The Symbolic Jesus

symbolic jesusAn odd question, perhaps: Why do scholars want to believe in a Jewish Jesus? Isn’t that a given?

It turns out that Jesus’ “Jewishness” has become something of a scholarly holy symbol in academia, which fuels hidden agendas. In The Symbolic Jesus, William Arnal offers a Schweitzer-like indictment of those agendas, which are the subject of chapter four, to which chapters two and three serve as extended prefaces. Two presents an overview of the history of anti-Semitism in New Testament scholarship, and three (the book’s weakest) tries explaining why the “Jewishness” of Jesus is a manufactured red herring. We’ll go through each in turn.

Chapter 2: Bad Karma: Anti-Semitism in New Testament Scholarship

Looking back on the racist scholarship of Houston Chamberlain and Walter Grundmann (pp 8-10) is sobering, but one may wonder about its relevance. The specter of the Aryan Jesus has long been put to rest, hasn’t it? Maybe not as much as we think. Sean Freyne has implicitly compared Crossan to Grundmann(1), and Birger Pearson has drawn sly parallels between the Jesus Seminar and Nazi scholarship from the 30s-40s.(2)

Now, Crossan and Funk are anything but unwitting Nazis, and they certainly insist Jesus was a Jew, so what’s the real problem? The issue is that they reconstruct Jesus as a Hellenized Jew. Scholars have re-opened the question of Galilee’s ethnicity, with the result that Jesus often ends up superficially Jewish, his message more compatible with Greco-Roman philosophy than Judaic eschatology. A Hellenized figure feeds modern secular fantasies, and that’s evidently enough to call forth parallels to racist fantasies. Never underestimate the power of rhetoric.

Scholars have become defensive about Jesus’ Jewishness for other reasons too, and those interests are exposed in chapter four. But before getting to them we should consider Arnal’s defense of the Hellenized Jesus.

Chapter 3: A Manufactured Controversy: Why the “Jewish Jesus” is a Red Herring

Arnal’s defense isn’t always convincing. For instance, he insists that “the de-Judaization of Jesus which allegedly occurs in Burton Mack’s writing occurs at the behest of evidence” (p 23): material from the earliest stage of the Jesus tradition — Q1 and pre-Markan pronouncement stories — which have little use for Torah, temple, and purity. But Q (let alone Qx) is probably a mirage, and it’s likely in any case that Mack has embraced “evidence” in support of a predetermined view of Jesus (or Christian origins) with whom (or which) he finds favor, as he does.

Arnal goes on to point out that “Mack [along with others like Funk and Crossan] explicitly asserts that Jesus was Jewish…[and] the ways in which Jesus’ Jewish background led to his approach being distinct from that of the cynics” (p 24). But mere declarations that Jesus was Jewish don’t really settle the issue, nor do passing acknowledgments that the kingdom of God Jesus spoke of was (obviously) “theologized”. Even if it can be shown that Galilee was significantly Hellenized, a Jewish cynic will remain an oxymoron until Mack, Crossan, and Vaage are able to produce a single example of such syncretism in the first century.

More generally, against Arnal, there is some validity to the charge that the Hellenized Jesus is non-Jewish, or at least de-Judaized. The works of Mack, Crossan, and Funk push Judaic elements to the periphery to the extent that Jesus hardly has any affinities with any of the Jewish theology emerging in Josephus and rabbinic literature, not to mention the very synoptic sources that portray him.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that these scholars are necessarily wrong in their interpretation (though I think they largely are). If it happens to be true that Galileans were more Hellenized than their cousins in the south, it is the historian’s duty to say so, rather than insist on a “Jewishness” that safeguards contemporary interests. Arnal may not be convincing about the particulars, but his more general point is right: however superficial the “Jewish” label has become, it is theoretically possible that Jesus was more Hellenized than many of us want to believe.

But why do people want a Jewish Jesus to begin with? For the (supposed) neutral historian, why does it even matter? What’s at stake? Many things, apparently.

