Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Dershowitz, The Trial of Jesus and Biblical Exegesis.

This is a blog entry I posted yesterday on Re-Inventing the Adventist Wheel.

Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz has some arguably controversial views on the use of torture and the state of Israel. He has nonetheless written an interesting comment on the trial of Jesus in his book America on Trial, Inside the Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation (New York, Warner Books, 2004).

In the first chapter Dershowitz describes how the Bible was used as a source of inspiration in the development of American law. Particularly references to the trial of Jesus have abounded in American legal history. Commenting on Jesus’ trial Dershowitz states that “[t]he relationship between the Jewish and Roman authorities, and their relative responsibility for the conviction and crucifixion of Jesus, is among the least trustworthy and most conflicting aspects of the Gospels.”

Dershowitz emphasizes that although the substantive laws of the Bible made certain kinds of religious heresy punishable by death, it also had a variety of safeguards that made it nearly impossible to execute anyone. Roman law, however, had looser standards of proof, especially towards non-Romans, and it is therefore not surprising that Jews wanting to get rid of a religious troublemaker would turn him in to the Roman authorities. Dershowitz then argues that the Gospel accounts are more favourable to the Romans than to the Jews, due to Christian expansion into the Roman world.

In his analysis Dershowitz is aligning himself with a long line of critical biblical scholars who see aspects of the Gospels, in particular the Gospel of John, as a result of anti-Jewish sentiment by 1st and 2nd century Christians.

While the critique from Dershowitz and critical scholars is valuable in forcing Christians to re-evaluating their understanding of Bible, their analysis seems to make the mistake of imposing later religious thinking onto the Gospels. Although Christians have used the Gospels to fan anti-Jewish sentiment, critics should be careful not to attribute such sentiment to the Gospel writers.

The critical approach should also serve as a reminder for Christians not to impose supervening exegesis onto the Biblical texts. The classic example of how such exegesis gets it wrong, is the interpretation of the statement in Matthew 1:22 that Jesus' birth fulfills Isaiah 7:14. Christianity has traditionally understood this text as a prophetic foretelling of the nature of Jesus birth, i.e. birth by a virgin. The writer of Matthew, however, is not emphasizing Mary’s unmarried status, but is making the point that just as the birth of a boy by a young woman was a sign of deliverance to King Ahaz, the birth of Jesus is the ultimate sign of deliverance. Jesus, Matthew writes, will therefore be called Immanuel by his people because he will save them from their sins (see Math. 1.21-23).


At 05 May, 2007 21:52, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments on Dershowitz’s book makes interesting reading on a number of points. He somewhat echoes Geza Vermes polemic regarding the trial of Jesus.

NT Wright, in a book written together with Marcus Borg titled The Meaning of Jesus – Two Visions’ doubts whether the variety of safeguards were fully in place that night when Jesus appeared before the High Priest. Wright writes “The problems about a hasty night hearing have been very much overblown; it may not have been an official trial, and regulations drafted in a cool hour two hundred years later (in the Mishnah, our main source) are hardly good evidence for what might have happened in an emergency, at a festival season, under the eagle eye of Rome.” (The meaning of Jesus – Two Visions; NT Wright, Marcus Borg - page 101).

What Wright is also addressing is the political nature of the trial before the High Priest, who together with other Sadducees and numerous Pharisees obviously had vested interests in the Romans remaining in power. Jesus was certainly a threat to that interest – the ruling Jewish elite could not afford further disturbances in the temple, which might lead to insurrection.


The author of the Book of Hebrews, the gospel writers, as well as Paul have often imposed what we might refer to as ‘supervening exegesis’ onto OT (and possibly apocryphal) texts. “Dr David H Stern, . . . a Messianic Jew . . . describes four rabbinical modes of scriptural interpretation. The Jewish authors of the NT both understood and used these four modes:

“p’shat – the plain literal sense of the OT text quoted in the NT

Remez – where a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p’shat (the implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers were themselves unaware)

Drash or Midrash (search) – an allegorical or homiletical application of the text – as opposed to exegesis which is extracting from the text what it actually says

Sod (secret) – where a mystical or hidden meaning is arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters and the like.”

