Who is reading?

A few years ago I read the last book written by John A. T. Robinson: "The priority of John" (1985).

It is an interesting book, and encouraging. Robinson reflects on the details of the stories and the timeline in John, and argues that the sources must be close to the events; as close or closer than the sources of the synoptic gospels.

Stirred, I started to read some other books with the same theme. The books I am going to write about here are:

  • "Jesus and Judaism" (1985) by E. P. Saunders, ISBN 0-8006-2061-5 (JaJ);
  • "Jesus within Judaism" (1988) by James H. Charlesworth, ISBN 0-385-23610-7 (JwJ);
  • "Excavating Jesus" (2001) (revised and updated) by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, ISBN 0-06-061634-2 (EJ).

When I was reading Robinson's book, I felt that I was listening to a thoughtful man, well-read in the history and criticism of the Gospels, but thinking beside and around that tradition. Robinson seemed serious in his desire to know what had happened, and how to think about it, from the documents we have.

Maybe this was also what it was like to talk with Robinson. In the preface of JaJ, E. P. Saunders writes : "My dearest memories of 1982 are the evenings spent in his [Robinson's] rooms discussing my work and his. [...] Here I can only say that my life and work were greatly enhanced by him".

I was hoping to have the same pleasure from reading JaJ, JwJ and EJ, but these books were hard to read. I gave up on Saunders' book about a quarter of the way through, for reasons I'll describe. I read all of Charlesworth's book, but felt rather miserable and tired when I finished it. I'm still reading "Excavating Jesus" but I often find myself skipping passages and snorting like a buffalo.

The reason these books are hard to read, is that they appear to be addressed to a sensibility I do not share. I wanted to hear the evidence, and consider it carefully. But these books evoke too much of their authors' worlds to be comfortable. As with many bad books, I started to feel embarrassed to be looking at something public that should be private.

Jesus and Judaism (JaJ)

From the introduction, page 2:

To speak personally for a moment, I am interested in the debate about the significance of the historical Jesus for theology in the way one is interested in something that he once found fascinating. The present work is written without that question in mind, however, and those who wish an essay on that topic may put this book down and proceed further along the shelf.

Why did Saunder's write that? It was odd enough that Charlesworth quotes this section in a footnote, introducing the quote with "Note how he maligns theology" (footnote 8, page 28). Why the slap-down for those who "wish an essay on that topic"? The passage seems too personal, too irritable. It makes one worry.

Then the book develops its argument, which starts with the famous incident where Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple:

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

-- Mark 11: 15-17, New International Version (NIV)

John's description of the same event ends with:

His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me." (John 2:17 NIV).

The traditional interpretation of that passage, if you can call it an interpretation, is that Jesus was purifying the temple from unclean commerce. Saunder's doesn't believe that, because "the principal function of any temple is to serve as a place of sacrifice, and [...] sacrifices require the supply of suitable animals" (p. 63). "The business arrangements around the temple were necessary if the commandments were to be obeyed" (p. 65). He has little patience for the "purifying" interpretation of his fellow scholars and the authors of the Gospel passages: "Just what would be left of the service if the supposedly corrupting externalism of sacrifices, and the trade necessary to them, were purged? Here as often we see the failure to think concretely and a preference for vague religious abstractions" (p.63). This relates to the strange sentence in the introduction to Saunders' book. If Jesus was also thinking in terms of vague religious abstractions, and Saunders rejects these as foolish, then is he is going to find it hard to understand why Jesus was acting as he did.

Meanwhile, Saunders continues to address the silly idea of purification. "New Testament scholars who write about Jesus' concern for the purity of the temple seem to have in mind a familiar Protestant idea: 'Pure' worship consists in the Word, and all external rites should be purged" (p. 67-8). Saunders' own interpretation of the event is that "Jesus' action is to be regarded as a symbolic demonstration [...] it symbolized destruction". (p. 69, 70). "We should suppose that Jesus knew what he was doing: like others, he regarded the sacrifices as commanded by God, he knew that they required a certain amount of trade, and he knew that making a gesture toward disrupting the trade represented an attack on the divinely ordained sacrifices" (p. 70). (all italics in quotes are in the original).

There are some obvious objections. First is that the traditional interpretation appears in the passage itself - "But you have made it 'a den of robbers'". Saunders rejects that passage as a later interpolation. Even if it is, presumably that was the dominant interpretation in the first few centuries, so it doesn't seem likely that this interpretation was absurd to its audience, as it is for Saunders.

