Commentary Magazine


Revolution in Judea, by Hyam Maccoby

Jesus as Jew

Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance.
by Hyam Maccoby.
Taplinger. 256 pp. $9.95.

Prior to the Enlightenment, Christian authors almost always minimized the Jewishness of Jesus, while Jewish sources regarded him either as an all-too-human impostor or else as an agent of the devil, and were indisposed in either case to make fine distinctions between him and the church that arose in his name. “Reclaiming” Jesus for the Jews (the phrase seems to have been coined by Harry Wolfson) is thus a modern enterprise—though by now it has a history of nearly two hundred years. Christian scholars began it. Yet as early as 1838, relates Albert Schweitzer in his still magisterial The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a French Jew named Salvator, following in the footsteps of the German Karl Heinrich Venturini, asserted in a work called Jesus-Christ et sa doctrine that the man-God of Christianity was in fact an Essene in good standing who sought to ennoble Judaism rather than supplant it. The list of works subsequently written by both Jews and Gentiles to prove that Jesus lived and died as a loyal Jew, and never meant to found the religion that falsified his teachings and recast them in an anti-Jewish mold, is a long one.

But if a loyal Jew, what sort of Judaism was he loyal to? We know that during the late Second Temple period in which Jesus lived, the Jewish community of Palestine was far from united in practice and belief, and the schematic division of it by the historian Josephus into four principal sects—the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots—remains serviceable to this day. A Sadducee Jesus most certainly was not; it is hardly imaginable that this party of aristocrats and priests, with its devotion to state religion and the ceremonial Temple cult, its rejection of personal immortality and judgment, and its clear class bias in favor of the rich, could have produced anything like the figure we are familiar with from the Gospels.

As for the remaining possibilities, modern Gentile scholars were divided from the start, as were the two leading 19th-century Jewish historians, Heinrich Graetz and Abraham Geiger. Graetz, like Salvator, held that Jesus was an Essene, since the otherworldliness of this ascetic desert sect, as well as its practice of baptism, made it seem a likely background for his career. Geiger, on the other hand, maintained that, despite his attacks on it, Jesus belonged to the party of the Pharisees, as was evidenced by the great similarity of his parables and sayings to those found in rabbinic texts.

Both the Essene and the Pharisee hypotheses have continued to enjoy wide currency to this day: if the former was dramatized by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which cast great light on the Essene community and showed it to have been in the grip of eschatological expectations no less urgent than those of Jesus himself, the latter has been steadily buttressed by decades of research in both the Gospels and early Pharisaic literature, whose styles of thought and expression are undeniably close. At the same time, however, a third hypothesis has been broached: namely, that while Jesus could well have been a Pharisee by education and general outlook, he also had much in common with Josephus’ “fourth sect,” the Zealots—that is, with that faction of militant Jewish nationalists who preached active resistance to Roman rule and led the Great Revolt of 67 C.E. that culminated disastrously in the destruction of the Temple. The suggestion that Jesus was an anti-Roman rebel may seem startling to the serious student and the casual reader of the Gospels alike, yet in recent years three books have been written in English to propose it, the latest of which, Hyam Maccoby’s Revolution in Judea, first published in England in 1973, has now been issued in an American edition.

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Briefly stated, Maccoby’s thesis is as follows:

Jesus must have sought to lead an anti-Roman uprising, since otherwise he would never have been executed by the Romans as “king of the Jews.” The story in the Gospels of a weak-minded Pontius Pilate letting himself be pressured by a Jewish mob into crucifying him for no good reason is patently absurd. Indeed, only by assuming that Jesus’ crime was rebellion is it possible to understand many details in the Gospels that are otherwise inexplicable, such as the presence among his followers of several men with names suggesting that they were Zealots; the incendiary remark attributed to him that “I have come not to bring peace but the sword”; his violent assault on the Temple; his supposedly ordering his disciples to arm themselves on the night of his arrest; the information that an “insurrection” took place in Jerusalem during his own last days there; etc.

None of these items, or others pointing to the same conclusion, claims Maccoby, makes sense if one accepts the traditional Christian portrait of a pacific messiah who had no political aims and whose kingdom was not of this world. On the contrary, Jesus’ success in convincing his disciples of his messianic mission is itself proof of his anti-Roman activism, since the contemporary Jewish concept of messiahship was predicated upon belief in an individual who would free Israel from foreign bondage, and could not possibly have applied to anyone declining this role.

