Reviews of

Jesus the Jew in Christian Memory

In Barbara Meyer, Cambridge University Press, Historical Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Jonathan Rowlands, Memory, Philosophy on November 10, 2022 at 3:00 pm

2022.11.09 | Barbara U. Meyer. Jesus the Jew in Christian Memory: Theological and Philosophical Explorations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 

Review by Jonathan Rowlands, St. Mellitus College.

Barbara Meyer’s monograph is concerned with “the theological implications of Jesus’ Jewish identity as well philosophical questions raised by the ongoing presence of Jewishness within Christian ethical and dogmatic discourse” (p. 1). Jesus’ Jewishness, and its pursuant theological and philosophical implications, are apprehended by Meyer through the lens of memory. Memory, she writes, speaks of Jesus’ Jewishness “not [as] a new discovery,” but helps to capture what has been “present but dormant throughout Church history … often suppressed, neglected, and overlooked” (p. 2).

Meyer begins in chapter 1 by positing a Christian theory of memory. This theory serves as the heuristic framework for the study as Meyer explores Jesus’ Jewishness in historical and theological mode. “The language of memory proves helpful in developing a grammar, syntax, and extended vocabulary for decoding the historical and theological dimensions of Jewish-Christian relations, especially when based on their unique scriptural interconnections” (p. 17). Memory, for Meyer, is an interreligious concept. “Almost all constitutive texts of the Christian canon are either shared with or indebted to Judaism. As Christian memory always overlaps with and contains Jewish memories, it is well described as in itself interreligious” (p. 17). Elsewhere she writes that “Jewish memory is constitutive for any concept of Christian memory, [and] the Christian community of memory will always relate to the Jewish community of memory” (p. 37). This interreligious dimension to Christian memory facilities its being taken up into an ethical register: “Interreligious ethics can build on listening with empathy to the other community’s historical trauma and painful memories” (p. 32). As such, the shared textual and religious traditions of Christianity and Judaism, and renewed concentration upon the Jewishness of Jesus “can serve as ‘anamnesis’, a reminder” which has “mending potential” for Jewish-Christian relations (p. p. 41).

In chapter 2, Meyer discuss the nature of Jesus’ Jewishness: “beyond the catagorizations [sic] of Jesus as a ‘marginal’ or a ‘central’ Jew, I find him best described as a ‘halakhic Jew’” (p. 65). This is framed around two central issues: “the first concerns Jesus’ relation to contemporaneous Jewish law, and the second takes into consideration Jesus’ uniqueness” (p. 45). Meyer reiterates claims that the historical Jesus lived strictly in keeping with Jewish law while simultaneously rebuffing notions that Jesus was ‘unique’ in the ways he observed Torah. Throughout, Meyer stresses the need to examine Jesus’ Jewishness if Christian dogmatics is to speak truthfully about who he is. 

In chapter 3, Meyer asks what impact Jesus’ Jewishness might have for present day Jewish-Christian relations. Meyer is clear that recognition of this fact is not in and of itself the end point of Jewish-Christian relations, but the starting point. It is not an ‘answer’, but a “calling into question [of] presuppositions and answers about him … [an] incessantly calling into dialogue Jewish questions and answers about Jewishness today” (p. 98).

Chapter 4 sees Meyer discussing the Shoah. Meyer writes that memories of Jesus’ Jewishness must prompt Christian theology to “speak more thoughtfully and hesitantly about the good that happened 2,000 years ago, and more intensely about the evil that occurred in the twentieth century” (p. 102). Revitalising memory of Jesus’ Jewishness leads to “protest against eliminatory thought and action that leads inexorably to the commitment of genocide prevention” which, in other words, manifests itself in “care about the future of both the human and the humane” (p. 107). 

In chapter 5, Meyer explores how Jesus’ Jewishness might contribute to a Christian theology of suffering, centred around Jesus’ otherness. “Remembering Jesus as a Jew,” she writes, “helps Christians to remember his suffering as the suffering of an Other” (p. 145). Building upon Emmanuel Levinas and Johann Baptist Metz, Meyer articulates a theory of leidempfindlich (sensitivity to suffering) in conversation with a Christology that finds in Jesus’ own suffering a response to the suffering of others. 

