William Arnal's Symbolic Jesus Nov 13

Darrell L. Bock's picture

This book is an attempt to argue that those who criticize the Jesus Seminar and other writers aligned in a similar way (such as Crossan and Mack) for having a non-Jewish Jesus are simply engaged in an effort to deflect the real discussion. Arnal claims that such critics ignore important factors like (1) it is hard to define what a first century Jew is and (2) that such criticisms are in the business of constructing for themselves an understanding of Judaism and Jesus that is fueled by an effort to make Jesus a certain kind of symbolic figure.Arnal is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Regina (in Canada). His targets are E. P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen, N. T. Wright, Sean Fryene, and Richard Hays among others. These writers have championed a study of Jesus that hihglights Jewish background as a context for understanding Jesus' teaching and actions. Arnal's book is really a defense of those who are aligned with the second quest for the historical Jesus versus those more in tune with the third quest. The Seminar is more of a second quest effort because it highlights Greco-Roman background in the pursuit of understanding Jesus versus setting him primarily against a pious Jewish backdrop as the third quest does.Books arguing that there are key issues of definition that need rethinking are becoming more common because of the complexity of first century Jewish life. Terms like Apocalyptic, gnostic, and now, for Arnal, Jewish are raised as problematic, lacking any real clear meaning. One cannot really define what a Jew was. Certainly there are issues here (is there one make or break feature that makes someone Jewish or are we discussing a variety of factors?), but the idea that Jesus fits a pious Jewish background is not at all farfetched given the record that has him at synagogue, at feasts in Jerusalem, his many debates with scribes and Pharisees, and the fact that his brother led a church that was clearly still aligned with Jewish practice. Arnal chastizes critics of the non-Jewish approach who he says ignore the fact that all the writers who call for a more Greco-Roman approach say Jesus is Jewish. This in Arnal's view should absolve them of the charge that the second questers have a "non-Jewish" Jesus. This is especially the case when what Judaism was in the first century is not clear. For Arnal, the issue is not whether Jesus is Jewish but what kind of Jew he was. He complains that seeing Jesus in a very Jewish context weighs the process down in a too theologically motivated reading. However, Arnal's critique really misses the point of the challenge to second quest efforts. The criticism is not merely that Jesus was Jewish but that he was a pious Jew, sensitive to Jewish practice, even in his critique of it. Thus the place to begin a quest for Jesus is in serious Jewish background work, not Greco-Roman background alone or even in a primary way. All one has to do to see the difference here is to read a work by Crossan and Mack to see how little Jewish issues and background are invoked (not to mention the almost complete lack of such mention in the Seminar) versus how much time is spent here in studies from Sanders to Fredriksen to Wright.  Arnal's book is really an attempt to defend the now heavily criticized approach of such second quest attempts. The second quest's lack of substantive interaction with the pious Jewish context was the reason the third quest emerged as an alternative. The book has the value of showing how second questers argue against the third quest. They do so through a plea that says Judaism was so varied we cannot be sure what kind of Jew Jesus was because we cannot be sure what Judaism was. This claim is exaggerated. We can know a great deal about the variety that existed within Judaisn and place Jesus within such a spectrum. This is one of the benefits that has emerged from work since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The problem with Arnal's argument is that placing Jesus in a pious Jewish background brings coherence to the materials we have in a manner that ignoring or minimizing this background does not. The only way to get to the alternative portrait is to ignore or reject much of our ancient source material-- and once the process of rejecting significant parts of our sources starts, then one can pick and choose acceptable material and make out of Jesus almost anything.

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