Sanford Lowe

From The Fourth R
Volume 5–4
July 1992

No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made
that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

— Rabbi Irving Greenberg


I was a Jewish child growing up in the Bronx during World War II when I first began to hear the old charge that the Jews were Christ killers. I didn’t exactly know who this Christ was supposed to be. His first name was Jesus and I was cautioned never to utter the word. Clearly it was too dangerous and it carried the weight of a curse. This warning only added more power to the name while explanations, grudgingly given, only added to the mystery. This Jesus had been a Jew. Yet Christians said he was God. They worshiped him and blamed the Jews for killing him. Frankly none of this made much sense to me. Still that name, often uttered as an expletive, suggested much danger and fascination.

In 1945, when I was nine years old, the war came to an end, and the Holocaust, a horror still without a name, became terribly visible. After seeing newsreel pictures of the recently liberated concentration camps, and learning that most of those mountainous heaps of corpses had been Jews, I asked my mother: “How could God have let such a thing happen?” Of course she had no answer, nor did any other grownup I asked. Seemingly there was no answer. Soon I stopped asking.

It would be many years later when I learned to ask the question in a new way: “How could such things happen?” To this quandary there would be many answers: economic, political, psychological and so forth. But at one inquiry, my understanding jammed. I was in high school when I set out on my own to read the New Testament. I had read much of the Hebrew Scriptures from the English text given to me as a Bar Mitzvah gift by my grandfather. I came to love the stories and heroes of this book. I found them all grand and engaging even as I often raised questions about their judgments and indignities.

Later, when I set out to read the New Testament, I noticed the stylistic differences at once. The story of Jesus was clearly a veneration of the sort that rarely appears in Hebrew scripture. Still, the figure of Jesus, emerging as a poor nobody out of the crowd, drew my attention and sympathy. He was recognizably a fiery Jew and an outsider in his own time. But I was also repulsed by the virulent and very recognizable anti-Semitism of the unfolding narrative. Remember that this reading took place less than ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps.

It all seemed so clear to me and I was filled with a deep sorrow and perplexity. I knew that the unspeakable slaughter in those camps was intimately tied to the slander of this sacred text. What was one to do?

In the years to come much of the motivation behind my study and career came from the need to confront the contradictions I inherited through those two ancient texts, the one saying that I was a descendant of the Chosen People and the other saying that I was heir to the curse of the Christ killers.

As an undergraduate at Cornell I often sat with gentile friends and talked long into the night about what had happened in Europe. We talked very seriously and out of our deep friendship and affection for one another about what we would have done had we been there. Would any of us have acted any differently from the Jews and gentiles of Germany? Would I have spoken out? Would they have joined the protest? The great moral dilemma of the twentieth century seemed to come down to an ultimate test of friendship and human connection.

Many of these friends later entered the Protestant ministry. Eventually I studied and became a rabbi. In great part I did this in order to unlock the secret to my own identity and to decode the mysteries of the monstrous era into which I had been born.

We all had the best of intentions to make sure that this Holocaust could never again happen. We would occasionally refer to the pages of the Bible, but always came away more burned than enlightened. The real problem remained perplexing and unassailable: the immutable sacred text of the New Testament and the everlasting charge against the Jews inscribed at its core.

In my high school and college years I was moved by the writings of Albert Schweitzer. It would be many more years before I would understand his place in the modern history of New Testament scholarship. Even then, the great reservoir of contemporary scholarship was all but invisible to the general reader or to anyone else outside the self-limited circles of Christian scholars and seminarians. Still it was here, in the so-called “Quest of the Historical Jesus;” that I began to sense that there might be a way to separate the historic and indisputably Jewish Jesus from the anti-Jewish slanders of the New Testament text.

Later, with the works of Norman Perrin, I learned that contemporary New Testament scholarship had come very far since Schweitzer in establishing the critical methods to continue the Quest of the historical Jesus. I permitted myself to hope that this newer academic work might find a way through the swamp of dogma and theology that had drowned the historic core of the New Testament narrative in centuries of blood and madness. I like to think that many New Testament scholars, working after the Holocaust, have been moving with a quiet determination never again to allow the texts over which they presided to be used uncritically and in the service of genocide.

