Philip Esler: Ethnic Betrayal & Academic Betrayal

coverMatthew’s gospel is a tough one to crack. With the other evangelists and Paul I’m in a comfort zone. I can see how the factions work. But the question of Matthew’s relationship to “Judaism” — whether his community was sectarian or involved in a nasty intra-synagogue dispute — can be answered either way. Cases for both sides have been impressive.

Philip Esler has been on both sides. Back in the ’80s he maintained that the Mattheans differed from the other gospel (and Pauline) communities in a serious way. Following the authority of Peter (Mt 16:18; Gal 2:11-14), they refused to engage in mixed table-fellowship, indicated by the way Matthew revises his Markan source in Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30. The Markan woman legitimates mixed table-fellowship by saying that even the dogs under the table eat from the children’s scraps, but Matthew’s revision has her speaking of dogs eating scraps falling from the master’s table — meaning that the children (Jews) and dogs (Gentiles) no longer eat the same bread. (See his Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, pp 91-93). The “dogs”, for Matthew, appear to be saved apart from the chosen who remain a light to the nations in their own way.

But Esler has come around. In his new essay, “Intergroup Conflict and Matthew 23: Towards Responsible Historical Interpretation of a Challenging Text” (Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol 45 No 1, pp 38–59), he argues that the Matthean community engaged in mixed table fellowship (based on Mt 8:10-11) just like the other gospel communities, and that these Christians considered themselves separated from the Judeans. (“Judeans” being the more accurate term for Jews during the first century — a point to which I’ll return at the end.) The key is that Matthew is working on two temporal levels. He situates Jesus within the timeframe of his actual ministry to Israel, with his message for post-70 Christians often working in tension with that setting. In the case of Mt 23, verse 1 says that Jesus is addressing both the crowds and the disciples. The next two verses read,

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, and so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”

“Here,” says Esler, “Jesus is speaking in a manner dramatically appropriate to the crowds in the time of his mission to Israel and ironically for post-Easter Christ-followers“. (p 44) Passages like this don’t actually validate synagogue authority for the Mattheans, who by all indications mistrusted, hated, and/or feared Judean authorities.

Social-identity theorists like Daniel Bar-Tal have documented various delegitimization strategies used by groups who hate or fear others. Such strategies include dehumanization (labeling others as subhuman or demonic), trait characterization (portraying them so worthless as to be parasites or idiots), and outcasting (portraying their offenses so transgressive that it warrants calling them murderers, thieves, or maniacs in order to exclude them from society). Abusive invective like that fits Matthew 23:13-36 to a tee. Pharisees and scribes are “sons of snakes” (dehumanization), “blind guides” and “blind fools” (trait characterization), and full of “violence and rapacity” (outcasting).

Most striking, as Esler notes, are certain parallels with John’s gospel. Both evangelists flagrantly misrepresent Judeans. John ascribes to them a belief that they are actual “disciples” of Moses (Jn 9:27), which was never true. Matthew casts them as tight-asses on the question of salvation (Mt 23:13). For the historical Pharisees, righteousness conveyed the simple sense of privileged and blessed identity owing to descent from Abraham. Matthew’s view of righteousness (see Mt 5:20–48) is a lot like Paul’s reworking of the term: “an audacious attempt by Matthew to appropriate a primary expression of Judean identity” (p 51) by simply claiming that the Matthean Christians have it, not the Judeans.

On the other hand, neither John nor Matthew denies Judeans their Abramaic ancestry (as Paul did, by claiming that believers in Christ are the true sons of Abraham based on faith, regardless of ethnicity). They do something even more offensive, and turn it into something foul. For John, the sons of Abraham are sons of the devil (Jn 8:39,44). For Matthew, they are sons of snakes (Mt 23:32-33). The dehumanization strategy differs from Paul’s re-interpretive one.

But like Paul, Matthew elevates faith to an uncharacteristic level of importance. He accuses the Pharisees and scribes of “ignoring the weightier matters of the law — justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23):

“Since when was faith one of the heavier aspects of the law? The word only appears once in the Septuagintal version of the Pentateuch, at Deuteronomy 32:20, where it means ‘faithfulness,’ a characteristic God taxes the Israelites in Sinai with lacking. On the other hand, it appears eight times in Matthew — its use at Matthew 23:23 representing the last instance of the word — and on each occasion it refers to a, perhaps the, fundamental characteristic of those aligning themselves to the new reality Jesus has announced (Matt 8:10; 9:2, 22, 29; 15:28; 17:20 and 21:21)… Jesus is accusing Judean leaders from the 30s of neglecting something which was actually crucial to Christ-movement identity towards the end of the first century. The manner in which faith is (very artificially) presented as an aspect of the law continues Matthew’s efforts to appeal to the Judean members of the Christ-movement.” (p 53)

This all starts to pile into a mountain: delegitimization strategies, ugly parallels with John, hints of mixed table-fellowship, outrageous misrepresentations (and appropriations) of Judean religion. It’s hard to make room for an intra-communal dispute here. I’m not sure what to do about Mt 15:21-28 anymore (which seems to imply separate table-fellowship), and would be curious to know what Esler makes of it on his newer view of Matthew.

