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Messiah as Mishnah

The Problem of the Jesus-Attributed Saying

By Robert M Price


Anachronisms as Evidence

The Gospels portray Jesus as in conflict with "the Jews," "the scribes," "the Pharisees," implying Jesus was opposed to a monolithic "normative" Judaism--which however did not yet exist! The Mishnah shows that the process of consolidating various earlier schools of thought and local, even idiosyncratic traditions of observance (e.g., in a certain village, of a certain scribe and his disciples) was a later endeavor beginning at Yavneh. When, as recently, some Christian scholars have been willing to notice these anachronisms1, it is difficult enough for them to draw the unwelcome inference that the Gospel traditions in question must be removed from consideration as evidence for the historical Jesus. But, as Collingwood pointed out, what seemed to be evidence for A and proved not to be, may yet become evidence for B.2 Anachronisms do not tell us about the time in which they are ostensibly set, but they do provide evidence about the period from which they actually stem. And as yet New Testament scholars have not shown much interest in asking what the Gospel anachronisms do tell about their own Sitz-im-Leben. I will suggest that infosar as the various Gospel data reflect post-Jesus formative Judaism they provide new clues as to the dynamics of the formation of the Gospel tradition itself. 3 To see this, we need to pursue what parallels we can find between Gospel pericopae and their Mishnaic counterparts, between the emerging Gospel sayings-tradition and the emerging Rabbinical sayings-tradition.

Let me not risk seeming to minimize the pioneering efforts of such great Christian scholars as Rudolf Bultmann, Joachim Jeremias, Harald Riesenfeld, and Birger Gerhardsson.4 These all understood very definitely that the Rabbinic/scribal tradition might provide important clues for understanding the sayings traditions compiled in the Synoptic Gospels. But these treatments all suffered from the retrojection (then universal) of Mishnaic Judaism into the first century C.E. Bultmann took controversy stories from the Mishnah as analogies and exemplars for the apophthegms (or pronouncement stories, or "paradigms," or chreia) of the first century Christian movement, some of these even going back substantially to the historical Jesus. Bultmann, though quite skeptical as to the authenticity of many of these hadith of Jesus, did not doubt that they were authentically Jewish (-Christian) and early.

Riesenfeld, Gerhardsson, McNeile5 and others sought to combat Bultmann's more rigorous skepticism by appealing instead to the imagined mode of oral transmission of Rabbinical tradition. Pointing to the acclamation of a disciple of Yohannan ben Zakkai as "a plastered cistern that loses not a drop" (Aboth ii. 8), these apologists objected that Bultmann had neglected to take into account the high standards of faithful oral tradition prevailing among the Rabbis. If the Rabbinical analogy held good, they reasoned, then the form-critic must reckon with a process whereby "Rabbi Jesus" carefully drilled his pupils "line upon line, measure upon measure" till they got it right. And if they did, then the Gospels ought to be a good deal more accurate than Bultmann supposed.

Never mind that Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson begged the central question of whether, even granting the existence of such a circle of faithful memorizers, the Gospels' traditions stemmed from them or from any and everybody else who thought they remembered what Jesus had said or, by God, what he ought to have said! A more serious problem was that, as I have anticipated, Riesenfeld, Gerhardsson, et. al., simply took for granted the apologetical view of normative Yavneh Judaism existing and prevailing already in first-century C.E. Palestine, not to mention the blithe confidence of pre-critical Jewish scholars/apologists that all the business about verbatim transmission and attribution of this saying to that sage was literally true. Whereas these Christian scholar-apologists thought to call to their aid Jewish scholars with an analogous apologetical agenda to dislodge the skepticism of Bultmannian form-critics, imagine their surprise when Jacob Neusner realized that Bultmannian "skepticism" provided just the methodological rigor that Mishnaic criticism had been lacking! Neusner showed that when the compilers/redactors of the Mishnah (and other charter documents of Rabbinic Judaism) took the trouble to ascribe a particular saying to a particular name, there had to be some reason in terms of the redactional aims of the document itself.6 Neusner was no longer willing to assume that such attributions meant much diachronically (actually going back in history to Rabbi X); no, instead they must derive their meaning synchronically: as it were, two dimensionally along the picture plane of the particular document. Not that Neusner was concerned with the fall-out of all this rethinking for Christian apologetics, but it is worth noting that the goal of Riesenfeld and the others in citing Rabbinical parallels is completely subverted by Neusner's higher-critical revolution.

And yet I wonder: perhaps we ought to take the premise of Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson seriously, but corrected by Neusner. That is, maybe we can understand the Jesus tradition through the categories of Rabbinic tradition, but as corrected by Neusner's explanation of how the latter actually worked. In speculating along these lines, we will be going beyond Neusner's own published reflections on the Gospel traditions,7 informative as they are. If any light can thus be shed, we will have only further corroborated the worth of Neusner's paradigm by showing its utility for "predicting" results in adjacent fields of study. (Similarly, it would be of great interest to see Islamic specialists apply Neusner's methodological insights to the study of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad.)

