Most Jews are misinformed when it comes to Jesus, says Rabbi Steve Golden, Judaic director of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
But Golden, who will offer a three-session series on the topic beginning Monday night, says it is important to know the facts.
“Especially in the post-Vatican II world, we have a responsibility to move beyond platitudes and slogans and actually look at the text, both Jewish and Christian,” and what our tradition has to say, he told The Jewish Standard. He stressed, however, that his seminar, The Jewish Perspective on Jesus, “is not a class about Christianity but rather an examination of the historical Jesus, as far as we can determine who he was.”
Golden first began looking at the subject in 1995, when, as a pulpit rabbi in Kingston, Ontario, he was invited to speak to senior seminarians at Queens Theological College.
|Rabbi Steve Golden|
“I was asked to speak about Jesus from a Jewish point of view,” he said. “I was invited back the following year and after that wrote an article that was published by the Biblical Theology Bulletin of Seton Hall.” In addition, he has lectured on the subject in synagogues and adult-learning programs.
“I offered it as a nine-session course at the JCC in 2005 and felt that it was time to offer it again,” he said. The seminar, in which Golden will lecture for part of the time and then provide an opportunity for questions and answers, will introduce students to primary material using gospel traditions and rabbinic sources, as well as the works of Josephus and some Roman writers. Jesus’ trial will be a central focus. “There are very few rabbinic sources that reference Jesus directly,” said Golden, citing Toldot Yeshu, “a Hebrew Aramaic compilation basically extracted from rabbinic material but embellished by skillful redactors.”
That book, however, is “certainly polemical,” composed much later as a reaction to Jewish-Christian debate and conflict. “You can’t glean anything that will be helpful in determining what Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries thought of him,” said Golden.
You also can’t rely too much on the Talmud, “because it didn’t preserve any independent memories” but rather contains “reactions and responses to the Christian reality generations later.”
There are, however, other sources, that “help us understand the reality of rabbinic Judaism in the first century.” From that, he said, we can try to understand how Jesus’ contemporaries in the Jewish community would have viewed the situation.
Today, said Golden, “There’s a fair amount of misinformation because people haven’t actually read the gospels. But what else can they rely on for an image of Jesus?” Probably, he said, they have gotten their information from an anti-Christian polemic.
“There’s no reason to assume he wasn’t historical,” said Golden. “Our quest is to try to uncover what the historical reality would have been for Jews in the first half of the first century C.E. Then we can put him into it using various stories in the Christian [canon].”
He hopes students will leave with a greater appreciation for the multitude of voices that existed in the Jewish community at the time and see Jesus as part of a Jewish reality, peeling away the christology. “We have a different approach to the study of the topic than Christians do,” he said. “They can’t really separate Jesus from later church teachings that overlay [him]. We don’t have to respond to that but rather look at it dispassionately.”
His class, he said, is not targeted only to Jews but is open to anyone interested in the topic from a Jewish, academic approach. He did point out, however, that “for Christians raised with a certain portrait of [Pontius] Pilate, my close reading of 20th-century scholars like Joseph Blinzler and Ernst Bammel would be challenging. It shows that their arguments are baseless.”
Golden said that a close friend of his, an Episcopal priest who used to have a pulpit in Bergen County, is also interested in studying Jesus in a historical context.
“Our friendship is based on a zeal for interfaith relations,” he said. “Our friendship has become stronger as a result of our discussions.”
Golden, whose classes will be held Feb. 28, March 7, and March 14, said he believes “interfaith dialogue is essential and that one needs to be knowledgeable about the pertinent sources for fruitful discussion to ensue.”
For further information, call the JCC, (201) 569-7900.