Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography

  • Bruce Chilton
  • Apr 1, 2001
  • Series: Volume 4 - 2001

Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. New York and London: Doubleday, 2000. $25.00 xxii + 330 pp. ISBN 0-385-49792-X

Bruce Chilton is the Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and an ordained Episcopal priest serving in a Barrytown, New York, parish. He is a prolific author, known for highly-respected works on the Kingdom of God, the ethics of Jesus, the Targum of Isaiah, and the Last Supper, and has one of the best grasps of the contents of the voluminous cognate Jewish literature important for understanding New Testament backgrounds of any living non-Jewish scholar. He has been active in the broadly evangelical Institute for Biblical Research for years, and for many years was its journal's editor. A new book coming from his pen that purports to be (as they all seem to these days) "the first comprehensive, critical, biography of Jesus to date" (p. xx) would therefore seem to be a welcome development and perhaps even a momentous event. The actual product proves strangely disappointing.

There are strengths to Chilton's work to be sure. Prompted by his editors he has eschewed formal, detailed footnoting for brief references to key literature for each chapter and has written in highly readable, even gripping prose. His descriptions of the customs and geography of Israel bring the stories of Jesus alive as few other writers have done. His portrayal of the probable thoughts, motives and behavior of such characters as Caiaphas and Pilate is more vivid and compelling than any I have read. Over and over again, one senses that one is seeing the Jewish milieu of Jesus more clearly and accurately than in countless other "lives" that have been produced over the centuries. But when one asks what Chilton actually claims Jesus to have said and done, in what sequence, for what reasons and by what power, most of the answers are at best speculative, without the kind of defense and documentation to make one convinced of them. At worst, they simply seem baseless. In a classic understatement, Chilton recognizes in his foreword that he "will doubtless make both Jews and Christians apprehensive" with his portrait of Christ (p. xxi).

The first chapter lands Chilton immediately in controversy. Jesus was not conceived of a virgin; Joseph and Mary "broke with custom and slept together soon after meeting and well before their marriage was publicly recognized" (pp. 6-7). Jesus was born in Bethlehem but it was the recently excavated Bethlehem in Galilee, not far from Nazareth, not the better known Judean town that was David's birthplace. Throughout his life Jesus would have been a mamzer, stigmatized and ostracized because of the conditions of his conception, though not as badly as if he had been an actual bastard. His parable of the children in the marketplace (Luke 7:31-33 par.) reflects his later recollections of this ostracism as does his need to draw closer to his heavenly Father as Abba.
When Jesus was a young adolescent he did stay behind in Jerusalem as Luke 2:41-52 describes. But he did not return to Nazareth for many years. Instead, enthralled by the temple and wanting to be close to it, he scavenged for a living for some time in that holy city. Eventually he recognized he could not survive this lifestyle and joined up with John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness, who was actually a decade older than Jesus. He became a student or talmid of John by age 17, but still never reached a normal height because of his deficient diet. From John he learned that "release from sin makes every Israelite pure--and thus acceptable in God's eyes," perhaps the "most enduring legacy" of Jesus' life (p. 50). From John, too, he learned to meditate on God, envisaged as Ezekiel's chariot, as in the later more developed Jewish merkabah mysticism. This form of meditation would be the key to all of Jesus' subsequent miraculous powers. The most immediate result was his perception of the descent of the divine Spirit at his baptism, an enactment of Ezekiel 36:25-27.

Little by little Jesus began to break from John and surpass him in influence. Sometimes he continued to emphasize the themes of purity that had so characterized the Baptist, but more and more he chose "to celebrate the Kingdom in Israel with wine and food rather than immersion" (p. 60). By the time he was nineteen, he was ready to return to Nazareth as the prodigal son coming home, which would later inspire his parable about that very event. As a young adult, Jesus worked as a journeyman in the construction business, a period reflected in his saying preserved only in the Gospel of Thomas, "Split the wood--I am there; lift the stone and you will find me there." As time progressed he spent more time in festive meals than in work and taught through this practice that Galilee was already clean and acceptable to God, contra the prevailing Judean mentality.

When he first moved from Nazareth to Capernaum, Jesus would have been shocked by the greater wealth that was flaunted there, acquired through massive indebtedness, and especially by the banquets modeled on Greco-Roman symposia that wealthy Jews frequently celebrated. Christ's concern for purity led to the next new stage of his ministry--exorcising the demon-possessed--who also represented the impurity of the nation that Roman occupation brought. Both his exorcisms and his healing miracles involved people with psychosomatic symptoms whose cures today would not be viewed as supernatural. His biological family thought him mad and tried to restrain him. Jesus resisted, increasingly taking on the appearance of a chasid, the charismatic, non-institutionally based rabbis like Chanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer. His increasingly itinerant lifestyle precluded his marrying or having children. But we cannot conclude that he was necessarily celibate; if he had sexual relations with anyone it was most likely Mary Magdalene.