Why then is the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels so unlike the actual “apocalyptic Pharisee” who was crucified for leading a popular insurrection in Jerusalem? Because, answers Maccoby, all four Gospels are deliberate reworkings of the Jesus story in order to render it palatable to the growing Christian communities of the Roman empire, which—especially after the failure of the Great Revolt and the wave of anti-Jewish sentiment that followed it—had a crucial interest in suppressing the fact of Jesus’ militant Jewishness and in shifting the blame for his death from the Romans to the Jews. Paradoxical though it may seem, the Christianity of the New Testament was concerned above all with effacing the historical career of its own savior, which was a source of acute embarrassment to it. And precisely because such a rewriting of history took place, any reconstruction of the actual events must be based on whatever isolated details filtered through about the real Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean insurgent who sought not to save mankind from sin but to free his own people from Roman subjugation.

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These are the bare bones of Maccoby’s book, which is ably fleshed out and would undoubtedly have made a greater impact had it not been anticipated by two earlier works: Joel Carmichael’s The Death of Jesus, which appeared in 1962, and S.G.F. Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots, which was published in 1967. Indeed, despite the great differences of style among them (Carmichael’s account is straightforwardly popular, Brandon’s is immensely erudite, and Maccoby’s falls somewhere between the two), all three books are so similar in substance that their thesis can be regarded as a single one.

True, Maccoby does have his own viewpoint. He is more concerned than either Brandon or Carmichael with defending Pharisaic Judaism against the New Testament’s assaults on it, which gives his book an apologetic character absent in theirs, and some of his explanations of puzzling episodes in the Gospels, such as of the Barabbas story or of the transfiguration on the mount, are cleverly original if not necessarily convincing. Nevertheless, it is puzzling and regrettable that he refers to Brandon only in passing and to Carmichael not at all. (Brandon, in his massively footnoted study, does not allude to Carmichael once, while in his own book, which has no footnotes at all, Carmichael fails to mention that the likelihood of Jesus’ having been an anti-Roman rebel was already raised in the 18th century by Hermann Samuel Remarus, the grandfather of modern New Testament criticism. Perhaps in a historical field that has produced a mountain of literature that no scholar can be expected to read, let alone remember, in its entirety, allowances for such lapses must be made.)

In any case, what matters about the Carmichael-Brandon-Maccoby hypothesis, as by now it should be called, is not who deserves credit for it but whether it stands up to scrutiny and offers a more satisfying reconstruction of Jesus’ career than do the more familiar Essene and Pharisee hypotheses which, while rejecting the New Testament’s dejudaization of Jesus, nevertheless do accept its non-political and pacifistic portrait of him. Certainly it is a highly imaginative approach, both in its overall perspective and in its ability to slash through some of the knottiest conundrums of New Testament scholarship and resolve them in boldly novel ways. And yet—though here I must stress that I write as a layman who lacks the technical competence to judge many of the textual and linguistic issues involved—it does raise to my mind at least three major sets of difficulties.

The first of these has to do with the Romans. If Jesus arrived in Jerusalem from the Galilee shortly before the Passover (or before the Feast of Tabernacles, as Maccoby and others propose) with the plan of fomenting armed insurrection there, and if his “cleansing of the Temple,” as the Carmichael-Brandon-Maccoby hypothesis holds, is really the Gospels’ censored version of this attempt, the Romans’ reaction to it is hardly comprehensible. Why were Jesus and his rebel forces not apprehended on the spot instead of being allowed to wander in and out of the city unmolested for several more days? The explanation given by the Gospels, and accepted by our three authors, namely, that the delay was caused by Roman fear of Jesus’ popularity with the Jerusalem mob, hardly makes sense if he was already leading this mob in open rebellion. Did the Romans think that the uprising would go away by itself? And if it was such a major one that they initially lacked the troops to quell it, why is it not mentioned by Josephus?

Why, when Jesus was arrested, were his disciples not taken into custody too if they were armed rebels like himself? Why, if his offense was insurrection, did the Romans prefer to have the Jewish religious authorities interrogate him first instead of dealing with him directly themselves? The way a Roman governor, especially one with a reputation for cruelty like Pontius Pilate, might have been expected to behave toward an insurgency in Jerusalem would have been to seize all its members as quickly as possible, pass summary judgment on them, and execute them to a man—and it is puzzling, to say the least, why Pilate should have behaved so differently in this case.

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Secondly, there is the question of textual economy. It may be that the Carmichael-Brandon-Maccoby hypothesis makes clear certain passages in the Gospels that were formerly obscure, but in so doing it renders obscure a far greater number of passages that were formerly clear. What is gained, for example, by being able to interpret literally a statement like “I have come not to bring peace but the sword” if one is forced in exchange to lose much or most of the sermon on the mount, with its message of “resist not evil” and “turn the other cheek”?