Neusner reasons that the Gospels exist to promote the distinctiveness of a unique individual, Jesus Christ, and thus have a hagiographic focus impossible for the Jewish tradition which sought instead to exemplify righteous behavior for the community (in general) as well as by the (authority of the) community (of sages). Jewish tradition neither depended upon nor fostered individualism. Thus, while material existed for Rabbinical gospels, i.e., wise sayings, miracle tales, martyrdoms, none was ever written. There is no Gospel of Hanina ben-Dosa or of Eliezer, though there might have been. The exaltation of the heroic individual authority of Jesus is somewhat analogous to that accorded in some circles to Eliezer. But, Neusner reasons, Christians simply elected to go much further, and along a different way, to exalt the unique charismatic authority of an exceptional individual whose name would come to have the same authority in Christianity as the Torah would in emerging normative Judaism.



Gerhardsson and Riesenfeld sought, by appealing to the idea of a Rabbi's disciple as "like a plastered cistern that loses not a drop," to overthrow Bultmann's idea of a community of anonymous sages and prophets whose words became appropriated for Jesus, but the implication of factoring in Neusner's work may be to reinforce Bultmann after all! If we explore the possible analogy between the Gospel sayings tradition and the Mishnaic tradition as Neusner has explained it, we would have to reckon with a piously anonymous tradition whereby the prophets or sages from whom the traditions stemmed would, perhaps ironically, not be remembered by name for their contributions (at least not at the subsequent stage of collection-formation). In the emerging Gospel tradition all such sayings would be attributed to "Jesus" who had in the Christian community become homologous in function to "Torah" (or "Moses" as metonymous for the Torah) in the Jewish community. In both cases, the rule would be much like that which Hermann Hesse attributed to his futuristic magisterium of scholars in Magister Ludi/ The Glass Bead Game: "We moderns... do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generality, the greatest possible service to the superpersonal. If we look closely into the matter we shall see that the ancients had already perceived this ideal."8 Hesse's narrator lists several examples, though the Mishnaic sages are not among them, perhaps because the character of the Mishnaic tradition was not sufficiently clear till Neusner's work.

Though Neusner is willing to take at face value Christian generalizations that the Gospel pericopae function primarily to glorify Jesus as Messiah (or Son of God, etc.), this is a (Christian, Christological) over-generalization. In fact, New Testament critics know that much in the Gospels does not attempt in the first instance simply to glorify Jesus. Form criticism shows how "useful" the various miracle, exorcism, and pronouncement stories were for governing and informing Christian conduct. For example, it looks like Mark drew upon miracle healing stories employed as evangelistic propaganda, not mere self-referential hagiography, while Matthew further recycled Mark's miracle stories, making them into lessons of faith and answered prayer. 9 Jesus himself is more the presupposition than the focus of the individual pericopae. Thus the Gospels in large measure share the Mishnah's anonymous collective, communal authority. "Jesus" is a kind of authoritative fiction like "Moses our rabbi."

Granted, on the surface the Gospels do seem to present us with the central authority of Jesus as a charismatic sage, but there may be both more and less than meets the eye here. The closest analogy in the Mishnah to the sort of "maverick Jesus versus the Establishment" opposition the Gospel tradition presents us with is the opposition between Eliezer ben Hyrkanus (a Pharisee whose career spanned the destruction of the Temple) and the assembled sages of Yavneh. This is true even to the point of the repeated miraculous vindication of Eliezer by signs and heavenly voices! His opinions are nonetheless rejected, the sage himself excommunicated. And God is displeased at the excommunication, first attempting to destroy Rabban Gamaliel, who presided at the excommunication, by a tidal wave, from which he is dissuaded, then killing him anyway in answer to Eliezer's prayers for vindication!

How can the Mishnah possibly record all this and yet still hold that Eliezer was in the wrong? Such stories would seem to flow most naturally from the disgruntled partisans of Eliezer, but they do not. The problem was not so much with the specific opinions of Eliezer, many of which were in fact accepted, and none of which were spoken ill of even when not accepted. Nor was Eliezer deemed a heretic nor even wrong! Just the reverse! God himself agrees with him! The opposition is between the consensus of the sages and the "loose canons" of charismatic authority, of which Eliezer serves as a symbol. The opposition is that between dogmatic claims of individual figures (and their partisans) and the authority of the community. (Precisely the same cleft would open up in formative Islam between the ijma of the ulemma, doctors of the law, and the inspired Alid Imams: who had the authority to interpret the Koran? From this disagreement arose the split between Sunni and Shi'a Islam.)

This is also why we can never be sure if the Mishnah is accurately attributing the right opinion to the right sage. One story has Akiba falsely attribute Eliezer's sayings to others after his excommunication so that, either the sayings may be allowed to continue without being disqualified by association with the heretic, or they may win their way on their own merit, not riding the coattails of charismatic authority. New Testament critics are at home with the notion of anonymous individuals attributing their own sayings to Jesus (or their pseudepigraphical books to other ancient worthies) so as to lend them weight they would otherwise lack. But as Neusner shows, ironically it is just the opposite tactic that enhances the clout of a saying in the Mishnah, since the authority there is anonymous and communal (as of a timeless revelation self-evident to all, to all the sages anyway).

