Friday, July 17, 2009

a slight variation on a common theme

I'm currently developing a lecture entitled, "Jesus and Torah," for my first-year Gospel Narratives course. Few things, for me, are as difficult to introduce in a two-hour discussion with beginning students. I'm beginning my discussion, after a brief definition of Torah, by looking at Matt 5.17–48. I understand vv 17–20 as introducing the six Antitheses of vv 21–48, and I retain the label Antitheses because I think it aptly describes the rhetorical structure of these sayings (but not Jesus' relation to/view of Torah!). Finally, I should say that I understand the entire Sermon on the Mount in strongly covenantal terms (rather than, say, ethical terms). Matthew, I think, is clearly presenting Jesus in ways that evoke the Sinai narrative, though (I think) in some surprising ways.

But in my lesson preparation I'm reading Luz's massively detailed Hermeneia commentary, and I can't help but notice that some anachronistic concepts seem to sustain his (and many others') interpretation. What's worse, the assumption I have in mind is never explicitly discussed, which makes it all the more problematic! A commentary might not be the place to engage such things, but given their effect on our exegetical work I think they deserve some attention.

Specifically, I have in mind the assumption that Christianity and Judaism were, already in the first century CE, separate and distinguishable entities. The very opening of Luz's interpretative comments on Matt 5.17–20 he employs this assumption and allows it to drive his reading of this very important passage:
By placing these verses at the beginning of the main part of the Sermon on the Mount before the antitheses, Matthew makes clear that they are fundamentally important for him. At issue here is his relationship to the Mosaic Law and thus to Judaism. (Luz, Matthew 1-7, 213; my emphasis)

I'm not at all convinced that the issue here is "his relationship to the Mosaic Law"; rather, I think the point is rather clearly the interpretation of Torah and, as emphasized in v 20, the proper observance of Torah. Of course, if Jesus ever did say anything like 5.17–20, we would struggle to explain why Jesus would have to explain to his fellow Jews that he recognized the authority of the Mosaic covenant. Certainly at the front-end of Jesus' ministry, as Matthew has placed the Sermon, we have yet to see anything that would make us think Jesus set out to live free of Torah's strictures and ordinances (Moses might have preferred "blessings and curses"). So why should Jesus have to explain his "relationship to Judaism"?

But Luz doubts the authenticity of this passage; at the very least he reads 5.17–20 as speaking "directly to the church" (213). And if Jesus, in Matthew's gospel, has yet to fall foul of Torah, the church, by the time Matthew was written, certainly had. And given the debates attested earlier in Paul's letters and later in Luke-Acts, Matthew writes to a church whose relationship to Judaism was open to question and required some explanation.

The problem with all of this, I think, is that we cannot invoke the neat distinctions between Judaism and Christianity to structure our interpretation of the NT texts. Daniel Boyarin (Dying for God [1999], Border Lines [2004]), among others, has demonstrated the messy interactions between the expressions of Judaism that became Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. We cannot helpfully think of these as two distinct phenomena at any point in the first century CE; even thinking in terms of two phenomena sends us off on the wrong path.

I haven't yet read Luz's interpretation of Matt 5.17–20; I stopped to get these ideas out of my head. But I'm suspicious that he began with what I think is a very problematic assumption: that Matthew had to clarify "his relationship to the Mosaic Law and thus to Judaism." The text offers significantly more potential, I think, if we begin instead by understanding Matthew competing with other Jews (who may or may not have identified Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet or even Israel's messiah) over how to properly understand and practice Torah.


Jim said...

if you're looking for a very useful and very readable examination of jesus' relation to torah get a copy of james crossley's 'why christianity happened'

Rafael said...

You're right, Jim. I've read James's work (not Jesus in an Age of Terror, but WCH and The Date of Mark's Gospel. As James has said on his blog, the disagreements between us are more about detail (and ideology, of course) than about general perspective.

Adam said...

I like this train of thought Rafael. One option among many competing in Judaism makes more sense at this time period than "Christianity vs. Judaism." I wonder though, do you see more of a distinction between the two in some of the harsh rhetoric in John, and when do you place this gospel?

Rafael said...

I'm not as familiar with John as I am the synoptics and Paul. I understand John to be a late-first century text, but as I said in the post I don't think the first century is a good place to look for the Christian/Jewish distinction with which we're so comfortable from contemporary experience.

So while I can't say John isn't more distinct (esp. given the ἀποσυνάγωγος language, the "synagogue of Satan" language in Revelation, and other polemical features), my first instinct is to read these as intra-Jewish polemics.

Whatever we say about John, however, I'm just as interested in our need to ask these types of question about the NT corpora. If Jews were capable of arguing with one another the way the DSS, Josephus, and other texts suggest they were, can we configure NT polemics in similar terms? And if we can so configure NT polemics, the next question is, should we?

Adam said...

Yeah... who reads John anyway. The questions you raised are definitely worth considering at length.

On Tuesday I start a two week class on the NT Apocrypha, which promises to be fascinating.

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