What typical lives of Christ call Jesus' "withdrawal from Galilee," Chilton discusses under the heading "Beyond the Pale." Jesus' healing of the Gentile centurion's servant from a distance gave him a new idea, that he could gain support for his movement even from outside Galilee. Coming back to Galilee on one occasion, he stilled the storm, discovering that his meditation on God's chariot throne unleashed power over nature as well as sickness. In his meditation, he increasingly employed Daniel's vision of "the one like the person" (conventionally translated "Son of man"), who was an angel standing before God's throne, and it was this angel (not Jesus himself) of whom he spoke in the so-called "heavenly Son of man" sayings (a throwback to Bultmann). By this time he had gathered a large enough following and enough popularity to make plausible the kind of messianic announcements he had earlier made in the Nazareth synagogue. But he was wrestling with whether or not to organize active resistance to Rome as many hoped he would; after the feeding of the 5000 he would conclude that he should not.

The transfiguration marks the first time that Jesus' closest disciples were able to attain the same level of vision of God in meditating on the chariot. They were passing from studying their rabbi's public teaching (his mishnah) to learning his kabbalah (including "a technique of altering one's consciousness so as to enter 'Paradise,' the eternal garden of Eden adjacent to the Chariot-Throne"--p. 175). This qualifies them to carry on his mission without him, as they travel from village to village under the conditions that the Mishnah (Berakhot 9:5) would later prescribe for pilgrims entering the Temple. Meanwhile, Jesus brings back to life a girl thought to be dead by recognizing a spark of life still in her. He would later do the same for Lazarus, who had been prematurely entombed.

Quickly the "Galilean spring" of Jesus' popularity (Chilton borrows here from the nineteenth-century Romantics) gave way to increasing opposition. Jesus' power and popularity threatened the official power brokers of his day. As he reflected on the Hebrew Scriptures, Zechariah, especially chapter 14, and especially as mediated through its Targumic interpretations, gave him the insight that God's Kingdom would be manifested over all the earth when the Tabernacles sacrifices were offered at the temple by Jews and Gentiles alike, without the intervention of middlemen. From this moment on, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, though he did not yet know how he would bring this state of affairs about.

At the same time, Caiaphas had recently ordered the vendors of sacrificial animals in Jerusalem to move from the Mount of Olives to the Court of the Gentiles in the temple itself. He had not realized the controversy this move would spark, and it provided Jesus and his followers, at this stage including Barabbas, the opportunity to catch the Jewish and Roman guards by surprise, create a small uprising in the temple, kill at least one person, and then dissipate into the crowds milling about the city. To protect against a repeat of this protest, Caiaphas would have to turn to Pilate for help, and Jesus would have to hideout in the countryside, though occasionally he came back to town and taught some in the midst of the great crowds.

As the months passed and Passover of A.D. 32 approached, Jesus began increasingly explicitly to speak of the bread shared at the communal meals with his followers as his body and the wine as his blood. It became progressively clearer that he was suggesting that his meals could actually replace temple sacrifice; with the broader understandings of blasphemy at that time, he had clearly transgressed a sacred boundary. Judas thus betrayed him, the Sanhedrin arrested and convicted him, and Rome crucified him. That might have been the end of the story, "but for the force of the vision that he had instilled in the minds of his disciples." Their "mystical practice of the Chariot only intensified after Jesus' death, and to their own astonishment and the incredulity of many of their contemporaries, they saw him alive again" (p. 272).

Chilton concludes his historical survey by arguing forcefully that the resurrection is actually described in the Scriptures as a nonmaterial vision, and as a vision of an angel. Jesus has thus progressed from mamzer to talmid to rabbi to messianic exorcist to chasid to prophet and finally to angel. In a short epilogue, Chilton sums up Jesus' force as residing "in his vulnerability not only on the cross but throughout his life. He entices each of us to meet him in that dangerous place where an awareness of our own weakness and fragility shatters the self and blossoms into an image of God within us" (p. 291). He excoriates historic Christianity for seeing Jesus as promoting anything exclusive, finding such an agenda more Pharisaic than Jesus-like. "The rabbi from Nazareth never claimed he was unique. His Abba was the Abba of all" (p. 292).

Clearly Chilton feels free to reject canonical chronology and invent his own, seldom with any comment explaining his rationale. When certain episodes seem improbable, he rejects them or redefines them similarly. Completely contra the prevailing wisdom of both New Testament and rabbinic scholarship, he feels free to draw widely on Jewish traditions of the first five or six centuries of the Common Era and to assume that they were all in place in the first century and defined the Judaism of Jesus' world. When something offends Chilton's religious sensibilities, he rewrites the story so that the historical Jesus no longer violates them. I conclude this review where I began. This book is very little like what I expected it to be in light of everything I knew previously of Chilton and his writing, and I am at a loss to explain it. I am not surprised that the first of five blurbs to commend the book on the back of its dust jacket comes from radical Episcopal bishop, John Spong, but I am equally at a loss to see how the careful evangelical New Testament scholar Craig Evans can commend it there as a "plausible account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth."

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary, Denver, CO

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