Person A writes a book inspired by his experience of dialogue. Person B writes a review of the book. Person A wants to talk about it. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
What follows is Anthony’s reaction to my review of his latest book.
If we don’t get a slew of light bulb jokes in the comments section, I’m going to be disappointed.
I would like to thank Larry Behrendt for reviewing my book and for allowing me to respond to it on his blog. I have read several book reviews by Larry and I’ve never witnessed a less than gracious and measured tone. Even when Larry disagrees—whether he knows the author or not—he does so with respect and kindness. Just don’t get him started on baseball. Downright mashugana.
In a recent piece on his subscription-only blog, Bart Ehrman—controversial scholar of the historical Jesus and early Christianity—addressed whether it bothers any of his more religious colleagues that he’s become an atheist-agnostic. According to Ehrman, this subject never comes up in academic circles. Why not? Because Ehrman has “never, ever, had a conversation with a colleague about my personal religious views. Never.” Why not? Because, Ehrman says, he works at a secular institution of higher education, “and faith commitments are irrelevant to scholarship.”
Ehrman’s statement is typical of my experience with scholars of religion. A few of them are willing to open up about matters of faith. Many of them are not. Most scholars (and, I think, all of the good ones) want their work to be evaluated on the merits, and not by how well their scholarship jibes with our faith assumptions. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering about the relationship between faith and scholarship. I can only speak for myself, but my study of religion is a personal matter. I am changed by the works I read, and the study I do. I cannot imagine studying religion for a lifetime, and not being profoundly affected by this study.
So it is with great joy that I read my friend Anthony Le Donne’s latest book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in G-d. Le Donne is a terrific scholar, particularly in the fields of the memory-history of early Christianity and the importance of gender and sexuality within Christianity. In Near Christianity, Le Donne describes his personal journey. Not his entire journey—for that, we’ll have to wait for his autobiography—but a particular personal journey Le Donne has taken, as a Christian, through his interaction with Judaism.
Let’s conclude my long-running review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. I won’t try to summarize everything I’ve written so far – you can read it in all of its wordy detail here, in parts one, two and three. But briefly: Keith argues that Jesus’ teaching in synagogue drew comparison to the Jewish scribes, because it generally fell to Jews who were scribal-literate to read and explain Torah in synagogue. But Jesus was not scribal-literate (according to Keith), and this raised questions about his ability and authority to teach in synagogue. This questioning eventually became pointed and hostile and grew into full-blown conflict, with the result that Jesus wound up on the “radar” of the Jewish authorities as a potential troublemaker. Keith is quick to point out that he is looking at the issues that first brought Jesus to the attention of the authorities, which are certainly not the same issues that precipitated Jesus’ execution. Or as Keith bluntly put it, Jesus was not crucified “because of confusion over scribal literacy and scribal authority.”
I’ve already posted that I don’t fully agree with Keith’s take on “the origins of the conflict.” Nevertheless, I’m enthusiastically positive about Keith’s subject matter and the way he approaches it. Why? Because the topic of “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” addresses one of my big New Testament questions: what’s so terrible about being a scribe?
Keith’s book considers the importance of Jesus as a synagogue teacher. By my count, there are at least 16 different Gospel references to Jesus teaching in synagogue, though some of these references are different tellings of the same synagogue teaching, and others are single accounts of multiple teachings, so we shouldn’t fixate on the number 16. Regardless of the number, it’s clear both that Jesus spent considerable time teaching in synagogue, and that this is a way he was remembered by the early Church.
I spent most of my last post detailing Keith’s argument about Jesus’ lack of scribal literacy. I concluded there that Jesus was “more-or-less” illiterate, which from a certain perspective begs the point: how much more, and how much less? Well … as Jesus was not a member of the elite Jewish society that could afford the cost of formal private education, nor a member of a profession that required literacy, it’s entirely possible that Jesus could not read a word. But as I admitted in my post, it’s also possible that Jesus might have been able to read a little, or maybe even more than a little. Maybe he knew the Hebrew alphabet well enough to sound out a few words (a challenging thing to do, what with the Hebrew of his day being written without vowels or punctuation, and perhaps without spaces between words). Maybe Jesus read a bit better than that. It’s possible. We can’t say for certain. Keith’s argument is simply, whatever Jesus’ reading ability, it could not have been up to the standard expected of a scribe.