Thus also, when particular names are tagged onto sayings in the Mishnah, it is a function of dissent and disharmony. A name attached to a saying marks it as a deviant oddball view, literally the idea of a "heresy," the opinion of one who has drawn attention to himself by the effrontery of choosing for himself rather than bowing to the authority of the multitude. A particularly clear case is to be found in one of the two Talmudic references to Christian halakhah, where Eliezer gets a reputation for heresy for having accepted the opinion of Jesus of Nazareth, told him by Jacob of Kefar-Sechania, to the effect that the offering of a prostitute to the temple treasury, though filthy lucre, can nonetheless be used to buy a toilet for the high priest! Here is the ultimate case of an individual attribution denoting heresy! The legal opinion was reasonable enough, but the "Jesus" tag placed it along a heretical trajectory, outside the authority of the community. To remain faithful to the community is to eschew the fruits, and thus the roots, of alien authority.

Sometimes, granted, a sage's words are simply cited in the Mishnah with the force of scripture! It can be assumed (as in the case of the Prophet Muhammad) that his example or opinion proceeds from a thorough imbuement of Torah and so may be trusted (1 Corinthians 7:25: "I have no commandment from the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy."). Agehananda Bharati provides an Indian parallel, that of Sri Ramakrishna, who "told many a parable, either of his own making or out of local folklore, but they were certainly not Vedic, as he claimed. Quite often he preceded these tales with the words bede ache, 'it says in the Veda'; and I think the reason why even the most learned didn't object was that they tacitly granted him the status of a Veda-maker, a rishi, on a par with the original compilers of the Veda. They did this because they were satisfied with his statements about the [mystical] experiences he was having all the time."10

Does not such a focus on an individual, despite his saintliness, or rather because of his saintliness, run against the grain of the Mishnah's tendency toward collective anonymity? Actually not: this spot-lighting is often because the sage's word must be harmonized with that of another sage or with a particular scripture passage, which is of course also named. The point is that the sage and his saying, as the individual scriptural book, are relevant as an individual contribution only insofar as there is a problem assimilating it to the larger whole. Once the harmonization is effected, it doesn't matter who said it, and its irritating individuality is thankfully lost.

The story of Eliezer's excommunication itself, not a historical datum, is a piece of such after-the-fact Mishnaic harmonizing. It is Eliezer's standing as a charismatic authority in his own right "with whom the Law always agrees" that needs to be put down, not necessarily the specific opinions he held. And this urgency betrays the later perspective. The excommunication is a purely narrative symbol for the later adjustment of the authority predicated of him. It is thus exactly analogous to the flogging of Enoch-Metatron by the interpolating scribe of 3 Enoch, who meant by this means to discourage and rebuke excessive veneration (as it seemed to him) of the transfigured patriarch.11


Pesher and Palimpsest

Once we understand that the secondary attribution of Christian prophets' and sages' sayings to Jesus caused their individual identities to be forever lost sight of, as in the Mishnah, a number of seeming anomalies in the Gospel tradition are seen to make new sense. For example, reams of learned discussion have wrestled with the numerous third-person "Son of Man" sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (e.g., "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"). Bultmann, Tödt, and Hahn 12 all argued that Jesus must have predicted the Son of Man as a distinct eschatological figure subsequent to himself. This conclusion created a number of theological shockwaves, but in turn it was jeopardized when Perrin, Casey, Vermes and others showed how Jesus could not have used "Son of Man" as an eschatological title, that it must have arisen via Christian messianic midrash, applying Psalm 110, Daniel 7, and Zechariah 12 to Jesus after the fact.13 This only made the whole mess more inexplicable: if the Son of Man sayings began as Christian Christology, why do Christian texts depict Jesus seeming to refer to the Son of Man as someone else? Gerd Theissen solved the problem (to my satisfaction) by means of a simple Copernican turning round of the telescope: the Son of Man sayings were first understood as spoken about Jesus but not spoken by Jesus.14 Theissen turned Bultmann's solution on its head: it was the "he" that represented Jesus, not the "I." The "I" represented the (now-anonymous) prophet. The Mishnaic-like tendency to subsume all individual sagely pronouncements to the anonymous collectivity would have resulted in the incongruity that "Son of Man" predictions originally spoken about Jesus by Christians were put into the mouth of Jesus himself!

It would also explain the fact, often noted by apologists for an "implicit Christology" hinted at by Jesus himself, that Jesus did not preface his sayings as the Prophets did ("Thus saith the Lord...") but rather with "Amen, I say unto you..."15 What we ought to see is that it is the very attribution of the saying to Jesus by the evangelists/tradents that is the equivalent of the ancient prophet attributing his oracle to the Lord. The attributer is the evangelist; it is the evangelist, not Jesus, who is the counterpart of the old time prophet. Jesus does not correspond to the prophet but to the Lord! The ascription of the saying to Jesus allows the dubious authority of some early Christian sage to recede behind the Torah-like clout of the Lord Jesus. The "implicit Christology" in such sayings is not that of Jesus himself, but rather of the Gospel writer. As Neusner says, the ascriptions must be understood synchronically within the document, i.e., redactionally, not diachronically, going back to Jesus.

Note also the Gospel sayings that "whoever hears you hears me" (Luke 10:16) and that "a disciple is not greater than his teacher" (Matthew 10:24-25), both of which would surely encourage, even demand, the humble deferral of any original voice to the larger "Jesus" tradition. "Jesus" is the community, as the "Body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12 ff; Ephesians 4:16-17) language also ought to suggest.

