Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews:
Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity

by paula fredriksen
knopf, 320 pages, $26

Amid the ever-growing number of works on the Jesus of history, there are few if any that combine rich scholarship and graceful style as successfully as this study by Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of History at Boston University. It will interest general readers as well as scholars and could be used as an excellent, if challenging, introduction to the historical Jesus and the historical criticism of the Gospels.

The author is Jewish, although this will not be immediately obvious to a reader of her book. Historians of Christian background, with comparable goals of historical objectivity, write much as she does about Jesus and earliest Christianity. Fredriksen, for example, accepts as “historical bedrock” the “disciples’ conviction they had seen the Risen Christ,” appropriately adding that the Resurrection itself is a matter of Christian faith rather than historical fact. Thus in most respects Fredriksen’s conclusions are not outstandingly different from those of Christian historians such as Raymond E. Brown and John Meier who strive as she does to understand Jesus within his historical context. Like these scholars, she understands Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom within the context of early Jewish apocalyptic beliefs, but uses this framework to explain an even wider range of data concerning Jesus and the early Jesus movement.

One example is her fresh and persuasive description of how the early proselytizing among the Gentiles is best understood as flowing from Messianic expectation. She reasons that Paul and the other early apostles to the nations must have believed that the Kingdom was coming within their lifetimes (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4 and Mark 13:30). Why else would they have asked Greco-Roman Gentile believers to take on the status of quasi-criminals in a social and religious no man’s land—not Jewish but nevertheless bound to refuse to participate in the official cults of their families and cities?

Fredriksen is also original in her use of Jewish apocalyptic literature to explain how Jesus came to be crucified by Pilate, with “King of the Jews” written over the cross, while his disciples escaped unharmed and later taught freely in the Temple. This particularly needs explanation because Pilate would not have hesitated to slaughter bystanders if he thought it necessary to preserve order (he did so more than once). Fredriksen differs from most scholars (as well as from Matthew and Luke) in rejecting Mark’s chronology of Jesus’ public ministry in favor of the Gospel of John’s story of numerous appearances by Jesus in Jerusalem.

Fredriksen reasons that Jesus, as a believing Jew, made the festival pilgrimage to Jerusalem regularly. Therefore, Pilate and the religious authorities would have already known Jesus and his disciples, and would have understood that they posed no danger to public order in themselves , because the apocalyptic message they preached was nonviolent, anticipating God’s imminent action. On that particular Passover, however, the crowds began to acclaim Jesus as Messiah, understanding the Messiah, as many did, as a human being who would liberate the Jews from Rome. Pilate’s expedient and predictable solution was to remove Jesus’ threat to public order in the fastest, cruelest, and most graphic way possible.

I found this historical detective work convincing. At other points, however, I found the way Fredriksen situates Jesus and early Christianity within the Jewish apocalyptic context less satisfying—although I am frankly uncertain whether I am responding as a scholar or as a Christian believer. I was particularly dissatisfied by her argument that the “sheer impracticality” of Jesus’ ethic is a product of his apocalyptic convictions, since “no normal society could long run on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.”

There is no doubt that the perfectionist ethics of the Sermon on the Mount have caused centuries of problem and debate within Christian churches and societies—but they also are indispensable to Christianity. Nor is striving for high ethical standards unknown in non-apocalyptic Jewish sources. The Hellenistic Jewish text, Wisdom of Solomon , for example, pictures the righteous as gentle and forbearing in the face of persecution by the wicked, reproving but not physically opposing their foes, despite lack of earthly reward for their virtue. Fredriksen also finds Jesus’ counsel to turn the other cheek difficult to comprehend outside an apocalyptic framework, but this expression of peaceful resistance to evil must be understood in the context of Jesus’ readiness elsewhere to warn sinners and reprove them rather than passively accepting their ill-doing. Jesus expresses anger and moral resistance to wrongdoing, forbidding only violent actions.

This is not to deny Jesus’ profound connection with the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature. There is no question that Jesus taught that the coming of God’s Kingdom was very near at hand. There is a question about how his apocalyptic proclamation should inform our understanding of the rest of his teaching.

