Sunday, July 06, 2008

Flusser's The Sage from Galilee-- an Important Jesus Book

There are a variety of important 'biographies' of Jesus written by a variety of scholars, but few of them are Jewish scholars who spent their academic life on the issue of Jesus. David Flusser is the exception to the rule, and we may be grateful his mature thoughts were put together in book form by one of his studies, and brought forth by Eerdmans now. What follows is a detailed summary or precise of the 166 page book, which is well worth the read. The real importance of the book from my vantage point is that we have a Jewish scholar saying that the historical Jesus' self understanding was messianic in various senses. What follows is the detailed summary with a few critical comments by me. See what you think. BW3

The Sage from Galilee. Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, by David Flusser and R. Steven Notley. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007, pp. xix +191, illus. $20 (paper).

When David Flusser first published a book on the historical Jesus, in German in 1968 it is fair to say that he could not have imagined where this effort on his part would lead. Besides the fact that he was one of the first Jewish scholars in the modern era to attempt such a book written with both cognizance of the scholarly discussion and with critical acumen, he surely did not expect that he would in due course receive such a warm response from a variety of audiences, including even conservative Christian ones, albeit the response was slow in coming, and the work did not fully receive the attention it deserved.

When the book appeared however in English in 1969, the translation was marred by various infelicities and errors, which contributed to its neglect, and in truth it was largely overlooked or ignored. What we have in The Sage from Galilee. Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius is not merely a better English translation of the original work, but rather a thorough revision and improvement of it, reflecting the development and culmination of Flusser’s thinking on the subject before his death in 2000, which is why Eerdmans rightly decided to publish the book under a different title than the original one. Readers familiar with the original German edition of the work will recognize that R. Steven Notley has done us a good service in incorporating some of the supplemental studies material into the existing twelve chapters so that it all reads smoothly now.

If we ask the question, What did David Flusser bring to the study of the historical Jesus that many others could and did not? the answer is severalfold. Firstly his breadth and depth of knowledge of early Judaism and its sources was vast. He was that rare scholar who had a profound grasp of the requisite languages, culture, physical setting, archaeology, as well as the literary sources. Secondly, he had a keen interest in Jesus, and in the intellectual pursuit of the understanding of him as a crucial historical figure. Thirdly, and most importantly as Notley so aptly puts it “Flusser felt no need to deny Jesus his high self-awareness. In his understanding, the historical Jesus was both identified with his people and the cornerstone of the faith of the early Christian community.” (p. xi). Flusser had that rare gift of allowing a person their distinctiveness, not attempting to explain it by explaining it away, while still being able to show how what had come before him had in various ways prepared for and influenced a figure like Jesus. For example, Flusser highlights and stresses the love ethic of Jesus, in particular its command to love one’s enemies, without suggesting that Jesus had any desire to start a new world religion. For Flusser it was axiomatic that Jesus not only was a Jew but wanted to remain within the Jewish faith. At the same time he was insistent on saying “I personally identify myself with Jesus’s Jewish worldview, both moral and political, and I believe that the content of his teachings and the approach he embraced have always had the potential to change our world and prevent the greatest part of evil and suffering.” (p. xviii).

What his students like Notley also tell us is that Flusser to his very last days felt he was still learning, and still needed to modify his views in the light of new evidence. He modeled the virtue of a commitment to life long learning coupled with a commitment to revise one’s views as time went on as the evidence required it. Furthermore, he passionately believed that Jesus had something to say to our current world situation and human dilemmas. Indeed he believed that Jesus’ life and teaching should influence how we conduct our lives today. This is one of the reason so many Christian students wanted to go to Hebrew University and study with Flusser. He was most assuredly Israel’s foremost scholar on Jesus and early Christianity, and his whole-hearted commitment to a historical and philological approach to the subject matter is refreshing when so often today we have scholars who thing ‘all we have are texts’. Flusser gave the lie to that assertion again and again.

In his chapter on methodology and sources, Flusser stakes out his territory clearly. In his view “the most genuine sources concerning a charismatic personality are his utterances and the accounts of the faithful—read critically of course….An impartial reading of the Synoptic Gospels results in a picture not so much of a redeemer of mankind, but of a Jewish miracle worker and preacher.” (p. 2). He is convinced that the Synoptic Gospels do a better job of presenting us with the historical Jesus, whereas John presents us with a post-Easter Christological portrait. In other words, he does not see the Synoptic accounts as samples of early Christian kerygma, the preaching about Jesus. Flusser’s analysis of the Synoptic Gospels however did not lead him to embrace the theory of Markan priority, rather he wanted to suggest that “the Synoptic Gospels are based upon one or more non-extant early documents composed by Jesus’ disciples and the early church in Jerusalem.These texts were originally written in Hebrew. Subsequently they were translated into Greek and passed through various stages of redaction. It is the Greek translation of these early Hebrew sources that were employed by our three Evangelists….Luke preserves, in comparison with Mark (and Matthew when depending on Mark) the more primitive tradition” (pp. 3-4). Few scholars would follow Flusser in this conclusion of Lukan priority though certainly Q scholars tend to prefer the Lukan version of Q over the Matthean one, and recently there has been a detailed study by Maurice Casey showing the Aramaic Vorlage of a good deal of the Gospel of Mark (see his Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel). But this is not all. Flusser also believed that Matthew, when independent of Mark, frequently preserves the earlier sources of the life of Jesus that lie behind Luke’s account. Mark is said to have reworked the material and unfavorably influenced Matthew. So much is this the view of Flusser that he concludes that Mark, presents us with a Jesus who is a supernatural, lonely holy man and wonder worker who is unique, and universally misunderstood even by his disciples. Flusser believes that the cry of dereliction from the cross which encapsulates this portrait is a Markan creation.