Another objection is the one Saunders gives on p. 70: "Professor Moule has proposed to me that overturning one or more tables is not a self-evident symbol of destruction [...] Would breaking something not have been a better symbol?. Perhaps so".

Saunders is making a case. It's not a convincing case, and he's making it too strongly. He dismisses his opponents on the way. Why does he do this? What does he gain? Who is he writing for?

At this point I got cross. I didn't think that I was going to gain much myself, and I went on to the slightly later book by Charlesworth.

Jesus within Judaism

This book was easier for me to read, but I was often uncomfortable. It's a little difficult to characterize why, but there were some obvious triggers. The major one was a degree of pandering. It takes the form of setting the record straight, of putting weight on the opposite side of a balance, but that means that the argument in the book, independent of the error it is trying to correct, is - out of balance.

Centuries before the medieval craftsmen, the prayers of Jews were denigrated. [...] The vision was distorted. It is time to acknowledge these failures. [...]. A virtually unparalleled confession of unworthiness and of sinfulness is found in the Prayer of Manesseh. Two verses should be quoted:

And now behold I am bending the knees of my heart before you;
And I am beseeching your kindness;
I have sinned O Lord, I have sinned;
But I certainly know my sins.
(Vss 11-12 from the Syr.)

The author of this work must not be dismissed as a miserable wretch, or a Jew who has committed sins. He was conscious of his infirmities, and he confessed the weaknesses that any introspective person sees daily. The author was a devout Jew and a near contemporary of Jesus.

JwJ pp 47-48.

What Charlesworth does not mention, is that the Prayer of Manesseh is written as from the mouth of one of the most wretched of all the kings of Judah, condemned in 2 Kings 21:1-17: "Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another; beside his sin wherewith he made Judah to sin, in doing that which was evil in the sight of the LORD." 2 Chronicles 33:12-13 describes his abject repentance: "And when he was in distress, he besought the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And he prayed unto Him; and He was entreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom."

Later in the same section we have:

[Jesus] probably taught his disciples a special prayer, which is recognizable in the Lord's Prayer, said regularly by Christians today. Jesus' prayer is strikingly similar to Jewish prayers, especially the Qaddish, and his appeal to God to 'forgive our debts as we also forgive our debtors' is not a 'Christian' invention, but a Jewish tradition reflected, for example, in the Prayer of Manasseh.

JwJ, p 50.

The Prayer of Manesseh is not particularly obscure; it reached the King James Bible as part of the Apocrypha; Martin Luther included it in his 74-book translation of the Bible. It's also pretty short. I don't know about you, but I can't see any reference to the need to forgive my debtors in that prayer. There are certainly similar phrases between the Lord's Prayer and the Mourning Kaddish, ("May He establish His kingdom", "from the Father who is in heaven (and earth)"), but nothing that I can see about forgiving our debtors.

I don't find it hard to believe that forgiving those who sin against me was a common feature of 1st century Jewish prayer, but, if Charlesworth is taking his readers seriously, surely he should give some evidence for that.

Excavating Jesus

The authors of EJ are a Biblical scholar (Crossman) and a New Testament archaeologist (Reed).

The purpose of this book is to integrate the archeology of ground and the exegesis of gospel by giving each its full explanatory power and by refusing to privilege one over the other [...] If an ancient site is a series of superimposed dwellings, an ancient gospel is a similar series of superimposed overwritings. In both cases, therefore, multiple layering is the absolutely fundamental challenge to be faced.

EJ pp xvii-xix.

There are a few problems. The first is that the book is rather overwritten, and the metaphor of physical and textual layers quickly becomes tiring. There is some pandering. The authors seem to trust their own judgment a great further than the information allows.