Chapter 4: The Jewish Jesus and Contemporary Identity

Arnal begins his expose by acknowledging agendas on both sides of the field, from those promoting the “Jewish” Jesus (Sanders, Fredriksen, Vermes, Allison, Meier, Wright) and those promoting an alternatively Jewish or Hellenized Jesus (Funk, Crossan, Patterson, Horsley, Mack, Vaage).(3) But the weight of accusation falls on the former group. Though my own sympathies lie with this group (or at least all of them except Wright, who really doesn’t belong; see my contrast between him and Allison below), Arnal isn’t being unfair, just exposing agendas which have been less transparent than usual. As far as I’m concerned, the latter group have clear agendas which repeat the mistakes of the past, rewriting Jesus in order to validate either liberal Christianity or a secular world-view. That’s old news, for which we hardly need another Schweitzer. The agendas of the former group are more oblique and difficult to get a handle on.

But Arnal nails them down pretty well. Those aggressive about Jesus’ Jewishness may be driven by one or more of the following:

(1) The agenda to save one’s scholarship from the legacy of German Lutherans. Sanders, Fredriksen, Vermes, etc. have paved the way to a new and distinctive Anglo-American scholarship, free of Bultmannian influence, free of eisegetical caricatures (pp 41-47)

(2) The intent to keep oneself free from charges of antisemitism. The Jewish Jesus approaches a stereotype of modern Jews, thereby reclaiming (or insulating) Christianity from complicity in the Holocaust. (pp 47-55)

(3) The need to keep one’s religious sensibilities intact. A Jewish Jesus, ironically, helps maintain a distinctive Christian identity and can even reinforce supersessionism (in cases like Wright and Witherington). (pp 56-69)

(4) The goal to preserve one’s cultural identity in the face of postmodernism. A Jesus who believed in Torah, the temple, and purity is a formidable weapon against the erosion of social identities, in effect insisting upon cultural stability. (pp 69-72)

These agendas aren’t so much about making Jesus conform to one’s own beliefs (Sanders’ Jesus is anything but a reflection of Sanders), but they are making him conform to an image which legitimates, however obliquely, their academics, politics, religion, and/or culture — whether intentionally or not (see pp 39-40). We touched on agenda #3 already, and in my view it’s the most significant: the mission to keep Jesus free of secular influence. A Jewish Jesus protects religiosity. But on top of that it keeps the messiah “kosher” in a post-Holocaust age (agenda #2), where no one — not even the most traditional conservative — wants to be liable for antisemitism.

Arnal is upfront about his own biases and not liking the “Jewish Jesus”. Perhaps that makes it easy for him to spot the agendas associated with it. I’m the opposite, and see through the likes of Crossan and Mack right away. So we learn from each other; no one is agenda-free. Reconstructions of Jesus need to be defended for the right reasons, in either case. Since I lean towards “Jewish” reconstructions of Jesus more than “Hellenized” ones, I will offer a contrast between two scholars who advocate their version of it: Dale Allison and Tom Wright.

It’s hard to pin agendas on Allison. He downplays scholarly progressivism as much as possible, and even denies the existence of a third Jesus-quest which outshines previous projects.(4) So much for agenda #1. His Jesus, unlike those of Sanders and Vermes, while conventionally apocalyptic, opposes the covenant and Torah in a sectarian manner.(5) There goes agenda #2. Allison’s religious sensibilities can take a beating: Jesus was mistaken about things, and history can’t offer assurances that he was resurrected.(6) One doesn’t exactly sense agendas #3/#4 lurking in the background, not even when he objects to the secularization of Jesus (which he does for solid reasons).(7) All in all, Allison’s works are devoid of rhetoric which invokes Jesus’ “Jewishness” as a hot-button item.

