Jesus and Judaism

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Martin Hengel, Anna Maria Schwemer
Wayne Coppins
Baylor-Mohr Siebeck Studies In Early Christianity
  • Baylor University Press
    , October
     800 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Martin Hengel (1926–2009) was a giant in late 20th-century New Testament scholarship. Towards the end of his life, he devised the ambitious plan of writing a multiple-volume “History of Early Christianity,” co-authored by himself and a long-time colleague and collaborator with whom he had published several other books. The first volume appeared in 2007 and has now been translated into English as Jesus and Judaism. A second volume was published posthumously in 2019 as Die Urgemeinde und das Judenchristentum (Mohr Siebeck). I fondly remember the two-day Berlin workshop in June 2007 in which an indefatigable Hengel, assisted by Anna Maria Schwemer, discussed several chapters of his book, then in proof, with a select group of colleagues.

The present book, Jesus and Judaism, contains twenty-two chapters divided over eight parts: Preliminary Observations (chapters 1–2), Judaism (3–4), Preliminary Questions about the Person and History of Jesus (5–7), Jesus the Galilean and John the Baptist (8–10), Jesus’ Activity and Proclamation (11–15), Jesus’ Authority and Messianic Claim (16–17), The Passion of Jesus (18–21; the title is missing in the Table of Contents), and The Testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus (22). Schwemer wrote chapters 3, 4, and 12 and contributed to several others. Hengel’s research and scholarship is characterized by a thorough analysis of the primary sources—Christian and Jewish—a strong belief in the fundamental trustworthiness of these sources until the opposite is proven, a sustained interest in historical questions and in archaeological evidence, and a critical attitude towards what he considered to be (too) “liberal” historical-critical scholarship. This summa of his lifework contains much that those who are familiar with his work will easily recognize as “vintage Hengel,” both in content and in style.

The general thesis of the book, as I see it, is double: Jesus was part and parcel of the Jewish world in which he was active, but not without making claims that would be both familiar and provocative for elite groups in that world. The most crucial one of such claims is that about his authority and his status as the Messiah. For Hengel, Jesus’ messianic status is not a construct of the early church, but is rooted in Jesus’ ministry, and indeed not just “rooted” but an essential part of that ministry. As it is obviously not possible to deal in some detail with the rich contents of this book, I have limited myself to three (more or less critical) observations.

First, there is little to be noted about the presentation in chapters 3 and 4 of the history and of the political and religious situation of Palestinian Judaism that Jesus knew and lived in—except perhaps that because of the lacunal state of our knowledge it remains very difficult and at times hazardous to try and locate Jesus’ messianic claims within the spectrum of options that circulated in his days. Indeed, in this respect it is quite revealing that the messianic expectations that are said to be closest to those of Jesus (the ones found in the parables of 1 Enoch) cannot be further identified or linked to any specific group, as Schwemer correctly notes (177). More complicating, and actually in a sense also more disturbing, is the observation (not made by Schwemer in this context) that Jesus’ messianic claims as documented in the gospels and other early Christian writings play on various messianic traditions (royal, prophetic, and priestly) of which it is not clear how they relate to each other in the figure of Jesus.

Second, Hengel’s lifelong clash with “liberal” theology—that is, the theology of Rudolf Bultmann and his successors—becomes most evident when he makes a plea for including the person and ministry of Jesus in his efforts to write a history of early Christianity. Hengel discusses the pros and cons of his decision, but one feels from the outset where his heart lies. He writes: “It is only because Easter confirmed pre-Easter experiences and memories that the Gospels came to be written at all” (183). But is this not precisely what needs to be “proven”? Is Easter really merely a “confirmation” of the old, or rather the start of something “new”? The net effect of the decision is well worded by Schwemer in her introduction to this translation when writing, “[we] did not want to write a ‘Jesus book,’ and yet it became one” (xviii).   

Third, in assessing the literary and historical quality of the Christian evidence, Hengel has no consideration for recent attempts at dating some of the gospels in the 2nd century and boldly claims, “hypercriticism has come to a dead end” (226). Many a scholar in Europe still feels quite uncomfortable with such a late dating of Luke and John. The latter is said to be “idiosyncratic” in its Christology and as a rule only cautiously to be used as a source (248), but Hengel is not prepared completely to give up on it. The apocryphal gospels, by contrast, are definitely demoted, first, to second-rank witnesses for studying the historical Jesus (251), and in the end completely foregone (254). While one can understand Hengel’s reticence to join D. Crossan and similarly minded scholars, one wonders why he so adamantly declines the Sayings Source Q any status as an (admittedly) hypothetical document and instead promotes the view that “we must reckon with various sayings sources that were lost” (236n149). I agree with some of the provisos Hengel formulates against certain rather “adventurous” suggestions on the composition history, social world and theology of Q, but has he perhaps not resigned too quickly and should one not ask what is gained by proliferating the number of lost sources?

One does not have to agree with a book and an author to appreciate the enormous amount of work that has gone into it. The latter is certainly the case with this book—even while realizing that many will also take issue with some of its contents. But such comments as the ones listed here (and others could be added) only show that little can ever be considered as a given in historical studies, and this goes for both sides in the debate. I guess that is part of what makes the quest so attractive and keeps inspiring ever new generations of scholars. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph Verheyden is professor of New Testament studies at University of Leuven, Belgium.

Date of Review: 
September 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin Hengel (1926–2009) was Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the Protestant Theology Faculty at the University of Tübingen.

Anna Maria Schwemer is Professor of New Testament at the Protestant Theology Faculty at the University of Tübingen.

Wayne Coppins is Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia.


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