Later in the 19th century, the German theologian David Freidrich Strauss (1808-1874) openly and categorically revolutionizes the New Testament study by arguing that only the “Historical Jesus” was worthy of serious study. The boldness of this statement did not endear Strauss to many of his colleagues or the local Church. Strauss denied the miraculous and supernatural nature the Church had long attributed to Jesus. Strauss argues the synoptic gospels present a much more realistic portrayal of Jesus in contrast to the Gospel of John, which completely spiritualizes Jesus as a hypostasis of God in the flesh. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Gospel of John portrays Jesus who is well aware of his identity and reflects the early Church’s portrayal of Jesus as a cosmic figure and the exclusive spiritual intermediary to God. All this points to the idea that early Christianity evolved over time, and the traditions reflect this Church’s movement.
In his The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Strauss laments how the New Testament study has been viewed in solely supernatural and legendary terms. Strauss is the first thinker to argue that the New Testament must be interpreted in mythical terms. He correctly observes that the reason the earlier studies of the NT did not use the mythic approach was the mistaken notion that myth only pertained to the pagan religions. Moreover, the more time that elapsed, the more fantastic the supernatural claims became in Christianity. Nobody thought that myth might apply also be used as a hermeneutical way of interpreting the Gospels.
Of course, this begs the question: How did Strauss understand “myth”? Strauss defines myth as “the representation of an event or idea in a historical form but characterized by the pictorial and imaginative thought and expression of primitive ages” (Lawler, 42). Accordingly, there are three categories of myth:
q There is a historical kernel of truth, which reflects an actual event.
q Oftentimes, a philosophical thought, precept, or idea is presented in the guise of history.
q The comingling of the poetic blends the historical and philosophical myth together. To some degree, the human imagination embellishes these fused sections and in doing so, sometimes tends to obscure the facts of the original narrative (Strauss, 53).
Thus, Strauss held that the sundry gospel miracles ought to be understood as natural events, but these events later became misinterpreted and misrepresented due to the gospel narrators. Strauss was far ahead of his time, but he would later find several advocates and champions who did not feel threatened by his controversial ideas within the next two centuries.
Throughout Gentle Judaic Wisdom, I shall attempt to chronologically show as many parallels to the wisdom expressed by Jesus that later appears in rabbinical literature. While many Jewish scholars tend to minimize the original contributions of Jesus, the originality of many of his aphorisms seems to have been widely accepted after his death. This might suggest a number of possible scenarios worth considering: Either the 1st century Sages held Jesus’ moral teachings in high regard and even quoted or paraphrased his wisdom, or that some of the Sages independently arrived at a similar conclusion.
Over time, some colleagues I have spoken to wished to say that Jesus said nothing that the Sages didn’t say before him. Yet, the Talmud records,” R. Eleazar further said in the name of R. Hanina: Whoever reports a saying in the name of its originator brings deliverance to the world, as it says, “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai…”(Est. 2:22). Maimonides himself often said that one should accept truth—regardless of its source.
In some instances, the similarity of nomenclature suggests the similarities are more than coincidental. One may surmise that once the Talmud became redacted, the latter rabbis wanted to distance themselves from the true source of some of their teachings! Given the aggressive behavior of the Christian Churches, the rabbis’ reticence is quite understandable. It is also important to note that many of Jesus’ teachings have numerous parallels in the writings of Ben Sira, Philo, The Letter of Aristeas, The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and other works of the Pseudepigrapha. We can say that the ethical teachings of Jesus fit into a new ethical understanding of Judaism that placed the primacy of morality over ritual, as seen in the teachings of Ben Sira, Hillel, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Philo of Alexandria.
The Nexus between James & Pirke Avoth
The Letter of James is arguably one of the most Jewish sounding works of the NT. Martin Luther’s disdain for James is especially significant. In his Preface to the NT, Martin Luther criticized the Book of James as an, “epistle of straw.” He did so because the author rejected the Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith” which taught, “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28).
For Luther and his followers, this particular teaching is at the heart of Pauline Christianity and even argued for its removal from the NT canon because of its “Judaic” overtones. Traditional Judaism has long stressed that actions speak louder than platitudes about faith. Some historians are uncertain whether James really wrote the book attributed to him. While it is quite possible that many of the book’s core teachings came directly from James, the rhetorical style and mastery of Koine Greek hardly seem like the skills that the son of a carpenter would have possessed in ancient Judea. More likely, another writer polished the words of James and gave him a flowing rhetorical style. Luther, of all people, should have known better. Nevertheless, Luther’s contempt for James and Judaism are two major reasons why Jews might find James a wonderfully proto-rabbinic work type.