealt with Paul) was written (into the 2nd Century). Others have noted that "miracles" have been done by others in the time, but many scholars suggest the Jesus Christ idea was much more novel.  The author here disagrees, pointing to more than one Jewish writing (e.g., Enoch) on the point that at times uses imagery quite familiar to Christians.

This is not to say that the concept would be widely accepted, much less than that Jesus himself played this role.  But, the idea was in the air by that time, perhaps centuries earlier (at least, in the 2nd Century B.C.E., when the book of Daniel appears to have been written and the "son of man" figure pops up).  "Christ' and "messiah" was a long held idea of some sort of savior, often purely human, ancient kings being "anointed ones" as well (the overall meaning of those terms, one Greek, the other Hebrew).  Ironically, "son of God" is more of an uncontroversial term here, a label often applied to let's say a David or some special representative of God.  After all, logically, are we not all "sons" and "daughters" of God in some sense?  We are, according to the Bible, in his image and likeness.

The terms, discussed in a somewhat repetitive section, ultimately came to be applied to the same person.* Still, the two terms (son of god/man) developed somewhat on different tracks first, one a human on earth given special authority (like an ancient king), the other coming from above, ultimately some though, to earth in the form of a man.  "Son of man" was a special term, one with special supernatural significance in which the human qualities of the figure were at times suggested to be just apparent.  The figure was ultimately a god figure, though it might have originally had a lesser implication in other references in the Bible (see here). 

Thus, though it sounds more banal, "son of God" in the gospels (with a special appeal to Daniel) is freighted with special significance.  If we take it as his own words, whenever Jesus asserts the authority as this figure, he is not merely an ordinary human being, but in some sense has special "god stuff."
Mark 2:23 And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. 24 And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? 25 And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? 26 How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? 27 And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: 28 Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.
First, this is an example where the author argues that Jesus is not really challenging Jewish law, if perhaps providing a disputed reading of what it means.  He points to a Jewish source, for instance, that took a related approach to the Sabbath. I can't really go hand to hand with a conservative Jewish scholar on the point, but the overall idea that Jesus' teachings were not supposed to be in violation of the law (Torah), but a richer application of it in various cases is fairly convincing.  We can apply similar themes in constitutional disputes and challenge similar claims that such and such person is trying to replace the law, instead of arguing a disputed take on it. Anyway, second, "the son of man" here also suggests the authority that figure was said to have over God's law and people.  Simply put, the term is not generic, but unique. 

To me, it is hard to be too determinative on the gospels and other matters given we have so little to go on, though some scholars seem to be able to get a lot out of the material, but so far the book is pretty interesting.

[Update: Another chapter uses a careful analysis of Jewish law to show that Jesus as kosher, a particular reference that is used to suggest otherwise argued to be confusing food that is always illicit and the proper preparation of food.  In effect, Jesus was the conservative on the issue while Pharisees were the "liberal" ones. Here, his approach seems somewhat more liberal, but in other cases (turn the other cheek etc.) not so much.  I wonder about his take on Acts 10, the book focusing on Mark, giving it a more Jewish friendly reading than some.  Luke, however, is seen as the more Gentile friendly evangelist. 

The last chapter argues the "suffering servant" aspect of Jesus is quite Jewish in nature, if again, a matter of dispute, particularly the specifics.  There is a dispute over whether its use in Hebrew scriptures was purely metaphorical for the Jewish people but he argues there was some broad agreement that the messiah was going to suffer.  Again, some accounts pattern the "Christian" doctrine believers are familiar with. Overall, "Christianity" was not as much a difference in kind but more akin to Catholicism v. Protestantism on some level.  Intriguing overall.]


* Likewise, the ancient sky god El and Yahweh (YHWH) were once two figures, the latter a more direct presence, like the one Moses experienced; in fact, the "pagan" Ba'al deity perhaps was but a form of Yahweh for other groups ... "monotheism" early on was met when one god had supremacy -- "no gods BEFORE me."

The Book of Daniel also expresses an idea found elsewhere that can be seen as germ of the Christian trinity, at least the Father and the Son:
Daniel 7:13 I saw in the night-visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. 14 There was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
"Ancient of days," according to the book here is like El or some other older God figure. The terminology, down to "his kingdom," would be recognizable to Christians.  The third part, the Holy Spirit, could easily be added here, it having use in Judaism as a sort of divine force.