Brother Jesus | Notes & Review

Posted on March 6, 2011


Schalom Ben-Chorin. Brother Jesus: The Nazarene through Jewish Eyes. University of Georgia Press, 2001. (252 pages)

1 The Figure of Jesus

For me, the New Testament is certainly not holy scripture in the canonical sense. …it is a document that belongs to the history of Jewish faith and preserves much of relevance to the salvation of Israel. (4)

What middle ground can we discern, then, between an unverifiable historical position, on the one hand, and theological-literary fantasy, on the other? Intuition. Intuition and fantasy are not identical. Intuition, as I understand it, grows out of a lifelong familiarity with the text and allows it to be interpreted subjectively. Subjectively, to be sure, but not in an unbridled fashion. (5)

The belief of Jesus unifies us, but the belief in Jesus divides us. (6)

The question of the divinity of Jesus cannot exist for the historian or for the Jew. (8) Jesus can, therefore, not be taken as the Messiah, even if messianic features in the image of Jesus are clearly transmitted to us. They are products of kerygmatic revisions of a later hand. (8)

I believe that we can recognize in Jesus’ interpretation a clear tendency toward the internalization of the law, whereby love constitutes the decisive and motivating element. (10)

The world of the Pharisees, like the world of contemporary Jewish orthodoxy, is a closed system, seamlessly knit together by a relentlessly consistent logic. Faith, however, represents a kind of daring that must be retained in the freedom of love beyond all assurances. It is here, probably, that the antagonism arose between Jesus and the Pharisees. (12)

There are seven kinds of Pharisees:

  • the shoulder Pharisee carries his good deeds on his shoulder [i.e., openly, before the whole world]
  • the gleaning Pharisee says, “Wait for me. I must fulfill the commandments [and have no time for you]”
  • the balancing Pharisee pays off each debt [i.e., sin] by performing a commandment
  • the frugal Pharisee says, “From the little I have, what can I set aside for performing commandments?”
  • the debtor Pharisee says, “Tell me what sin I have committed, and I will perform a commandment to offset it”
  • the fearing Pharisee is like Job
  • the loving Pharisee is like Abraham

The most dangerous type of Pharisee, however–and it is on him that the light of the Gospels falls–is the “colored” Pharisee: that is, the hypocrite. (13)

2 Birth and Rebirth

In the Talmud there are striking allusions to a belief in the transmigration of souls, or rebirth, such as the remark, “Mordecai, that is, Samuel.” (20) gilgul neshama (גלגל נשמה) Jesus’ answer is not that a person dies and then is reborn, which would correspond to the concept of the transmigration of souls, but that a person can be reborn from water and spirit… (22)

If the judgment of God makes stones out of men, the grace of God can make men out of stone, an image also found int he prophets in the form of a conversion of the heart of stone into a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26) (34)

Teshuva: the return is the answer to God’s call to mankind, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9), which had already been posed to Adam. Man, in returning, answers as Abraham did: “Hinneni, here I am” (Gen. 22:1). (37)

3 Physician and Teacher

We frequently observe even today in Israel, especially among the Oriental circles of Jews and Arabs, that people go not to a physician but to a miracle worker–or rather, also to a miracle worker. (44)

That means that the Divine avails itself of plain and simple symbols of earthly material in order to be understood. (49)

  • The spiritually poor, with whose blessing the Sermon on the Mount begins, are therefore the people who intentionally remain poor in order to prepare themselves for the spirit.
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Isaiah 57:18, 60:20, 61:1-2; Psalms 94:19, 126:5). We do find a rejection of this conception in the Talmud, “Not sufferings and not their reward.” (BT, Berakhoth 5b)
  • “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit [or, possess] the earth.” (Psalm 37:11)
  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Amos 8:11)
  • “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive [or, find] mercy” (Here the lex talionis of the Torah, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is turned in a positive direction: mercy for mercy. “Rabbi Gamaliel said in the name of Rabbi, ‘Whoever has mercy on his fellowman will find mercy in heaven; whoever does not have mercy on his fellow man will not find mercy in heaven'” (BT, Shabbath 151b).
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Psalm 11:7)
  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Isaiah 52:7-10, 57:19) The peaceful Hillel, who has many character traits in common with Jesus, teaches in Pirkei-‘Avoth 1.12, “Belong to the students of Aaron, who love peace and strive for peace.”
  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Isaiah 50:4-9, 51:7-11)
  • Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you…” (Isaiah 53:7)

Jesus was in fact no dogmatic or systematic thinker, for he was–a Jew. He spoke and behaved as dictate by circumstances, and to absolutize individual sentences of Jesus would do violence to him. (58)

Only by loving one’s enemies can a person truly act in the imitatio Dei, the imitation of God. (60)

The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount constitutes the admonition on proper almsgiving. (61)