In the final chapter, Meyer focusses on “interreligious interactions between Jesus the Jew and the Other” (p. 149). Meyer posits ‘otherness’ as a Christological category: “taking responsibility for the Jew Jesus as Other means to see Jesus as committed to Torah rather than assimilating him to anti-nomian fashion” (p. 153). Jesus’ Jewishness and his otherness are mutually interpretive with regards to Gentile Christology. However, this does not mean they are identical. Jesus’ Jewishness is more than otherness; his otherness is more than Jewishness. But in this otherness, Meyer finds a vulnerability at the heart of Gentile Christology, a reliability upon that otherness of Jesus that is his Jewishness: “the Christian faith cannot succeed in isolation but holds an inbuilt connection to Judaism and Jews” (p. 178). 

Meyer’s work ends with a conclusion and postscript. In the former Meyer summarises the contents of her work while in the postscript she reaffirms her claim that interreligious dialogue is woven into the fabric of Christian theology, insofar as Jesus’ Jewishness demands engagement with Jewish thought and history. 

One of Meyer’s most prescient insights is how affirmations of Jesus’ Jewishness might serve to fuel supersessionism, even when ostensibly employed for the inverse purpose. Although Meyer seeks to demonstrate “how much interreligious and philosophical horizons can be widened for a Christianity that seeks to remember Jesus as Jew,” (p. 16) she is also keen to stress that “Supersessionism … is not necessarily diminished by means of the general notion of Jesus’ Jewishness” (p. 3). Meyer’s work is neither tokenistic nor shy in addressing the complexity of supersessionism. 

Meyer’s work is also a tour de force of interdisciplinary scholarship. A glance at the bibliography indicates the breadth of topics and conversation partners. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sits alongside Daniel Boyarin; James Charlesworth alongside James Cone; Emmanuel Levinas alongside Amy-Jill Levine. Meyer is genuinely successful in her attempt to bring disparate voices to the same table. This is a work that is not only interdisciplinary, but strongly interreligious as she brings Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secular voices together. The conversation partners Meyer invokes with real nuance and charity is at times remarkable. I cannot think of another book where this is done as well as it is here. 

Some Jesus historians may find Meyer’s discussion of memory underwhelming. There is no real engagement with those who have employed social memory theory (e.g., Anthony Le Donne, Rafael Rodríquez, Chris Keith). She writes that “the memory of the Jewish Jesus functions as a critical but moderating voice, asking about and assessing historical probabilities” (p. 41), but even for some of those who find memory an unavoidable aspect of historical research, it is not without its problems (e.g., Dale Allison’s reluctant use of memory in Constructing Jesus). Meyer is perhaps too quick to move from memory to history at times. She is warranted in taking Jesus’ Jewishness “as a historical fact rather than a variable memory” (p. 41). But the bare fact of his Jewishness is not up for debate; the nature of his Jewishness is (i.e., what kind of Jew was he?) and on this point, historians might wonder about the extent to which memory can aid reconstruction.

Indeed, throughout Meyer’s discussion of the nature of Jesus’ Judaism, she seems implicitly to equate Jewish identity with Torah observance. In chapter 2, Meyer acknowledges the breadth of Judaism (ancient and modern) but says little specific about Jesus’ own Jewishness besides his Torah observance. Additionally, in chapter 6, Meyer equates Jesus’ Jewishness with Torah observance once again. Jesus certainly was Jewish, and certainly was Torah observant, but Meyer does not offer sufficient groundwork for using the two terms interchangeably. She seems to take Torah observance to be the primary marker for Jewish identity, without explaining why this is the case. As well as being a reductive conception of Jewish identity, it also leads to occasionally underwhelming statements regarding the implications of Jesus’ Jewishness. “Once Jesus is inseparably connected to Torah, historical as well as Christological statements contrasting him to ‘law’ become less plausible” (p. 182). This is certainly true (and given the continued use of ‘legalist’ and ‘Pharisee’ as slurs in certain Christian quarters, it is a welcome reminder, too), but I wonder if a more thorough and robust exploration of what Jesus’ Jewishness might have meant beyond (but not instead of) Torah observance might lead Meyer to offer more detail about specific implications arising from continued recognition of Jesus’ Judaism. 

Meyer deserves much credit for Jesus the Jew in Christian Memory. She deftly brings historical and dogmatic thought together to discuss an issue of great importance in conversation with disparate interlocutors. It is a fiercely creative and frequently insightful book that is consistently sensitive to the continuing ethical dimensions of historical Jesus scholarship and its outworking. Readers may be left wishing Meyer’s had offered more detail about memory and the breadth of Jewish identity, but her work is consistently and helpfully provocative, and her earnest efforts at bridge-building and conversation-starting make for a deeply rewarding read.  

Jonathan Rowlands
St. Mellitus College
jonny.rowlands [at] stmellitus.ac.uk

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: