Sunday, April 18, 2010

The End Is Near!: The Apocalyptic Revelation of a Jewish Mystical Prophet (Part 2)

Important for a plausible historical reconstruction of the mystical Jesus is his immediate Jewish context. Geza Vermes attempted to keep the mystical Jesus in context by pointing out the tradition of charismatic Judaism in the first-century. Like Jesus, charismatic Jews (Hasidim) were known for their performance of healings and exorcisms. This is historically quite certain according to Vermes, and we should interpret the Hasidim in mystical terms: “That a distinctive trend of charismatic Judaism existed during the last couple of centuries of the Second Temple is undeniable…their supernatural powers were attributed to their immediate relation to God.”

According to Vermes, other roughly contemporary charismatic Galilean Jews such as Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina Ben Dosa were known for healings and exorcisms. The problem with this parallel is that our sources for both figures are much later than our sources for Jesus – in the case of Honi, they are written in the Mishna some 200 years after he lived. John Meir suggests that the most we can say about Honi and Hanina is that they were Jews living around the time of Jesus who were known for having their prayers answered in astonishing ways. Meir also argues that the nature of their recorded miracles is different than that of Jesus’ miracles, and whether they were Galilean is highly questionable. On the other hand, Josephus wrote a first-century eyewitness account of a famous Jewish exorcist named Eleazar, offering some support to Vermes’ intuitions. Still, what we have are historical parallels for Jewish wonderworkers in the time of Jesus, not a precise fit with charismatic Judaism.

There is something more distinctive in the synoptic portrayal of Jesus, without perfect parallel in contemporary pagan or Jewish literature. Meir claims that Jesus was not just another Jewish wonderworker on good terms with God, but also a “preacher and teller of parables…an authoritative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality…[and] a proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God.” That the message of Jesus was eschatological should not be minimized, for it has great explanatory power for other aspects of his life and teachings, such as his miracles and exorcisms.

E.P. Sanders notes that the synoptics all portray the significance of the miracles and exorcisms as pointing toward the ‘age to come’, that God had literally begun his battle with evil in the miracles of Jesus. Jesus’ own understanding of his miracles seem to be oriented in this way, though his disciples are portrayed as unconvinced until they had come to believe in his resurrection. Ultimately, Jesus’ miracles mainly stood out as peculiar from other Jewish wonderworkers because of how he interpreted them himself. Jesus was motivated not just by compassion for those he was healing, but by his eschatological convictions. Many scholars are convinced that Jesus’ eschatological convictions can be accurately framed by Jewish apocalypticism.

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