I have been involved with the Jesus Seminar for about five years. In this time I have been privileged to watch the exciting processes of open debate which characterize the Seminar’s commitment to establish and then to separate out historical fact from the composite myths of the early church. The scholarly discipline of searching out the historical Jesus has demonstrated that there is a compelling and persuasive way to cut through the distortions of partisan, ecclesial and theological literature to a historical core. In this respect the work of the Jesus Seminar presents the most recent, thorough and successful endeavors in the long Quest to identify the person and message of the historical Jesus. The emerging image of Jesus is exciting enough. But, beyond this, the collective scholarship of the Seminar has demonstrated, once and for all, that the Quest is not only legitimate, but that it is possible, using all the tools of modern literary, historical and social analysis, to distinguish between fact and myth in this vitally important area.

The image of the historical Jesus now emerging out of the work of the Seminar strongly suggests that the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the New Testament text did not start with him. If this is so and if we, as the heirs and teachers of a great literary tradition, no longer wish to be transmitters of the ancient slander and a proven murderous racism, then the work of the Seminar gives us the first persuasive and rational method in all history to do something about it.

Implications for Judaism

The work of the Jesus Seminar is primarily a scholarly endeavor. It does not have a singular theological purpose or objective. Its goal is to uncover and sort out historical facts and literary processes. But its findings and its conclusions on the nature of the historical Jesus and his relationship to the evangelists and New Testament commentators who come well after him bear revolutionary implications for the many churches professing his name and for the Jews who have had to live in irritating symbiosis with him through the centuries.

The work of the Jesus Seminar offers Judaism the cutting edge of nonsectarian New Testament scholarship which, for the first time in history, can place a discussion of Jesus and the Jews on strictly critical, historical and non-theological grounds. The significance of this method suggests, at least, the following possibilities and implications: (1) liberating Jesus from the traditions of anti-Semitism; (2) comprehending the historical Jesus as a Jew in his own time; (3) reclaiming Jesus as a part of Jewish history; (4) reflecting on the Jewish community and internalized oppression; (5) moving off dead-center in the Jewish/Christian dialogue, and (6) making way for a rational discussion of the Risen Christ.

Liberating Jesus from Anti-Semitism

For the first time in history it may be both safe enough and possible for Jews to approach the pages of the New Testament and to come away with a constructive reading. A great body of scholarly literature has emerged since the end of World War II which has helped to chart the theological roots of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the writings of the early church. Add to this the incisive focus of the Jesus Seminar on the Gospel accounts and we have an entirely new and liberating way to approach these heretofore immutable and accusatory texts.

The pursuit of the Quest of the historical Jesus, especially in the work of the Jesus Seminar (even in the face of monumental institutional inertia and ecclesiastical self-interest) can at last set free the ancient figure of Jesus from its long history of mythos and blood. Again one must remember that the figure of Jesus, no matter how benevolent he has appeared to Christians, has always been used as a symbol of great oppression against the Jews. There is an incalculable factor of liberation in freeing the historical figure of Jesus from two thousand years of anti-Semitism. That is, if the word gets out.

Comprehending the Historical Jesus

There can no longer be any doubt that the historical Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish man totally within the context of the complex and turbulent history of first century, Roman-occupied Palestine.

The work of the Seminar suggests that Jesus did not operate as a grand political prophet in the manner of Isaiah or Jeremiah, nor did he take on the grotesque political injustices of his age in any heroic frontal assault. His ministry seems to have been more immediate and personal.

He has emerged as a feisty, earthy and life-affirming preacher of hope to the dirt poor and the oppressed, to those who may have lost all hope in living. We know now, through the testimony of all history, that anyone who mediates hope of whatever sort to the masses of the downtrodden runs the risk of getting himself killed. And so it was with Jesus.

What was the dangerous message he preached? The work of the Seminar has shown that Jesus sought to affirm the spontaneous fullness of life as everyone’s birthright, especially for the downtrodden and the poor. His message frequently expressed a “quiet confidence in the plenitude of creation” and in our unbreakable connection to the source of all life.

Beyond this, there is no claim to be a messiah. No coming on the clouds of heaven. No judge and redeemer at the end of history. There is just an aggressive, provocative and life-affirming optimist in a bleak and despairing age. But it is enough to get one killed. The triumphal scenarios of the Risen Christ would all come later along with the supersessionist rhetoric of the early church. The anti-Jewish arguments of the New Testament can be understood as a function of the rivalry and the struggle for survival between the early church and emerging rabbinic Judaism in the decades following the destruction of Jerusalem. Anyone can understand that.