Last but not least: Esler’s article serves as response to Amy-Jill Levine, who has objected to using “Judean” in place of “Jew” out of political fears. That’s no way to do history, and in my review of her book on the parables I showed how her anti-Jewish phobias get out of hand and torpedo what could have otherwise been fine analyses. Esler draws on the example of Cardinal Augustin Bea, who during Vatican II was intent on absolving Jews from the charge of killing Jesus. He wanted to interpret the New Testament texts historically to achieve this end, but was opposed by other cardinals on grounds that any document dealing favorably with the Jews risked pushing the church too much towards Israel and Zionism and causing problems in the Islamic world:

“If Bea had taken Levine’s approach, he would have succumbed to the blandishments of abandoning history in the interest of politics. But he did not. Instead, he insisted that the declaration had nothing to do with political questions. Yes, people might misinterpret a biblical text and manipulate it for political ends but we should not forsake our duty of accurate historical interpretation for that reason. In my view, Bea was right on this, and Levine is mistaken.” (p 57)

That’s right. We shouldn’t be bullied into silence for fear of appearing anti-Semitic (Esler), Islamophobic (Bea), or whatever prejudices people like to manufacture to cover their own insecurities. If bigots want to abuse historical facts, that’s a different conversation. The same holds true for abuses in science (like Social Darwinism). You correct the abuse, not the facts themselves. As I’ve been pointing out frequently on this blog, the problem of manufactured bigotry is huge in contemporary discussions of Islam; depicting the violence, hatred, intolerance, and expansionism inherent in Islam supposedly makes one hateful in turn. But that’s not true. Honest and intelligent critics of Islam like Bill Maher and Sam Harris are not bigoted demagogues like Terry Jones and Phil Robertson.

The ethnic betrayal in Matthew is very real. I’m moving toward (the new) Esler’s view of this gospel as a sectarian one in which the Christians stood at a considerable distance from Judeans and flamed them out of disgust, hate, and fear.

The “betrayal” of scholars who refer to first-century Jews as Judeans, on the other hand, is imagined. While I often use the term “Jew” anyway (“Judean” may confuse readers who are unfamiliar with debates over terminology), I do believe that Philip Esler, Jack Elliott, and Steve Mason have advanced sound arguments for “Judeans” being the best word for those groups of people whose ancestors were Israelites and whose successors were Jews. Regardless of how this idea can be misused.

(Esler’s article is available here. See also here, for his earlier view of Matthew as compared to Luke.)

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5 thoughts on “Philip Esler: Ethnic Betrayal & Academic Betrayal

  1. “I do believe that Philip Esler, Jack Elliott, and Steve Mason have advanced sound arguments for ‘Judeans’ being the best word for those groups of people whose ancestors were Israelites and whose successors were Jews.”

    You are exactly right, Loren. In fact the modern term “Jew” is a development of the older term “Judean.” The latter group were an ethnic/political entity (or as entity-like as such a diverse group of people might be. The Judeans consisted of the descendants of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi, the Benjaminites having affiliated with the kingdom of Judah when the older Davidic kingdom of Israel split apart after Solomon’s death, and the Levites being affiliated with both kingdoms since the tribe of Levi was sort of a floating tribe with no assigned land of its own. The other tribes were, at least as a group, tied to the other, larger kingdom of Israel which survived in the north after the southerners, the Judahites, broke away. Of course, the Israelites (the so-called Ten Tribes) were wiped from history by the Assyrians but the Judahites lasted longer and then survived their own defeat and captivity by the Babylonians, re-founding their country seventy years later under Persian auspices.

