Skip to content

A Boy Named Jesus – R. Aron

June 18, 2013

ABNJI think that the evangelists did not tell us about Jesus’s childhood for a very good reason – it isn’t important! The author of this book seeks to fill in ‘the missing years’ by drawing upon what we know about Judaism and about the roman occupation at the time Jesus. Unfortunately, the author does not know enough about Judaism of that time. Much of his description is anachronistic, for example he describes the Pesach (Passover) seder in terms of a Haggadah that didn’t exist back in the First Century CE – e.g. the song Dayenu. I suspect he does the same for other festivals.

He writes about Jesus’s Bar Mitzvah – but Jewish males didn’t have them back then. They merely came of age.

There are other anachronisms – although I welcome his saying that Jesus’s teaching reflected mainstream Judaism (which was a radical thing to assert when this book was written), the author treats the Talmud as if it was contemporary with Jesus. The oral tradition which became written up in the Talmud surely has elements that go back to the First Century but we can’t be sure. In any case, was Jesus copying Judaism or was Judaism copying Jesus?: That part of the Sermon on the Mount that follows the Beati­tudes is equally studded with sayings from the Talmud. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven . . :” Compare the Talmud (Shabbat 118 b): “It is glorious, and I envy it, the fate of those who are suspected when they do not deserve suspicion.” “You are the salt of the earth . . .” The word “salt” was fre­quently used and highly significant among the Jews. It was an image of incorruptibility and hence of the permanence of God’s covenant with Israel. An indissoluble alliance was called “salted.” This image goes back to Numbers 18:19: “It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants as well.” In the Talmud (Ketubot) we find a very practical commentary: “Every food requires salt for its preservation. Money, too, must be salted if we wish to keep it. But in this case the salt is charity” The large number of Talmudic phrases scattered throughout the important text of the Sermon on the Mount shows to what extent Jesus was influenced, during his formative years, by the commentaries on the Law. We must look not only in the Old Testament but also in the Talmud for the source of his mode of expression. There are affinities between the Talmud and the Gospels, these two branches of the same tree. Affinities of form, such as we have seen exemplified above, and certain affinities of thought, along with equally important divergences.  p. 165

The Christian virtue of humility is Jewish, and more particu­larly Pharisaic in origin. We have only to consider this one of many Talmudic sentences, which might have come straight out of the Gospels: “Remain hidden . . . He that lowers himself shall be raised up, and he that raiseth himself up shall be brought low He who humbles himself here on earth for the Law shall be glorified in the life to come. He who makes himself small for the Law’s sake shall be made great hereafter.” P. 166

Although he is ‘sound’ on the Pharisees and does not fall into the trap of caricaturing all of them as legalists, as many still do, he is at his most ignorant when telling us that they kept 613 commandments. ALL Jews are meant to keep 613 commandments – they are in the Torah, not some later text or invention.

The author is on firmer ground when he writes about Jesus learning to talk and to read. Simple Aramaic, with its directness, does not allow for abstractions, hence Jesus’s concrete metaphors like ‘an eye for an eye’. Aramaic’s use of tenses is not very sophisticated. The past tense means something is completed.  Everything else is still happening, which is why Jews have a particular view of history in which they are direct participants.

There was no clericalism in the synagogue so Jesus was much a priest as every other Jew – which makes you wonder how clericalism crept into Christianity. Jesus would have said blessings for every conceivable occasion and action – not just grace before meals.

The author does well when reflecting on Jewish ambivalence towards the temple: The very fact of construction, of an attempt to isolate a unit of the immense space created by God and thus to check the flow of time, was to the Jew of this period shocking and almost idolatrous. Is there not a connection here with the punishment that God brought down upon the builders of the Tower of Babel? A well-known midrash furnishes us this explanation. During the construc­tion of the Tower a man fell from the scaffolding and was killed. The builders were so obsessed by their desire to finish this monu­ment to their fame that they ordered the body to be taken away without a pause in the work. A few days later a segment of the wall crumbled, and the consequent disruption of their schedule and loss of money disturbed them far more than the death of one of their workers. Perhaps this was the reason why God visited such a dra­matic punishment upon them. P. 8

He is also good on allegory: For twenty-six generations, that is, for the time between Genesis and Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai, aleph protested to God: “Why was not I, the first letter, chosen to head the description of the cre­ation of the world? The beth of bereshit has usurped my place!” To which God replied that the creation of the world was not the first divine action. Long before the creation there was moral law, even if it had not yet been revealed. In the beginning was the Law, and the world came later. Consequently, in spite of the apparent error of which aleph complained, it was really in its proper place, at the beginning of the commandments, which God had carried in God’s head before the beginning of time.

