The Halakic Jesus

John Meier’s fourth volume of A Marginal Jew came out last spring, and is focused on placing the historical Jesus within the Jewish Law of his time. The title of his introductory chapter, “The Historical Jesus is the Halakic Jesus,” is an excellent summary of his thesis, and as he says later, “The historical Jewish Jesus must be seen as a Jesus immersed in the halakic discussions, debates, and actual practice of 1st-century Palestinian Jews.” The word halaka (Hebrew for “walking,” “conduct,” “behavior,” etc.) is used to refer to a legal opinion or ruling concerning specific human conduct.

The idea of understanding Jesus better by sorting out how he fits in to the local religious context and controversies of his day is hardly new, but Maier does an excellent job. We Mormons, with our focus on conduct and behavior, in particular may have quite a bit to learn from this approach. One of my favorite observations so far comes from an illustration of one of the criteria frequently used by questers for the historical Jesus, the criterion of discontinuity. Fr. Maier writes,

To take a curious example…: when asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies by citing the two commandments enjoining love of God with all one’s heart and love of neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-34). At first glance, the reader will perhaps be surprised to see that I invoke the criterion of discontinuity to establish the historicity of this anecdote. After all, the two commandments, taken by themselves, are simply citations of two precepts contained in the Pentateuch (Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18b). True, but what is “discontinuous” is what Jesus does with these texts. He (i) cites each commandment word for word, (ii) joins the two of them back to back, (iii) ranks them explicitly as “first” and “second,” and (iv) concludes by declaring that no other commandment is greater than these two. This fourfold configuration of a double commandment of love is found nowhere else in the OT, the literature of Second Temple Judaism, the rest of the NT, or the early patristic writings. All this constitutes a glaring discontinuity of teaching that often goes unremarked.

One could consider that Jesus’ discontinuities of religious conduct were as innovative and provocative in his day as Joseph Smith’s new prescriptions for religious conduct have been in our day. Maier’s eventual summary seems to be that in the end, it is fruitful to consider Jesus’ command to love in the same sort of strict, behavioral context that laws on purity, divorce, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were viewed: a very concrete, observable, even measurable context.

Beyond the scholarly interest — and Maier is an engaging writer, in my view — for us such an analysis also seems to raise the question: while Mormons do an excellent job of measuring conduct on a remarkably similar set of criteria (dietary restrictions, sabbath observance, purity, etc.), do we as a community treat the commandment to love with the same rigor?

6 Replies to “The Halakic Jesus”

  1. I have not had the privillege or reading volume four of his work yet, just reviews. But I was very Impressed with the first three volumes. He integrates the intellectual and spiritual in trying to understand the life and teachings of Jesus that I admire a great deal.

    If James E. Talage were writing Jesus the Christ today I am quite sure he would use Maier’s work as an important source

  2. What do you think of some of the other authors writing on Jesus’ Jewishness such as Geza Vermes? I’ve read a lot of these and while on the whole they are amazingly informative and provide a new way to think about the NT, there also seems to be a bit of the “if you’re a hammer everything is a nail.” That is they don’t put their exegesis in the context of other sometimes incompatible ways of reading the text. Also the range of what Judaism was at the time isn’t always as clear to the reading as one would wish. (Yes, they usually do acknowledge it, but still I think the degree of ignorance of Jesus’ context isn’t paid as much attention to as it ought)

    Don’t get me wrong, I love these sorts of books. They are a great counterbalance to far too many Christians who read the NT too much in light of later Patristic thinking. But I sometimes think reading him too much in terms of Rabbinical Judaism can lead to the same problems.

  3. Page 126 of Preach My Gospel seems to do the best job so far of measuring conduct when it comes to charity. It would sure be nice if we had a conference talk or lesson material on what it means to be charitable in the context of life in the 21st century.

  4. Clark, Albert Schweitzer’s “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” written when he was a relatively young 31 years old, has a line that arrests my thinking even when I read it again now:

    “There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”

    I find that many of these books end up simply revealing the authors’ preconceived biases. (See: Bart Ehrman) Sometimes, so obviously so that it becomes comical. (See: Bart Ehrman) It’s obviously tough to avoid this, I’m sure I would fall prey to the same tendency. So I agree with you, I love these sorts of books, but there are few authors who can really, truly do the analysis correctly as Schweitzer pointed out more than 100 years ago. Maier does it better than most.

    John & Sterling, thanks for your comments, I agree with your sentiments.

  5. Great question. The commandments to love–especially those who we are not naturally inclined to love–have always seemed frustratingly abstract and, well, difficult. As silly as it seems, what if we could, as a way of developing charity, somehow quantify love or make it concrete enough so that we can make ourselves *perform* it, rather than merely intellectually assent to the idea of it. As much as I usually dislike the “conduct” checklist approach to obedience, I have to admit that it usually results in more spiritual growth than sitting around having groovy thoughts about God and the universe.

  6. More and more I’m thinking that home and visiting teaching statistics are exactly a first step at measuring how much we love. Do we love enough to take a few families under our wing and make them part of our lives, to stay in touch with their needs, and to visit them faithfully with a gospel message each month? If we can’t do that, how well do we really love?

    Same with sharing the gospel. If you don’t quake at the thought of your neighbors having to suffer in hell for their sins (even if temporarily before they get “sprung” from Spirit Prison) because you didn’t share the gospel with them in this life, how much do you really love them?

    Is it possible that no matter how well the primary or Sunday schools are working, the average U.S. ward with maybe 30% home teaching each month, and 2-3% growth by way of missionary work, would seem to be manifesting a significant lack of love?

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