As to the fear of individual authorities fragmenting the house of Israel, we have the same concern in 1 Corinthians where the several advocacies of Paul, Cephas, Apollo, and Christos threaten to split the community. 1 Corinthians 1:14-15 seeks to subsume all the rest to Christ. The Apocryphal Acts, despite superficial orthodox redaction, preserve the earlier picture16 in which all the apostles were alike Christs, cut from the same cloth, each "Acts" serving as the "Gospel," the divine "aretalogy" for a wonder-working apostle who was the real object of faith. Even the later orthodox Christological patina which has, at a crucial point in each Acts, the ascended Jesus appear onstage in the physical likeness of the eponymous apostle (whether Paul, Peter, Andrew, John, Thomas) gives away the original game. But eventually Jesus Christ won out over his exactly identical "Thomas twins."

As Neusner intimates, however, with the rise of saint-worship17 this Christocentric monolithicity broke apart again. Calvin understood the phenomenon in exactly these terms when he tried to suppress the Catholic saints in favor of Jesus who had become lost in the shuffle and relegated to the also-ran status of a minor saintlet.18 Just as in 1 Corinthians!

It is striking that one of the two places in the Talmud where a point of Christian halakhah is adduced (by a "philosopher," i.e., a heretic), the source is not specifically Jesus, but rather the "evangelion," the Gospel itself which speaks in the first person! "I, the Gospel, am not come to take away from the Law of Moses but to add to the Law of Moses" (Shabbat 116 a, b). Thus a Jewish account easily recognizes and depicts the Gospels not as accounts of a unique individual but as a body of sayings/rulings analogous to the Mishnah.

But might it not still be feasible to remove the anachronistic "Jesus versus normative Judaism" framework of the controversy stories and to make them derivative of actual exchanges of opinions between Jesus and scribal colleagues as some have suggested?19 With Burton Mack, there is a multitude of reasons to say no.

First, these exchanges teem with anachronisms. Jesus expresses the opinion that a vow to dedicate one's property to the Temple at the expense of one's family forces a breach of the commandment to honor one's parents, and hence, presumably, ought to be considered null and void (Mark 7:11-13). Leaving aside the telling fact that Jesus is made here to cite the Greek Septuagint of Isaiah to prove his point (the Hebrew would not really apply), there is another problem with the saying going back to Jesus, namely that the same opinion was remembered as an innovation, and a controversial one, credited to Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, a later figure. It is thus not an issue that had been hotly debated before Eliezer's time, e.g., by Jesus and the scribes. The Mishnah has no trouble having Eliezer adopt a view first propounded by Jesus when it wants to. Had Eliezer adopted the view from Jesus' halakhah, this would have provided all the more reason for the sages to disdain it, but of this we hear nothing. Such a double attribution is reminiscent of the double attribution of the conquest of Jerusalem first to Joshua and then to David. It seems more likely that the attribution to the earlier figure is the later version.

Not only so, but insofar as we think the command to sell one's possessions, give to the poor, and leave one's family in the lurch to follow Jesus (Luke 12:33; 14:26-33; 18:29-30) actually goes back to Jesus, he cannot very well have attacked the same thing when practiced in the interest of the Temple.

Ironically, it does not work the other way around, as some apologists have suggested, that a question of halakhah is rightly attributed to Jesus (at least to some pre-70 C.E. Christian) if it deals with a point of Temple protocol, like the coin in the fish's mouth (Matthew 17:24-27, a blatant legend in any case), which treats of the two-drachma Temple-upkeep tax. Likewise, the "Render unto Caesar" pericope (Mark 12:14-17), which does give the impression of being a serious bit of casuistical halakhah. Paying a Roman tax entails no religious compromise since, as the very presence of money-changers at the Temple demonstrated, such "filthy lucre" (because of its idolatrous inscription) could not be rendered to God (i.e., could not be used to purchase sacrificial animals) anyway. Apologists for the saying going back to Jesus or the pre-70 church maintain that such niceties (as they view them) would be utterly moot after the fall of the Temple. But no, for the simple reason that Pharisees like Eliezer assumed the Temple would soon be rebuilt (as perhaps it was under Bar Kochba!20), whereupon all these questions would be anything but moot. Of course it was in exactly analogous circumstances that the Holiness Code, Ezekiel, and the Levitical Codes were drawn up--sans Temple!

Second, we cannot overlook numerous Gospel caricatures of Judaism: Jesus is shown combating opinions (or appealing to opinions in a circumstantial ad hominem fashion) which are unattested for Judaism. As to the case of healing on the Sabbath, repeatedly broached in all four Gospels, the scribes prohibited only the professional practice of a medical doctor for pay in routine cases. Emergency relief was licit, as was, explicitly, "healing by word" as Jesus did. If anyone ever gave him grief over the issue, we never hear of them in Jewish tradition.

In the course of these Gospel controversies, Jesus assumes that his opponents routinely have enough compassion to allow someone to extricate a poor beast from a pit into which it had fallen, Sabbath or no Sabbath (Luke 14:1-6; Matthew 10-14). But we hear only the rule, both among the Rabbis and at Qumran, that the animal must be fed there and rescued later.