The net result of this view was to build a Lukan plus Matthean image of Jesus, whilst not agreeing that Mark presents us with the earliest glimpse of Jesus and the more primitive tradition. One more thing—Flusser did his own translations from what he believed was the Hebrew Vorlage behind the Greek of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptics. But that assumes Jesus spoke Hebrew instead of Aramaic, which is surely wrong. It is not a surprise that many simply viewed Flusser as eclectic and even eccentric when it came to methodology.

At times Flusser sounds rather like more conventional but radical critics of the Gospel tradition. He argues for example that the birth narratives are not reliable, for Jesus was probably born in Nazareth in Galilee, and his Davidic descent must remain doubtful, despite the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Further, Flusser thinks Jesus had about a one year ministry following his baptism by John in either 27/28 A.D. or 28/29 which was followed by his death by crucifixion in A.D. 30. Flusser doubts that John had any intentions of being a historian, and so discards the possibility suggested in the 4th Gospel that Jesus’ ministry involved several years. He appears to think Jesus was the eldest of some seven children, probably all Mary’s children, though they might be cousins. He also tends to think that Lk. 2.41-51 provides us with a historical anecdote about Jesus the young man, and this is of a piece with his general tendency to think Luke presents the most historical account, rather than the later more Hellenized one for a largely Gentile audience. Flusser has a tendency to see Jesus as rather well educated both in Torah and in the oral traditions, something of a budding Talmudist, who had a Jewish education “incomparably superior to that of St. Paul (p.12). Flusser accepts the authenticity of the claim of Josephus that Jesus was a sage, and was seen as such in his own day, and he rejects the views of J.D. Crossan and others that Jesus was a simple peasant. In this respect, one is of course reminded of the work of Geza Vermes, who follows a similar line of approach on this matter. Flusser takes this line because he finds in the sayings of Jesus evidence of learning, if not being learned, and he thinks Jesus really was called ‘rabbi’, a term which in his view referred to scholars and teachers. Interestingly, Flusser thinks that the reason Jesus’ own disciples did not call him rabbi, is because Jesus preferred the term ‘lord’, an indication not of deity but of Jesus’ high self-awareness (pp. 13-14). Flusser says that against the opinion of some, the historical evidence suggests that carpenters were considered particularly learned. He opposes the bucolic notion that Jesus was a na├»ve simple manual worker.

He also affirms the notion that there was a real tension between Jesus’ relationship with his physical family and his understanding of his divine calling (p. 14), but he thinks Mark goes too far in suggesting Jesus rejected his family (p. 15). Rather Jesus’ family did not affirm or believe in Jesus’ mission during his life and were not his followers, and so when he left Nazareth, he never returned, except perhaps once, and that resulted in his being rejected by the town folks. He adds that Jesus’ saying about hating one’s parents (Lk. 14.26) in fact in the Hebrew original simply refers to preference, as does the ‘Jacob I loved but Esau I hated’ saying. It were better translated I preferred Jacob to Esau. Comparison was conveyed by the language of dramatic contrast in Hebrew.

Flusser, like various others, thinks that John the Baptist may have belonged to one of the Essene communities (p. 18). This in turn leads to his viewing John’s Baptism as operating on the same assumptions as Essene baptism, namely that the sinner first had to repent for “water can cleanse the body only if the soul has first been purified through righteousness. The water ritual only provided ritual bodily purity. The real cleansing came through repentance and the work of the Spirit of holiness which preceded the water ritual. Flusser thinks Josephus has it right when he says that John insisted that one had to practice justice towards one’s fellow humans and piety towards God as a preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God (Ant. 18.117). One of the more interesting facets of Flusser’s analysis of the baptism of Jesus is that he thinks that the voice Jesus heard actually was quoting Is. 42.11 “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit on him…” Here he follows J. Jeremias and others who find in Lk. 3.21/Mt. 3.17 “in whom I am well pleased” an allusion to Is. 42.11. Flusser believes that early Jews often had ecstatic experiences in which they heard words of Scripture (pp. 21-22). Flusser believes that Jesus’ ministry began after his baptism by John, not after John was arrested. The latter idea in Mk. 1.14 he attributes to the Evangelist’s desire to make clear that John was the literal forerunner of Jesus in salvation history (p.25), but he finds a more reliable tradition in John 3.24. What is interesting about this is that while generally discrediting John as a historical source, he draws on John when it suits his own theories about what must have happened.

One of the most interesting aspects of Flusser’s historical reconstruction is his conviction that the Son of Man material holds not only a key to Jesus’ self-understanding but also John’s understanding of Jesus. Thus when John is in prison and sends two messengers to ask Jesus “Are you the One who is to Come” Flusser sees in this an allusion to the coming Son of Man in Dan. 7.13-14. The difference however is that the Baptist’s eschatology was that the Son of Man would come for judgment imminently, whereas Jesus did not see that coming on the clouds and final judgment as imminent. (pp. 26-28). For Flusser the parable of the wheat and tares provides the clue as to Jesus’ view of where things were in the eschatological time line. Now was the time for healings and Good News, not the time for final judgment. And so “Jesus’ doubts about the Baptist were justified, John never accepted Jesus’ claim.” (p. 28). In Jesus’ view healings and exorcisms implicitly demonstrated who he was and that God’s saving righteousness was breaking into human history. Jesus saw himself as the servant who was fulfilling Is. 61.1-2, as is shown not only from Lk. 7.18-23 and para. but also Lk. 4.17-18. Jesus saw John as the Elijah figure, the fiery prophet who came preparing the way of God at time’s end. In other words, with John the endtimes begin, but he is not the messiah. Elijah is the one who opens up the breach which allows the messiah and his followers to come through and possess the kingdom, or put another way Elijah is the one who opens up the breach so the Kingdom may break in. This is based on the suggestion that Jesus’ enigmatic saying about taking the kingdom by force is grounded in Micah 2.13, which in turn suggests that Jesus saw himself as the King coming through the breach that John had made, making way for the Kingdom to come (p.31). Flusser, in comparing and contrasting Jesus and John (the former clearly did not see himself as a messianic figure but looked for another, the latter did seem himself in that light) makes the interesting observation that “each man’s preaching was closely linked with his character. The good news of love was related to Jesus’ Socratic nature; penitential preaching was related to John’s somber inclination toward asceticism.” (p. 33).

