As part of my ongoing research for the book, Messiah, I am reading many portraits of Jesus by academic writers. If you didn’t already, see the post below, “Musings on Some Academic Portraits of Jesus”
I’m working my way through a list of books and want to get more McKnight and Witherington into my brain. As I said yesterday, they are among those who come closest to my views about Jesus (if only they could get a dose of Sanders).
As part of my reading, I’m going through McKnight’s A Light Among The Gentiles: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period. It has more bearing on New Testament studies in general than specifically on Jesus studies, but I figure it can help me get a feel for McKnight’s position on several Jewish questions. Along with many of the scholars I mentioned yesterday, McKnight believes Jesus changed significant parts of the Torah. Yet, as we will see here, his appreciation for Second Temple Jewish literature is large.
The following are short summaries of ideas from the introduction and first chapter of A Light Among The Gentiles (get it used on amazon here).
1. McKnight takes on a tradition, especially in German theology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of asserting the superiority of Christianity as a universalistic, redemptive, mission-minded movement in contrast to Judaism’s nationalism, legalism, and separatism. He calls these older treatments “propagandistic apologetics.”
2. In chapter 1, “Judaism and the Gentile,” McKnight seeks to show both sides of the equation with regard to Jewish separatism and integration. He says:
The facts support clearly the grid that most Jewish groups . . . both resisted non-Jewish culture and also integrated themselves into that culture.
3. He finds eight kinds of examples of tendencies in Second Temple Jewish communities of integrating with the surrounding culture: universalism (God is for all nations), friendliness with Gentiles, allowing Gentile participation in Judaism, seeking citizenship in Rome, Hellenistic education for many Jews (including sages of renown), intermarriage with Gentiles, assimilation away from Judaism and into Roman life, and at the far end: apostasy from Judaism. Many Jewish texts from the period indicate a belief that God is for all nations. Friendliness with Gentiles and participation in Gentile culture is widely evidenced.
4. He finds six forms of Jewish resistance to Gentile culture: separation and belief that Gentiles will be judged, exclusion of Gentiles from temple precincts, repudiation of all idolatry, prohibition of intermarriage, revolting against political attempts to compromise with the temple and with Judaism, and a literature of God’s wrath against Gentiles in the final judgment.
5. McKnight concludes from this study that earlier statements of Jewish separatism and misanthropy were based on selective reading. He notes that scholars failed to read thoroughly and find that in nearly every instance of a Jewish text denouncing Gentiles, the text was qualified in some way. For example, many texts denouncing Gentiles would go on to say positive things about Gentiles as well. The overall message is that Jews of the period criticized Gentile immorality resulting from their idolatrous worldview. McKnight gives as an example a line from the Letter of Aristeas:
“that we might not mingles at all with any of the other nations but remain pure in body and soul, free from all vain imaginations, worshipping the one Almighty God above the whole creation.”
McKnight demonstrates clearly in this chapter a broad reading of Second Temple Jewish literature. We can say with confidence that this is a scholar who has done his homework. As I continue to summarize A Light Among The Gentiles, we will get some interesting perspective on the question: did Jews in the time of Jesus missionize Gentiles actively and try to convert them?