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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2014
Number 81
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Two Nations Are In Your Womb (Gen 25:23)

A Review essay by Peter J. Haas

The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other by Peter Schäfer. Princeton University Press.

It is hardly news to point out that Jesus came from and operated within a Jewish background. What is less clear nowadays is what that fact means. One well-worn answer shaped in the nineteenth century has been to view the Mishnah, Talmud and other early rabbinic texts as windows into the Judaism of Jesus’ day, providing the social and religious context for Jesus’s activities and sayings. This approach has rightly fallen away with the realization that the rabbinic literature as we have it emerged centuries after the time of Jesus. We know these texts reflect a rabbinic Judaism that is much different than the traditions of Roman Judea of the first century C.E. At the same time we have come to appreciate with greater clarity that there was not even such a thing as a single, monolithic “Judaism” during Jesus’ time; or a single, monolithic and fully developed Christianity either for that matter. Rather, the old biblical Judean tradition had by Late Antiquity yielded a whole array of Judean-inspired religious groupings, traditions and sects, each establishing its own evolutionary dynamic. While we can all agree that the “Jesus movement” was part of that mélange at the beginning, it is far from clear what it could possibly mean to isolate Christianity and Judaism at that point. Yet it is clear that over the course of the succeeding generations, a sense of a competing “catholic” Christianity and “rabbinic” Judaism did indeed take shape. How that completion came about and took on definition is the question of the day, and it is this inquiry that Peter Schäfer’s book intends to address. In the process he makes an even more radical claim; namely that much of early Christian messianic doctrine was deeply embedded in Roman Judaism and conversely that thinkers of later rabbinic Judaism were well aware of Christianity’s evolving doctrines of the messiah and addressed these doctrines, sometimes more positively as in the late pesiqta rabbati, and sometimes to distort and reject them. Not only that, but the debates over power and authority in both communities were informed by the political restructuring going on during the late Roman Empire.

On the surface, Schäfer’s approach is fairly straightforward. It is now fully acknowledged among academics that “catholic” Christianity only emerged over the course of several centuries through the work of the various Episcopal Councils that were convened from the time of Constantine forward. Gradually, by defining one doctrine after another to be heretical, these councils sculpted a more fully defined “orthodoxy.” The same, Schäfer argues, was true of “rabbinic” Judaism as well. That is, by constantly distinguishing themselves from emerging Christianity on the one side, and from Roman paganisms on the other, early rabbinic leaders gradually shaped an “orthodox” rabbinism. To put this another way, the “minim” in rabbinic Judaism and the “heretics” in catholic Christianity played the exact same role; namely as vehicles for defining what was outside, and so thereby sharpening the definition of what was inside.

But Schäfer also wants us to keep in mind that until an argument or theological assumption was definitively ruled out, it was in fact part of the inside. Thus even the notion of a multiplicity within the godhead, a notion that survives in Christianity in the subsequent form of the trinity, must also be seen as part of the early Judean tradition until it was explicitly excluded at some point, possibly precisely as a reaction to the Church’s acceptance of it in the form of a Trinitarian Christology. This last point is significant for Schäfer, and in fact informs the title of the book. His argument is not that Christianity was born out of what we have come to call Judaism, but rather that what we call Judaism and what we call Christianity were each shaped by the other as they struggled over theological self-identity internally and externally during the first several centuries of the Common Era. So not only do the two share a common religious ur-tradition, but they are in fact counter-definitions of each other.

A good example of this dialectic comes in the first chapter dealing with the different names of God. The center piece of this discussion is a midrash concerning R. Simlai (preserved in both Bereshit Rabba and the Jerusalem Talmud) who is answering a question put to him by “minim” (heretics?) about how many gods created the world. The question behind the question is, of course, the significance of the multiple divine names found in Scripture (YHWH, El, Elohim, etc.) and so presumably the foundation for the Christian doctrine of the trinity. In his analysis of this midrash with the help of other traditions in the rabbinic literature and discussions from early church fathers, Schäfer concludes that while the discussion is about the Christian concept of the divine, it is not about the classical doctrine of the trinity, which had not yet fully developed. Rather it is about the notion of multiplicity in the deity altogether (probably a binary in Christianity at this stage: Father and Son). In fact, it may be reflecting a broader conceptual conundrum of the late Empire, in which the single ruler of the Roman world split into multiple authorities (Basileus, Caesar and Augustus). So this question of multiplicity in the divine authority was not just a theological debate between rabbinic Jews and catholic Christians, but a larger politico-philosophical debate taking place among all Romans.

The multiplicity question of the deity is taken up in Chapter Two. The source text here is Mekhilta, in which Daniel is cited in the context of arguing that the divine appears in different forms (Ancient of Days, young warrior). For some, as witnessed in subsequent Christianity, the implication is that the divine can be realized or even incarnated in different forms. For others, as in emerging Judaism, it is more about our experience of the single divine, but in different contexts. Schäfer offers a third possibility, again drawn from the Roman context. The referent is the “puersenex” the wise child (or the youthful old judge) as an ideal type.