Of course, it can be claimed that the former dictum is a genuine saying of Jesus that slipped through the web of later Christian censorship, while the latter remarks were invented by the censors themselves. Yet if this censorship was so cunning and creative that it succeeded within a short time in obliterating the historical Jesus and palming off a believably new one in his place, how is one to explain its innocently letting such obviously incriminating passages pass? And if much of the teaching of this fabricated Jesus was the invention of later individuals, is it not strange that the three Synoptic Gospels, which were composed several decades after Jesus’ death, and within a few years of each other, by different authors, each apparently with sources of his own besides the common ones, should have managed to invent the same man? No theory, however ingenious, that creates more textual problems than it solves can be above serious suspicion.

Finally, there is the general issue of the origins of early Christianity. Certainly there is every reason to believe that the teachings of the first apostles to the Gentiles must have differed from those of Jesus himself, and that this difference involved, among other things, a deemphasis of the Jewish context of Jesus’ career. It is one thing, however, to argue that the founders of Christianity tailored Jesus’ message to meet the exigencies of their own situation, which would have been perfectly normal for them to do. It is another to assert, as does the Carmichael-Brandon-Maccoby hypothesis, that they totally reversed it, turning the militant instigator of a popular anti-Roman revolt into the secretive, enigmatic figure of the Gospels who prefers parables and paradoxes to plain language and preaches inward repentance and spiritual preparedness for the kingdom of heaven that is to come. Surely there must have been something about the real Jesus to suggest the version of him that we find in the New Testament!

No doubt our three authors are right to point out that, for 1st-century Palestinian Jews, the coming of the kingdom of heaven did mean deliverance from pagan rule; so too they make a strong case for their claim that the disciples of Jesus who founded the Nazarene church in Jerusalem, which was apparently wiped out in the Great Revolt, were themselves Jewish patriots who quarreled with Paul and the overseas apostles over the latter’s anti-Jewish line; but from this to the conclusion that the authors of the New Testament were knowingly writing or subscribing to blatant fictions is still a perilous leap. Paul himself, after all, though he never met Jesus in the flesh, knew many people who had, and presumably conversed with them about him; is it not reasonable to assume a connection, however skewed, between the Jesus of his own theology and visions and the man he was told about? Why else would he, and others of his generation like him who still had access to eyewitnesses, have been attracted to the figure of Jesus in the first place?

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Unprovable though it is, however, and despite all the question marks that it raises, the Carmichael-Brandon-Maccoby hypothesis cannot be disproved either. Indeed if one begins by assuming, as all modern New Testament criticism does, that the life and teachings of Jesus went through some kind of basic editing while becoming Christian scripture, one is forced to agree with the conclusion reached by Schweitzer that the quest for the historical Jesus is an ultimate cul-de-sac. To put it in simple arithmetical terms, we are dealing here with four elements: (1) the original Jesus and his teachings; (2) what was added to these by the authors of the Gospels; (3) what was subtracted by them; and (4) the Gospels themselves. Of these only the fourth is given in advance, and needless to say, for the equation a+b-c=d, where d alone is known, no solution is remotely possible.

Does this mean that “reclaiming” Jesus for the Jews is a purposeless task? I do not think so. In the first place, that Jesus was thoroughly a Jew in his behavior and beliefs, and that the Gospels play down this side of him, is a textually establishable fact regardless of our inability to determine just what kind of a Jew he was, or, for that matter, whether his Judaism may not have been so idiosyncratic as to elude exact classification. And while such an assertion may appear to be a truism by now, it is one whose implications still need to be explored. How else can we hope to find meaning—historical, psychoogical, or any other kind—in the monstrous irony that for nearly two thousand years the Jewish people has been reviled and persecuted in the name of one of its sons, a figure as Jewish in his way as Hillel the Elder or Rabbi Akiva, who first was purloined from it, next turned into a Hellenized soteriological hero, and finally worshipped as a divinity by a third of the human race? Even today, stated baldly in this manner, the bare facts of the case seem so preposterous, so like a horrendous practical joke, that it remains easier simply to shake one’s head over them in amazement than to give them serious thought.

Secondly, as is often the case when the historical imagination pursues an elusive subject, “reclaiming” Jesus for the Jews may not in the end tell us anything more definite about Jesus, but it will surely tell us something about the Jews. For in asking such questions as what, within the context of 1st-century Judaism, Jesus was trying to say; what, if anything, was unique about his teaching; whether this teaching, had it not been preempted and distorted at an early stage by anti-Jewish elements, could have been absorbed by the Judaism of his day; and whether it might still have any relevance to that of ours—we are forced to clarify our own sense of Jewishness, of its parameters, possibilities, and limits.

Given the ahistorical dogmatism of medieval religion, and the brutal chronicle of Christian treatment of Jews, it is hardly surprising that Jews in the past took Christianity’s word for it that the protagonist of the Gospels had disowned his own people, or that they instinctively disowned him as well. Today we know too much for the old instincts to make any sense. In one way or another, it is indeed time Jews thought of Jesus as one of their own.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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