Biblical Misperceptions

By Ticktin, Harold | Midstream, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview

Biblical Misperceptions

Ticktin, Harold, Midstream

Though people constantly quote and cite from it, the truth is that few people have a clear understanding of the structure of the Bible. By "structure" I mean the manner in which the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament came to have their present form and, perhaps as critical, sequence. The question is important because of the simple fact that both books are placed together for Christians, giving the impression of one holy book following another as a kind of sequel, close in time. In fact, there is very little historical warrant for putting both volumes together since, at the very least, the final structure of each is separated by some 500 years.

Most contemporary scholars agree that the final form of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, was reached after the return from Babylon when Ezra read "the Law" to the assemblage in connection with rebuilding the Temple. The latest acceptable date would put the event somewhere near 400 BCE. Since the last Hebrew king associated with a prophet was Zedekiah in 586 BCE, 186 years earlier, it is clear that both the Torah and the Prophets, which constitute more than two-thirds of the Hebrew Bible, were solidly in place for at least a half-millennium, long before the New Testament achieved its final form. Indeed, the New Testament was not canonized until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. The third component of Tanach (Hebrew for the sum total of Hebrew scripture) -- the writings -- was also probably in place at or about the same time as the Torah and the Prophets, though not yet integrated into a "final" text. That would await the fall of the Second Temple and rise of Rabbinic Judaism, circa the second century CE.

With the exception of the book of Daniel, most Hebrew books written between Ezra and Jesus were specifically excluded from holy writ. They were regarded as mere literature, commentaries on what was already fixed -- human wisdom at best, not revelatory. Though some of it was praised highly, e.g., Ben Sira and Ecclesiasticus, much was scanted, like the book of Maccabees, which was put into the Apocryhpha and is non-canonical for Jews and Protestants. The Pharisees and their successors, the Rabbis, who came to dominate Jewish life after 70 CE and the real rivals to Christianity, never regarded the Maccabee descendants as proper heirs to the Davidic dynasty. They considered them Greek assimilationists.

Unquestionably all halachic (legal) injunctions and ceremonies incumbent upon Jews were in place before what we now call the intertestamentary literature (400 BCE to 100 CE), all of which, modern scholarship tells us, was thoroughly Jewish (whatever the disputes) without a hint of Christianity until mid-first century CE.

Nevertheless, during that period it cannot be said that, regardless of agreement on what was holy text, Judaism was a single-set phenomenon. Both the history of the times and the virtually unanimous conclusion of modern scholarship point to many Judaisms, all relying on the same holy book for validation. Out of that intellectual cauldron was to come both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

Just as Christianity was accused of "superseding" Judaism, so did the Rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era supersede their forbears, minimizing what went before them. The opening stanzas of Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, illustrate this strikingly. "Torah" is handed from Moses to Joshua to "the Elders." No kings, priests, or even prophets are mentioned; a deft disposing of 1,000 years in the interest of making Judaism more Rabbinic and less priestly. It is precisely this Rabbinizing of Jewish life at the time of Jesus and after that constitutes the form of the dispute between Christianity and Judaism, not, it must be repeated, disagreement between the Old and New Testaments.

From what didn't make the "final cut" we may conclude that some 98 percent of the Hebrew Scriptures were in their present form almost 2,500 years ago, well before the appearance of Jesus and the early Church. That fact is supremely important, because both Christians and Jews regarded the Old Testament as fixed and unrevisable -- and certainly, as Jesus himself put it, not changeable. (Matthew 5:17)

What remained was to interpret what all accepted as bedrock. The very heart of the Jewish/Christian split concerns the interpretation of the Pharisees/Rabbis against that of Christianity. Out of that split came a schism between contending factions -- Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish Christianity -- each claiming its particular interpretation of the same text.

Undoubtedly there were continuing innovations in the 400 years after Ezra, but they were integrated into a national entity, with the Temple as the religious core, in a society that did not separate church and state. In that period it is clear there was no prophecy (except perhaps Daniel), and whatever the disputes among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, the final consolidation of what we now call normative (that is, retrospectively sanctifying one school among various ones) "Judaism," as we know it today, did not arise until after the fall of the Second Temple at approximately the same time Jewish Christianity was fast becoming Christianity alone.