    The religion of Jews today, Judaism, is an outgrowth of the Pharisaic tradition of that era. There were three main branches among the Judeans at the time: Pharisees (the rabbinic teachers), the Sadducees (Tzdukim or the scribal class of the Second Temple) and the Essenes who split from the others and established themselves in various esoteric and monastic like communities, rejecting the Temple centered life of the Tzdukim and the Torah centered life of the Pharisees. Where Jesus fit into this is not always clear but from the nature of his reported teachings he seems to have been closest to the Essenes. Indeed, a hundred years before he lived there is a record, among the Dead Sea Scrolls (documents kept by an Essene community), of a so-called Teacher of Righteousness who preached and behaved very much as the later Jesus seems to have. So one can argue that Jesus was most clearly in the Essenic Judean tradition.

    In Roman times the Judeans were greatly split though this may trace back at least as far as the Hellenistic period. The early Christians seem to have been just one more sect among the Judeans but one that grew and prospered in ways the others did not, probably because it opened itself, early on, to a whole new pool of potential converts: non-Judeans. Eventually this outreach did its work and the customs and mindset of the members became less and less associated with Judean culture until Christianity grew into a rival of the older Judaic groups. Among those groups, only one really prospered. The various Essenic groups died out. Since they were often into celibacy and awaiting the End Times and so did not propagate very effectively, nor did their ascetic and retiring lifestyle draw many followers. The Tzdukim were associated with the Temple cult which meant that, with the destruction of the Second Temple about 70AD they lost their raison d’etre. Only the Pharisees, the rabbinic tradition of teachers of the Law (Torah), hung on since their attachment was to written documents rather than to some physical structure which no longer existed. The Torah could be taken with you wherever you went and the rabbis, who were students and teachers of this text, soon became the spokespersons for what remained of the Judean tradition and belief system. The Talmud, which is a record of the disputations and traditions of the rabbis, was still being compiled and gradually came to augment the Torah, just as the new Christians began to build their own set of documents in parallel. While the Talmud began earlier and continued to be written and codified after the Gospels and other documents of the New Testament were largely fixed, the two sets of texts were roughly parallel developments.

    Modern Judaism is thus an outcome of the Pharisaic or rabbinic tradition and, while it traces its roots in an unbroken fashion to the older Temple cult of the Judeans and Israelites, it is, thanks to the innovations of the Talmud, very different, its reverence for, and belief in the validity of, the Torah notwithstanding. Moreover, the Christian Old Testament is a very close but not perfect twin of the Torah so that modern Jews and modern Christians have much in common and even more in parallel. The Jews count the Torah and the Talmud as their sacred books with sacred precedence given to the Torah — but with the Torah always interpreted via the Talmud which purports to be the definitive record of the Jews. The Christians count the Old Testament and the New Testament as their sacred books with precedence given to the New Testament as a replacing and superseding document of the Old Testament.

    In many ways, modern Jews and Christians have much in common, despite centuries of rivalry and enmity. Both represent religions which grew up in the Roman world of the first and second centuries C.E. And both trace their heritage back to a common root: the ancient Temple cult of the Israelite nation.

      • Except I see I made a couple of errors. I meant to say that the Torah is held to be the definitive record of the Jews when what I wrote suggests I meant the Talmud. My bad. Also, I should have said, in keeping with the Biblical record, that the Israelites broke away from the Judahites rather than vice versa. This happened when one of Solomon’s generals led the secession of the ten major tribes from the house of David as represented by Solomon’s grandson.

        Of course, Judah (David’s tribe, though there’s scholarly argument that he was actually an extra national mercenary of Moabitish descent who worked at different times for both Philistines and the Israelite King Saul) and the small tribe of Benjamin held onto a large hunk of territory. So Judah was probably the dominant tribe in the original national federation since it seems, by itself, to have been almost as large as the other ten tribes combined. That would explain the prominence of its ruling house, the House of David, in the original kingdom and the rejection of which led to that kingdom’s break up.

        I was once, by the way, planning to write a novel about Saul with David as Saul’s mercenary and betrayer (for which a between the lines reading of the Bible offers ample evidence) but the manuscript was lost, along with the later one set in the old American West, in the flood of 2011. So the revisionist Saul narrative will likely never be finished, not by me anyway.

        The old West manuscript, on the other hand, partly survived by dumb luck since I’d uploaded a version of it to a website in the year before the flood and was able to retrieve it afterwards even though the best version of it, and all the research I’d done in preparation for it, were lost when my backup drive was swallowed up by the sea. Sounds almost Biblical.

  2. “We shouldn’t be bullied into silence for fear of appearing anti-Semitic (Esler), Islamophobic (Bea), or whatever prejudices people like to manufacture to cover their own insecurities.”

    So, I have no need to read your review of Levine’s parable book then. Thanks for the warning.

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