I get asked a lot, why am I so interested in Jewish-Christian dialogue and the early history of Christianity? I think that a few of my Jewish friends hope that this is just a stage I’m going through, and once I’ve explored these topics to my satisfaction, I’ll return to a more kosher focus on my own Judaism. I understand this hope. Frankly, I once shared it.
But so far, roughly 12 years into this project, my amateur and casual study of early Christianity continues its fascination for me. For one thing, there’s the mystery of who Jesus was – as we’ve discussed, scholars and wannabe scholars have drawn a wide variety of different Jesus portraits. But also, the examination of Jesus’ story provides a view into first century Judaism that is available to me in no other way.
Those things that fascinate me about early Christianity are on display in Chris Keith’s terrific new book Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. In this book, Keith looks at an important part of Jesus’ life: the role Jesus played as teacher, and in particular the teaching Jesus did in synagogue. Granted, if the topic of Jesus’ life comes up on the game show “Family Feud”, I don’t think that “survey” would say “Synagogue Teacher.” But the Gospels tell us: Jesus taught in synagogues. You can see it here, and here, and here, and here.
In my last post, I began my review of Anthony Le Donne’s terrific new book The Wife of Jesus. I focused there on the first half of Anthony’s book, where he discusses why Jesus’s marital status is so important to us. Anthony argues (and I think he’s right) that we project our sexual aspirations, misgivings and hang-ups onto the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Given the complicated nature of our sexuality, it is no wonder that Jesus appears to some of us as celibate, to others of us as married with children, and to still others (albeit a few others, more than 100 years ago) as married multiple times.
But my guess is, no one purchased The Life of Jesus to read about projected sexualities. My guess is, Anthony’s readers want to know whether Jesus was married. My guess is that some of these readers want Anthony to confirm that traditional Christianity is right to believe that Jesus eschewed all sexual activity, because Sons of G-d do not and would not engage in that sort of thing. My guess is that other readers want Anthony to say that Jesus was married, had children and engaged in sex pretty much like other human beings of his time and place.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, we might say that there are two kinds of people interested in Jesus. There are traditionalists, who believe that Jesus was celibate throughout his lifetime. And there are the others. In recent years, we’ve witnessed some very public speculation over whether Jesus could have been married. The topic of a married-and-sexual Jesus is front-and-center in popular works such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code. The recent discovery of a purportedly ancient Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (which in all likelihood is a modern forgery) raised the question yet again.
Friend of this blog Anthony Le Donne has recently stepped into this controversy with a terrific new book, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals. In my reading experience, Anthony’s book is the single best discussion of Jesus’ probable marital status. Was Jesus married? Anthony doesn’t think so. At least, Anthony thinks that Jesus probably wasn’t married during his public ministry. I agree with Anthony, though my reasons for thinking that Jesus wasn’t married are a little different from Anthony’s. I plan to discuss this question in a later post.
But here, I want to discuss what might be the best part of a very good book. In Wife of Jesus, Anthony examines why we care so much about whether Jesus married. In Anthony’s words, “what does it say about us that we’re so fascinated and repulsed by this possibility?” This is an approach typical of Anthony, to take our questions about the past, and ask instead what our questions say about us.
I wrote a series earlier this year about The Quest for the Historical Jesus, and I had occasion to mention a phrase coined by Luke Timothy Johnson: “The Jesus Business”. For Johnson, the “Jesus Business” is the “profitable trade in Jesus by a variety of publications that by creating a commotion in both the academy and the church also create a media-fed demand for more of the same.” I personally think that the Quest for the Historical Jesus has produced many terrific books, but I have to admit: I’ve purchased more than my share of Jesus books that fit Johnson’s description. The latest of these books is the current New York Times best-seller, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth.
Aslan’s book (and in particular, the nasty way he was interrogated on Fox News) has created something of a firestorm. Aslan is a prominent voice for Islam in the United States, and evidently there are people who question why a Muslim would want to write a book about Jesus. In case it isn’t obvious, I’m all in favor of non-Christians writing good books about Jesus, and for the record I’m also in favor of Christians writing good books about Jesus.
The problem with Zealot is that it’s not a good book.