I recently had the privilege of giving a lecture at St Francis Catholic Church, where the congregation holds a regular Bible study class. It has been my pleasure to speak on a topic related to the Bible for the last eight years.
Last week, I spoke about the historic background of Jewish life in Judea during the first century of the Common Era. We discussed the impact of religious institutions that were part and parcel of the life of Jesus. It was an opportunity for these adult learners to explore more of the historic side of Jesus’ life as a Jew living during this period.
Christian and Jewish scholars apply the rigors of historical research to better understand the historic zeitgeist of this time because it plays a critical role in the formation of Christianity as well as in the continued development of Judaism, especially after the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in 70 C.E.
Any student who asks the question “who was the historical Jesus?” has to come to grips with the ideas of how one reads Scriptures. This is also a challenge for Bible students of Judaism and Christianity who ask “who was the historical Moses or any other Biblical figure?”
Do we read our respective Scriptures as if they were history books? Or are we reading theology that presents itself as history? Generally speaking, the answer is that history and theology often overlap and it is up to the reader to enhance their reading and grow in knowledge in order to determine how to differentiate between theology acting as history and history as theology in the course of reading sacred texts.
Understanding the institutions of governance is critical, including the Roman procurators who ruled Judea after the monarchy of King Herod and his sons who succeeded him. The roles of the Pharisees and the Sadducees look very different in Rabbinic Judaism versus early Christian writers.
The Sadducees were the clergy in charge of the Temple Cult. The Pharisees were a new class of religious leaders who would ultimately survive after the destruction of the Temple and lead to the development of the rabbis, who would reinvent Judaism from the time of the destruction of the Temple up to today.
The Essenes authored the Dead Sea Scrolls and, in particular, the Manual of Discipline, and may very well have influenced John the Baptist and Jesus himself. During Jesus’ life, we see that a variety of Jewish groups were involved in defining a perspective of the Messiah including Jewish followers of Jesus. Finally, we cannot forget Josephus, the Jewish historian of his day, who wrote the history of Judaism and Christianity under Roman protection.
I found that audience members were engaged and not threatened by looking at the fact that Jesus was a Jew and raised to practice Judaism. If we can learn more about the kind of Judaism that was practiced at that time, we can better interpret what Jesus and the synoptic Gospels meant in the Christian Scriptures. That, in turn, can help us get a better hold on how and why Judaism reacted to the Christian Scriptures as well as the expansion of Christianity.
Let’s not forget that scholars tell us that all of the Gospel accounts were probably written by the end of the first Century of the Common Era. Yet, the major rabbinic texts that comprise the Talmud begin their canonization process beginning in the third century of the Common Era. The final redaction of the Talmud, according to scholars in the field, is about the sixth century C.E. Right there we have a historic gap in the timeline between both sets of sacred texts.
Two excellent books that I would recommend to both Christians and Jews are “Modern Jews Engage the New Testament” by Dr. Michael Cook. He is a scholar of the New Testament and is also a rabbi.
The other book worthy of our attention is “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” edited by professors Amy Jill-Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. This is an anthology of Jewish scholars who give their scholarly interpretations about the history and theology of the New Testament. I highly recommend those who are interested in a completely different approach to the study of New Testament sources and texts to read these two excellent works of scholarship. Both are readable for popular audiences.
The times that we are living now provide us with a much needed opportunity to study together and grow without the fear of diminishing our faith traditions. Why can’t Jews study what the New Testament says knowing that Jewish scholars engaged in the field? Why can’t Christians study the sacred texts of Rabbinic Judaism for a better understanding about how Jews in the Late Antiquity understood and reacted to the expansion of Christianity as it became the official religion of the Roman Empire by the mid fourth century of the Common Era?
In such an endeavor, we will find difficult texts on both sides that lead us to see through new eyes some of the challenges we have faced over the centuries and how we can move forward toward a new respect and understanding of each other’s religious traditions. Wouldn’t this kind of religious stretching help us in more than the religious realm today?
I thank the students of St. Francis for their willingness to share and explore the history of Jesus’ time and how it might lead us all to more opportunities to share our faith traditions in the future.