Sunday, December 11, 2016

While awaiting the Light ...

This Advent season I'm listening to an interesting Great Course, twenty-four lectures on Jesus and His Jewish Influences by Dr. Jodi Magness. She teaches Syro-Palestinian archeology and early Jewish history at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The aim of this course is to provide an understanding of how Jesus’s teachings and views were shaped by his Jewish background and context, illustrated by selected passages from the canonical Gospel accounts. ...The purpose of this lecture series is not to authenticate the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s sayings and activities; rather, we will illustrate how the Gospel accounts fit within the context of early Judaism—that is, Judaism in the time of Jesus—and how the Gospels inform us about Jesus’s life and ministry.

She's set herself a big, convoluted, task here. The first lecture consists entirely of definitions of terms that we misunderstand when we project our notions into the past. A couple of examples: "temple" -- the literal dwelling place of a god and "monotheism and monolatry" -- the later is the worship of one god while accepting the existence of other deities, a commonplace in the older Hebrew writings. This helps, but Magness is striving so hard to overcome accreted assumptions -- certainly Christian ones but I suspect also contemporary Jewish ones -- that the result sometimes feels like a series of disjointed leaps through millennia of Jewish history. Perhaps that's nature of a short survey course.

Yet I've learned much I hadn't before appreciated.
  • Who knew that a scholar can make a case that Jewish mythologizing of the very real flash-in-the-pan Greek conqueror Alexander the Great who overran Palestine in 332BC paved the way for the notion of a divine man/god? The scholar Ory Amitay argues

    that Alexander’s historical role as the paragon of divinization helped prepare the way for the acceptance by Jews of the principle of the divine son. Alexander was a flesh- and-blood person who broke the barrier between humanity and the divine. Another well-known parallel between Alexander and Jesus is that both died at the age of 33. Amitay notes that Alexander was a bridge between the worlds of monotheism and polytheism. He concludes, “Alexander and Jesus were close neighbors in the boiling matrix of God’s heroes and demons which characterized the religious life of later antiquity.”

  • I'm familiar of course with Gospel asides such as "Can anything good come out of Nazareth [Gailiee]? (John 1:46) What I'd never taken in -- maybe someone had told me but I missed it -- was that Galilee had only been part of the Jewish/Judean world for a short time.

    ... His Jewish descent would have been questionable, as well. In fact, Galilee had been Judaized by the Hasmoneans only a century before Jesus’s birth. Therefore, by Jesus’s time, the population of Galilee included non-Jews who had been Judaized, or forcibly converted to Judaism, by the Hasmoneans a century earlier, as well as descendants of Judean colonists.

    Jesus wasn't just a country bumpkin -- he was one with a suspicious ancestry. Hence the elaborate birth narratives.
  • Magness is at her most enlightening discussing the ascetic Essenes, the Jewish sect that lived at Qumran and left the "Dead Sea Scrolls" manuscripts in caves there. She is emphatic in her view that Jesus could not have been an Essene, although his followers shared some similar apocalyptic expectations and also sometimes held their goods in common.

    ... the Qumran sect adopted a priestly lifestyle. Every full member lived his everyday life as if he were a priest officiating in the Jerusalem Temple, which meant that full members observed the highest level of Jewish ritual purity. But according to the Gospel accounts, Jesus regularly came in contact with members of the Jewish population who were impure. ...The Qumran sect was an exclusive sect; full membership was not open to the majority of the population. Jesus’s approach, however, was inclusive. He welcomed everyone into his movement.

    Oh -- and John the Baptist wasn't an Essene either. They'd have found his diet of locusts and honey quite repellent.
Studying ancient history in these awful days does not truly distract. But I find I can experience fellow feeling with people who had the misfortune to live through calamitous events in past times.

All quotes here are from the .pdf with accompanies the audio of this course.

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