Re leniency on the Sabbath in general, Jesus is made to quote a commonplace: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Cf., "The Sabbath is delivered unto you, not you unto it." Even the Sabbath day's journey, far from being a bit of restrictive legalism, was instead a piece of casuistical stretching of the law. Granted, no one expresses such an opinion unless there are stricter opinions to oppose with it. But the point is that to focus on Jesus as if the sentiment were unique to him is to caricature Judaism.

Christian scholars, feminists, still do the same thing, quoting Rabbi Eliezer out of context to the effect that a man should sooner teach his daughter harlotry than teach her the Torah. In fact he was saying it would be better not to instruct her in the Torah if one's goal (as his opponent suggested) was to allow her to circumvent the proof of adultery. If that's the goal, then you might as well go the whole way and teach her the tricks of the prostitution trade while you're at it! Was Jesus a feminist, the scribes misogynists? No.

Third, in the Gospel controversy stories the criterion to settle halakhic questions is simply the authority of Jesus.21 Jews, obviously, would not accept such an argument, so these stories cannot stem from actual Jesus-scribes debates. "Because I say so, is why!" They presuppose a Christian context. (Even when it is not just Jesus pulling rank: "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath," (Mark 2:28) or a rule miracle,22 the logic often sounds good only to a cheering Christian doting on Jesus: "Which is legal on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill?" One might as well imagine the ancient Ammonites' and Moabites' assessments of the Israelite theory of their national origins (Genesis 19:30-38)!

We must note, however, that these controversy stories do sometimes employ scripture prooftexts, attributing them to Jesus (Mark 2:25-26). Does this attest an earlier stage in which Jesus himself offered such arguments to fellow scribes, as sparring sages do in Mishnaic anecdotes? No, they can be shown to be secondary. First, again, Mark 7's prooftext only works in the LXX version of Isaiah 29:13. Second, the issues there (washing pots, etc., when returning from the Gentile marketplace) arose only in Diaspora Judaism. Third, Matthew has added some prooftexts to Mark (Matthew 12:5-7), indicating the trend to add them.

While one might have expected a natural shift from scripture quoted by Jesus to Jesus himself being appealed to as the prooftext, as Christology grew higher, what we see reflected in the evidence is rather a debate over traditional legal and purity rules within the Christian community (e.g., Romans 14-15). "The Pharisees in the Gospel who oppose Jesus are, for Luke, prototypes of the traditionally Jewish Christians (like the Pharisees in Acts 15:5)... Jesus' Pharisaic opponents in the Gospel stand for traditionally Jewish Christians."23 Since both sides of intra-Christian debates appealed to Jesus (even to supposed sayings of his) other criteria must be sought out to settle the point. Thus Matthew augmented Jesus by the citation of scripture. Likewise, a la Matthew 5:17-19, to have Jesus quoting scripture was to have Jesus endorse scripture over against Christian antinomians.

Fourth, as Bultmann pointed out long ago, the fasting, hand-washing, and Sabbath gleaning stories all have the scribes/Pharisees objecting not to Jesus' own practice but that of his disciples. Thus the issues arose in the early church, not in the time of Jesus.

Then there are broader historical anachronisms which seem to vitiate the Gospel controversy stories: Generally, the whole depiction of Jesus preaching in "their" synagogues is anachronistic, as there were virtually no synagogue buildings in Galilee till late in the first century C.E., after the flight of Pharisees and other refugees into Galilee (which "hated the Torah"). Luke even has a Gentile (a clone of his Cornelius character, Acts 10:1-4 ff.) praised for bank-rolling the construction of one synagogue (Luke 7:5). Apologist Howard Clark Kee admits this one is a problem but maintains that, otherwise, in Gospel usage "synagogue" need mean no more than "assembly," "meeting."24 But is this really likely? Mark has Jesus stop preaching "in" synagogues because the crowds are too large, presumably, for buildings to accommodate. Hence he assembles the Jews at the seaside or in the open. Would there be "rulers of the synagogue," like Jairus, if the synagogue in view were merely someone's porch? How about "the seat of Moses" and the "chief seats in the synagogues" in Matthew 23:2, 6? Just someone's nauga-hide couch?

Neusner speaks of the tendency to anachronistically "rabbinize" earlier figures, as some traditions do Eliezer. This surely has happened with Jesus when he is called Rabbi, a term we are told only began to take on titular use somewhere into the second-century C.E.25 Matthew tells his "scribes discipled unto the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 13:52) not to be called Rabbi or Abba (Matthew 23:8-9), since these are the practices of a competitor type of Judaism. Thus the titles are already established, and Matthew wants to his people to break with convention on the point!

Many doubt that the Gospels' picture of Pharisees in Galilee is any more to be trusted than their picture of Rabbis or synagogues there in Jesus' day, since the spirituality of Pharisaism was the extension of Temple purity codes into the surrounding homes of the pious. Jerusalem, then, was where the action was for the Pharisee, not Galilee. The picture of Jesus debating with scribes and Pharisees coming down from Jerusalem seems to me to reflect scenarios like Galatians 2:12; Acts 15:1. The implied Sitz-im-Leben would seem to be something like that described in Romans 14-15, Acts 15, in Antioch as described in Galatians 2, and in the critical interface implied in the Matthean redaction (Matthew 15:17) of Mark 7:19 (on the point of whether Jesus declared all foods clean). Thus these materials seem to me not to represent a stage along the trajectory of Hellenistic Jewish Christianity emerging from Hellenistic Judaism, but rather the interstice between Hellenistic Jewish/Judaizing Christianity and Gentile God-fearer, ex-Jewish antinomian Christianity (including those whom Paul mentions, 1 Corinthians 7:18, as wanting to undo circumcision!).

