By Herb Levine, Soundly Jewish Editor
"Questions form communities," Richard Benton told his Temple Beth El audience, but "answers make divisions between communities." We can see this process at work in our own day and in our own country, he said, as we deal with the consequences of an increasingly polarized political landscape.And so it was in the first century C.E. in Roman-occupied Palestine, he explained to the more than 45 participants in this Sunday morning adult education event. In those days groups within the Jewish community defined themselves and each other through the different answers they gave to the same questions — among them, the earliest Christians.
Jewish studies in Wisconsin, Seattle, Olympia
Benton earned a PhD in Hebrew and Semitic studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught courses in Jewish mysticism and cultural history. Last academic year he was the Hazel D. Cole fellow in the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he taught "The Hebrew Bible in the Middle Ages" and conducted research on Jewish liturgical poetry.
Last fall, Benton brought Jewish studies to Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he is currently offering a course on Islam, Christianity and Judaism. (See our article: Jewish studies come to Evergreen.) His research interests include comparative Jewish and Christian theology, and he studied theology at St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York.
Benton grew up in Lincoln, Neb., and the Denver area, in a "nominally Lutheran" family. He converted to Orthodox Christianity during his time at St. Vladimir's, he told Soundly Jewish.
Myths of authority
Every group has its "founding myths," Benton said, by which scholars mean the stories communities use to define themselves. Crucial to religious communities is the "myth of authority," the story that explains how we know something is true. "All myths of authority are circular," he explained. For example, Muslims follow Muhammad because he is God's prophet, and they know he is God's prophet because his Quran tells them so. Similarly Jews follow Torah because it is the word of God to the Jewish people, and they know that because Torah tells them so. Christianity works no differently.
What authority myths did the Jewish groups of the first century use? Benton led his increasingly rapt audience through some original texts, bolstered by the observations of the contemporary Jewish Roman historian Josephus.
The separatist Jewish sect at Qumran (which may have been an example of the group Josephus called the Essenes), relied for its authority myth on a "Teacher of Righteousness," whose authority was enforced by the knowledge contained in a hidden "sealed book of the law."
The Pharisees, the precursors of rabbinic Judaism, relied on the Oral Torah, as transmitted from Moses to their own day, to "make a safety fence around the Torah." Their great rivals, the Sadducees, did not leave any writings. They relied solely on the written Torah — and on their direct control of the Temple in Jerusalem through their supporters in the priesthood.
As for the early Christians, Benton cited the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus appeared transfigured to his apostles, talking with Elijah and Moses. "Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!" (Mark 9:2-7). There could be "no better authority" than a direct statement by God.
Same verses, different interpretations
The different groups could take the Tanach and make it work for them. Thus Qumran could interpret Isaiah's reference to a voice crying out as an injunction to prepare the way of the Lord "in the wilderness," as it was doing in its isolated desert refuge (Isaiah 40:3). But Christians interpreted that voice as "crying out in the wilderness" just as John the Baptist did (Mark 3:4).
Similarly, Christians seized on the "suffering servant" image (Isaiah 53) as prophetic of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. Jews offered entirely different interpretations, which had nothing to do with the Messiah.
The clean and the dirty
Benton showed that the competing groups all asked a very Jewish question: "What is cleanness?" This referred to ritual purity, not hygiene, although the two could overlap. "Our group is always clean," he said. "The other group is always dirty."
The other group is also both bad and dangerously alluring. Thus Qumran warned against "mediators of fraud and seers of deceit" (possibly the Pharisees) who tried to exchange the hard way of true Torah for "smooth things." And early rabbinic teachings cautioned against the "pleasures" of the Christian "heresy," comparing it to the harlot who seduces young men in Proverbs (Prov. 5:8).
All these groups practiced a kind of entrapment, catching their rivals in allegedly absurd interpretations of cleanness, which were then used to disqualify them as authorities on true Torah. In this way each group could claim to be the "true Israel."
The group at Beth El asked some probing questions. Issues raised by participants included the Christian claim of the divinity of Jesus, and the apparent contradiction between monotheism and the Trinity.
Benton explained that these elements of Christianity developed as attempts to answer "non-Jewish questions." They marked the spread of Christianity from its Jewish origins to the surrounding Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) world. It was the Greek world that asked philosophical questions about the nature of God and God's engagement with humanity.
Although no Jews in the first century C.E. were truly isolated from the Greek world, Benton said, they still asked their uniquely Jewish questions. Once Christians went beyond those questions, they also left the Jewish community behind, although from their point of view they remained the "true Israel" and it was rabbinic Judaism that abandoned the true meaning of Torah. Christians went out into the wider world as followers of a new religion, increasingly incomprehensible to those who still called themselves Jews. ■
Hear Zachary Baker, prominent Yiddishist and passionate fan of fine music, speak on "Mahler, Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein and ... Rumshinsky? Reflections on the Yiddish Theater and Its Legacy." This is the next Sunday morning adult education opportunity sponsored by Temple Beth El, March 4, at 10:45 a.m. For more, see our event announcement.
Photos by Herb Levine