Musings on Some Academic Portrayals of Jesus

I am working on an upcoming book, Messiah, and enjoying a great deal of reading and some re-reading of academic portraits of Jesus. I appreciate the wide variety of voices trying to get back to who Jesus was. I even appreciate the ones I strongly reject, since they show me how thinking unconventionally about Jesus can be done.

I strongly reject but radically appreciate portrayals of Jesus by John Crossan, Marcus Borg, Geza Vermes, Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredicksen, Albert Schweitzer, and many others. In an upcoming post I will give a summary of their portraits of Jesus.

I come much closer to agreement with a handful of scholars: N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight, John Meier, E.P. Sanders, Craig Blomberg, and others.

But I still find that no one perfectly represents what I think is important about Jesus. In this brief musing I want to explain why I wish I could find a scholar who blends some of the fine traits of the close-but-not-quite portraits I see above.

Specifically, I wish I could get a little of E.P. Sanders mindset injected into Wright, Witherington, McKnight, and Blomberg. Alternatively, I’d love to see a little more Wright/Witherington/McKnight/Bliomberg infused into Sanders. What do I mean?

Sanders represents my strong value on Judaism and seeing Jesus as a figure within Judaism and not overturning any aspect of God’s Torah. By contrast, Wright, McKnight, Witherington and Blomberg all want to see Jesus as announcing the end of some aspects of Judaism (dietary law, Sabbath, etc.).

Witherington’s comment is typical. He says that we must see Jesus as continuous with Judaism but in other ways as discontinuous:

The difficulty for any historian is in achieving the right balance between Jesus’ continuity and discontinuity with early Judaism. Insist on too much discontinuity, and it becomes impossible to explain why Jesus had an exclusively Jewish following during his lifetime and why so many Jews were interested in giving him a hearing. Insist on too much continuity, and differences of the church from early Judaism, even in the church’s earliest days, become very difficult to explain. (The Jesus Quest, pg. 122).

Witherington is a great scholar and I certainly wish E.P. Sanders could catch a little Witherington-itis, but the last sentence of that quote begs for an overlooked answer. If you accept the conclusion that Judaism already contained within it and that the New Testament affirms a different relationship for Gentiles to Torah than for Jews, the problem of the early church’s discontinuity with Judaism goes away entirely. Acts 15, where the apostles decided Gentiles need not live like Jews was the right conclusion from the Torah and not an innovation (it was an innovation for Judaism at the time, but the viewpoint of Acts 15 was not an anti-Judaism argument but an intra-Judaism one).

Sanders, by contrast, gets Jesus’ relation to Judaism so right. He can be faulted for throwing away some of the evidence (he doubts the validity of some of Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees), but I love what he says about Jesus and Judaism:

Those who presumably know the most about Judaism, and about the law in particular — Jewish scholars — do not find any substantial points of disagreement between Jesus and his contemporaries, and certainly not any which would lead to his death. (Jesus and Judaism, pg. 55).

That comment may sound overreaching, but the context is Jesus’ view of the law. Sanders does not mean Jesus had no conflict with the Jewish leaders. He simply means their conflict was not about the law.

I wish Wright, Witherington, McKnight, and Blomberg could get that Jesus was not saying the temple was outdated, but that the temple leadership was corrupt. He was not saying that the dietary law was obsolete, but rejecting the imposition of extra standards of separation. He was not overturning the Sabbath for Jews, but sharply critiquing a formalistic approach to holiness (getting Sabbath and worship regulations right while ignoring greater matters of justice and love). I wish these scholars could understand the early church as the product of Acts 15 and the very Jewish view that Gentiles need not convert to be in relation to God.

Sanders certainly has his problems too, problems to which Wright/Witherington/Meier/McKnight/Blomberg offer a corrective. Sanders, for example, believes Jesus’ message was acceptance without repentance (ouch, what a non-Jewish idea!).

I have been greatly enriched by all of the scholars mentioned above, including the ones whose views I strongly reject. But how I would love to see a synthesis of a strongly historical and a strongly Jewish Jesus. I wish we could get scholarship that combines both strengths.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Amy-Jill Levine, Ben Witherington, Christian, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Theology, Yeshua. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Musings on Some Academic Portrayals of Jesus

  1. Angela says:

    Sounds like you’re the one to do just that.

  2. conniewyluda says:

    Jesus and his disciples never abandoned Torah. You could say that Jesus is the living, breathing embodiment of Torah. His problem was never with the law itself, but with the fences built around it to maintain its purity.

    In discussions like this, I often find myself saying, “If God had wanted me to be a Jew, He’d have made me one.” I love how you put it, “… a different relationship for Gentiles to Torah than for Jews.” How much painful history between Jews and Christians could have been averted by recognition of this simple fact long ago. God made each of us according to His pleasure, Jew and Gentile. If we Christians can accept that we have our God-given role and Jews have theirs, we can take off the shackles of replacement theology and start the healing with our Jewish brothers and sisters. For many Jews, that healing must take place before meaningful conversations about Messiah can take place.

  3. net2merc says:


    Yes, Derek, I agree that the time is right for the Jewishness of Jesus to be revealed to the world, and particularly to the Christian body of Christ in wonderful historical Biblical truth through scholarship. May the real Jesus (Yeshua) be loosed, God of gods, Lords of lords, King of kings! Bless His wonderful name.

  4. Pingback: Bockmuehl: Jesus’ Jewishness and the Historical Quest « Messianic Jewish Musings

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