One of the major axioms on which Flusser stakes all is that Jesus was a law observant Jew, and that any evidence to the contrary must be the redactional work of the Evangelists or others, with the possible exception of the episode of the Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath (p. 35). The obligatory hand-washing before meals debacle is seen as a debatable issue in Jesus’ day. Remarkably, Flusser thinks Jesus actually did say Mt. 15.11 about what enters a person not defiling them. He asserts “a person’s body does not become ritually impure even when one has eaten animals forbidden by the Law of Moses!” (p. 37). But surely this was not the view of most early Jews, as is shown by the Peter episode in Acts 10. Unclean food, if touched or eaten did indeed defile a person, according to Jewish Law as well as Pharisaic tradition. In other words, Flusser denies that the parenthetical remark in Mk. 7.19 is the correct exegesis of what Jesus said and did, while admitting Jesus said it. He does however think that Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees was that they often exalted ritual purity over moral principle, whereas for Jesus moral values always trumped ritual values (p. 38). In addition, Flusser argues that healing on the Sabbath by word of mouth was always allowed, so Jesus did not violate the Sabbath by that means. This of course would not explain a story like John 9, where Jesus makes little mud pies to place over the man’s eyes. About that story Flusser admits “If Jesus had acted thus, the objection of the Pharisees would have been legitimate” (p. 39). Flusser is quite sensitive to the issue of the Pharisees, and on various occasions argues that the Pharisees are later inserted into the text by the Evangelists or others, but that the bigots Jesus confronted on occasion were usually someone else. So keen is he to defend the Pharisees that he says things like “Fundamentally, the Pharisaic philosophy of life was in line with non-sectarian universal Judaism, while the Sadducees turned into a counter-revolutionary group that denied the validity of the oral tradition and saw belief in a future life as an old wive’s tale. The Pharisess were not identical with with the later rabbis, but the two groups may, in practice be regarded as forming a unity.” (p. 44 emphasis added). It would be much nearer to the mark to say the Sadducees represented the older Hebrew view and values as enshrined in the OT itself, and the Pharisees were in fact the sectarian group that added all sorts of oral traditions into the mix and often expected them to be treated as if they had the force of law. They were also those who affirmed the later Jewish views about the afterlife including resurrection, not the more primitive Hebrew beliefs about Sheol. Furthermore, Flusser here seems almost completely unaware of the work of J. Neusner and others who warns repeatedly and rightly that we cannot simply assume or say that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were like the later Pharisaic tradition, much less like the later rabbinic tradition. We cannot assert there was this sort of unity. And when that is assumed it leads to all sorts of anachronism, the reading back into the pre-70 period of all sorts of traditions and ideas found in the Talmuds and Mishnah, many of which it is doubtful were extant in Jesus’ day. As Flusser has to admit however, there were many persons as critical of the Pharisees as the criticism credited to Jesus, including the Essenes (CD 8.12; 19.25;1 QH 4.6-8). Knowing this, he then distinguished between the true Pharisees and the hypocritical ones who place form over substance.

Knowing that “it would be wrong to describe Jesus as a Pharisee in the broad sense…” Flusser nonetheless recognizes a serious tension between them, but it was a “tension which never implied negation, nor were the views of Jesus and the Pharisees contrary or ever degenerated into enmity” (p. 47). Were this correct it would be exceedingly difficult to explain how Saul as a Pharisee saw it as his mission to persecute the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus. It would be nearer the mark to say there were serious differences between the holiness movement Jesus led, and that of the Pharisees, and that they often clashed on issue of practice, but not over the doctrine of resurrection. Presumably also they clashed with Jesus and his disciples over the role of Jesus himself in Judaism as well, and Saul of Tarsus is just one piece of proof of that hypothesis. Here it would appear Marcus Borg’s older study on early Jewish holiness movements is nearer the mark. But it is right to say that some Pharisees must have thought highly of Jesus, and it is possible to take Nicodemus, and perhaps also Joseph of Arimathea amongst them. Flusser makes much of the basic silence about Pharisaic involvement in the trial of Jesus, but there surely must have been some Pharisees on the Sanhedrin council, even though they did not precipitate the outcome of that hearing, Caiaphas did. It is simply not possible, based on the historical evidence we have to say confidently as Flusser does that “the Pharisees regarded the handing over of Jesus to the Romans as a repulsive act of sacerdotal despotism….We can assume also that Pharisees do not figure as accusers of Jesus at his trial…because at that time people knew that the Pharisees had not agreed to hand Jesus over to the Romans” (p. 49). In a true argument from silence, Flusser thus concludes that anti-Pharisaic bias caused the Gospel writers to leave out the important point that Pharisees protested the handing of Jesus over to the Romans. Thus, Flusser does not come to grips with the considerable evidence of animus between Jesus and at least some Pharisees and their scribes. Not surprisingly, Flusser also minimizes the impact of the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount, even resorting to rhetoric to explain it away. Pointing to the ‘not one jot or tittle’ saying to prove Jesus did not oppose any of the Mosaic Law he adds “It would be absurd to believe that after such statements Jesus intended to say there was a contrast between his teaching and the Mosaic Law.” (p. 49 n. 43). But the jot and tittle saying is about the eschatological fulfillment of the Law, after which it is obsolete, not about obedience to all the Mosaic Law, a very different matter. He is right however that some of Jesus’ more radical teachings such as loving enemies, have some precedent in the teachings of other early Jewish sages. Flusser also concludes that Jesus had a rather low opinion of non-Jews, and only seldom helped them. Doubtless he is correct that Jesus saw it as his mission to work with his fellow Jews within the context of eretz Israel. (cf. Mt. 10.5-7; Rom. 15.8).

