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Bastard out of Nazareth

Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilton

There is a joke within the Jewish community, which credits Jesus of Nazareth with the distinction of being Judaism's first "Reform" rabbi. A thoughtful consideration of Jewish history and the origin of the Christian faith would suggest that there is a measure of truth to this pun.

After all, it was an encounter between a liberal-leaning faction of Germany's Jewish community and Protestant Christian culture that initiated the movement of what is now known as Reform Judaism. Though reform Jews would be loath to acknowledge the Nazarene prophet as the movement's founder, there is no denying the ironic link between them. For the time being, a joke will have to suffice as the barometer of anxiety over this irony. Angst over religion, however, is not an impulse exclusive to the Jewish community. Doubtless, there hovers a pall of unease over modern, enlightened minds about the place of religion in contemporary culture. The modern worldview, one would think, has evolved beyond the prejudice and superstition of ancient times. There is a certain comfort in knowing that time and progress have put a distinctive distance between our century and, say, the Common Era's first century.

French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, calls this distance a cultural estrangement in his essay, "Critique of Religion." It means that worldviews like that recorded in the New Testament reflect foolish, irrelevant notions about the universe and human destiny. This is what makes our perspective modern.

It was the writings of modern thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud whose iconoclastic re-interpretations of the Christian faith that helped to define this distance-this estrangement-from the first century, CE.

Given Ricoeur's interest in keeping the faith, he contends that a believing person of the modern era must also engage in a re-interpretation of religion: to strip away the centuries of debris and contamination that have layered over the Gospel narratives over the ages. Thus one can distill an "essence" of what was once a spontaneous, breach-making event during the first century.

With such a kindred interest, New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton has written an engaging study of Christianity's most enduring and controversial icon, Jesus of Nazareth. What the Anglican priest achieves in the aptly titled Rabbi Jesus is nothing less than a masterful merging of biography and sensible, exacting New Testament scholarship.

Biography—because the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke's accounts of Jesus' life) offer only a spare, enshrouding composite of the Jewish prophet. Thus, Chilton pieces together the inner-dimensions of an impulse-laden human being shaped by the circumstances of his life and times (often at the risk of speculation, which is after all the province of biography writing in our times).

New Testament scholarship—because the scholar utilizes Gospel texts translated from Greek into Aramaic (the language Jesus inhabited), with cross-examining references from Talmudic commentaries, Roman history and archeological finds. As a result, Chilton fashions the figure of "an inspired rabbi with an exclusively Jewish agenda...."

Throughout his construction of the would-be messiah's life, Chilton plods steadily across the cultural terrain of first century Palestine, sketching vivid scenes of the political, social and religious dimensions life then. Since the identity of his father had always been in doubt, the scholar posits that Jesus grew up with the status of a mamzer (the Jewish cultural equivalent of an illegitimate child). Thus, he suffered the stigma of being taunted as a product of adultery and excluded from the assembly of elders in Nazareth. For Chilton's biographical study, Jesus living out this station figures prominently as a raison d'être in Jesus' life. Following through the unfolding of this destiny, the biographer skewers together the outcast's eventual tutelage to John the Immerser (a.k.a. 'the Baptist'); from whom he receives the prophetic vision that would attract a mostly marginalized and disaffected throng of rural dwelling Jews.

One facet of this vision was Jesus' habit of referring to God as "Father" ("Abba" in Aramaic). In Chilton's view, the Nazarene compensates for a missing father as well as identify/align himself with the prophetic tradition-those who delivered God's message to erring nations were considered to possess the privilege of a specialized, revelatory relationship with the divine. Such a prophet would earn the designation "son of God" (Genesis 6:2; Psalm 2:7; Hosea 11:1).

This is one of many examples, which dislodge Jesus from the franchise of Church theology, which asserts that the relationship between God and Jesus is biological-absent a human father.

As a protégé of John the Immerser, he learns the secrets of Ezekiel's vision of 'the Chariot' (a menacing all-terrain, omni-directional war machine that symbolized the scope and influence of God's Kingdom). After breaking with John and striking out on his own, Jesus proclaimed that God's Kingdom had already arrived and its manifestations were the whirlwind of feasts, exorcisms, healings and other works of wonder that followed him wherever he wandered. Within the political climate of first century Palestine, such a driving phenomenon held great appeal for provincial-dwelling Jews anticipating liberation from the Roman Empire's choke hold. The arrival of God's Kingdom meant the eradication of any other dominion.

