Thursday, September 13, 2018

Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins - Reviewed in The Bible Today!

“In this marvelous work Simon Joseph . . . offers a detailed, well-researched, and eminently balanced assessment . . . Joseph’s judicious study of this complex relationship not only addresses this ongoing question but also throws light on the origin and development of early Christianity in its own right.”

Donald Senior, CP, The Bible Today

Monday, June 4, 2018

Jesus and the Chaos of History - A Review

The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus has just published my extended review of James Crossley's  Jesus and the Chaos of History. It is entitled "Exit the Great Man: On James Crossley's Jesus and the Chaos of History." James has also written and published a response to my review, "A Chaotic Jesus: A Response to Simon Joseph."

James and I share a number of scholarly research interests, including the historical Jesus, Second Temple Judaism, and Christian origins. We also share a mutual interest in identifying how the study of Judaism (and Jesus' "Jewishness") functions in scholarship. My review focuses on four areas of common interest: the general reliability of the "Early Palestinian Tradition" (as opposed to privileging any particular solution to the Synoptic Problem), the identification of Jesus as a "Great Man," the ideological site of Jesus' Jewishness and the Law,  and the relationship between Jesus and violence.

James and I have different perspectives, of course, on Jesus’ relationship to the Torah, the Temple, and (non)violence. James proposes that “there is no obvious unambiguous opposition to the notion of animal sacrifice per se in the Synoptic tradition” whereas I propose that the Gospels presuppose the central theological claim that Jesus is the sacrifice which replaces the Temple’s sacrificial system and portray Jesus as symbolically abolishing the Temple cult in various ways (by "cleansing" the Temple, cursing the fig tree, expelling the animals, etc.). James concludes that it is “certainly possible that a more violent Jesus was ‘covered-up’ by later Gospel writers to ensure Christianity was not seen as a societal threat.” I conclude that a less violent Jesus was "covered up" by later Gospel writers who preserved these earlier nonviolent traditions nested inside an increasingly violent narrative directed at unbelievers. This violent narrative of “eschatological retribution” represented a particularly effective way to articulate and envision the promise of a better future. James agrees that Jesus could possibly have had a nonviolent orientation, but it was a temporary strategy anticipating a future kingdom while “acknowledging other possible reasons behind a nonviolent message.” I see Jesus’ nonviolent ethic less as a temporary political strategy, and more as grounded in his theological convictions.

Despite these differences, we still share the common goal of identifying Jesus as a first-century Jew facing colonial oppression, socio-economic disintegration, and sectarian conflict. We share the common conclusion that he worked within an apocalyptic worldview, and the goal to construct some kind of order out of the "chaos of history."

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"Jesus and the Essenes" at Christ Church!

I’ll be giving a public presentation on my new book, Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins, at the Christ Church Forum in Ontario, CA on June 3, 2018. Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Gianluigi Gugliermetto for the invitation! If you're in the area, come on by! 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Yuwipi" - in JAAR

Since the 1950s, the Lakota Yuwipi ritual and tradition has often come under academic scholarly study as a focal point of contemporary Lakota religious revitalization. The word Yuwipi refers to a healing and curing ritual, as well to as the ritual specialist, the “Yuwipi man.” among the Lakota (Sioux). My new article, "Yuwipi: A Postcolonial Approach to Lakota Ritual Specialization and Religious Revitalization," just published in the June 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religiontakes a critical look at how the Yuwipi ritual has been understood both within a Christian discourse as well as within Western academic, anthropological, and religious frameworks.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Course in Miracles in "Gnostic America"

I'm delighted to say that I've been invited by April DeConick and Jeffrey Kripal to present a paper on A Course in Miracles at a conference on "Gnostic America: The Afterlives of Gnosticism in American Religion and Culture" at Rice University this March! I've written on the Course before ("'Knowledge is Truth'': A Course in Miracles as Neo-Gnostic Scripture"), and this paper, entitled "American Gnosis: Jesus Mysticism in A Course in Miracles," expands on my previous work. The conference papers will be published by Brill in a 2019 issue of Gnosis: The Journal for Gnostic Studies.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Harvard Theological Review article - A Case for Essene Influence on Q