Reclaiming Jesus for Jewish History

Freeing the historical Jesus from the anti-Jewish hermeneutics which came later can allow Jews to reclaim Jesus as a proud figure in Jewish history. While not the king, or warrior or prophet or great sage, Jesus is still a fully recognizable Jewish hero of the counterculture, who is more concerned with the intent than with the forms of religious expression; a simple man who models confidence in the abundance of God’s universe. Jesus may not have been a mainstream hero, but he is utterly recognizable as one of the many somewhat iconoclastic, slightly rebellious and irreverent witnesses to the possibilities of God’s bountiful creation.

At this stage in the work of the Seminar, the emerging image of Jesus might place him somewhere between the seventeenth century Baal Shem Tov, who demonstrated a joyous embrace of God’s world even in the wake of pogroms and disaster; and the twentieth century Abbie Hoffman, who mounted goofy assaults on social pretense and political injustice. Such folk heroes challenged the conventional despair of hard times, the arrogance of power and the established academic inertia of their age. There is no reason why Jews could not include Jesus in this proud tradition. The Baal Shem Tov was condemned and excoriated by the mainstream Jewish establishment in his own time. But generations later, when some of the old sectarian divisions have faded or vanished, he is universally revered.

Reflecting on the Jewish Community and Internalized Oppression

The discipline of the Quest and the work of the Seminar also afford Jews the opportunity to treasure one of the most splendidly and thoroughly researched eras in human history. It is an opportunity for Jews to take a hard look at the complex internecine tyrannies and sectarian rivalries which have often torn Jewish communities apart.

There has always been a rich diversity in Jewish communal life (as in all human communities). But in times of great trouble this diversity has easily changed into sectarian strife. In the days of Jesus, the real and inescapable oppression of Palestinian Jewry came from the heavy weight of Roman imperial occupation. The desperation of the masses to effect any genuine relief gave birth to countless and rival sectarian tendencies ranging from overtly military resistance to collaboration to messianic enthusiasm of every stripe. These groups came to fight among themselves, finding it impossible to unite against the omnipotent foe. This unfortunate response of internalizing the oppression is probably universal in human society. It is, sadly, a pattern that appears all too often at other moments of political oppression throughout Jewish history.

The person of Jesus is the acknowledged focal point for the entire Christian enterprise. He is also the center of a giant universe of ancient writings, perennial reflection and modern research, so that the study of Jesus and his time also becomes a study into a giant slice of Jewish history at one urgent and transitional moment. The New Testament paints a portrait of first century Palestinian Jewry in disarray. When read historically and critically, the New Testament becomes an important record of some sectarian Christian perspectives at a time of extraordinary stress and rupture in the Jewish community.

The historical study of Jesus and his age can allow Jews to view, at some distance, the diversity and rivalry within the Jewish community at one crucial moment in time. It can also illustrate the divisive and destructive effects of internalized oppression, where Jews turn against one another when the real external enemy is so profoundly menacing.

In short, the text of the New Testament can be a source of useful historical reflection for Jews, when it is not being used as a theological bludgeon against them.

Jewish/Christian Dialogue

In 1965 the Vatican issued the declaration Nostra Aetate, which addressed the problem of anti-Semitism and called for the establishment of Jewish/ Christian dialogue. This action was clearly a response to the Holocaust and, perhaps, a first small step toward apology. It recognized the historical distance between Jewish and Christian communities and sought the beginnings of dialogue. But it was also the beginnings of a reflection within the church over its own role in promulgating and perpetuating the anti-Semitic distortions of Christian history.

While many people of good will have worked long and hard to accomplish something in this area, audible progress is still really difficult to hear. There are a number of things that get in the way of real breakthroughs. The dialogues are heavily burdened by conventional politeness. No one wants to hurt anyone else’s feelings. The dialogue is often official, taking place by or under the auspices of ecclesiastical and rabbinic institutions, and it is bogged down in theological and institutional conservatism. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism continues to surface in tedious new permutations from Eastern Europe to Louisiana to Idaho and even to Japan.

Here’s the problem: The memory of the Holocaust will fade. Nazi revisionists will say that it never happened. And the church is likely to move timidly if at all in the face of bold new expressions of anti-Jewish racism. And the sacred texts will remain sacred and will continue to convey the anti-Semitic distortions into a new age and to anyone who chooses to invoke them.

Have you ever questioned new Christians (Koreans, other Asians or non-Europeans for example) who have never had any cultural or historic connection with Jewish people, who are recent Christian converts, and who get their first impressions of the Jews from the text of the New Testament? Ask them what they know or think of Jews. They will give you the stereotype of the New Testament Pharisee and you will see how easily anti-Semitism can get passed on. Some more vigorous correction must be found to accompany the solitary sacred texts of Christendom if the racist distortions are ever to be held in check.