Like other Talmud and midrash stories, this one is not to be taken too literally. The rabbi who thought up such a fundamentally religious allegory knew perfectly well that things did not actually happen this way. But if the story has no basis in fact, it has, none­theless, a deep inner meaning. It is important, also, as an illustra­tion of the system on which the Talmud is constructed. Revelation and tradition are not obliterated by the study that grows out of and enlarges upon them. The biblical text is a sacred universe, where nothing is profane or stagnant, where everything is fruitful in spiri­tual development. P. 119

I enjoyed the sexism behind: Why, for instance, asks one of the Talmudists, did God make woman from Adam’s rib? Here is his version of the story: God deliberated from which part of man to make woman. He said, “I must not create her from the head that she should not carry herself haughtily; nor from the eye, that she should not be inquisitive; nor from the ear, that she should not be an eavesdrop­per; nor from the mouth, that she should not be too talkative; nor from the hand, that she should not be too acquisitive; nor from the foot, that she should not be a gadabout; but from a hidden part of the body, that she should be modest.” Such a theory was bound to engender further discussion. Some doctors espoused the cause of Eve. They praised woman’s love of work: “Women do not hang lazily about the house”; and their intelligence: “God made woman more intelligent than man.” But others were frankly mocking. They accused women of being talka­tive: “Ten measures of words were sent down into the world, of which woman took nine and man one”;  and of various faults besides: “Women are reported to have four salient characteristics: they are greedy, they listen at doors, they are lazy and jealous. Moreover, they are loquacious and quarrelsome.” P. 129

If only those evangelicals who bang on about God trying to square his mercy and his wrath would see the playfulness of: an allegorical story, told in a midrash: A king who had some empty glasses said to himself. “If I pour hot water into them they will crack; if I pour ice-cold water into them they will also crack!” What did the king do? He mixed the hot and the cold water together and poured it into them and they did not crack. Even so did the Holy One, blessed be he, say: “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, the world’s sins will greatly multiply. If I create it on the attribute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!” But although God may consider both these elements indis­pensable, this does not mean that God employs them with equal pleasure. God is much happier to deal out mercy than justice. When the Holy One (blessed be his name!) was about to create the first man, he foresaw that both good and evil would come out of him. “If I go ahead and create him,” he said to himself; “there will be wicked men among his descendants. But if I fail to create him, then there will be no good men to owe him their existence.” And so, what did he do? He removed his thoughts from the wicked, took upon himself the attribute of mercy and created man. “The attribute of grace,” the Haggadah says elsewhere, “is five hundred times greater than that of justice.” A very precise state­ment, which concludes a piece of subtle Talmudic reasoning. God has declared that God will punish children “for the iniquity of par­ents, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus,20:5), but in the next verse shows “steadfast love to the thousandth generation.” Now the Hebrew plural, alaphim, must designate at least two thou­sand. We see, then—that if heavenly wrath is visited upon at the most four generations and heavenly grace upon at least two thou­sand, it follows that God’s mercy is five hundred times as great as God’s justice. P. 130f

God is omnipotent also. A well-known rabbinical sentence says: “Everything is subject to the power of Heaven except the fear of Heaven,” which means that although God determines human fate God leaves people free to fear or not to fear the Almighty. Such haggadot, of varied nature and tone, bring God closer to earth and allow humans to achieve divine intimacy. In the same familiar way they treat the great biblical figures, people who submit to divine justice or are messengers of God’s will. They are human­ized, but it is for the sake of pointing up their relationship with God. Let us look at the following midrash account of the last moments of Adam and Eve: When Adam was nine hundred and thirty years old, and ail­ing, he sent Eve and Seth to the vicinity of the Garden of Eden, to ask God to accord a dying man some of the oil of life (or of mercy) which runs from the tree of the Garden. The precious oil was refused but Michael told them, in God’s name, that after their resurrection Adam and the rest of the holy people would enter Paradise. Adam died, and God forgave him. The angels came for his body and buried it in Eden.

Six days later Eve died in her turn; having asked Seth to inscribe the story of his parents’ life on tablets of stone and on tablets of clay “Because,” she said, “the Archangel Michael told us: ‘On account of your transgressions the Lord will visit his wrath on your descendants, first by water and then by fire.’ Thus the stone tablets will survive the flood and the clay tablets the world’s final burning.” This story illustrates in lively fashion Adam and Eve’s desire for survival and God’s ultimate pardon of their sin. But, we may ask,

If God is omnipotent also. A well-known rabbinical sentence says: “Everything is subject to the power of Heaven except the fear of Heaven,” which means that although God determines human fate God leaves people free to fear or not to fear the Almighty. Such haggadot, of varied nature and tone, bring God closer to earth and allow humans to achieve divine intimacy. In the same familiar way they treat the great biblical figures, people who submit to divine justice or are messengers of God’s will. They are human­ized, but it is for the sake of pointing up their relationship with God. Let us look at the following midrash account of the last moments of Adam and Eve: When Adam was nine hundred and thirty years old, and ail­ing, he sent Eve and Seth to the vicinity of the Garden of Eden, to ask God to accord a dying man some of the oil of life (or of mercy) which runs from the tree of the Garden. The precious oil was refused but Michael told them, in God’s name, that after their resurrection Adam and the rest of the holy people would enter Paradise. Adam died, and God forgave him. The angels came for his body and buried it in Eden.