Paula Fredriksen and other Jewish historians have a gift to offer Christians, whether scholars or laypeople: a better understanding of Jesus in all his humanity, a full child of his time. For Christians, Jesus is and always will be more than a merely historical figure, but, as Fredriksen reminds us explicitly, he is also that, and readings that isolate him from his historical context are dangerous to truth—and hence to good theology. In the shadow of Christian anti-Semitism, Christians have a particular responsibility to challenge and refute the old anti-Jewish picture of a non-Jewish “Christian” Christ persecuted and killed by Jews. We must also be aware, as Fredriksen warns, of the temptation to use a distorted portrait of a loveless and rigid ancient Jewish establishment as a stand“in for contemporary establishments we may not like. This creates a false dichotomy between a liberal, pacifist, feminist Jesus and a reactionary, violent, and patriarchal Judaism, a dichotomy that in turn sets the stage for new and modern anti-Judaism.

Nevertheless, if some Christian scholars describe Christ as too much the enlightenment liberal or modern revolutionary to possibly have lived in the first century, Paula Fredriksen may go too far in emphasizing how easy it is to explain Jesus’ message in its historical context and how comprehensible that message was to his Jewish listeners. Of course, as she stresses, Jesus must have preached in the language of his time, but, like Amos or Jeremiah, he could also be incomprehensible and offensive to many, as the Gospels testify.

This tendency to make Jesus perhaps too much a child of his time, the single drawback of Fredriksen’s work, springs from its main virtue: her conscious practice of humane and sensitive historical objectivity. “To do history both honorably and well,” she writes, “requires the moral discipline of allowing the gap of twenty centuries to open between us and our ancient subject.” This moral discipline informs Fredriksen’s effort to present her subjects as persons who loved, aspired, and suffered, rather than as mere ciphers moved by abstract historical or cultural forces. It also gives rise to her insistence that we must respect the “historical integrity and moral autonomy” of Jesus, Paul, and the evangelists as people of their own time and place, concerned with issues (such as purity regulations) that do not concern us, and unaware of our concerns as modern Christians or Jews.

In her effort to present this gap in belief and experience between the time of Jesus and our own time, she includes an unusual element: two passages, five and eight pages long, which don’t just describe but re-imagine the historical context of ancient Palestine. The first of these “preludes” is a moving description of the destruction of the Second Temple and the death or enslavement of Jerusalem’s people. This, she argues later, is the key event that separates Jesus from us, and from all the New Testament writers but Paul. The second is a description of the boy Jesus making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his parents, fascinated and awed by the grandeur of the Temple and its ritual. In this rather charming passage of historical fiction, Fredriksen attempts to present the attractiveness and, one might say, the obviousness, of Jewish law to those who grew up with it.

In this reader’s view, however, Fredriksen presents her view of Jewish law even more successfully in her purely historical passages on Jewish faith. In these passages one can read between the lines Fredriksen’s lively appreciation for Judaism in its modern manifestations. She writes of the Sabbath, for example, as a sign of God as universal creator and simultaneously the God of Jewish history, of Abraham and Moses, “concerned with the details of Israel’s marital life, with the education of their children, with their just measures and fair law courts.” This melding of the universal and particular, of creation and marriage contracts, cosmic redemption and personal justice, is key to most forms of Judaism, then as now. Many Christians tend to view this melding from a respectful anthropological distance, if not with disdain. For Fredriksen it carries religious meaning, and her enthusiasm conveys that meaning to the Christian reader.

Fredriksen’s eloquent work shows precisely why it is important that this generation’s quest for the historical Jesus is a quest for a Jewish Jesus, as emphatically Jewish as Amos and Jeremiah. Although Christian New Testament scholars regard Jesus as savior (or at least founder of our faith) and Jewish New Testament scholars see him as a beloved ancient compatriot (or at least an honestly misguided visionary), they all participate in the quiet miracle of our times. For the first time since the destruction of the Temple, Jews and Christians are working respectfully together to unravel the human mystery behind this Jesus acclaimed as the Christ.

Kristen H. Lindbeck teaches Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

Image by Dennis Jarvis licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.