(Quoted from Donald E Curtis – Hints, Allegories, and Mysteries: The New Testament quotes the Old).

To sum up I suppose we could well say that numerous of the quotations from the Old Testament are taken entirely out of their historical and grammatical context. We can possibly accept such usage as a valid method of convincing others of the true meaning of Jesus life and death - or we can go the historical-critical path and simply surmise that what was good enough for the early Christians may not be good enough for post-enlightenment readers.

At 06 May, 2007 10:20, Blogger Richard Harty said...

From my study of the church fathers who were influencial in forming the ideas that led to choosing which books made it into the New Testament there are some strong Greek philosophies that seemed more influencial than what was taught by Jesus.

It appears to me that the ideas of Plato won out including his low opinion of women. There are certianly strong anti semitic overtones in the gospels. If you read the eye witness notes about the Council of Nicea the Jewish Christians in Jerusaem were not even considered Christians. They were simply referred to as the Jews.

Constantine was critical of the Jews because it was his impression that they wanted to celebrate easter twice a year. Here is a sample of his comments on the Jews.

"It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom[the calculation] of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded. In rejecting their custom,(1) we may transmit to our descendants the legitimate mode of celebrating Easter, which we have observed from the time of the Saviour's Passion to the present day[according to the day of the week]. We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Saviour has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course(the order of the days of the week); and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep this feast."

"How can they be in the right, they who, after the death of the Saviour, have no longer been led by reason but by wild violence, as their delusion may urge them? They do not possess the truth in this Easter question; for, in their blindness and repugnance to all improvements, they frequently celebrate two passovers in the same year. We could not imitate those who are openly in error. How, then, could we follow these Jews, who are most certainly blinded by error? for to celebrate the passover twice in one year is totally inadmissible. But even if this were not so, it would still be your duty not to tarnish your soul by communications with such wicked people[the Jews]."

One can see a Greek and Roman understanding beginning to take over the Church. To it becomes more and more clear that modern Chistian doctine is more a conglomeration of Greek philosophy that uses Jesus, than it is any doctrine taught by Jesus.

At 09 May, 2007 14:48, Blogger Torsten Pedersen said...

Thanks for the relies.

I've tried to write a response, but I can't seem to find the right words. Your points are well put and I've taken them to heart.

At 10 May, 2007 23:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have often struggled with the evidence found in the New Testament regarding the anti-semitism expressed there – especially Matthew and John. At a time when the hand of reconciliation is offered by Christianity (guilty of a heinous history of bigotry against Judaism) scholarly reasons are being offered for the anit-jewish polemic found in the New Testament.

I think we can read anti-pharisaism rather than anti-semitism as being the major adversarial viewpoint expressed in the synoptics. Beside Matthew the later gospel of John does of echo a strong anti-jewish sentiment; perhaps a reflection of the later polemic between Jews and the followers of Jesus – although once again ‘the Jews’ found in John are none other than the Pharisees, scribes and doctors of the law – including the saducees – but not necessarily all the Pharisees – if we are to take account of Mark 12:34 (although in Matthew’s and Luke’s account the writers omit Jesus’ encouraging reply to the Pharisee). John speaks of Nicodemus and there is no reason to think there were not other Pharisees who favoured Jesus’ teaching.

Today there is a strong emphasis on the good character of the Pharisees – and rightly so. Although not a great deal is known about this group nevertheless we do know it is they who kept the light of Old Testament teaching burning brightly amongst the ordinary Jewish people of that time – they were instrumental in laying down guidelines regarding how to live a holy life before Jahweh. Probably a group of about 6000 men, they were close to the ordinary men and women of Galilee and elsewhere in Palestine. In all fairness to this group, they were bound to be caught up in the maelstrom of the political and religious heat which was generated some two hundred years previously as well as during the time of Jesus, and beyond. If I remember correctly Josephus speaks of four groupings of people who had strong beliefs regarding Judaism in their own time. We could add a fifth group as well – the followers of Jesus.

I think it is David Wenham, in speaking of Jesus’ relationship to the Pharisees, who mentions that the closer one is to the beliefs of another, the more likely there is to be friction. There certainly is no doubt that although Jesus’ own religious teaching was extremely close to the Pharisees, nevertheless there is a major point of difference, outlined so magnificently in Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, where he speaks of central core of Jesus’ teaching as being an ethic of compassion whereas the Pharisees seemed to teach an ethic of purity. One privately wonders whether Jesus’ teaching would have had any meaning if it was not for the constant polemic between him and the Pharisees, which highlighted his teachings far more clearly than if there were no Pharisees to question and challenge him constantly.

But to come to the crux of the matter; we cannot isolate Jesus himself from his Jewish roots he is no Christian – in fact he remains a Jew for all time. That he was a Jewish reformer who worked toward the establishment of a revitalized Judaism is evident from his teachings found in Matthew chapters 5-7 and elsewhere. The Torah is placed at the heart of his teaching; like the prophets of old he urges a restoration of the spirituality and true meaning of the law. He refers the rich young ruler to the law recorded in Exodus: “you know the commandments” while at the same time pointing to the heart and soul of ancient Judaism – the young man must worship God from the heart and in doing so he will reflect the true meaning of the commandments: “go sell all you have and give to the poor”. Like the Pharisees he longs to teach Israel “. . . to worship him (God) with a holy worship, with uprightness of heart, in his presence, our whole life long.” (Luke 1:75 NEB).


At 11 May, 2007 09:19, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last paragraph was written in great haste, late into the night. Please replace with the paragraph below:

If we examine the teachings of Jesus found in synoptics, like Schweitzer we will find he is an enigma to those of us who are Christians. The closer we draw to Jesus the more Jewish he appears – in fact he remains a Jew for all time. That he was a Jewish reformer who worked toward the establishment of a revitalized Judaism is evident from his teachings found in Matthew chapters 5-7 and elsewhere. The Torah is placed at the heart of his teaching; like the prophets of old he urges a restoration of the spirituality and true meaning of the law. He refers the rich young ruler to the law recorded in Exodus: “you know the commandments” while at the same time pointing to the heart and soul of ancient Judaism – the young man must worship God from the heart and in doing so he will reflect the true meaning of the commandments: “go sell all you have and give to the poor”. In many ways like the Pharisees his desire is to teach Israel “. . . to worship him (God) with a holy worship, with uprightness of heart, in his presence, our whole life long.” (Luke 1:75 NEB).

At 14 May, 2007 13:47, Blogger Torsten Pedersen said...

Gordon, thats for your comments. I know how it is to write something hurriedly and late at night. My comment on Dershowitz was also written late at night (actually in the early morning a night I couldn't sleep) and I changed it four times after initially posting in on Re-Inventing the Adventist Wheel.

I think you are right that Jesus should be seen as Jewish reformer, and the early christian community in Jerusalem clearly saw themselves as a reform movement within Judaism.

It is important to understand Jesus in his historical and Jewish context and not to impose later interpretations onto the biblical text. That is why I used the somewhat pretentious term "supervening exegesis". The Old and New Testament is often read through 2000 years of Christian theology (including anti-jewish biogotry), rather than letting the text tell its own story.

At 15 May, 2007 20:34, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Torsten.

As long as we do not stop at Jesus being (only) a Jewish reformer . . . We must go beyond that point and find him for ourselves, through both reason and faith. Like the writer to the book of Hebrews, as well as Paul in the epistle to the Romans, today we need to work once again through the question of Jesus' life, his message and also the meaning of his life.

I was recently brought to my senses after returning to the psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's small monograph 'Man's search for Meaning' - he speaks of how we cannot survive without meaning in our lives. May I suggest that meaning is ultimately found in all it's fullness in the recorded life of Jesus himself.

I am also reminded by Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor:
It seems that here in the west, in our time, a veil is drawn over the life-giving words of Jesus and instead we find a Jesus who is sculpted by rationalism. As Vaclav Havel once said, we need to urgently seek out a “transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space . . . The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”
We have in a deep sense lost that liberty as we have turned our back on the truth about Jesus.


At 15 May, 2007 20:38, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops!!!!!!!!!! again!!!!!!!! (and it is not late at night now either!!!!)

Please delete the line:

I am also reminded by Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor:

There is no quote from O'Connor!



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