This train of thought takes us logically, in fact maybe unavoidably, to the question of messiahship. In Chapter Three, Schäfer turns his attention to three examples: the images of the Enochic Son of Man as alluded to by Aqiva in the Babylonian Talmud, the messianic Kingship of David in the Apocalypse of David, and the Dura Europos images of the exalted and enthroned David. What emerges from the discussion is that for the later Babylonian Talmud, the discourse about messiah-ship seems to know a more fully developed Christianity than do the earlier Palestinian sources, and is explicitly rejecting it. In this context, the Dura Europos paintings, in which the enthroned David flanked by two prophets strongly resembles later Christian traditions of Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah, represents a borderland appropriation of Christianity but in a Jewish vocabulary. In this discussion Schäfer, following Jacob Neusner, insists that we treat different texts differently and not homogenize them into a single “rabbinic Judaism.”

The claim that the Babylonian Talmud had a perspective on the divine that was different from that of the Palestinian community is fleshed out in the following chapters. Chapter Four, for example, examines 3 Enoch and midrashic traditions of the angel Metatron. Metatron in the world of the Babylonian Talmud becomes an enthroned power in the heavens along with YHWH. (One suggested derivation of the name in fact is Meta-thronos, he who is enthroned above.) Schäfer also notes that there is something of an homologation of Metatron with Enoch, Iaoel, Michael and Akatriel, all members of the heavenly host who somehow ascended to heaven and were transformed, to use Schäfer’s term, into the “Lesser YHWH.” Schäfer goes beyond this, however, and argues that what we have here is in essence a binarian concept in which the angel/messiah reaches down to redeem the world and is thus a parallel, or maybe more accurately, as Schäfer reads things, a counter-point, to Jesus, but without the need to get entangled in a full Christology. The Palestinian midrashim, on the other hand (cf Chapter Five) discuss not angels but whether or not there is a divine family. Over and above the Christian claim of the messiah as the “son” of the divine Father, Schäfer argues that the discussion of the families of rulers makes more sense in Palestine than in Babylonia because the politics of the ruling Roman family, including questions about the status of natural versus adopted sons of the Caesars.

By this point in the book, the general lines of the argument have been laid down. Close readings of early rabbinic midrash show us that many of the themes that inform later Church Christology are embedded in the Jewish tradition with which the rabbis are working and are related to debates about Roman governance. Are angels (Chapter Six) related conceptually at least to the experience of dealing with the Roman emperor through intermediaries, who are of course not to be confused with the ruler himself, for example? This discussion in turn leads to Hellenistic Jewish interest in the creation of humankind, or more specifically of Adam, taken up in Chapter Seven. The two creation stories in Genesis have given rise to two areas of Hellenistic speculation discussed by Schäfer. One concerns whether Adam was created before or after the angels, and the other with the precise nature of Adam, who was after all created in the divine image. At stake are not only whether Adam is above or below the angels in status, and so whether or not the angels should worship him, but also whether or not Adam is divine (as he appears in the later Christian Logos theology) or of earth and clay, dust and ashes. Once again, the pressing issues of Roman hierarchy can be seen informing these debates.

Chapter Eight returns us to the different perspectives Schäfer discerns between the earlier Palestinian community as documented for him in the Jerusalem Talmud, and the later Babylonian Jewish community as documented in the Babylonian Talmud. The difference is that the earlier Palestinian community saw a nascent or emerging community, while the later Babylonians were dealing with a more mature, but not dominant Christianity. The focus of this chapter is a single story from the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Berachot dealing with the birth (and disappearance) of the messianic baby. What Schäfer adduces from his close reading of the texts is that the Palestinian community could accept the overall idea of messiahship (see, for example, the widespread acceptance accorded to Bar Kochba) while yet deliberately critiquing early Christian accounts as not in fact true. Certainly one stumbling block was the notion that the joyous coming of the messiah could not be associated with the disastrous loss of the Temple.

This finally leads Schäfer to the rabbinic speculation of the two messiahs, one the son of David and the other the son of Ephraim. Chapter Nine looks at three pisqa’ot from Pesiqta Rabbati. All three show to Schäfer striking parallels to more mature Christian doctrines of the messiah. These parallels not only allow Schäfer to suggest a late date for the Pesiqta Rabbati, sometime in the seventh century C.E. , but to assert that here again we have evidence of a Judaism that deals self-assuredly with messianic doctrines even though these also form the basis of catholic Christianity.

What we have in the end then are careful and informed readings of selections from the rabbinic literature, readings that are informed by both formative Christian doctrine and by the political realities of the Roman world of the time. These readings lead to a view of rabbinic Judaism that is deeply influenced by the outside world and is self-assured enough to continue to embrace theological doctrines that are becoming central to the emerging catholic church. The breathtakingly dynamic system that Schäfer adduces thoroughly reshapes how we imagine these two religious traditions during their formative phases, and is sure to shape future discussions of the early Church and early rabbinism for a new generation of scholars.


Peter J. Haas is Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies and chair of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University and a contributing editor.

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