Happy to say that my new article, “The Quest for the ‘Community’ of Q: Mapping Q Within the Social, Scribal, and Textual Landscape(s) of Second Temple Judaism,” has just been published in HTR! This article developed out of a paper I gave in the Q Section at SBL a few years ago which questioned the concept of a Q "community." The article provides a history of research on the Q-community concept, but it also advances a new theory of how Q can be located or "mapped" within Early Judaism: in relationship to the Essenes. The idea of Essene influence on early Christianity has not, of course, always been welcome in the study of Christian origins. The Essenes complicate Christian origins as they do not represent mainstream or “common Judaism,” but rather sectarian streams, implying a kind of improper mixing. I think a similar “anxiety of influence” was registered when analogical (and genealogical) parallels drawn between Q and Cynic philosophy seemed to undermine its exclusively Jewish/Christian origin. I think similar dynamics can also be posited in terms of “Gnostic” influence on early Christianity. In each case, the suggestion that heterodox Jewish, “Gnostic,” or pagan/Cynic ideas influenced early Christianity conjures up a common fear and a recurring pattern: the spectre of an ancient Orthodoxy/Heresy discourse that defined Christianity in opposition to the Other.

I'll have much more to say about the Essenes and early Christianity in my soon to be released new book, Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins, coming in April 2018.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sacred Dissonance - A Review

Religions co-exist in the “real world.” Yet when it comes to Judaism and Christianity, we are dealing with two distinct religious traditions – that is, rabbinical Judaism and (post-Constantinian) Christianity. These religions traditions were constructed over centuries in contradistinction to each other: that is, to be different. Jews didn’t build a “fence” around the Torah to keep the goyim out (the concept was intended to keep Jews from violating the Law), but Jewish identity began to be defined in terms antithetical to Christianity. Christians, in turn, constructed “the Jew” as Other, a disturbing reminder of their own origins in Judaism. Think Jesus-as-Messiah, the Crucifixion-as-Atonement, the Trinity, and Original Sin as borders that may never be crossed. There was a time, however, when it was hard to tell “Jews” and “Christians” apart: when the first “Christians” were “Jews” and some “Jews” “Christians.” The construction of Christian identity via religious difference(s) from Judaism was a long, complicated process that involved dissolving those relationships that once were. Some would rather those old ghosts stay buried.

Since the much-celebrated Encyclical Nostra Aetate of Vatican II affirmed Interfaith Dialogue in 1965, however, Jewish-Christian dialogues have significantly improved. In Sacred Dissonance: The Blessing of Difference in Jewish-Christian Dialogue, Anthony Le Donne and Larry Behrendt model a kind of inter-religious collaboration by “dialoguing” with each other from their respective faith/religious perspectives. Le Donne, a self-described “tree-hugging” evangelical New Testament scholar, and Behrendt, a Reform Jewish lawyer and “specialist in interreligious dialogue,” are friends, but the level and degree of self-exposure that both demonstrate here is admirable. Sacred Dissonance is the culmination of many conversations in a field of many ongoing conversations. But this brave book – in which both partners reveal their religious identities and commitments – models a high level of public engagement and interreligious cooperation.

As a Jewish New Testament scholar, I am predisposed to being interested in these discussions. Anthony and Larry are also my friends. It is a pleasure, therefore, to be invited to eavesdrop on their conversations and find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with their respective positions, albeit at different times. Like Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote the Foreword, I am also impressed by the quality and the intellectual rigor of their reflections and appreciate the dialogue format of a conversation between friends. Larry and Anthony are aware that many Interfaith participants are reluctant to embrace the idea that the different religions can be blurred and combined to construct a “perennial(ist) philosophy.” For many Interfaith participants, it is religious difference that makes all the difference. In academic discourse, the comparative method, exemplified by scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith, encourages a “discourse of ‘difference.’” According to Smith, difference is “a complex term which invites negotiation, classification and comparison, and at the same time, avoids too easy a discourse of the ‘same’” (Drudgery Divine, 42). The comparative process navigates the relationship between similarity and differenceAffirming religious difference is not only historically, culturally, and methodologically appropriate, it also avoids the possibility of covert conversion attempts and provides the safe space for assertions of equality at the table. Finally, it affirms the borders and boundaries of both ethnic and religious identity while holding open the possibility of real change. 