Flusser shows without great difficulty that there had been considerable reflection on the OT love commandments before and during the time of Jesus. Jesus was not unique in this. Flusser does thing that there were some distinctive and even revolutionary aspects about Jesus’ teaching—“the radical interpretation of the commandment of mutual love [i.e. its inclusion of the enemy within the scope of ‘neighbor’], the call for a new morality, and the idea of the kingdom of heaven” (p. 55). Flusser shows that the focus on reward for good behavior and punishment for wicked behavior grew out of the Hebrew insistence on justice, and believing in a God of justice, but before the time of Jesus there had been a development in Jewish morality such that doing good without concern for or expecting reward had been seen as a higher form of morality. It has also been recognized that one could not simply divide the world into the righteous and the wicked, since there was good and evil in the hearts of all. This in turn leads to the realization that God is being merciful to all, and so we too should be merciful as God is merciful (Lk.6.36). Flusser translates the ‘be ye perfect” command to mean let there be no limit to your goodness, as there is none to God’s. Jesus then emphasizes that God reaches out in love to all persons. Strangely then Flusser turns around and asks, but did Jesus include Gentiles in the command to love one’s neighbor (p. 60 n. 16). This is especially strange in light of a parable like the parable of the Good Samaritan. Flusser can show that Jesus and Hillel agreed that the Golden rule could be seen as a summary of the Mosaic Law. In addition the phrase ‘as your self’ as in ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ could be understood to mean ‘love your neighbor because he is like yourself’. Don’t do to him something you would not do and would not want done to yourself. If we look for evidence of the double love commandment, linking the two, outside of the teaching of Jesus Flusser is able to point (p. 62) to several pieces of evidence (Jub. 36.1-24; Did. 1.2; T. Dan. 5.3; T. Iss. 5.2;7.6). The usual caricature of a loveless religion of early Judaism contrasted with the love ethic of Jesus, simply doesn’t do justice to the former, but Flusser is right that Jesus pushed things to the limit in requiring love of enemy. And also, Jesus is not unique in dealing with the root of the problem in the human heart, but his emphasis on internalized sin, or the sins of the heart again pushes the scope of sin and scope of the imperatives to knew heights. In the end Flusser sees Jesus as following in the footsteps of Hillel who preached love, and pushing the envelope further by insisting on unconditional love, even of enemies and sinners (p. 65).

Did Jesus have a radical social ethic? Flusser sets about answering this question by comparing and contrasting the ethic of Jesus with the ethic of the Essenes. Like the latter group Jesus “regarded all possessions as a threat to true piety (Mt. 6.24)” (p. 68). Jesus is said not to embrace the radical dualistic theology of the Essenes (which separated the sons of light from the sons of darkness), but he did embrace certain aspects of their social ethic or philosophy of life, for example the view that possessions are an obstacle to virtue (Mk. 10.24-25). “For both the Essenes and Jesus poverty, humility, purity, and unsophisticated simplicity of heart were the essential religious virtues. Jesus and the Essenes thought that in the very near divine future, the social outcasts and oppressed would become the preferred ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’” (p. 69). Flusser is able to closely connect Jesus’ beatitudes with the Essene teaching— the Essene preacher is destined “to proclaim to the meek the multitude of thine mercies and to let them that are of contrite spirit hear salvation from his everlasting source, and to them that mourn, everlasting joy” (1 QHa 18.14-15) (p. 69). The poor in spirit turn out to be the actual pious poor to whom God has given the Holy Spirit. Flusser also finds plausible similarities of theme between Jesus’ beatitudes and the Testament of Judah 25.3-5, but he thinks the Testament of the 12 Patriarchs comes from the fringes of the Essene community anyway. In the end, Flusser sees the relationship of Jesus with the Essene ethic as follows “Jesus was familiar with the ideas current in these circles, and incorporated them into his transvaluation of all values”. (p. 71). This is a plausible view. Flusser also thinks that the ‘overcome evil with good’ idea goes back to the Essenes as well(1QS 10.17-20), from whom Jesus, and then Christianity adopted and adapted it in various ways. But actually we also find this same notion in Test. Ben. 4-6, as Flusser acknowledges. Flusser also argues that Jesus’ pacifism, or ethic of non-resistance to evil, and turning the other cheek comes from the Essene teachings or the Testament of the Twelve Partriarchs.