What has been discussed thus far relates to the substance of the Jewish/Christian saga. Just as important is the sequence within each text. Are the texts similar? Does the New Testament in some manner seek to follow the form of the Old Testament, while radically revising its import?

The answer is yes to both questions. The form in which the reader of the New Testament reads the text almost exactly reverses its historical components; that is, the earliest written portions of the New Testament, Paul's letters, are placed sequentially after the later portions, which describe the life of Jesus. This fact is critical as to form.

New Testament scholars overwhelmingly agree that Paul's letters to a Young Church were written about 47-55 CE. Despite that fact, however important Paul may be for what has come to be known as Pauline Christianity, the Church Fathers preferred to follow the lines of the Hebrew Bible, by placing the story of Jesus first and Paul's polemics about Jesus later, even though that reversed their ontological order.

The reason for that arrangement is the desire to follow the general scheme of the Hebrew Bible's claim of the Jews as the "True Israel." Just as Genesis purports to lay out the foundation of the world, so do the Gospels lay out the undergirding for the New Covenant by placing the life of Jesus first, though the final form of his life was not set in place until after Paul's letters had circulated for some years. Written after Paul's letters, none of the Gospels mention Paul, though Luke is universally held to be the author also of Acts, which does detail Paul's missionary efforts. Sequencing is clearly the reason, and the Hebrew Bible is the model. Otherwise, given the hegemony of Pauline Christianity, one would expect some reference to the pivotal role of Paul in the various editing and revisions of the Gospels, which shape Jesus' story in Pauline directions.

For quite the same reasons, the Christian enumeration of the books of the "Old Testament" is different from that of the Hebrew Bible. The Christian "Old Testament" ends with Prophets. The Jewish sequence is Torah, Prophets (Neviim), and the Writings (Ketuvim). The obvious reason for the Christian renumbering is to put Prophets last because Jesus is considered by Christianity the last prophet of Judah.

Matthew has long been regarded as the most Jewish gospel, probably expounding the confession of Jesus to wavering Jewish/Christians, despite 27:25's "blood on our hands" cry. The author of Matthew told the story so that Jesus would appear as the new Moses. The text and grammatical patterns recapitulate the Moses story, including the birth and infancy narratives. The Egypt narrative, recalling the Exodus, is followed by the Temptation, which parallels Moses's difficulties, while the Sermon on the Mount (significantly containing five discourses) summons up Mt. Sinai, as does the Transfiguration. Matthew even posits an analogy between Peter and Joshua as successors.

How could it be otherwise? After all, whatever the relationship between the two religions, Christianity would be unintelligible without Judaism, hence its desire early on to coordinate itself with its predecessor.

Simply reading the New Testament without knowing the scholarship that has sorted out the sequences, one would gather that the death of Jesus was followed by the activities of the Young Church as chronicled in Acts (usually referred to as Luke-Acts) and that Paul's letters followed Acts in time. They did not. They preceded Acts. Since much of the story of the "Young Church" in Acts revolves around Paul's career, ending with his departure for Rome to defend himself against the accusation of preaching Jesus as Christ/Messiah, it seems that Paul's career follows the Gospels. As indicated, the opposite is the case.

Paul's letters, though some were doubted as early as the second century CE, the oldest portion of the New Testament, nevertheless assume that some sort of post-Jesus association had quickly come into being when he wrote. Yet Paul never mentions anything resembling Gospel history in his letters, though it is clear that Paul knows of the crucifixion and resurrection. Conversely, he seems to know nothing of the virgin birth. The editing that results in definitive Gospels post-date him. Clearly, they were not yet in being when he wrote. There is good reason for this. There was only one version of Paul's letters, but there were many Gospels circulating (Thomas, Peter, and many others) before the canonization of the present four.