On the religious dimension that made Jesus such a captivating figure, Chilton elaborates on a class conflict within Israel: between the Jerusalem religious establishment and the inhabitants of the surrounding regions. At stake was the feasibility of complying with the rabbinical bathing standards for ritual purity and meeting the requirements of the Temple cult of sacrifice (which meant buying livestock at the Temple, requiring the exchange of money and the whole usurer scourge suddenly ascends in all its depravity).

Addressing the challenge of these two religious demands, Jesus proclaimed that purity came from the interior of a human being; also, he began offering his 'flesh' and 'blood' as an alternative to the Temple cult (of which Chilton cogently argues that the prophet did not offer his own flesh and blood-violating Jewish ethics—rather, elements of the feast itself, bread and wine, as a substitute for the sacrifice).

Arriving in Jerusalem for the final events of Jesus' life, Chilton summarizes what could be taken as his method for constructing this biography in its entirety:

The Gospels' technique of compacting events is never stronger than when they relate the events leading up to Jesus' capture, and what awaited him at Pilate's hands. They reflected the liturgical practice in Christianity still pervasive today, of commemorating a single 'Passion Week' around Passover, framed by 'Palm Sunday'... [and] 'Easter'. Collapsing all the events of Jesus' final few months into a few days makes them all seem muddled, and the particular context of each of them is all but lost. By extricating what the Gospels relate about Jesus' execution and it's causes from Christianity's liturgical calendar and placing them in the context of Jewish sacrificial worship and Roman politics, we can discern the actual succession of events which Jesus set in motion, and for the first time understand the causes of their terrifying outcome.

From this interpretive framework, one learns that the Passion Week unfolded over the length of several months. That Palm Sunday could only have taken place during the festival of Sukkoth—a fall celebration known as 'Feast of Booths' when Jesus' followers would have had palm branch, myrtle and willow on hand—allows Chilton to unpack the dense confusion of Passion Week, laying out each dimension the New Testament reveals. Working within that narrative frame, the New Testament scholar displays his greatest achievement of this biography—mapping and orienting the political intrigue which lead to Jesus' arrest and execution. The major players were Pontius Pilate, the prefect over Judea and Caiphas, the ruling Jewish high priest. The trouble Jesus and his followers stirred by overturning the currency changers' tables at the Temple proved to be too potent a civil threat for the high priest to disregard.

Chilton also points out how Pilate was on shaky ground with Rome at the time and the last thing he needed was to be dispatching soldiers to crush the reform-minded campaign of a charismatic prophet. An empire has to command the order it imposes, but not in so extreme a measure that it incites mass rebellion. Executing Jesus would make a grisly example of one who would dare imagine becoming 'King of the Jews'.

So unwinds the life of a first century peasant outcast-cum-prophet whose vision and memory, as Paul Ricoeur points out, "will always be carried by an extraordinarily fragile testimony...." Paring back the ages-old husk of doctrine that has grown over Jesus' life seems only to expose that fragility. Yet Bruce Chilton meets Ricoeur's challenge to a modern faith, with a wide-eyed exploration of a religious figure whose impact upon our world, to this very day, is immeasurable.

The most noticeable blemish within Rabbi Jesus appears when Chilton's earnestness to defend Jesus' against the charge of antinomianism—the act of undermining or tearing down the law revered by Judaism. Yet in doing so, the New Testament scholar makes complicit comments that engage in the ages-old spoken word/written word polemic, which privileges to speech over writing (if ever there was a poststructural ditch to dig and fall into!). Chilton would have been more successful in pointing out further examples of Jesus' acts of Jewish practice and teaching, rather than setting up a questionable distinction between the written word and the spoken word.

This particular flaw notwithstanding, Rabbi Jesus puts into motion ideas and realizations long overdue for this Christ-loving, Christ-denying civilization. Fulfilling the purpose of a biographical study, this book offers the sense, vision and gesture of an often-enshrouded spiritual figure who lived and died within the complex of religion and politics.

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