At the same time, too rigid an attachment to religious difference – and an avoidance of the tough questions that religious exclusivism suggests – only serves to maintain religious identites by fortifying the borders between different groups. It is interesting, for example, that Anthony is “encouraged by Jewish friends who view their Judaism” as something they are “born into,” since it was “comforting” to think that this was a “legitimate way to view one’s heritage: You might change in significant ways, but you don’t just jump ship” (26). The difference, of course, is that Christian identity, unlike Jewish identity, is not based on ethnicity, but rather on (correct) belief(s). This important emphasis on ethnicity vs. belief highlights a significant difference between Jews and Christians; it also signifies the limit(ation)s of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Anthony and Larry’s discussion of Matthew 27:25 (32-38) illustrates the problem for it recognizes the historical improbability of “the Jews” having accepted responsibility for Jesus’ death in perpetuity – but given the limits imposed by the affirmation of Scripture as sacred text (a position widely held by Christians) – there is little room for theological commitments to give way to historical criticism. In this case, Inter-faith dialogue is not equipped to adjudicate history

In their chapters devoted to Jewish-Christian borders, Anthony and Larry explore topics like the problematic status of “Messianic Jews” in Judaism and Christianity. While “Messianic Judaism” is a modern phenomenon intended to convert (rabbinical) Jews to Protestant Christianity, they also represent a precarious “border” crossing for both Jews and Christians, often leaving congregations feeling alienated from both communities. This alienation is all the more poignant given that Jesus was Jewish and that the first followers of Jesus are commonly identified as ancient “Jewish Christians!” The asymmetrical sharing of history is succinctly articulated by Anthony: “Jesus was Jewish, but he’s now firmly placed on the Christian side of the Jewish-Christian border. For better or for worse, Jesus now belongs to the Christians” (97). For my part, I would say that this is much for the worse: the historical Jesus properly belongs to the history of Jews and Judaism as well as to Christians and Christianity. Here the borders maintained by both “religious” bodies simply continues to  re-inscribe the very same heresiological “border lines” of church fathers like Epiphanius and Jerome on the one hand and the rabbis on the other.

Anthony and Larry's chapters on the Shoah illustrate another example of Jewish-Christian dissonance. Humanity’s darkest hour – which went on for years, preceded by centuries of anti-Semitism – is differently “remembered” by Larry and Anthony. Anthony “remembers” the Shoah as an historical narrative of a shared Western cultural past. Larry “remembers” his father fleeing from Nazi Germany in 1936. Since the Holocaust could only have been conceived and carried out after centuries of anti-Semitism had stoked the fires of an even more ancient anti-Judaism, it is understandable that some contemporary Christians might want to seek absolution from Jews insofar as the Shoah is conceived as a Christian crime. Christian guilt is a currency that many contemporary Jews have learned to navigate and negotiate, often as a way to correct imbalanced power dynamics.

The Christian desire to “dialogue” with “the Jew” is a trope as old as Trypho, where it functioned as an apologetic exercise in proving “the Jew” to be in error. Christians begin the exploration from a place of power and authority, resulting in what Anthony and Larry call the “assymetry” of traditional Jewish-Christian relationship. The re-inscription of a Christian-dominant discourse is an ever-present danger in Interfaith dialogue. Since Antiquity, the difficulty in determining or defining what constitutes “Jewishness” has also been implicated in non-Jewish agents and interests (as Cynthia Baker’s Jew so masterfully explores). Since “Jewishness” involves and incorporates ethnicity, praxis, and belief, it is tempting to consider the possibility that the redefinition of Cicero’s religio (as “ancestral customs”) (De Natura Deorum II.72) as “re-linking” humanity and God in a theologically Christian context (Lactantius, Institutiones Divinae IV.28) served not simply to affirm Christianity as the (one and only) true religion, but also to undermine ethnically “Jewish” claims that were more compatible with Roman conceptualizations of proper religio

Judaism, as constructed and systemized by the rabbis, developed in terms of an ongoing “conversation” with dialogue, debate, and discussion. This was an historical development out of the collapse of Second Temple society when different Jewish groups fought amongst themselves over who held the true vision of Israel. Yet Larry, as a modern liberal/progressive Reform Jew, represents a distinctive tradition within Judaism that is, in part, itself an historical product of (and an unspoken dialogue with) the modern intellectual history of the European scientific West. That is, Reform Judaism is a child of the Enlightenment. Reform Judaism thus has much in common with modern liberal Protestantism, especially its rejection of the “supernaturalism” of "Orthodox" traditions. Eschewing the binding formalities of "Orthodox" observance, Reform Jews find community in Jewish history, culture, civilization, and a shared sense of social identity.