Contrast this with Tom Wright’s incessant reminders that Jesus did everything for the best and most “Jewish!” of reasons. He comments on Mk 7:14-23/Mt 15:10-20:

“[The subversion of Jewish food laws] does not make Jesus a good Platonist, or for that matter a good liberal Protestant, rejecting everything ‘material’ or ‘outward’ as being irrelevant to the ‘spiritual’ life. It makes him a good Jew, recognizing that Yawheh desires to recreate human beings as wholes.”(8)

One senses that Wright underscores Jesus’ Jewishness as an assurance that his messiah is really okay; he’s not an anachronism; he’s completely Jewish (despite appearances), continuous with the Hebrew Scriptures, and thus readily compatible with the evangelical creed.

Evangelicals have become protective of Paul’s Jewishness as much as Jesus’. Take Tim Gallant:

“Paul is a Jew. After all the nonsense spouted in 19th century German theology, modern scholarship has finally come back round to the point that orthodoxy knew all along. The story that Paul tells is the story of Israel and her collision with her destiny and fulfillment. When the Apostle Paul writes, we are not encountering the originator of a new religion. We are encountering a true Jew, whose faith remains truly Jewish.”

Look at what this accomplishes. The obvious is emphasized — that Paul was Jewish — so he’s kosher (agenda #2 fulfilled); this “truly Jewish” apostle squares with Christian orthodoxy (agenda #3 creeping in), over against the “nonsense” of liberal scholarship (agendas #1 and #3 now involved). Like Wright’s Jesus, Gallant’s Paul is shielded in advance from charges of anti-progressivism, anti-semitism, and anti-orthodoxy. That’s potent rhetoric.


The Symbolic Jesus is an important book that, while containing objectionable inferences along the way, makes the reader ask the right questions for the right reasons. Liberal agendas have involved self-portraits, and they’re easy to spot. Orthodox agendas deal with apologetics and are hard to miss too. But somewhere in between lurk new and murky agendas relating to the question of our identities — academic, political, religious, and cultural — and the front for these agendas is, of all things, Jesus’ Jewishness. It’s become a curious development, to say the least.

Arnal’s solution is as Schweitzerian as his indictments. He says the quest for the historical Jesus should again be abandoned:

“Not because scholars cannot agree on their reconstructions; lack of agreement may only indicate that further — and more rigorous — work needs to be done. Not because the investigation has been biased; bias is unavoidable, here as elsewhere… But because, ultimately, the historical Jesus does not matter, either for our understanding of the past, or our understanding of the present.” (p 77)(9)

Well, no; not exactly. We do need Jesus for history’s sake. But Arnal is right that we don’t need Jesus, or his Jewishness, to feel secure about ourselves.


1. “Galilean Questions to Crossan’s Mediterranean Jesus”, in Arnal and Desjardin’s Whose Historical Jesus?, 1997, p 91.

2. “The Gospel According to the Jesus Seminar”, in Occasional Papers of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity 35, April 1996, p 42.

3. Note that Richard Horsley does not advocate a Hellenized Jesus. His Jesus is alternatively Jewish on account of a northern Israelite heritage. I think Arnal is wrong to put him in the so-called non-Jewish category. He belongs in the Jewish camp for lambasting the Hellenized Jesus as much as Sanders, Vermes, Wright, et all. Horsley may use Galilee to distinguish between northern and southern Jews, but un-Hellenized Jews they remain.

4. See Resurrecting Jesus, chapter 1; and “Forgetting the Past” in The Downside Review, Vol 120, No 421.

5. See Millenarian Prophet, p 87 #8; and “Jesus and the Covenant: A Response to E.P. Sanders”, JSNT 29 (1987).

6. See Millenarian Prophet and Resurrecting Jesus, passim.

7. Resurrecting Jesus, chapter 1.

8. Jesus and the Victory of God, p 284.

9. Note how Schweitzer and Arnal try killing the quest for Jesus in different ways. The former claimed that Jesus’ apocalyptic fanaticism is irrelevant, even if his spirit continues to inspire and drive people despite this. The latter says that Jesus is just plainly irrelevant, regardless of what his message was, and however Judaic or non-Judaic he was.

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