These conflicts also might easily belong to Galilee, after Judaic Christians took refuge there following the fall of Jerusalem. We may picture a "take-charge" attitude on the part of the expatriate Jerusalemites toward the indigenous half-Christians much like that which alienated the people of the land and the Samaritans from Ezra and Nehemiah some centuries before.


Galilean Christianity

The evidence for Christianity in Galilee, much less any distinctive type, is notoriously scarce. What are we to conclude from this? We should not rule out the minimalist route taken by Old Testament scholars like Davies, Thompson, Garbini, and others; we might take this crashing silence as evidence for the absence of Christianity from Galilee, at least the absence of Christianity as we know it.

In this connection it is amusing to see the distress of Catholic and other traditionalist scholars who try mightily to explain away Epiphanius' evidence that the Nazorean and Ebionite sectarians of Kochaba and Nazareth considered themselves direct heirs of the Jerusalem church.26 It should be recognized that this evidence extends Walter Bauer's thesis27 into Palestine itself: the earliest "Christianity" attested for this important region, as with Edessa, Egypt, and Asia Minor, is what would later be branded "heretical." It changes nothing to point out that the Ebionites, etc., were preceded by James, etc., since this is just the point at issue: what besides Eusebian apologetics would allow us to assume28 that hypothetical earlier Galilean Jewish Christians must have been "orthodox"?

I suggest we might be able to trace three major stages of so-called Galilean Christianity. First, we can envision a period of renown of Jesus as a charismatic hasid in Galilee. Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew) shows how well many of the most characteristic Gospel images of Jesus comport with the tradition of charismatic Galilean holy men. Vermes may jump the gun and prematurely historicize when he derives an hasidic Jesus from Gospel legends which match hasidic legends of Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina ben-Dosa, etc. All we can say, though all we need to here, is that Jesus was remembered in such ways, denoting his veneration in popular hasidic circles.

It may be from this period that the Mark 6:1-3a pericope stems, where Jesus gets a warm reception as a local boy made good. The original point seems to be to provide a credential list for the relatives (i.e., the dynasty) of Jesus, who we are told later had clout in Galilean villages of Kochaba and Nazareth. However, we must bear in mind that, if the group of Jesus' relatives fled into Galilee or the Decapolis only after 70 C.E., the story may reflect the attempt to fabricate or reinforce a Galilean pedigree for them once they got there.

Second, we may suspect a period of unsuccessful Christocentric preaching in Galilee by missionaries from Jerusalem. This reaction is reflected in Mark's addition of 6:3b-6, where the admiration of Jesus' countrymen is arbitrarily turned to hostility. What we must suspect here is an "updating" of the original version a la Genesis 27:40b, which contradicts 27:40a. Isaac's testament to Esau originally legitimated the Jewish annexation of Edom in David's time, but afterward, when Edom broke away (cf., Psalm 2:1-3), this had to be taken into account, "predicted," too, no matter what a mess it made of the original story. So now the Galilean "rejection" of Jesus had to be prefigured in Jesus' own time (exactly equivalent to Mark 4:12; 1 Peter 2:7-8).

From this period also stem the prophetic denunciations of the Galilean towns Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida (Matthew 11: 20-24; cf., Revelation 3:14-22: these tirades are not from the historical Jesus but rather from flame-eyed prophets zealous for his reputation, speaking in his name) preserved in Q, in the later Christianizing stratum.29 Wherein lay their sin? Had the Galileans turned away from an earlier faith in Jesus? No, they had never had any Christological faith in Jesus as the Christ in the first place. For them he was a charismatic hasid, and that was enough: an exorcist, lax in legal exactitude, on familiar terms with God. But this was by no means enough for later orthodoxies (cf., the attacks of Epiphanius of Salamis and others on Nazoreans and Ebionites for their "merely human" Christologies and continued observance of the Torah).

Mark, in 8:27-30, conspicuously set in the villages around Caesarea Philippi, takes the occasion to blast what he deemed inadequate local Christologies of the region: Jesus as Elijah (and not a particularly eschatological one, either);30 Jesus as an Israelite prophet; Jesus as John the Baptist raised from the dead. No one in Caesarea Philippi had it so much occur to him that Jesus might be the messiah! Why?

L.E. Elliott-Binns made the important guess that the reason we hear so little about Galilean Christianity in the New Testament is the same reason that Chronicles tells us nothing of the northern kingdom of Israel/Ephraim, only of Judah, where the Temple was situated. The North, with its heathen piles of Dan and Bethel, had written themselves out of history; as far as Jerusalemite priests were concerned, they just no longer counted. There is no reason to believe that sectional loyalties would have entirely died out subsequently. Galilee would have remained aloof or hostile to any messianism involving a Son of David or centered on a Jerusalem shrine.31 Horsley notes that "There is literary evidence for some pilgrims from Galilee, but the numbers were likely small. The claim that Galileans were generally 'loyal' to both Temple and Torah has to be argued against the evidence adduced. The many centuries of separate historical existence, followed by a century of Galilean subjection to the Jerusalem temple-state, suggest that the historical regional differences and different class interests may have outweighed whatever bonds may have been established during the century of troubled Jerusalem rule in Galilee,"32 i.e., Hasmonean rule, which included mass conversions of Galilean Gentiles to Judaism at swordpoint.