Flusser finds in a parable like that of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20.1-16) evidence of Jesus’ break with the old morality of recompense only for services rendered. Blessing does not distinguish between the one who has done little and the one who has done much, just as misfortune does not distinguish between the sinner and the just person. The fallen world is a morally complex place. (p. 75). Flusser says that Jesus did indeed see calamity on the near horizon coming on Jerusalem, but it could have been avoided if Jerusalem had chosen the route of repentance and peace. “Jesus’ concept of the righteousness of God therefore is incommensurable with reason. Man cannot measure it, but he can grasp it. It leads to the preaching of the kingdom in which the last will be first and the first last. It leads also from the Sermon on the Mount to Golgotha, where the just man dies a criminal’s death. It is at once profoundly moral, and yet beyond good and evil. In this paradoxical scheme, all the ‘important’ customary virtues, and the well-knit personality, worldly dignity, and the proud insistence upon the formal fulfillment of the law, are fragmentary and empty. Socrates questioned the intellectual side of man. Jesus questioned the moral. Both were executed. Can this be mere chance?” (p. 75).

Flusser sees Jesus as supporting neither revolt nor the Romans in his famous render unto Caesar pronouncement. These are Caesar’s coins, it’s his money, give it back to him. You can’t serve two masters (p. 76). In discussing Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God Flusser makes clear Jesus was no Zealot, but then he concludes “Because there are clear similarities between the rabbinic idea of the kingdom and that of Jesus, we may assume that Jesus embraced and developed their idea” (p. 77). No, we may certainly not assume that, for the rabbinic sources are too late to have influenced Jesus, and we do not know what bits of them, what ideas in them may go back to Jesus’ day. Unless a saying is quite clearly and plausibly linked to a very early Jewish teacher from before or during Jesus’ era, we can make no such assumptions.

Flusser, somewhat surprisingly buys the older idea from German scholarship that Jesus kept the concept of the kingdom of God and of the messianic Son of Man quite clearly separate in his mind (p. 79). This is false, as Jesus’ use of Dan. 7.13ff. shows where we find both ideas together in one OT passage. But there is force in the argument that it is not Jesus’ eschatological expectations which determine Jesus’ view of God and human beings, but rather the reverse.

Flusser goes on to stress that Jesus and the rabbis agree that the kingdom is both present and future, but with differing perspectives. For the rabbis the kingdom had always been an unchanging reality (God’s reign), but for Jesus God’s kingdom was breaking into history at a specific point in time. (Mt. 11.12). In Jesus’ view there are already individuals in the Kingdom. “This then is the realized eschatology of Jesus. He is the only Jew of ancient times known to us who preached not only that people were on the threshold of the end time, but that the new age of salvation had already begun” (p. 80). This of course is not quite true—various of Jesus’ followers such as Paul and Peter did as well. The Kingdom of God was present and growing amongst the people like a grain of mustard seed, or like yeast in dough. Thus kingdom becomes a cipher not just for God’s eschatological rule on the earth but a divinely willed movement that spreads among the people on the earth. Herein lies the subversive and revolutionary character of Jesus’ ethic (p. 81). When one enters that realm, that community, one finds one’s inheritance.

In an interesting insight, Flusser suggests (p. 82) that the reason for Jesus’ ethic of non-resistance is in part a result of his eschatological conviction as follows: “Since Satan and his powers will be overthrown and the present world-order shattered, it is to be regarded with almost indifference, and ought not to be strengthened by opposition. Therefore, one should not resist evildoers; one should love one’s enemy and not provoke the Roman empire to attack. For when the kingdom of God appears, all this will vanish.” Jesus according to Flusser is more shaped by the world view of Jewish sages, John the Baptist more by the Essene worldview, but you would not know this from Flusser’s arguments in the chapter on ethics and the kingdom thus far. However an important point comes to light on p. 83. The designation Son of Man does not occur in the Essene literature anywhere, not even in connection with Dan. 7.13-14. Flusser thinks however that John the Baptist expected that eschatological figure of Dan. 7 to show up imminently and judge the world ala Mt. 25.31-46.

Flusser thinks there was a fundamental disconnect between Jesus and John—“Jesus’ doubts about John [‘blessed are those who find no offense in me’] were justified. John never accepted Jesus’ claim because of his different eschatological timetable” (p. 84). Jesus sees John not only as a sort of Elijah figure. Flusser thinks that Jesus connected John with the Deut. 34.10 prophecy ‘no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses’ when Jesus says ‘among those born of woman, there has arisen no one like John’ (Mt. 11.11-15). John was a member of the previous generation of the era of the prophets, not a member of the new kingdom of God which had broken into human history. (pp. 84-85). Jesus in other words affirms a tri-partite division of history—the age of the prophets now over, the coming of the kingdom of heaven (now happening) which is a transitional time, and the future eschatological age of final judgment and redemption. John operated with a bipartite structure, with the final judgment imminent. Not Jesus. (p. 85). Jesus’ parable of the weeds is his answer to John’s already now in the harvest and the axe of final judgment is laid to the root of the dead tree. Jesus sees the intermediary period when the Kingdom is dawning as a period when the wicked, the sinners and the righteous will and must live together. According to Flusser, Jesus is the only one to connect this interim period with the coming of God’s kingdom on earth (p. 86). Jesus’ views about the kingdom are again said by Flusser to be based in rabbinic Judaism. But Jesus is unique in identifying the coming of this Kingdom also with the days of the Messiah (p. 87). The concept of the kingdom in rabbinic Judaism was that of course God ruled all de jure now, but in the eschatological future God would rule de facto when the kingdom of God is revealed to all earthlings. The phrase ‘age to come’ was used strictly of the eschatological age involving the final judgment the resurrection of the dead, the new heaven and new earth (see 1 Enoch 71.15; B.T. San. 91b). Jesus was distinctive in thinking that the days of the Messiah and the kingdom breaking in corresponded and were already happening in his day. There was speculation on the length of the messianic period (B.T. San. 99a). Jesus however says that no one knows when the Son of Man is coming and the age to come will begin.