The untutored reader who picks up his or her Gideon's Bible in a lonely hotel room has the impression that as one book closed, the other opened. After all, what is held in one's hand looks that way. Indeed, much Christian preaching assumes as much. "We picked up where the Jews [often referred to as late Judaism] left off." The fact is that the 500 years dividing the Hebrew and New Testaments saw the height of Hellenistic culture in the Middle East. The period also embraces the dramatic impact of Persian civilization on the Jews (responsible for hell, the after-life, and the activity of angels such as Michael and Gabriel); it produced a new Jewish Royalty, the Rabbinate, and a bewildering assortment of Judaisms. Christianity appeared at the end of that 500-year process. It did not appear as a kind of sequel to a recently closed Old Testament.

Indeed, the viewpoint of the New Testament is contemporaneous not with the Hebrew Bible, which it sees as very ancient, but with the practices of Pharisaic Judaism. It has been said that there was less difference between Christianity and Pharisaic Judaism than there was between the latter and the Sadducees who ran the royal dynasty. Except perhaps for Ben Hut, there is no evidence anywhere for Christian Sadducees. In fact, a Christian Sadducee would be a kind of oxymoron. Christians could derive only from Pharisees, this despite all the speculation that Jesus might have been an Essene.

Sadducean belief was too far removed from the Pharisees to be comprehensible to budding Christians who shared with the Pharisees a belief in the afterlife (hence the resurrection as a Pharisee-sanctified possibility, which Paul specifically argues for in Acts, to say nothing of his self-identification as a Pharisee).

The early Christians didn't know they were Christians: they saw themselves as believing in the true Israel, a matter of exclusively Jewish concern. The Torah and the Prophets were cited to invoke a consonance with the ancient past just as we appeal to the Constitution to justify a course of action today.

That is precisely why the book of the Maccabees was included in the Catholic Bible and not in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Christian canon had room for the recent hero, Judah Maccabee, who, it is implicitly claimed, saved the patrimony for Jesus -- while the elder religion, in the persons of Rabbis disgruntled by Maccabean Hellenism, saw the Maccabees as royalist interlopers into their theocratic universe. For Christians, Judah Maccabee was consonant and therefore canonical. For Pharisees and Rabbis, he was the founder of a political sovereignty contrary to classical Judaism and therefore non-canonical.

It has been argued that the Catholic Old Testament is nothing more than the Alexandrian Jewish Canon; therefore no particular importance should be attached to the inclusion of Maccabees, since Ben Sira's book of wisdom was likewise included. The short answer to that one is that the Church never created a Saint's day for Ben Sira, but did for Judah Maccabee, a day now abolished by the Western Church but retained by Eastern orthodoxy. Thus it is that the Catholic "Old Testament" contains the books of the Maccabees. For Jews, Maccabees are omitted as for most Protestants, who thus underlined their separation from Rome by following the Jewish lead.

The discordant notes that arose between Judaism and Christianity were specifically occasioned because the New Testament differed so sharply from Rabbinic thought, not from the Hebrew Bible. That is why it was acceptable in the early years to have Jewish/Christian sects that were simply regarded as differing in their interpretation of a Judaism that had already seen many such differences. Ultimately, Christianity's new doctrines were not a sequel in Jewish eyes, but a revision, too radical to be kept in the Jewish fold, however, and nevertheless clearly a product of that fold.

The misperception that sees the two texts close in time, and therefore spirit, is exceedingly misleading. The New Testament's battleground is not at all the same among the various Gospel writers. Matthew, and even John, bear marks of the encumbering Jewish shell. The dispute is with the Judaism of the 500 years that separates them. As a Jewish dispute, it is between the Jewish Christians and the Pharisees/Rabbis. Only when the word "Jewish" is dropped from the former does a true "separation" occur. The volumes may look close and even alike. They are not.

When Christianity placed a divine Jesus as Son of God at the center of its belief, it was challenging not the Hebrew Scriptures, but 500 years of practice after the Hebrew Bible was essentially closed. Alleged divinity coupled with suspension of Jewish law meant the inevitable split, not because the Hebrew Bible did not expect a Messiah, but because the Rabbis refused one in that form. The Hebrew Scriptures might have accommodated the notion of God's Messenger. It was the Rabbis who objected vociferously, and that dispute is still with us, not an illusory one between two "sequential" texts.

HAROLD TICKTIN, an attorney residing in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively on subjects of Jewish interest.

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