Regarding Matthew 7:6…This admonition is understandable in terms of Deuteronomy 23:18(19): “You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute [Hebrew text: ‘dog’] into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the Lord your God.” The male temple prostitutes of the pagan Canaanite cult were called dogs (among the Babylonians they even wore dog masks) because they exploited sexually in canine fashion in the temple orgies. Therefore, the dog money is named in conjunction with the harlot money. The harlots are clearly, in the hardly less crude phraseology of Jesus, the “swine,” which are on the same level as the dogs. Jesus here attacks the perversion and travesty of tsedaka, which obtains when the money owing to the poor is cast at the feet of harlots and male prostitutes. (62)

The concept of originality was foreign to antiquity. That is difficult for the modern mind to understand. Modern literature suffers under the danger of plagiarism, whereas ancient literature suffered under the danger of pseudepigraphy, which is exactly the opposite of plagiarism. (62) …Pseudepigraphy represents a type of ancient literature that is no longer conceivable…The author wished in fact not to be original but to validate his thoughts by the conveyance of a well-known name. (63)

4 Wedding at Cana

The phrase ki tov, ‘for it was good,’…was symbolically transferred to the two participants in the marriage ceremony: one for the bridegroom and one for the bride. In this symbolic interpretation the bride and groom may look forward to double happiness in marriage. (65)

It is important to note the significance of wine in Jewish tradition. Wine is absolutely essential to Jewish ritual…(Psalm 104:15; 100:2)

5 The Parables

…by means of the parable a man arrives at the true meaning of the words of the Torah. (72)

Moshel can mean both ‘speaker of parables’ and ‘ruler.’ (74)

The gates of repentance are always open, according to the saying of the rabbis, and nothing is greater than repentance. (78) …The intent of Jesus’ narrative is clearly to establish the primacy of grace over the law. (78)

The road [from Jerusalem to Jericho] leads through a desert region, the very one into which the scapegoat was sent on the Great Day of Atonement to be cast down from the ‘Azazel rock (Lev. 16:8-22). (84)

The significance of this parable came home to me in a profound way in 16 May 1961 at the forty-first session of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Provost Dr. Heinrich Gruber of Berlin, a German official who had selflessly aided persecuted Jews and paid for it in a concentration camp, related the following conversation: “Eichmann said to me, ‘What do you care, after all, about the Jews? They won’t be grateful for your effort. Why, then, all this activity on behalf of the Jews?’ Since I figured that he, as a former Templar, was familiar with this country (Israel), I replied, ‘ You know the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho?’ Then I said, “A Jew who had fallen among thieves once lay along this road. Someone who was not a Jew came by and helped. The Lord, whom alone I listen to, said to me, Go and do likewise. That is my answer.'” (85)

The quintessence of this parable is that we see our neighbor in whatever person we encounter in daily life. (85)

Whoever saves a soul in Israel is as a person who has saved an entire world, so the rabbis teach. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the ethnic boundary is consciously removed: whoever saves a soul, whoever saves a human life, saves an entire world. That is the fulfillment of the commandment of love. (86)

Hermann Cohen once said that brotherly love is otherly love. …Jesus does not conclude with an answer to the question, only with the imperative to act. (86)

6 Teach Us to Pray

…the person who prays is a child of God and is, as are all who call upon God, justified in saying the words “Our Father.” (89)

Judaism has never set its hopes on an afterworld. Hebrew does not even have an expression for it, speaking instead of the world to come, the ‘olam haba‘. (93)

…faith always exists in the condition of expectation–the expectation of the unknown, the entirely other. (94)

7 Jesus and the Women

Unlike the (other) disciples of John, Jesus himself was no ascetic, indeed, he was thoroughly devoted to the joys of life. (96)

This marvelous song (Luke 1:46-55) is essentially a New Testament psalm, artfully constructed from elements of the Hebrew Bible: that is, from the thanksgiving prayer of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10) as well as various passages from the Psalms and Genesis. One cannot accept that a simple Jewish woman from Nazareth could have composed this learned lyric. (97)

I can think of no other words that express greater depth and kindness than those spoken by Jesus to the sinful woman anointing him. (98)

It seems to me important an typical that gentle female hands should anoint this new Abraham, much as the earlier Abraham was pictured int he company of his exquisitely beautiful wife and half-sister Sarah. (Luke 7:36-50) (99)

was Jesus married? (100) An unmarried rabbi is hardly imaginable. The Talmud sharply condemns celibacy: “Whoever has no wife is without joy, without blessing,…without Torah, without walls (against sexual promiscuity),…without peace;…a man without a wife is no man” (BT, Yevamoth 62b). (101)

I am therefore of the opinion that Jesus of Nazareth, just like every rabbi in Israel, was married. (102)

In none of the writings considered sacred within Judaism at the tie of Jesus is celibacy idealized. That is significant. (103)

8 Who Am I?

Jesus is closest to us precisely in this moment in which he is no longer certain of himself and asks the question fundamental to all human existence, “Who am I?” (105)

9 On to Jerusalem: Victory Procession or Path of Martyrdom?

It is therefore quite natural that the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem, whether it happened only once or was repeated, takes place within the framework of the pilgrimage, the aliyath-regel, to Jerusalem, though it was construed at the same time as a victory procession. (116)

Nonviolence sets all of the soul’s strength against the will of the tyrant. – Gandhi