Flusser spends time discussing the parallels to the eschatological schema Jesus that he sees in both the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, 29-30,39-42,72-74 and 4 Ezra 7 and 12.32-36, both of which he dates to the late first century, as he does the book of Revelation. What is especially interesting about 4 Ezra is that it talks about a Son of man figure coming on the clouds (4 Ez. 13), “but in 4 Ezra he becomes a supernatural messianic savior, and therefore his appearance does not form part of an eschatological system. He is not the eschatological judge.” (p. 93 n. 56). What Flusser does not contemplate is the possibility that Jesus may have seen himself as such a supernatural Son of Man savior figure. He does however point out that in both the Gospels and in 4 Ezra the Messiah dies. It appears possible that messiah and Son of man are seen as different figures in 4 Ezra.

How should we view Jesus’ understanding of the relationship of his own ministry and the future coming of the Son of Man for judgment? Flusser puts it this way—“in his eschatological system, the coming of the Son of Man is postponed together with the Last Judgment into a distant future. This change lies at the center of the conflict between the Baptist and Jesus. Moreover, I believe that Jesus came to the conclusion that he himself would be reveled as the divine Son of Man….The identification by Jesus between the messianic age and the kingdom of heaven in which Jesus will have the central task is, by the way, an additional proof that Jesus was sure that he is the Messiah.” (p. 95). The reason that Jesus does not say in so many words in public that he is the messiah, is because he had not yet finished the tasks of the messiah (p. 99 n.15). Most striking is Flusser repudiation of the eschatological analysis of A. Schweitzer and his successors. “Jesus was not wrong when he asserted that before the ‘day of the Son of Man’ the age of the kingdom of heaven will still come. Those who are shown to be wrong are the modern adherents to the ‘acute eschatology’ of John, and not Jesus.” (p. 96). Since the kingdom of heave was identical with the messianic age it became a dynamic force in history breaking into it at the time of the Baptist, and it is not a statement about God’s supramundane ruling of his universe.

Like the work of G. Vermes (whose work came after that of Flusser), Flusser compares Jesus to other early Jewish miracle working holy men like Hanina bin Dosa and Honi the Circle Drawer. He accounts for Jesus’ periodic withdrawal to quiet and private places, his use of the term Abba because of his intimate relationship with God, and the use of the ‘Son’ language to his being like these holy men who also in some contexts were called Abba and God’s ‘son’ in some favored or special sense (pp. 97-100). He also parallels Jesus’ relationship with children and that of Hanan who allowed children to have access to him. Flusser rejects the messianic secret notion of Mark as a later construct, but sees the secretive aspect of Jesus’ healings as parallel to the fact that these other holy men also healed in secret, not wanting credit. Flusser argues that the rabbis address God as “our Father” does not have the same weight or significance as Jesus addressing God as ‘my Father’ or as Abba. Here he followers Jeremias. (p. 100 and note 18). Jesus distinguished between his unique sonship and the common fatherhood of God for all believers. Jesus apparently did see his divine sonship as unique and decisive. And so Flusser goes beyond Vermes in saying that Jesus’ sonship went beyond the sort talked of by the Jewish miracle workers. His sonship was a consequence of his election through the heavenly voice at baptism. (p. 101). Flusser accepts the event on the Mount of Transfiguration as historical, and argues that when the voice from heaven said “this is my beloved Son, listen to him” there is a double echo here--- the term beloved is Greek for only, hence an allusion to the Isaac story and thus Jesus’ coming martyrdom is likely, and secondly the phrase ‘listen to him’ echoes Deut. 18.15 which speaks of God raising up a prophet like Moses, after which is said “listen to him”. (p. 103). This is one of the real strengths of Flusser’s reading of the Jesus material. His knowledge of the wider corpus of Jewish literature is so vast that he readily finds the echoes and allusions much more easily than some scholars. Of course this can be overdone.

Flusser sees the parable of the wicked vineyard tenants Lk. 20.9-19 and par.) as crucial. It reveals the clash between Jesus and the Saducees, but it also reveals Jesus’ sense of sonship, his predestination as prophetic preacher, and his knowledge of his coming tragic end (p. 103-04). Flusser thinks as well that the parable reveals that though Jesus knew he would be killed, he also believed his cause would be victorious (p. 105). He points out that in Jewish tradition the ‘stone’ of Ps. 118.22 was identified with David, but here Jesus suggests it refers to himself. But Jesus was also here seeing himself in the long line of prophets which Israel had martyred. There was in 2 Macc. 6-7 the notion of martyrdom as atoning sacrifice. But Flusser is not convinced that the Mark 10.45 form of the famous saying is original (cf. Lk. 22.27), and that Jesus spoke of his coming death as in order to expiate the sins of believers. He adds “Nor is it likely that he saw himself as the suffering atoning servant of God described by the prophet Isaiah.” (p. 106). In other words, Jesus did not see himself playing out and carrying out the role of the suffering servant, that was a later church deduction. Jesus, says Flusser, wrestled with death to the very end (p. 106).

Perhaps the most important chapter in Flusser’s book is Chapter 9 on the Son of Man. Flusser thinks that the Caesarea Philippi episode is historical, and that even Mt. 16.18-19 is fundamentally genuine (p. 107 n. 1).