Samaritans could still repudiate the house of David, expecting instead a Mosaic Taheb; why should the Galileans, fellow northerners, have had any more loyalty to Jerusalem or the concept of a Davidic messiah? Such a faith would have been considered as heretical by Jerusalem Christianity as the Samaritans and the "Torah-hating Galileans" were by the scribes of Jerusalem. Thus the silence in Christian documents loyal to Jerusalemite authority. I am guessing that Mark 8:27-30 reflects such antipathy to non-Christological Jesus-movements in Galilee.

To this picture we may add the observation that the two Markan miracle sequences (three, if you count the Johannine Signs Source) isolated by Paul Achtemaier,33 which parallel Jesus with Moses and Elijah, might make sense as a kind of "new Exodus" charter document for Israelite, Galilean, non-Davidic Jesusism. All three versions would be Galilean "signs" documents assimilating Jesus to Moses and Elijah, northern, Israelite figures (with whom he is also placed on the Mount of Transfiguration, Mark 9:1-13, where David is conspicuous by his absence!). It is this anti-Davidic or non-Davidic messianism that Mark condemned, though he also unwittingly preserved its chiefest monument in 12:35-37, along with the miracle sequences themselves, being oblivious of their original significance--or just coopting them by placing them in a Christological context. Mark 12:35 ff., despite the most nimble attempts of apologist exegetes, certainly repudiates the very notion of a Davidic, i.e., a Judean, messiah.

The third period of Galilean Christianity would have been that inaugurated by the Hegira of the Jerusalem church to Pella in the Decapolis in response to the oracle of Jesus, mentioned by Eusebius, of the impending fall of the city. Originally this oracle will have been the repeated doom cry of the Nietzschean mad prophet Jesus ben Ananias (Josephus, Jewish War 6:300-309), tipped off to Jerusalem's doom by the death of James the Just, the bulwark whose removal meant trouble.34 The oracle would then have been rewritten and attributed to the Christian Jesus in the form of the Little Apocalypse of Mark 13.

As various scholars have surmised,35 the flight to Pella tradition is meant to function as a foundation legend for the Pella church, trying to claim for itself the status of the Jerusalem church of the Pillars in exile. Right enough, but this needn't mean they did not actually make such an exodus. Perhaps only the oracular direction to do so need have been the legendary element. Otherwise it might have seemed like cowardice. I see the Pella tradition as legitimating a Christian version of the Yavneh reconsolidation, with Simeon bar-Cleophas taking the place of Johannan ben Zakkai as presiding over the new Sanhedrin. This is why both are likened to Moses, another "exodus" law-giver, both of them dying at age 120 even as Moses did. I think the commission of Simeon Cephas, confused with Simeon bar-Cleophas in early Christian tradition, 36 as the foundation stone with the keys of halakhic binding and loosing stems from the election of Simeon bar-Cleophas to the throne vacated by his brother James the Just. It is in this third period that we might most probably look for the Sitz-im-Leben of the evolution of the Gospel sayings tradition along parallel lines with that of the Mishnah, stemming from the Yavneh Sanhedrin.

I am tempted to regard the story of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) as yet another, a competing, foundation legend for the Pella (Decapolis) church/sanhedrin, one aimed at meeting the objection of it being on pagan soil, as well as possibly defending their Jewish credentials against charges of cowardice in the Roman War. It also establishes an alternate link of apostolic succession. First, note that in this tale Jesus himself ordains a non-12 disciple to go and preach his glories (Mark 5:19) already some 40 years before the arrival of the Jerusalem interlopers in Galilee and the Decapolis in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem.37 Second, Jesus drives out the Romans symbolically in the form of unclean swine possessed of Roman legions of demons.38 Thus, Jesus had sanctified, fumigated, the Decapolis area, so that it was not unclean territory (overcoming one of the major problems Brandon saw with the historicity of the Pella Hegira tradition, that Pella in the Decapolis would have been an improbable place for pious Jews to seek shelter.39 The Mark 5:1-20 story, as I read it, evidences embarrassment over just that point.

So Jerusalem-style Christianity got into Galilee the same way and at more or less the same time Jerusalem-style Pharisaism did, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. And it is there that we may imagine the Gospel sayings-tradition to have formed by the gradual assimilation of earlier Christian sayings to the collective and anonymous authority of "Jesus Christ" in much the same way and for much the same reason that the Rabbinical sayings-tradition was forming elsewhere at pretty much the same time: to provide each religious community with a retrojected pedigree seeming mythically to stem from "of old, from ancient days." Given the uncertain present in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem, the stability of the future would be anchored in a newly-secured sacred past. And in that sacred time were located the authority, on the one hand, of the Mishnah, and on the other, of the Messiah.


1. E.g., Burton L. Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 193-207.

2. R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (NY: Oxford University Press/Galaxy, 1957). "The enlargement of historical knowledge comes about mainly through finding how to use as evidence this or that kind of perceived fact which historians have hitherto thought useless to them" (247).