Larry, for example, finds a “sacred quality” in “Jewish-Christian dialogue” (228) since it effectively reinforces, and even expands, his personal self and (Jewish) social identity. This is an expansion he does not feel or find in the company of fellow Jews, but only in the face of otherness (241). Similarly, Anthony “encounters G-d” in dialogue with “others,” but with an eye toward how “Christianity attempted to supplant Judaism” (254), sensitive to how his awareness of Christian anti-Judaism results in perceiving himself as both “divided” and misunderstood. While both Larry and Anthony engage the Other to expand their own social and religious identities, I wonder whether both quests for personal wholeness could also be extended far further than just estranged “religious” neighbors.

Sacred Dissonance shows us that Christians can remain Christians and Jews Jews and still be friends. My question, then, is not whether different “religious” individuals can “get along” with each other. I think the answer to that question is an emphatic Yes We Can!, but this is not necessarily because we are “religious.” I think we can get along despite being “religious.” We live in a world where Jewish-Christian/Interfaith dialogues have the potential not only to shed light on our understanding of the Other, but to ask the question that takes us even beyond “religion”: When two or more “get along,” is it because they are “religious” and/or is it because they have found their common humanity? Here Anthony and Larry helpfully remind us - in their mutual love of baseball, books, higher education, humor, the shared Scriptures, and dialogue - that sacred dissonance always co-exists in relationship to (albeit sometimes in considerable tension with) common ground.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Crucifixion as Icon

Native American artist Poteet Victory’s recent work, "The Crucifixion" is one of the most modern paintings of an ancient icon. Reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross as well as Mel Gibson’s cinematic recreation of God’s heavenly eye-view of Jesus’ crucifixion on earth, Poteet’s haunting image of Jesus floating above an ethereal blue skyscape bears witness to what once seemed obvious to Christian faithful: that they could be confident that they shared God’s view of the crucifixion as seen from above . . . 

People see different things in the Crucifixion of Jesus based on their different worldview(s). Whether as visual icon or historical datum, the Crucifixion now lends itself to multiple narratives and interpretations. Christian faithful see a blood sacrifice “for our sins,” the ultimate "end of sacrifice" that replaces the Temple cult. Alternatively, the true meaning of the crucifixion could be seen as an esoteric demonstration of Jesus’ non-physical reality, as in gnostic worldviews, both ancient and modernMore recently, different Mythicist proposals picture the Crucifixion of a celestial Jesus in “outer space.” Historians see a conflict of interests, political conspiracy and assassination. The Crucifixion is inextricably linked to Jesus’ relationship to the Temple, one of the most intractable problems in Jesus Research, as I discuss in my book, Jesus and the Temple: The Crucifixion in its Jewish Context. While Jesus probably objected to economic corruption in the administration of the Temple, it is also possible to see Jesus on the cross as the evidentiary basis for portraying Jesus as a "revolutionary" figure.

The Crucifixion is historical Jesus bedrock. That is, in part, why it can be interpreted in so many different ways. It is difficult to deny that it happened. It is more difficult to explain why it happened. It is even more difficult to explain what, if anything, it means. This is where things get interesting. Let us take, for example, the Seditious Jesus theory. It has taken a number of forms, but a good case can be made that Jesus was rebellious and revolutionary based on his crucifixion. The question is whether that means that Jesus really was a political criminal. The question is not whether Jesus ended up being executed for “sedition,” but what brought Jesus to the cross? Here there is no consensus. The Gospels identify Jesus as a divine blood sacrifice opposed by the Jewish religious leaders and executed by Rome. But the fact that Jesus died a violent death does not mean that Jesus lived a violent life. If Jesus said that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52), then Jesus’ followers certainly “remembered” him as true to his word as one who neither lived nor died by the sword. This doesn't mean Jesus liked Roman rule, but it also doesn’t mean that he led his disciples in armed revolt against it.