Like Vermes again, Flusser concludes that in the ‘present’ Son of Man sayings, the phrase ‘son of man’ simply means ‘man’ in a generic sense, and has no bearing on nor any information about Jesus’ messianic hopes (p. 109). In regard to the Son of Man passion predictions, Flusser had changed his mind from the first edition of his Jesus book to the final. His later judgment was that Lk. 9.44 and 22.21 were authentic and that Jesus had spoken about his being handed over into the hands of (wicked) men. Here Jesus uses the phrase as euphemistic form of self-reference (p. 111). Flusser adds that Jesus may have had an aspiration to be that Son of Man figured revealed at the end and sent to judge the world.

On p. 111 Flusser reiterates that he is convinced that Jesus spoke and taught in Hebrew, not Aramaic, and that the Semitic language behind the 3 Synoptics is Hebrew. Few scholars today would agree with him. Therefore, though Dan. 7 is in Aramaic, and though Flusser believers Jesus drew on Dan. 7.13-14, he argues that when Jesus spoke about the son of man he did not use the Aramaic phrase! Based on the fact that in Test. Abraham 12-13 the eschatological son of man is identified with Abel, the son of Adam, “this is proof that the Son of Man was so called in Hebrew: ben adam” (p. 111). Even more extraordinary is the fact that Flusser argues that while for Daniel son of man referred to ‘the saints of the most High’, yet we learn from Ethiopic Enoch that this identification is secondary. “Originally the Son of Man was the man-like eschatological judge”. In 1 Enoch 48.10; 52.4 and 4 Ezra 13 the Son of Man is clearly identified with the messiah, but in 1 Enoch 71 he is identified with Enoch himself.

On p. 115 Flusser is emphatic that in his own lifetime various persons such as Peter saw Jesus as the Messiah. Had this not been the case the titulus on the cross is inexplicable. “The one like a man who sits upon the throne of God’s glory, the sublime eschatological judge, is the highest conception of the Redeemer ever developed by ancient Judaism” (p.115). On p. 116 he ponders whether Jesus realized that his execution “was the crown of his transvaluation of all the usual values”.

Chapter 10 discusses Jesus’ relationship to and with Jerusalem. As a prophetic figure Jesus expected to die in Jerusalem, and as a prophetic figure he also foresaw its coming demise. Flusser (p. 118) takes the lament for Jerusalem in Lk. 13.34-35 as authentic. Jerusalem was given its chance to embrace Jesus, but does not (Lk. 19.41-44).

Flusser believes that Jesus did foresee and discuss the demise of the Temple and Jerusalem, and following his usual tendency prefers the Lukan version of the ‘little apocalypse’. He stresses the periodicity of Luke’s account where he lets the reader know there are various stages to the future, and that these events do not all transpire at once or within a generation. Indeed Luke adds the phrase ‘when the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled’. Flusser also believes that Jesus foresaw and believed in the regathering of the dispersed tribes of Israel into the Land (see pp. 122-31). He accepts that Jesus made some eschatological predictions without being an imminentist when it came to predicting the final judge or the return of the Son of Man. Mark is said by Flusser to replace “the true historical picture of Jesus’ solidarity with his people” which is found in Luke, by references to ‘the elect’ by which is meant the Christians in Mk. 13, according to Flusser. This may or may not be a fair analysis of Mark. Flusser thinks, again on the basis of Luke, that Jesus only spoke to the merchants to get them to leave the Temple precincts, presumably because he can’t imagine Jesus would use force. (p. 132 n. 41). On the basis of a text like Zech. 6.12 he also thinks that Jesus not only predicted the demise of the Herodian temple but expected the erection of an eschatological temple perhaps by himself, or by the hand of God (p. 133). The long and the short of this, is that a person who threatened the destruction of the temple was threatening the positions and livelihood of the priesthood and the whole temple apparatus and in Flusser’s view this is why Jesus was turned over to Pilate as an insurrectionist. Romans did indeed protect temples throughout their realm, recognizing they were the flash points where rebellion might focus its attentions (p. 134). Flusser accepts that Jesus had a pascal meal with his disciples, that he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and did not shirk his destiny, that he was indeed betrayed by Judas, and that he did indeed say ‘this is my body given for you’; foreshadowing his death (pp. 135-36).