Six days later Eve died in her turn; having asked Seth to inscribe the story of his parents’ life on tablets of stone and on tablets of clay “Because,” she said, “the Archangel Michael told us: ‘On account of your transgressions the Lord will visit his wrath on your descendants, first by water and then by fire.’ Thus the stone tablets will survive the flood and the clay tablets the world’s final burning.” This story illustrates in lively fashion Adam and Eve’s desire for survival and God’s ultimate pardon of their sin. But, we may ask, (if this is allegorical or whether) Adam and Eve really acted this way or are the facts sub ordito some deeper meaning? Another even more typical midrash may answer our question. subject is the Children of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea, the withdrawal of its waters that enabled them to walk through it on to: land. Is this story historically true? For two thousand years not as theologians but historians and scientists as well have tried to find out whether the tidal movements of the Red Sea were such as -: cause it to seem to retire when the Children of Israel reached it their flight. To the Talmud this is no problem; the materiality of the miracle does not matter. The important thing—and this emphasis is typically Talmudic—is the meaning God wishes us to attach to the story. According to the Talmud, the passage of the Red Sea is the antithesis of the Flood. In the Flood, God manifested anger at the sinful human race by covering the earth with water. The parting of the Red Sea and the emergence of dry land demonstrated a change of heart. God no longer sought to punish or destroy humankind but to assure its survival. It bore witness to a new pledge on God’s part to the Children of Israel. pp132-3

Many Christians regard Judaism as pessimistic about life after death. The author does well to show how positive this teaching actually is: the ephemeral personality that differentiates and sets them apart in the framework of time and space, the bundle of feelings and habits that they need for life on earth but which, when this is over, are so much dead skin to be sloughed off, so much surplus baggage, so much data on an expired passport. Perhaps, when their breath has gone into a universal reservoir, their bodies have crumbled into dust and the spiritual residuum of their personalities has descended into the darkness of Sheol, humans may be said to have fulfilled the berith, or covenant, that God made with them. Here on earth the Covenant was hobbled by human pride and passion and the restrictions of a rational framework; after death it may make up a part of the great arsenal of physical and psychic forces that God released at the beginning of Creation and that are necessary to its further unrolling in history. This, then, was the Jewish idea of death during the two thou­sand years between Abraham and Jesus. Such a complete renounce­ment of earthly values in life beyond the grave was conceivable only inasmuch as the whole universe was sacred in character. If the universe is sacred, then to merge with it is not equivalent to destruction; it means simply to escape from a partial and imperfect personal existence and to be absorbed by the totality of a creation impregnated by God. P. 180

I also like this on monotheism: Numerous midrashim bear witness to the presence and power of God. Here is a typical anecdote: A ship owned by a pagan was on the high seas, and aboard it was a Jewish boy. A fierce storm arose, and the pagans called upon their idols, but in vain. Admitting the failure of their prayers they turned to the young Jew. “Pray to your God,” they said, “we have heard that he is all powerful and that he answers the suppli­cations that are addressed to him.” The boy responded by offering up an earnest prayer. God listened to him, and the sea was calmed. When the ship put into port the passengers went ashore to buy what they needed. “Is there nothing you want to buy?” they asked the boy. “What should a poor stranger like myself buy?” he replied. “A poor stranger?” they exclaimed. “We are the poor strangers! Some of us have gods in Babylon, some in Rome; oth­ers carry their gods with them but have received no help. But you, wherever you go, enjoy your God’s protection.” P. 131

There are no footnotes or bibliography so it is impossible to know where the author got his (frequently inaccurate) material from. However, he wrote this book back in 1960 and there wasn’t as much work done on Judaism in the time of Jesus as there is now, thanks to Jewish-Christian dialogue, so maybe the author may be forgiven for not knowing things that we know now.

A friend raved about this book but I should have known better that to take up his recommendation. Indeed, asking Bishop Jack Spong to write your introduction is the kiss of death.

Young Jesus: Restoring the “Lost Years” of a Social Activist and Religious Dissident by Jean-Pierre Isbouts  does it better.

return to the home page

Advertisements

From → Biblical, Inter Faith

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: