Friday, December 19, 2014

Paul Barnett on Jesus the Rabbi

Paul Barnett, retired Bishop of North Sydney, and well-known Biblical scholar and ancient historian, has just posted on his blog an article he recently wrote about Jesus as a Rabbi in second-temple Judaism. Follow the link to his blog to keep reading.

Wise Judgements

For many years biblical scholars have baulked at the idea that Jesus was a transcendent figure and have busied themselves redefining him in humanistic terms.

Is this due to the ‘secular’ spirit of the age that airbrushes the Almighty from the public square?

For a period in early the twentieth century some thought there was little we could know about Jesus, for example, in 1934 Rudolph Bultmann declared, ‘We can now know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus’. The pendulum has swung back so that in 1985 Ed. Sanders could say, ‘We can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish…we can know a lot about what he said…’.

Despite Sanders’s confidence there is no agreement about how to think about Jesus.

The great philosopher, musician and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was a confused apocalyptic prophet.  Robert Eisler and Samuel Brandon thought he was a warrior-zealot ready to inspire a revolt against Rome. According to Geza Vermes Jesus was a devout, charismatic rabbi who healed.  For Ed. Sanders, Jesus was yet another species of prophet.  Others, like Burton Mack, reacting against a Jewish Jesus found it more plausible to locate him as a social reformer in the Greek cynic tradition. The list is long and seemingly unending.

There are, of course, some elements of the above to be found in Jesus.  He was called a rabbi, many thought of him as a prophet, and he did forcibly eject the traders from the temple.  The problem is that these are secondary activities that some have over-inflated and made definitive. Those who redefine Jesus along these lines tend not to address all the evidence, in particular the witness of the apostles in the New Testament.

Jesus’ miracles, if accepted, would clinch the issue and identify Jesus as singular and otherworldly. That is a subject for another day. What then about his judgements, which form a significant part of the Synoptic Tradition?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And this is how Bishop Barnett concludes:

No society can be perfect, and no society has been perfect. But some societies have been democratically governed, freer of corruption, more prosperous across the population, generous to poorer nations, better educated, with more schools, universities, and hospitals, scientifically innovative, expressive in the arts, and with widespread engagement in sport and exercise.

It would not be hard to demonstrate that countries historically influenced by Jesus’ wise judgements have been blessed in many if not all of these ways.


Jesus’ judgements as a rabbi are deceptively disarming. They appear to be mundane and not extraordinary but when carefully compared with the values of the cultures of his day, and their successors, they identify him as uniquely wise.

Furthermore, his judgements effortlessly translate into any culture, timelessly. They are as applicable in modern western society as they were in first century Jewish and Graeco-Roman society and in every culture since.


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