Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Notice: Seeking the Identity of Jesus

Richard Hays and Beverly Gaventa (eds.)
Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008
Available at

A recent Eerdmans volume from a series of interdisciplinary seminars held at the Centre for Theological Inquiry (Princeton) is Seeking the Identity of Jesus edited by Beverly Gaventa and Richard Hays. It includes sections on "Sources and Methods", "The Testimony of the Biblical Witness", "the Testimony of the Church", and "Epilogue: Who is Jesus Christ for us Today?". In the opening chapter, "Seeking the Identity of Jesus", Gaventa and Hays begin by examining the conflicting images of Jesus in scholarship and culture including the personal saviour Jesus and the Jesus of liberal theologies related to the Jesus Seminar and Gnostic spiritualities. I liked this quote about the Jesus Seminar: "This portrait was of a strikingly non-Jewish Jesus, a laconic wandering sage who loved witty aphorisms but had no interest in Israel's heritage or destiny, and no interest in leading a new religious movement" (p. 2). Amen! The Identity of Jesus Project at CTI, in contrast to the Jesus Seminar, came to believe that: "Jesus is best understood not by separting him from canon and creed but by investigating the ways in which the church's canon and creed provide the distinctive clarification of his identity. The church's ancient ecumenical creeds are not artificial impositions of Scripture but interpretative summaries of the biblical narratives. Therefore, they offer us an overarching sense of the meaning of the whole Bible, and of Jesus' place within that story" (p. 5). The highlight of the chapter is Hays and Gaventa's listing of the convergences between the various contributors: (1) Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew; (2) The identity of Jesus is reliably attested and known in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments; (3) The Entirety of the canonical witness is indispensable to a faithful rendering of the figure of Jesus; (4) In order to understand the identity of Jesus rightly, the church must constantly engage in the practice of deep, sustained reading of these texts; (5) To come to grips with the identity of Jesus, we must know him as he is presented to us throught the medium of narrative; (6) The trajectory begun within the New Testament of interpreting Jesus' identity in and for the church has continued through Christian history; (7) Because Jesus remains a living presence, he can be encountered in the community of his people, the body of Christ; (8) Jesus is a disturbing destabilizing figure; and (9) The identity of Jesus is something that must be learned through long term discipline. So far it's a great book and I'll blog on anything more interesting that I come across.


James Crossley said...

How does that make the Jesus Seminar's Jesus not Jewish?! What if Jesus was born Jewish and had no interests in Israel's heritage and history? Does that disqualify someone from being Jewish?

J. B. Hood said...


Would you kindly supply a list of 1st century (BCE or CE) Jews of note who had no interest in their history or heritage?


I heard that NTW went off a bit on RBH for a-(or anti-) historical approach to the text. Is this text in particular what he meant? And did I hear correctly?

Michael F. Bird said...

I wouldn't call this book anti-historical since the first section is on sources and methods and the opening chapter takes Dahl/Dunn approach to Jesus remembered. But it emphasises the canonical and creedal interpretation of Jesus at most points.

James Crossley said...

JB, there are texts which do not discuss or foreground what we call religious heritage or identity (e.g. papyri). Now some these people may well have been very interested in heritage and history but we don't know. If they didn't, then what? Then we could add that ther were Jews who worked the land and wrote nothing. What did they think, what did they do? What about the people of the land? Of course, lots of Jews were interested in heritage and history but it should not follow (if anyone wishes to imply so) that they were not longer identifying themselves and Jewish and people were no longer identifying themselves as Jewish.

Also, see Philip Harland's stuff (esp his book on associations) for C1 Jewish examples (inscriptions, epigraphic) where interests were not necessarily about specifically Jewish religious heritage and future and has different interests e.g. their associations. Harland's book is as good as any to go to on these issues.

J. B. Hood said...

I'm familiar with Harland's work. But you are citing INSCRIPTIONS AND EPIGRAPHIC WORK, not individuals about whom we really know a fair bit about. I didn't say, of course, that I wanted evidence from you regarding inscriptions; I wanted a notable individual, an early Jew who cared nothing about such things. Still waiting on that name...
Do we really want to make assumptions about the lack of interest in history/heritage on the part of the am ha'aretz, in light of the fact that regular rebellions (inspired or fueled in part by religion/history) were apparently able to recruit from these folks?

And then we have to assume that these pan-Mediterranean references from Harland are legit for Galilee. I like Harland's work on associations, but Jesus Ben-Joseph of Nazareth isn't part of the Ephesian stone-workers guild, is he?

Missed not being at SBL this year, James--fyi I have a new son, part of the reason I wasn't there, and his name is...drum roll...James Booker Hood.

James Crossley said...

JB jr, then! Congratulations!

Back to it: you didn't mention Galilee so the references I gave were designed to show how identity doesn't have to foreground the rleigious and can put it on the backburner. I did mention some of the other evidence which comes from Palestine though (people interested in various 'everyday things). Anyway, we have next to no evidence of people's personal lives and thoughts. We also have evidence of figures (e.g. aristocratic figures from Josephus) who are not recorded as having interest in issues of religious heritage. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. The point is that if a figure did not decide to emphasise Israel's religious heritage then who decides that they are 'unJewish'? If such people are unJewish then it would have to follow that the stone worker from Ephesus was unJewish and who is imposing this definition? Or do things change once we get to to Galilee and so only those outside Galilee are allowed to have other interests and remina Jewish. The debate is in terms of who decides who is Jewish or not.

It would probably be a surprise (but not impossible I suppose) for someone to have written 'I don't care about Israel's heritage and future but I am a Jew'. But it is much more likely that this wasn't a priority for all people and so they didn't foreground it - there is evidence for that. Or you would have to argue that those cases where religious heritage and future isn't mentioned only means that they really assumed it.

Rebellions certainly did use the religious but they are also recorded about people hating places like Tiberias and Sepphoris and destroying symbols of oppression. Of course, the socio-economic and religious may be fused in many, perhaps even most cases, but we don't know this for all and again the assumption kicks in that it must necessarily ALL be religious.

Or again what about tax collectors and those labelled 'sinners'? What about those labelled the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Even Jesus accepts these people are a 'problem' in terms of religious observance (and it is quite possible he wasn't successfully in getting them to turn from their ways). What about Jews who had to serve in the army (I think Josephus says something about observant Jews did not do such things) and had to work on the Sabbath or what about Jews who were slaves? There are loads of variables and I don't think it is right to say (as would be the implication of your question, right?) that to be a Jew (in Galilee?) meant being interested in Jewish future and heritage. The opposite must mean that those who are not interested in such history and future cease to be Jewish. This is the point of it all. If everyone who identified themselves as Jewish adhered to this, wouldn't it have to be about the only example of an ethnic/religious group of that size in human history?

Incidentally, if we take the strict view of ancient Jewish identity then if the Jesus Seminar has an unJewish Jesus, then Wright and countless others have a Jesus who either renounces his Jewish heritage (as defined by scholarship) or radically changes Jewish identity but remains Jewish(as Wright explicitly suggests). Why is Wright's Jesus allowed to do this if identity was so fixed?

James Crossley said...

Or: give me one example of a Jew who does what Wright's Jesus does...

andrewbourne said...

There appears to be an assumption that we can know what was yahwistic faith in the 1 C.E. I avoid `Jew` as I believe it is anachronistic. Josephus had his own axe to grind being a renegade Israelite so surely it is a case of using a hermeneutic of suspicion with his writings he was on the side of the winners the Romans. In essence how much is the search for the Historical Jesus more about the Jesus of faith. Loisy`s suggestion we all will find the Christ we want to see is still true. It is as James Crossley suggests in his excellent new book to be aware of the logs in our eyes of bringing our prejudices and wish dreams of the Historical Jesus we want him to be rather than the enigmatic Jesus at the heart of Christian belief

J. B. Hood said...

I'm confused by the reference to NTW here, James. His interp of Jesus relies on Jesus' Jewish identity, does it not?

Now I'm no "identity" expert.

I think it is safe to say at least this, however. When the stoneworker from Ephesus makes his association more important than, and if his local world is impacted by anti-Judaism in a hostile way such that he himself represses Jewish praxis, and if he marries a non-proselyte GOY and does not raise them to be Jewish (think Timothy, not circumcised by his Greek father), doesn't that mean he's already on the way to identity shift? He himself is Jewish I reckon, but is then probably off the trail when it comes to propagating that identity.

Applying this to Jesus Seminar, I see your point about identity. However, it seems strange to me that one would expect any Jewish would-be leader in that place at that time to reject facets of Jewish identity. One essentially has to make Jesus' leadership non-religious in character, and what little I know about identity suggests that in many times and places identity is (in)fused with religion such that the two cannot be separated.

The degree to which one has to strip away very Jewish elements of Jesus has a nasty pedigree, as you know, in Grundmann and the like.