Getting Judaism, and Jesus, Wrong

Once again, in the attempt to make Jesus relevant to the twenty-first century, another of his followers winds up mischaracterizing first-century Judaism.
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Once again, in the attempt to make Jesus relevant to the twenty-first century, another of his followers winds up mischaracterizing first-century Judaism. These seekers after relevance make Jesus' Jewish context represent everything we don't like -- sexism, elitism, militarism, you name it -- and then depict Jesus as the one Jew to stand against his oppressive culture. Jesus can stand very well on his own without having to make Judaism look bad; alas, some of his followers have not yet figured this out.

Mr. Frank Schaeffer falls into the standard "early Judaism hated women" mode -- a view that has been dismissed by biblical scholars for well over thirty years. For just a few examples of his common but nevertheless wrong approach.

1. Mr. Schaeffer speaks of "stories about Jesus reaching out to inconspicuous women on the fringes of society." No Gospel story reports his reaching out to women on the social fringes (of course, Mr. Schaeffer also does not define what would have counted as a fringe in the villages of Galilee; the cliché is just too good to pass up). Indeed, most of the women in the Gospels reach out to him, and he, good healer that he is, provides them a healing.

2. Mr. Schaeffer asserts, "if the story of Jesus blessing a menstruating woman for surreptitiously touching him was calculated to make other first century Jews 'accept Jesus,' then the gospel writers were the worst public relations men in history." First, the woman isn't "menstruating"; she likely has a vaginal or uterine hemorrhage. Second, Jesus heals her: why wouldn't other Jews rejoice over that detail? Surely Mr. Schaeffer does not think that "other first century Jews" would have been pleased to see the woman continue to suffer?

3. Next, Mr. Schaeffer makes the standard uninformed move in discussions of Jewish purity practices: He takes verses from Leviticus out of context. After dishing out the over-the-top comparison of healing a hemorrhaging woman to "drinking pig blood every day for breakfast," he cites Leviticus 15.25, which states that a menstruating or hemorrhaging woman is unclean. Of course, he never details how this state of impurity would impact her life; he simply presumes that she is a "diseased outcast." Had he read Leviticus through rather than yanked a proof text, he would have seen that men are unclean after they ejaculate, and it is likely that men on average are ejaculating more often then women are menstruating, especially given late onset of menstruation, early menopause, frequent pregnancies, and extended lactation. But the men are not "outcasts," and neither -- from anything said in the Gospels -- is the hemorrhaging lady. Had she been outcast, not only would physicians have refused to see her, the crowd in Mark would have parted like the Red Sea when she entered.

4. Taking his misreading of Judaism to the next extreme, Mr. Schaeffer finds it astounding that Jesus "held a dead girl's hand!" (exclamation point his) and that he did "this notwithstanding explicit Scriptures such as "He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother" (Leviticus 21:11). First, there is no law against touching a corpse: that's how they get buried. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus broke no law when they buried Jesus. Indeed, caring for corpses and showing respect for the dead is a paramount concern in Judaism. Leviticus 21.11 is a special commandment applicable only to the High Priest, as the previous verse makes perfectly clear -- and Jesus is not the High Priest.

5. Continuing his implicit comparison of Judaism with the Taliban, Mr. Schaeffer presumes that first-century Jewish women are "nobodies" and that Jesus' association with them "was an act of rebellion against all the things good upright self-regarding male Jews believed in" -- really? Those Jews who celebrated books like Ruth and Esther; who insisted "Honor your mother"; who compared Wisdom to a woman? Those Pharisees who had women patrons? Those priests who welcomed women in the Temple, and those synagogues that had women in their congregations? Those rabbis who cited women as legal authorities... ?

6. Finally, Mr. Schaeffer concludes that Jesus engaged in "whore-embracing" that put him "on the side of the pagan, prostitute-condoning Roman occupiers." His evidence for this claim: "the anointing of Jesus by a prostitute is one of the few events reported in each of the four gospels." There is no such story in any of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark report that a woman anoints Jesus' head at the beginning of Holy Week. Nothing is said about her job, period. According to John, Mary the sister of Martha anoints Jesus' feet -- John makes no mention that Mary was turning tricks in her spare time. Luke 7 does mention a "woman who was a sinner," but the sin is not specified. Two chapters earlier in Luke, Peter called himself "sinful" (the word for sin in both chapters is the same), but I've yet to find a preacher who concludes that Peter was a prostitute. Indeed, women are quite capable of committing sins other than prostitution. Even the woman concerning whom Jesus spoke about casting the first stone is not a prostitute, but an adulteress.

Jesus healed women's bodies, received women's patronage, used examples of women in his parables -- none of this is surprising. What is surprising, after thirty years of feminist New Testament study and an increasing appreciation of Jesus as a first-century Jew, is that such anti-Jewish canards still appear.

Amy-Jill Levine
University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies
Vanderbilt University

Paula Fredriksen
Distinguished Visiting Professor,
Hebrew University

Jonathan Klawans
Professor of Religion
Boston University

Ross Kraemer
Professor of Religious Studies and Judaic Studies
Brown University

Adele Reinhartz
Professor, Classics and Religious Studies
University of Ottawa

Rev. Dr. Jennifer Knust
Associate Professor of New Testament
Boston University School of Theology

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