There are many ways that a first-century Jew might have ended up on a Roman cross. One of them is angering the religious leaders who collaborated with the Romans. There is little doubt that Jesus was charged with sedition (otherwise he would not have been crucified) and perceived as politically subversive (because he was proclaiming the arrival of a coming “king-dom of God”), but Jesus was also perceived as religiously subversive and may have criticized the economic corruption of the priesthood and their collaboration with Rome. The Romans did not just crucify “seditionists.” The Romans also crucified people for defamation of the emperor, “stirring up the people,” and military desertion. Josephus reports Romans crucifying Jews for no apparent reason at all during the RevoltWhen it comes to the crucifixion of Jesus, there is more than enough blame to go around to shoulder the burden of the cross: Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, the disciples, Satan, God.

By the High Middle Ages, the cross of Christ, symbol of his suffering humanity – like the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem – reflected new interests in imitating Jesus’ earthly suffering. This focus on blood and open wounds and bleeding crosses in dark cathedrals had an inevitable effect on the tradition where it could also be seen as representing the physical misery of earthly existence when the powers-that-be turn brutal and unforgiving. It is no accident of history that many European Jewish artists and writers of the post-Enlightenment, like Marc Chagall (who returned to the Crucifixion of Jesus over and over again throughout his career) began to see the Crucifixion of Jesus as a symbol of their own (peoples’) suffering: Jesus on the Cross in symbolic solidarity with his Jewish people. Jesus dying daily, still crucified by a Christianity that denied his Jewish identity.

For almost two thousand years, the Crucifixion of Jesus was a predominantly Christian symbol. After the Enlightenment, the Crucifixion became a symbol of Jewish suffering. Today the Crucifixion belongs to all of us - a master-Icon, an archetypal image imprinted on the psyche - symbolizing the crucifixion of our very reality, torn between the false dichotomies and binary oppositions of religion and science, faith and reason, history and theology, human and divine, spirit and flesh.

Note: with thanks to Brian Pounds (University of Cambridge) for his work on Roman crucifixion.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


The Lakota (Sioux) word "wakanyeja" means "sacred seed." It is the Lakota word for children. The Lakota language uses the word wakan to describe anything holy, mysterious, powerful, and/or incomprehensible. In Lakota religion, the word wakan refers to the animating life-force of the world, the universe, and the cosmos. It is imperfectly translated as "sacred," even if it is sometimes synonymous with what is generally regarded as "sacred" in the English language. For example, the Lakota word for the English/Christian concept of "God" iWakan Tanka, which is generally translated as "Great Spirit" but more appropriately and accurately understood as "The Great Mystery."  

A Lakota "medicine man" is sometimes called a wicasa wakan, or "holy man" because they represent, utilize, and embody the "mysterious" powers of the spirit world. The Sacred Pipe is called the Chanunpa wakan, because it is the conduit between the natural and the spiritual world(s). The Lakota word for "horse" is sunkawakan or "powerful dog" because it was introduced by the Spanish and dramatically transformed the Lakota way of life. The word wakan can also describe a powerful, but not necessarily benevolent force. For example, the Lakota word for alcohol, mniwakan, refers to how this "powerful water" radically changed how people thought and behaved. The devastating (after-) effects of alcoholism on Indian reservations are well known today and it is the children - so often forgotten - who have to live in the after-life of colonization. Yet their purity and innocence endures in the Lakota word wakanyeja - "mysterious, holy, powerful, incomprehensible, sacred seed" - remembering the purity and innocence of children. 

Please take a moment to look and listen to the beautiful, haunting, melancholy melody of "Wakanyeja" as sung by my brother Tee Iron Cloud which I co-produced for The Mitakuye Foundation and experience the enduring spirit of these "sacred seeds." 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Q as Early Jewish Mystery-Discourse

Looking forward to presenting a paper in the Q section at the annual meeting of the SBL in Boston this year. The title is “‘I Thank You, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth’ (Q 10:21): Q As Early Jewish Mystery-Discourse.” Here is the Abstract:

Since the late 1950s, Q has been identified as distinctive – a “second sphere” within the early Jesus movement – combining both wisdom and apocalyptic traditions in its Christological conceptualization of Jesus. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Q represents a textual-scribal product of Early Judaism reflecting an alternative navigation of disaffiliation with the traditional practices of the Temple cult. This paper explores how Q 10:21, in its direct appeal to the Father, participates in Q’s wider esoteric discourse of hiddenness and disclosure, articulating its “difference” by representing Jesus’ identity, kingdom-vision, end-time revelation, and prayer-instruction as secret mysteries of and for the elect.

Photo: 7Q5 (Qumran Greek papyrus)