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The Historical Challenge of Rabbi Jesus

By the Rev. Howard Bess
May 13, 2010

Editor’s Note: Religious doctrine and dogma remain important in modern times not just inside churches, synagogues and mosques, but in domestic politics and geopolitical conflicts which often are exacerbated by the rigidity of those who think God is on their side.

Religious fundamentalists also are prone to insist on a magical interpretation of the past rather than accept what the available historical record reveals, a disparity that Baptist minister Howard Bess addresses in this examination of the real Jesus:

Today’s New Testament scholars have lively arguments among themselves; but they have a near unanimous opinion about one thing: Jesus was a Jewish rabbi.

Once that is settled, an important realization follows: As a conscientious rabbi Jesus was a student, teacher and practitioner of Torah, or Jewish law based on the first five books of the Bible. (Torah also is defined in Hebrew as teaching or instruction.)

By tradition and by reasonable assumption, we can conclude that Jesus at an early age became engrossed in the study of Torah. He took on the challenge of living out the precepts of the Torah and applying them to his times.

In doing so, Jesus became a beloved Jewish rabbi and developed a large following in rural northern Palestine.
Yet, how did Jesus become a recognized rabbi? Was he simply a bright and charismatic person who happened to come along at the right time? Or was Jesus one of those rare individuals who practiced what he preached and thus gained attention, a reputation and a hearing from Jews whose formal religious leaders were collaborating with Rome?

Many, including me, believe that Jesus taught the meaning and application of Torah to his rural following and was willing to live out the precepts he taught. The simple life that Jesus lived was dramatically different from the far more comfortable lives of most rabbis who were his contemporaries.

Jewish religious leaders of the time were committed to cooperation with a corrupt and vicious Roman Empire that claimed divinity for its Caesars. Jesus could not bear the thought of being an ally of imperial Rome nor of its collaborators in Jerusalem.

To do so was contrary to his best understanding of Torah. His tool to achieve change among the Israelites was the telling of stories.
Historically rabbis are story tellers, and Rabbi Jesus was a master of the art form, putting his teachings in allegories that were easily understood by his listeners, who were mostly rural, poor and mostly illiterate.

The stories he told and the sayings he repeated were highly critical of the religious, political and social leadership in first century CE.

The life circumstances and experiences of his audiences fostered the remembering of the stories of Rabbi Jesus. They listened, they remembered, and they shared his stories with others. Jesus became notable because he was a rabbi who stirred the imagination of his listeners and challenged them to live in an earthly kingdom in accordance with Torah.

Jesus called this Torah-centered society “Kingdom of God.”

The Christian Jesus

However, the Jesus that is found in modern Christian churches is not a Jewish rabbi telling stories that represent a contemporary commentary on Torah. The Jesus that is typically found in 21st century Christian churches is a theological Jesus.

We all recognize the outline of the theology: He was born of a virgin. He is God incarnate. He is the second person of a trinity. He is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world by his death on the cross. He is the risen Lord. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who sits on a heavenly throne next to the Father God.

I am not suggesting that the creedal Christ of the Christian church be set aside. But I am pointing out that the Christian churches are denying a historical reality. Jesus from Nazareth was a truly great Jewish rabbi. He understood the challenge of the rabbinic role of teaching and interpreting Torah, which was viewed as the law of God.
The rabbi Jesus is the Jesus that Christians do not want to hear about for obvious reasons: If the rabbi Jesus is embraced, the followers of the creedal Christ are immediately confronted with Torah and the challenge of living according to it. (The historical context implicit in Rabbi Jesus also can be viewed as diminishing the creedal Christ.)

After all, the role of a Jewish rabbi and Torah are joined together at the hip. One cannot be considered without the other. The typical Christian is very happy to be saved and assured a place in heaven, but living in accordance with Torah is barely given notice.
The rabbinic tradition is fascinating. Torah never changes but the application of Torah changes constantly in accordance with the context of living. If Jesus is to be understood as a rabbi, we also need to recognize that he was a part of an ongoing tradition that would take into account the challenges of our time.
When Jesus was queried about Torah, he responded that it all could be summed up in two statements. Love of God and love of neighbor. Apparently these two statements in the mind of Jesus are never changing.

Yet, when he was asked to expand on love of neighbor, he told a story. In my imagination, if rabbi Jesus were asked questions in 2010, he would tell more stories, but he would not tell the same ones.

His new set of stories would be set in earthquakes, oil spills and hurricanes. They would be about animals, delicate plants and our earth’s environment; about paying taxes, luxury cars, and fatherless children.

They would be about courts and people in prisons; about farmers, lawyers and bankers, about immigrants and drug dealers; about football quarterbacks, senators, homeless alcoholics and scientists; about soldiers and protest marches.

Rabbi Jesus demands that his followers take Torah and the Kingdom of God everywhere they go – and Torah avoids no place or situation.

Christian churches are reluctant to go where Rabbi Jesus pointed, on a challenging journey through the crises of the time. They are too busy thanking God for salvation and a quick trip to heaven.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is               

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