10 Seder Night in Jerusalem

I cannot understand how serious scholars such as Gunther Bornkamm can doubt that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal, a Seer meal. …For me it is enough that the synoptic writers present this supper unambiguously as a Seder meal. (125)

We may assume that Jesus, who stood in open opposition to the Sadducees and Pharisees and, presumably through his rabbi John the Baptist, had contact with the sect of Qumran, used the solar Qumran calendar, according to which he would have celebrated the Seder one day earlier than the official circles in Jerusalem. [VIA: Especially considering “a man carrying water!”] …women did not participate in a Seder meal that followed the ritual and calendar of Qumran. (131)

Exodus 6:6-7…The four proofs of grace are, then: freedom, deliverance, redemption, and taking (choosing). (136)

His purpose was rather to take this meal that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and append to it the memory of his own sacrifical deed, thereby creating a synthesis through the act of zikkaron, ‘holy memory.’ (139)

“Iscariot” may relate to Judas’s membership in the Sicarians, the anti-Roman activists. (140)

11 The Fifth Cup

The rabbis took a dim view of these late-night walks after the Seder meal, since it often happened that they turned into Greek-style orgies. (147)

Vehotseithi, ‘I have led you out.’ The first cup is raised.
Vehitsalti, ‘I have rescued you.’ The second cup is raised.
Vega’alti ‘ethekhem, ‘And I have redeemed you.” Another cup, the third, is emptied, the cup of fulfilled salvation.
Velakachti ‘ethkhem, ‘And I received you, you sons of Israel.’ This is the fourth and last cup, also a cup of salvation, the kos yeshu’oth, given to the people of the covenant, chosen through grace–the cup to which Jesus has given his own interpretation. (149)

Jesus now recognizes, however, that the Father is offering this cup of suffering to him. (150)

12 The Longest Short Trial

Pilate does not ask about the truth but puts truth in question. For him there is no truth, only power. Whoever has power is in the right and possesses authoritative truth; truth is, in the final analysis, what is useful to Rome. (166)

This twofold changing of garments (whether it actually took place or not — Luke 23:11; Mark 15:17) with its three-stage sequence (original-new-original) serves a narrative purpose, in that it has implications for Jesus’ death of atonement, which is meant to serve as a substitution for the great Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:4, 24) the high priest, who carries out the act of atonement, exchanges his white vestments for a golden garment, only to have his original vestments brought to him again following his completion of the atonement ritual. This sequence is explicitly described in the Mishna (Yoma, 7.3-4); (166)

What is more, to the Christian mind this alleged self-cursing (Matthew 27:25) would have contained an element of salvation. Whereas the blood of Abel cries from the earth for vengeance (Gen. 4:10), the blood of Jesus purifies, according to the faith of his community, from all sins. [VIA: See Pope Benedict IV: Jesus of Nazreth, 2011] (170)

What is most obvious in all of this is that Christ’s church has never really taken to heart the commandment to love one’s enemies. (171)

The soldiers throw a purple officer’s coat around him, exactly as the legions would throw a purple coat around the shoulders of their field general as a sign of having chosen him to be their Caesar. (172)

In theological terms, the coronation of Jesus with the crown of thorns and the purple coat signifies the beginning of the new age, in which all debts are forgiven as a result of the sacrifice of this powerless “Caesar.” (173)

13 INRI, or The Curse of the Crucified


Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων (Iesous ho Nazoraios ho Basileus ton Ioudaion)

ישוע הנוצרי ומלך היהודים (Y-H-V-H) [Yeshu’ Hanotsri W/u-Melekh Hayehudim]

Jewish law recognized four kinds of capital punishment: stoning, burning, decapitation, and strangulation. (175) The idea that a man had to be taken down before sunset is ancient. It is documented as early as Joshua 8:29 and 10:27… (176)

An example is provided in the Midrash Rabba to Genesis 22:6: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac.” The midrash comments, “Like one who carries his stake on his shoulders.” Isaac, who bears the wood to the sacrificial altar on Mount Moriah, is portrayed as one bearing a cross. (178)

…the reference to Simon of Cyrene provides us with a factual clue that the walk to the place of execution occurred in the middle of a workday. (179)

We should stress that it is not essential to hold to the common assumption that Jesus was nailed to the cross. (180) [VIA: Although cf. Acts 2:23; Colossians 2:14]

There can be no doubt that these words [My God, my God…] are authentic, since they are incongruent with all Christian dogma. (183) Remarkably absent among the statements from the cross is the Hebrew confession of faith, the Shema’ Ysra’el:…which every Jew speaks in the hour of death and which Jesus himself counted among the highest of all commandments. To me, the absence of the Shema’ Yisra’el is itself an expression of Jesus’ sense of absolute God-forsakenness. (184)

Here ends the story of Jesus. Here begins the story of Christ. (187)

…we know nothing about what happened after the burial of Jesus. What we do know is that he has risen time and again in the souls of men and women who have encountered him. And here we begin to touch on the secret of the Christian soul, to which no one can have access who stands outside of this mystery. (188)

Posted in: Religion, Reviews