After a stimulating Crosstalk discussion and blogpost in which I push for dropping the terms “Jew”, “Jewish”, and “Judaism” in Jesus’ time, it’s worth addressing the specter of anti-Semitism. Jim West wrote:
“I wonder – as an aside – why Loren seems to want to drive a wedge between Jesus and Judaism. If I have misunderstood his intention I apologize. But it seems that the discussion so far is trending in that direction and so it sounds very similar to the debates about the Jewishness of Jesus in the 20’s and 30’s.”
And Rebecca Lesses says to me:
“You should be aware that at least to me, you’re beginning to sound like the bad old days in the study of the New Testament, when scholars did their best to divorce Jesus from Judaism, in order to make him look so much better than the ‘legalistic’, ‘dessicated’ caricature they drew of current-day Judaism.”
On the one hand it’s hard for me to take these accusations seriously, since I’ve combatted anti-Semitic caricatures as much as anyone — not only on this blog but on various academic list-serves. E. P. Sanders has put legalism to rest. No one is using Judaism as an implicit foil by denying that it existed in the second Temple period. The above reactions are actually part of the problem here, because when people associate the arguments of Elliott and Esler with antiquated Lutheran scholarship, it shows how much we’ve come to lean on the crutch of a supposed “Jewishness” for fear that we’re automatically siding with dated paradigms. But you don’t need a non-existent Jewishness to avoid these pitfalls.
And I should be clear on another point. I make no assumptions that Jesus’ way of being a Galilean Israelite was inherently better than (say) a Pharisee’s way of being a Judean Israelite. Good guy/bad guy contrasts have no more place in an historical discussion than do foils and false starts. This is one point where I agree with April DeConick, who warns against portraits of “Jesus the ‘good’ Israelite from the north revolting against the ‘bad’ [Judeans] of the south”. But that’s not where I see scholars like Elliott and Esler going, and it’s certainly not where I am in any case.