On p. 138, Flusser makes the plausible suggestion that if there was a called meeting of the Sanhedrin in the case of Jesus, then it must have been much like the later one which condemned James in A.D. 62. The high priest then had called upon his Sadducean friends (a quorum of 23 out of 71 was necessary for the death sentence according to Mish. Sanh. 4.1), and so in effect the hearing or trial was rigged. He deems it likely that few if any Pharisees were present or would have consented to this. he assumes their reaction would have been much like their later reaction to Annas’ action against James the Just, namely they got him deposed. Flusser rejects the idea of a night meeting and also rejects the idea of an official action of the Sanhedrin meeting as a whole condemning Jesus to death. Once more he gives preference to the Lukan account of things (p. 139). Flusser points out that since Jesus was buried in neither of the two graves specified in Mish. Sanh. 6.5 for those executed by order of the Sanhedrin, this also points to the conclusion Jesus was not condemned to death by that body. Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea is seen as a historical fact. The man was doing an act of charity, which was his duty since he was on the Jerusalem council and was wealthy. It was a mitzvah. Flusser accepts that Nicodemus, a wealthy Galilean who nonetheless was also on the Jerusalem council, was involved in this burial. He believes this is the same Nicodemus mentioned in B.T. Git 56a. He thus envisions (p. 142) that Jesus spent his last night on earth simply in custody in Caiaphas’s house. They then met the next morning in the Sanhedrin for a fact finding exercise—to figure out what charges they could bring against Jesus to the Romans. The one’s present were largely the Temple hierarchy. Flusser, again following Luke and Acts accepts as historical the idea that Jesus was sent to Herod Antipas by Pilate for judgment. Jesus’ answer to Caiphas implied he believed he would rise after his execution. Flusser adds (p. 144) “I am convinced that there are reliable reports that the Crucified One ‘appear to Peter, then to the twelve. Then to more than 500 brothers and sisters…’” Flusser, pointing to Philo and Josephus and Luke concludes that Pilate was a butcher, not a fair minded proconsul. Flusser takes the time to demonstrate this point ‘in extenso’ and to show the basic anti-Semitism and weaknesses of the man as well from both Jewish and Roman sources (pp. 143-51). This in turn informs his analysis of what the Gospels actually tell us about the man. “Pilate’s exaggerated dependence on the Emperor in Rome was an important factor in his fatal decision about Jesus” (p. 151). Flusser accepts as historical the idea that there was a custom to release a prisoner at Passover (p. 154). He even says that it is possible that the high priest and his henchmen did indeed cry ‘crucify him’ when Pilate asked what to do with Jesus (p. 155). But if Pilate was to release Barabbas, then by default he had to execute Jesus, because it was only one prisoner at Passover who got the amnesty. It is possible that Pilate did not formally pass judgment on Jesus, but had him executed anyway. Philo says that this sort of way of dealing with situations, without a formal judgment being passed was typical of Pilate (Philo, Legat. 38.299-305). Flusser deems it likely on the basis of the famous Karabas parallel in Philo Flacc.36-39 that Jesus was dressed up and mocked as a faux king by the Roman soldiers, including with a crown of thorns. He also concludes that Jesus did indeed say from the cross, ‘Father forgive them they know not what they do.’ (p. 158). Flusser takes this intercession to be on behalf of the soldiers carrying out the execution who are ignorant of the real truth of what has transpired, not on behalf of those Jews responsible for getting Jesus to this point. Flusser believes Jesus was crucified between two brigands or revolutionaries, and that he cried out at the end, though as we noted before he thinks that Ps. 22.1 is put on his lips by Mark (p. 161).

How was the church to overcome the crisis caused by the crucifixion of its savior? Flusser (pp. 162-63) suggests that in the first place Jesus had told them, for example in the parable of the wicked husbandmen that he would go from being the stone the builders rejected to the capstone. The cross would not hinder the triumph of his cause. Thus Flusser must account somehow for the change that came in the structure of the Christian faith. He finds two forces at work: 1) the placing of the story of Jesus into the broader framework of a metahistorical drama involving a pre-existent one who became incarnate died on the cross, rose, and returned to his father until he should return to judge the world. The second force that led to change was the birth of the Gentile church largely through the ministry of Paul and his co-workers. “This second revolution fueled the Christological development.” It also fueled the unraveling of the relationship with early Judaism. Flusser, to the end of his study continues to insist on the importance and high self-awareness or messianic self-understanding of Jesus, and near the close of his study he stresses “it would be absurd to suppose that Christianity adopted an unambitious, unknown Jewish martyr and catapulted him against his will into the role of chief actor in a cosmic drama”. (p. 164). Rather Flusser thinks that Jesus’ self-understanding however germinal in form, provided the seed for the great flowering of Christology about Jesus thereafter. In this fashion he makes clear that one cannot at the end of the day radically separate the historical Jesus from the Christ of early Christian faith.


CP said...

thanks again off the topic fast do you type? The volume of work in either blog, books, articles etc is amazing...thanks again.

Ben Witherington said...

I type with only 2 index fingers.....

Anglopressy said...

Do you dictate this stuff?

John Fraser said...

Just imagine what he could do if he learned to type with all 10! :)

Ben Witherington said...

Nope, I just type away-- no dictation for me. I don't even have a proper secretary.


Rodney Reeves said...

Don't let Ben fool you. Have you seen the Verizon commercial, where the guy text-messages while sleeping?

Look very closely. That's Ben. said...

I have had trouble taking Flusser seriously because his work depends on the assumption that much of later rabbinic tradition existed prior to the time of Jesus. Anachronism is not just an idiosyncrasy of his work, but is at the core. Am I missing something? Does Flusser still have something to contribute?

Derek Leman

James W Lung said...


Thanks for calling our attention to this very important book. Hopefully I will someday understand enough of Bp. Tom Wright's work to then see how Flusser's work compares to Wright's, and fits in to the process of understanding Jesus in light of first century Judiasm.

Eventually honest scholars will have to admit that the New Testament truthfully relates what actually was said and done by Jesus during His ministry.

That Flusser rejects the primacy of Mark makes me absolutely giddy. I love it.

Thanks once again, and I pray God will continue to bless your ministry. Peace.

John Farrell said...

By chance, I happen to be reading Claude Tresmontante's The Hebrew Christ, (1989), which I assume is quite dated now--but he too places at least Matthew before Mark....

Anonymous said...

Wow, I just got encouraged to buy a new book.

Philip G said...

Thanks for this excellent summary. It is interesting that a Jewish scholar is prepared to accept more of the gospel's account as historical than many modern theologians. From your summary Flusser seems to have played down the importance of apocalyptic themes in the gospels - by denying the primacy of Mark's gospel, by playing down the Son of Man references and by suggesting that the idea of secrecy in Jesus' ministry was a Markan invention. Would you go as far as NT Wright does in finding apocalyptic themes in large chunks of the gospel message?