Earlier this year I attended a colloquium at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley on “The Church in a Post-Holocaust World.” It was good to hear the old warhorses of the dialogue hold forth: Paul van Buren and John Pawlikowski. But in a workshop on “Teaching about Jewish and Christian Beginnings;” one of the few suggestions put forth was the consistent use of the terminology “BCE/CE” in the classroom so that students could begin to shift their thinking away from the definitive centrality of Jesus and the Christian claim. I wondered to myself: “Twenty-seven years after Nostra Aetate and fifty years after the liberation of the concentration camps! Is this the best that scholars can come up with?”

I was disappointed. I suppose that I am so tied to the work of this Seminar that I imagine everyone else in the academic world, especially in the field of Jewish/Christian dialogue, would be engaged with it too. This is not the case, as many of you are aware. I know that the old and new Quests for the historical Jesus are far from universally accepted.

I decided to break the silence and the politeness. I spoke first as a Jew who never once regarded Jesus as a divine being; never once thought of him as the messiah, past or future. But I also spoke as one of the few academics present who was teaching in a secular setting. I have been free of the subtleties of sectarian pressure for twenty years. And I suggested that the only way I have found to speak rationally about the history of the Christian church was to use the discipline of the Quest and more recently the work of the Jesus Seminar.

This means that if we want to describe and document the genesis of the Christian movement and its ultimate separation from the Jewish polity, if we want to search out and chart the development of the anti-Jewish hermeneutic in early Christian writings and their evolution into the anti-Semitism of the twentieth century, then we now had a very sharp scalpel to help us cut our way through all the junk. Whether people like it or not, it is the Quest and the work of the Jesus Seminar. The work of the Seminar offers a decisive and compellingly rational way to mediate the text of the New Testament to the late twentieth century in a way that is not wed to the theologically conservative interests of the churches.

The fact is that the Holocaust demands an unequivocal denunciation of racism (of all sorts) and especially of anti-Semitism. While many churches have moved in this direction, most seem incapable of dealing with the ancient sacred text. There is still no available means to defuse the explosive potential of that text, except with the clear, careful, color-coded edition of The Five Gospels compiled by the Jesus Seminar.

It is my hope that Jewish scholars will take the work of this body seriously. I would especially encourage rabbis and other Jews engaged in Jewish/Christian dialogue to become acquainted with this work. There is a powerful voice of liberation imbedded in the critical analysis of this endeavor. If there is any real hope of upgrading the dialogue and moving it beyond politeness and apology, then it lies in a discipline of critical honesty. I think we have a real chance to start talking about this material outside the realm of theological investment and sacred myth by moving it over to the more manageable field of a shared, though painful, literature and history.

A Rational Discussion of the Risen Christ

It may at long last be possible for late twentieth century Jews to confess with some pride that they do not believe that Jesus was divine, or that he was God, or his son (that is, not any more than you or I might be), or that he was the promised messiah, then or in the future. It is also heartening to reason that that the historical Jesus might have shared this view.

But there is still one other important question that must be addressed: the Christian belief in the Risen Christ.

While the seeds of that tradition may have sprouted in the earliest church communities following the death of Jesus, the success of the idea clearly came to its fullest flower in the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire.

There is a tendency in Jewish/Christian dialogue to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus as a way of apologizing for the excesses of Christian supersessionism. But, for the sake of historical honesty, more critical nonsectarian work must be done to comprehend how that nice Jewish boy became a platonized gentile god. I doubt that this can be done by looking at first-century Palestinian Judaism alone.

The Risen Christ is probably a reflection of the most compelling aspects of Hellenistic religious sensibilities. Jesus the Christ becomes the composite historical projection of everything that was durable in both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture and so became the appropriate godhead for the emerging Holy Roman Empire.

Scholars such as Peter Brown and students of the dogmatic debates and developments of the early church can provide ample documentation to illustrate this historical process. In the end, Jesus the Christ can be seen as a composite and mythical figure and I can see nothing wrong in affirming this, except for the pretense that (1) Christianity is the direct and undiluted descendant of Judaism and its proper heir and successor, and (2) that Christianity defeated paganism in the name of the One True God. In fact, Christianity is more probably a brilliant blend of Jewish and pagan elements. Some of which might even be true. This blend surely has its own claim to historical and cultural legitimacy and should be studied critically on its own merits.

Here again the work of the Jesus Seminar can help to distinguish the core of the historical Jesus, followed by the traditions of the early church, from the inventive amalgamations of the centuries.

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