Chapter 2 is called "Layers upon layers upon layers". It starts off with a summary of the archeology of the town of Nazareth. Nazareth at the time of Jesus appears to have been a peasant village of a few hundred people. Formal synagogue buildings were rare in the region in the first century 1, although "In places like Nazareth there were no doubt synagogues in the sense of village gatherings and assemblies". "Best specific work on ancient literacy in the Jewish homeland concludes about a 3 percent literacy rate". With this background, the two writers consider the story in Luke 4:16-30:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked. Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed — only Naaman the Syrian.” All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

The books explains the possible "layers" of gospel text - "Layer I contains materials that go back to the historical Jesus in the late 20s. [...] Layer II contains materials either adopted from that earlier layer or else created by or within the ongoing tradition. [...]". Layer III has three "sub-layers" with the first being the Q Gospel and Mark; the second "most probably dependent on these two preceding gospels, contains Matthew and Luke, from the 80s. The third [sub-] level, quite possibly dependent on Mark, Matthew and Luke, is the gospel of John. That canonical process is, by the way, our most secure evidence for layering as a gospel phenomenon" (p. 74).

Then the authors argue that Luke made up the whole story from beginning to end:

With Luke 4:16-30 above, the conclusion was not just that early first-century Nazareth had no synagogue building, no scrolls of Law and Prophets, no literate and learned peasants, no nearby cliff, but also, and more important, no murderous inhabitants. Jesus' home villagers had never attempted to kill him. The story came, not from the original level of Stratum I, but from the Lukan level of stratum IIIb. That conclusion is worth the trouble, not only for the historical accuracy, but also for the honor and dignity of a tiny Jewish hamlet in a small country long, long ago. Jesus did not grow up in a village of killers.

EJ p. 73

Is the strength of this conclusion justified?

For the synagogue, Luke does not claim a large formal building, and the authors have already agreed that some kind of synagogue meeting was likely.

A first century synagogue meeting almost certainly involved readings from the law and the prophets (234). Alan Millard (5) estimates that a long scroll of Isaiah would have cost around a week of a casual laborer's wages.

The calculation of 3% literacy among Jews in first-century Palestine is based on very flimsy evidence. You can read the main evidence that Crossan cites in more detail elsewhere at this web copy of the article. Even if that were not so, the 3% figure isn't very useful in estimating how likely it was that Jesus could read.

If I selected a 30 year old man from the USA at random, and asked you to guess whether he had a degree in philosophy, you'd guess no. You'd guess no because you would find that 40 percent of working age Americans have a degree, and 0.5% of US degrees are philosophy degrees. That gives my randomly selected man a 2 in 1000 chance of having a philosophy degree. Now imagine I tell you that the person I have selected is a well-known teacher of philosophy. You are now interested in the proportion of successful teachers of philosophy with a degree in philosophy. You might guess this proportion was somewhere over 50%, so about 250 times higher than your original estimate. See this blog post for a summary of the evidence that Jesus had a detailed knowledge of the scriptures.

Next: "no nearby cliff". If you, like me, were ignorant of the geography of Nazareth, and read the authors' dismissal of the "nearby cliff", you might presume that Nazareth is pretty flat. If so, the Israeli tourist board disagrees with you:

Nazareth, in the lower Galilee, is located in the heart of a valley surrounded by mountains.

You can check it out on Google earth and Google maps to get an idea. In fact, Nazareth has, as Luke says, some significant slopes, including the site traditionally associated with the end of Luke's story, called Mount Precipice.

So, Crossan and Reed could reasonably have said something like: "there is some chance that there was no scroll to read from; there is some chance that Jesus could not read; the nearby slopes don't seem quite dangerous enough for us to believe the Nazarenes could really have hoped to kill Jesus by throwing him down". But what they actually wrote goes a long way past that.

That brings me back to the question that I found myself asking for all three of three books - who are the authors writing for? Who is the polemic addressed to? Crossan and Reed give a some part of an answer in the text I've already quoted:

That conclusion is worth the trouble, not only for the historical accuracy, but also for the honor and dignity of a tiny Jewish hamlet in a small country long, long ago.

So, if you are the type of person who would uncritically condemn the Jews of the first century, shame on you, and this book may give you pause for thought. But, if that is not your sin, and you wanted a careful analysis of the evidence, you will have to do a lot of your own research to evaluate the arguments in this book.


  1. In 2013, archaeologists found a first century synagogue in Magdala, a fishing village on the shores of Lake Galilee. 

  2. Philo "Hypothetica" 7.13. 

  3. E.P. Saunders, "Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE" 2016, p 338. 

  4. Lee I. Levine "The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered" Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 115 1996, p 432: "For Jewish authors, the unique feature of synagogue worship was [...] the public recitation and expounding of Holy Scriptures." 

  5. Alan Millard, "Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus" Vol. 69. NYU Press, 2000, p 165. 

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