The Jewishness of Jesus

A Very Jewish Jesus

by larryhurtado

Further to my previous posting concerning Sean Freyne’s excellent review of scholarship on first-century Galilee, I highlight here another of the valuable articles in the sample issue of the new journal, Early Christianity (vol. 1, 2010, issue 3):  Roland Deines (Professor of NT in Nottingham University), “Jesus and teh Jewish Traditions of His Time” (pp. 344-71).

Deines has previous important contributions of his own to the topic of his essay, starting with his doctoral thesis, which focused on archaeological evidence of Jewish piety in Galilee, and on through a big study of the connection of “Torah-righteousness” and messianic hopes, and substantial essays on the Pharisees and the “common Judaism” of the time.  In the limited space here, I will simply highlight a few of his observations and emphases in the Early Christianity article.

His first point is simply that Jesus’ Jewishness, though often downplayed or inadequately factored in scholarly studies, is of major importance.  The growing recognition of Jesus’ Jewishness  is part of a larger body of scholarly work on the Jewish setting of Jesus and earliest Christian circles.  Sometimes referred to as “the new religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (although this probably exaggerates the connections of the various scholars involved, and Deines doesn’t use the term in this essay), we now have “New journals, monograph series and web-based projects [which] are witnesses to the copiousness of what was once called “Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte” (roughly, “NT Background”) but has long since left behind its narrow focus on the New Testament” (349).   In assessing the net effect on our understanding of Jesus, Deines states, “He cannot be understood without the analogies provided by the Jewish world he lived in but at the same time he is not fully encapsulated by them” (351).

In what I think is the most intriguing part of his article, Deines focuses on an observation by Freyne that Jesus himself (and not only his followers) “might have been influienced by the Jewish Scriptures of his day” (360, citing Freyne, Jesus a Jewish Galilean, p. 19).   Deines expresses astonishment that “in all the large works about Jesus [of recent vintage], one does not find a chapter on Jesus and Scripture” (363), and he prods readers with the question “to what extent the extensive use of [OT] Scripture in the New Testament and especially in the Gospels needs to be understood as a consequence of Jesus’ own application of Scripture to his ministry” (363).  Deines further asks “should we then not assume that he understood his own life  . . . as part of the ‘biblical’ history through which the God of Israel interacts with his people?” (364).  In support, Deines observes, “If anything can be learned from the Jewish liteature in the centuries around the turn of the era it is that the Jewish Scriptures held such an unsurpassable authority that virtually all Jewish literature known today can be labelled as biblically inspired in one way or the other” (366).

Deines concludes with the provocative proposal that taking seriously Jesus’ indebtedness to, and inspiration from, the “biblical horizon” of Jewish Scriptures may open an avenue to a more exciting and profound engagement with the full depth of Jesus’ own religious imagination and sense of mission.  This, Deines proposes, might also help explain why and how Jesus so early came to be regarded as a unique figure linked with God in an astonishing manner.

So, the net effect of Deines’ line of reasoning is that the flood of recent “historical Jesus” studies has perhaps not yet fully engaged the intriguing question of Jesus’ own sense of purpose and his relationship to the God of Israel.  How to make solid progress on this matter . . . ah, that’s the question.

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  • http://RichGriese.NET Rich Griese

    I am not interested in the supernaturalism of Christianity, but am very interested in the study of the early history of the group. I am always happy to have others that are also interested in this topic contact me. My interest specifically is up till perhaps a generation or two after Irenaeus. But I would say I am interested in anything from the Maccabean revolt up till about 384CE when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.


  • Jerry Blair

    I enjoy your writing a great deal, and, because I have never felt compelled to comment before, I must also say take the opportunity to say that I appreciate the time you put into your blog. Today’s blog regarding the Jewishness of Jesus is a topic near and dear to my heart as a fervent Jewish believer in Jesus the Christ. I am always simultaneously amazed and heartbroken that the Church at large has historically ignored the vast wealth of rabbinic writing and Jewish lore. It is an incredible resource for understanding our real Lord. Imagine one having a dear Friend who has more than saved their life, and yet does not want to know anything about the Friend’s ways, traditions, history, or the nuances of their language and symbology – in effect, only perceiving the Friend at a superficial level. It is cold, juvenile, and insane. Much of the New Testament is, at best, only misunderstood without a knowledge of Judaism. Our pulpits need to loudly shout “Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian! How well do you know your Savior?” It is not about theology or anything other than simply knowing one’s dearest Friend.

  • David

    One could almost react “Duh!” to the observation that Jesus is very Jewish. But we know the track of Jesus studies has seemed to wander everywhere but what seems obvious to me (e.g. Jesus the traveling cynic!). This article shows Judaism was alive and well in Galilee – and Jesus grew up there and walked the roads with his message. But also we have (since Luther) crafted Judaism into a variety of boxes that Sanders has cracked open. Are we free now to take Jesus at his word – finally realizing that the words reported in scripture are not such an opaque veil after all. Then we still seem to think that a “scientific” view of history must be narrowed to repeatable cause and effect. George Ladd decades ago invited us to open the aperture a little wider to include “supra-natural” events that intersperse and may interrupt natural causation e.g. like a resurrection. We know that something out of the ordinary sparked a dynamic movement out of a dead messiah figure. I agree with Jerry – there is some good stuff ahead and there is a ever new/ever old story to tell to the nations.

  • James Mace

    Thanks, I’m writing now on our failure to fully appreciate Jesus’ own messiological self-understanding and mission and how that has led to faulty biblical exegesis and ecclesiological error. So I’ll be checking Deines out!