Mind The Gap: An Interview with Matthias Henze

Mind The Gap: An Interview with Matthias Henze December 12, 2017

I am ever so grateful to Matthias Henze for allowing me the opportunity to interview him about his new book, Mind the Gap. Here are the questions that I posed to him, followed by his answers:

JM: I saw an article in the Times of Israel about your book, the headline of which said that a Bible prof had said that Jesus is “more Jewish” than you think. How did you feel about that headline as a way of encapsulating the message of your book? Is it appropriate to talk about any particular Jew as “more Jewish” or “less Jewish”?

MH: The author of the Times article, Rich Tenorio, called me up out of nowhere and asked me whether I’d be willing to do an interview with him. When I spoke with him, it quickly became clear to me that he had not read the book, and that he knew very little about Early Judaism, the historical Jesus, or the early Jesus movement. The headline, “more Jewish than you think,” is certainly not taken from anything I write in the book. It is misleading to say that Jesus was “more Jewish” or “less Jewish.” I suspect the headline was intended to catch the attention of the Jewish readers and to suggest to them that they, too, should care about Jesus.

JM: When I shared that article (mentioned in my previous question) on social media, at least one scholar that I am connected with reshared it, adding the comment, “In other news, water is wet.” And in the book, you tell the story of a student who reacted similarly when you mentioned what you were writing on. How can the Jewish identity and heritage of Jesus be so widely accepted by scholars and students, and yet still insufficiently grasped by significant portions the general public?

This is an excellent question. Fortunately, there is a growing number of scholars and students who take the Jewish context of the New Testament seriously (even though I continue to be surprised how few New Testament scholars know the Jewish sources from the Second Temple period well and write about them in their work with authority). The book is intended primarily for the general public, but also as a first introduction for college students and seminarians to the Jewish world of the New Testament. To them, this is all new.

The chapters of the book grew out of lectures I gave in various churches and synagogues. My experience has been that there is a significant divide: whereas an increasing number of scholars is well familiar with the Scrolls, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and is able to explain why these texts are significant for our understanding of the early Jesus movement, the same is not true for the general audience. Time and again my audiences have told me that everything I told them in my talks was completely new to them. In general, Christians know little about Judaism, of any period, and they certainly do not know the Judaism of the late Second Temple period.

JM: Just as the “Jewishness of Jesus” is insufficiently known or appreciated in many circles, the value of and creative energy evidenced in first-century Jewish literature and thought is also underappreciated. Do you find that that is a harder case to make to Christian and Jewish audiences in our time than your point about Jesus?

MH: I think these two aspects are interrelated and cannot be separated from each other. To say that Jesus was a Jew remains an empty phrase, unless we can be more specific about the kind of Judaism Jesus practiced. And in order to be able to do that, we need to turn to the texts that describe the Jewish world of first century Israel. Reading only the New Testament will not do. My experience has been that so-called lay people are much more open to a comparative reading of New Testament and early Jewish texts than many of our colleagues. The responses to Mind the Gap from both Jewish and Christian readers have been overwhelmingly positive; people are eager to learn.

JM: The question of Jesus’ literacy has been debated much. Is there any work from before Jesus’ time, apart from those that became part of a Jewish or Christian Bible such as is known today, the influence of which seems so apparent in his words and teaching, you feel confident that Jesus had read it (as opposed to simply sharing a cultural and conceptual world of ideas with the author)?

MH: No. We have absolutely no idea what Jesus read, or whether he read at all. I am not making the case for a direct literary connection between any early Jewish texts and the New Testament. John J. Collins has wondered whether Luke knew the Son of God text from Qumran, but I am not willing to go that far.

My interest in Mind the Gap is in the worldview and theological concepts in general that are taken for granted in the New Testament but that are never explained, such as the expectation of the Messiah as a divine agent of the end-time, or the belief in demons and evil spirits and all they represent, to name only two examples. There is a risk that we are grossly anachronistic and read into the New Testament texts who we think the Messiah is or what demons are.

Rather than pointing to connections between specific texts, which in my view would be difficult to prove, my argument is that there was a variety of different understandings of the Messiah and of demons and of many other issues in Early Judaism. The authors of the New Testament were well aware of, participated in, and contributed to this vigorous Jewish debate of the first century. Instead of postulating that Jesus, or the authors of the anew Testament, knew specific ancient Jewish texts, my basic claim is that the New Testament needs to be read within the context of early Jewish writings in general, with which it has so much in common.

JM: If you had to choose, what one point that you emphasize in your book would you consider it most important that readers learn and remember?

MH: The point I always emphasize in my book talks is that there is a significant historical divide between the Old and the New Testament. By turning the page, the reader of the Protestant Bible moves effortlessly from the prophet Malachi to Matthew’s Gospel. Theologically, the transition from the Old to the New Testament makes good sense. After all, Matthew goes to great lengths to claim that Jesus emerged straight out of Israel’s prophetic tradition. But the reader may not be aware that there is a gap of no less than half a millennium between these two books.

Recognizing that there is a chronological gap between the Testaments, a period of at least four centuries that is simply glossed over in the Protestant Bible, is a first step. Realizing that this was a time of incredible literary creativity during which Jewish intellectuals thought new thoughts and wrote new texts is the next step. And becoming familiar with at least some of the Jewish texts from the gap years and learning what they can and cannot tell us about the Judaism we find in the New Testament is the third and most important step. That’s what I do in Mind the Gap. This is, of course, much more than simply claiming that Jesus was Jewish.

JM: Was there anything that you learned about Jesus and his historical religious context, or came to appreciate in a new way, as a result of writing this book?

MH: Prior to writing the book, I had never quite understood why people are so eager to set Jesus apart from his contemporary Judaism and think of him as the one who radically broke with, and in the end overcame Judaism. Now I understand their reasoning much better.

I think there are two things coming together here. One is that few readers of the New Testament are aware of the gap between the Testaments, let alone that the gap years were a time of significant change in the religion of ancient Israel. The other is that for most readers of the New Testament, the New Testament does not have a context, it is in a category by itself. If you do not realize that the Judaism of Jesus is no longer the religion of the Old Testament and that it has developed significantly, and if you do not realize that the issues Jesus debates with the Pharisees have been debated for centuries, and continue to be debated at the time, then Jesus must seem totally radical, a break with the religion of the past.

In my talks, I invite my audience to engage in a thought experiment. Suppose you welcome a visitor to the U.S. who has never been here before. She marvels at the high risers, at the ethnic diversity in our society, at iPhons and the internet. “What is all this?,” she wonders, to which you answer: “ Don’t worry. Just read the U.S. Constitution and everything will become clear.” Reading the Old Testament at the time of Jesus must have been a bit like reading the Constitution today: it continues to be the fundamental text, but it cannot explain the changes in society in recent centuries.

JM:  Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about Mind the Gap. I hope it makes a lasting impact, and continues to generate useful conversations about Jesus, ancient Judaism, and the connection between the two!

You can read more about Henze’s new book in the most recent issue of Rice Magazine.

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