As I’m preparing to introduce second year students to the study of the historical Jesus, I am trying to pinpoint key issues and differences among scholars in order to highlight the problems in getting at that Galilean peasant. Soon enough, I’ll come to scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders) who might point to the ways in which the Galilean Jesus was concerned to observe the Judean (Jewish) practices outlined in the Torah or Law, including some or most of its ritual observances. The proposal there would be that the difference between Jesus and many of his contemporaries was in the interpretation or application of those ritual laws, not in whether they were valid or not.
As I’m re-reading John Dominic Crossan’s book, however, I am starkly reminded of where his peasant Jesus diverges from some other portraits. For Crossan, Jesus significantly diverged from the apocalyptic message of his mentor, John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s warning of the imminent end and the impending kingdom of God in the near future was replaced by Jesus’ message focussed on transforming present arrangements in a way that acknowledged the kingdom of God in the present.
The central point of what Jesus was all about is centered on the implications of Jesus’ call for “open commensality” (meal practices open to anyone) in this present kingdom of God and it is related to the charge that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard. Crossan’s claim to find in Jesus an egalitarian view on gathering together at the meal and a randomness in Jesus’ notion of the gathered community that will have a part in the kingdom or reign of God (e.g. parable of the feast in Gospel of Thomas 64 // Luke 14:15-24) becomes the interpretive key for all other aspects of the historical Jesus.
Crossan’s focus on this issue has implications regarding the degree to which Jesus was an observer of Judean customs and ritual ways as outlined in the Torah. You could even say that Crossan’s approach here determines the question of Jesus’ observance or non-observance of ritual requirements (apart from any other evidence or lack thereof):
it was obviously possible for the first Christian generations to debate whether Jesus was for or against the ritual laws of Judaism. His position must have been, as it were, unclear. I propose, from those preceding complexes [themes that converge in sayings of Jesus that center on open or egalitarian notions of meal practices, including the view that Jesus ate with sinners and was a glutton/drunkard], that he did not care enough about such ritual laws either to attack or to acknowledge them. He ignored them, but that, of course, was to subvert them at a most fundamental level. Later, however, some followers could say that, since he did not attack them, he must have accepted them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Matthew]. Others, contrariwise, could say that, since he did not follow them, he must have been against them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Mark]. Open commensality profoundly negates distinctions and hierarchies between female and male, poor and rich, Gentile and Jew. It does so, indeed, at a level that would offend the ritual laws of any civilized society. That was precisely its challenge (Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant [New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992], 263).
Are the sayings of Jesus pertaining to meals and eating the primary (or only) means by which his relation to Judean ritual customs can be determined? may be a question to ask. There will be more to come on such things in future posts.