3. Collingwood: "... the assertions they make are by no means uniformly trustworthy, and indeed are to be judged more as propaganda than as statements of fact. Yet this gives them an historical value of their own; for propaganda, too, has its history" (260).

4. Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (NY: Harper & Row, 1972); Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (NY: Scribners, 1954); Harald Riesenfeld, The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings: A Study in the Limits of 'Formgeschichte' (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co, Limited, 1957); The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970); Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (Uppsala and Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1964); The Origins of the Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).

5. A. H. McNeille, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament. Second ed. revised by C.S.C. Williams (London: Oxford U.P., 1953), 54.

6. E.g., Jacob Neusner, In Search of Talmudic Biography: The Problem of the Attributed Saying. Brown Judaic Studies, no. 70 (Chico: Scholars Press, 1984).

7. E.g., Why No Gospels in Talmudic Judaism? Brown Judaic Studies no. 135 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

8. Translation of Richard and Clara Winstson, Bantam Books, 1970, 4.

9. Heinz Joachim Held, "Matthew as Interpreter of the Miracle Stories," in Günter Bornkamm, Gerhard Barth, and Heinz Joachim Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew's Gospel (London: SCM Press, 1963), 275-295.

10. The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1982), 78.

11. Hugo Odeberg, (ed. and trans.) 3 Enoch, or The Hebrew Book of Enoch (NY: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1973, rpt. of 1928 ed.), 85-86.

12. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 122, 136-137; Jesus and the Word (NY: Scribner's 1958), 30-31; H.E. Tödt, The Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), 295; Ferdinand Hahn, The Titles of Jesus in Christology: Their History in Earliest Christianity (NY: World, 1969), 21-27.

13. Norman Perrin, A Modern Pilgrimmage in New Testament Christology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974); Maurice Casey, Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7 (London: SPCK, 1979); Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels (London: Fontana/Collons 1977), 160-185.

14. Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), "The Role of the Son of Man," 24-30.

15. Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (NY: Scribner's, 1971), 35-36.

16. Walter Schmithals, The Office of Apostle in the Early Church (NY: Abingdon, 1969), 198-217 ff.

17. Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

18. Calvin, Reply to Sadolet: "Thy Christ was indeed worshipped as God and retained the name of Saviour; but where he ought to have been honoured, he was left almost destitute of glory. For, spoiled of his own virtue, he passed unnoticed among the crowd of saints, like one of the meanest of them." In J.K.S. Reid (ed. and trans.), Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965), 247.

19. Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985).

20. Leibel Reznick, The Mystery of Bar Kokhba: An Historical and Theological Investigation of the Last King of the Jews (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996), 65-76.

21. Mack, A Myth of Innocence, 203.

22. Gerd Theissen, The Miracles of the Early Christian Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 106-111.

23. Jack T. Sanders, The Jews in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 95, 96.

24. Howard Clark Kee, "Early Christianity in the Galilee: Reassessing the Evidence from the Gospels," in Lee I. Levine (ed.), The Galilee in Late Antiquity (NY: Jewish Theological Seminary and Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1992,), 9. Watch J. Andrew Overman squirm: "'The seat of Moses' is a symbolic expression of authority. The actual seat as part of the synagogue architecture develops later" (Matthew's Gospel and Formative Judaism: The Social World of the Matthean Community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990, 47).

25. Overman, 46. The apologetical attempt of Overman to sidestep the implications for Gospel dating strikes me as laughable: "The Gospels reveal a general, honorific, and nontechnical understanding of the term," ibid.).

26. Sean Freyne, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian, 323 B.C.E. to 135 C.E. A Study of Second Temple Judaism. University of Notre Dame Center for the Study of Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity no. 5 (Wilmington DE: Michael Glazier, Inc. and U. of Notre Dame P., 1980), 350. Gerd Lüdemann, too, rejects the link, but distances himself from those who do so on theological apologetic grounds: Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 213.

27. Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Trans. and ed. Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).

28. As do Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press/Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988), who can actually speak of "Trinitarianism" in such a context, 108, and Freye, Galilee, 350.

29. In fact, since these towns were decimated during the war with Rome, the denunciations on them must rather be seen as gloating, or if one wishes to dignify it, as examples of the mathnaa form used by the Koran, warning sinners to repent lest the disastrous fate of heathen cities like Irem overtake them as well (89:5).

30. Vermes, 90.

31. Galilean Christianity. Studies in Biblical Theology no. 16. (Naperville: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1956), 25, 34-35

32. Richard A. Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1996), 33.

33. "Toward the Isolation of Pre-Markan Miracle Catenae," Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (1970), 265-291; "The Origin and Function of the Pre-Markan Miracle Catenae," Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972).

34. Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, 193, 357-358, 949, 959-960.

35. S.G.F. Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Church (London: SPCK, 1951), 172-173; Freyne, 250.

36. Eisenman, 816.

37. The point is exactly parallel to that of the legend of the Holy Grail, which seeks to provide an independent apostolic (i.e., pre-Roman Catholic) foundation for British Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, understood as Jesus' uncle commissioned to take the Grail to Britain. See Arthur Edward Waite, The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal: Its Legends and Symbolism (London: Rebman LTD, 1909), Book VII, "The Holy Graal in the Light of the Celtic Church," 433-468.

38. Theissen, Sociology of Earliest Palestinian Christianity, 101-102.

39. Brandon, 169.


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