Teaching the Historical Jesus

Issues and Exegesis

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Zev Garber
Routledge Studies in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     284 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Zev Garber offers the “why” for his collection of essays, Teaching the Historical Jesus: Issues and Exegesis, in his opening comments. Garber contends that the collection provides “opportunities to sustain interfaith dialogue and foster mutual understanding and respect” (iii). The element of praxis is everywhere, interwoven through the authorial contributions that reflect Garber’s purpose.

The “how” to achieve this action-oriented goal of dialogue for beneficent purpose reflects the benefits of a shift in biblical studies that began gaining steam in the mid-twentieth century with the movement in literary studies away from the New Critical approach with its text-only focus. This serendipitous turn in the purpose of biblical studies to a diverse set of interpretive lenses has reaped the rewards envisioned by Garber.

The ferment of interpretive strategies that hit college campuses and popular culture breached the walls of biblical studies’ exclusivity and esotericism. In his 1984 book Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger defined the avant-garde as linked to revolutionary praxis in life. In many ways, the articles in Garber’s text reflect a revolution that has allowed for a happy revolution in the praxis of life.

By the very diversity of the authors’ religious backgrounds—their positions in academia, their experience, and their particular interests—this collection mirrors a sea change in interreligious studies today. Garber proclaims that the focus on historical Jesus pedagogy serves not only to appreciate the texts but to make them more accessible to readers. This approach is also necessary for our democracy, and the strength of our interfaith communication. The praxis binds us together with a moral purpose, one reflecting a respect for the Other and a shared love of a diverse social contract. Such a praxis provides a practical firewall against racism, bigotry, stereotyping, and worse.

Teaching the Historical Jesus draws on the theoretical, or perhaps more accurately, the practical interpretive trajectory of the New Historicism as introduced by Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt’s piece, “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” states that “The work of art is the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society” (The New Historicism, Routledge, 1989, 12). In examining the shared repertoire, the investigative efforts of biblical students and scholars alike, unearth a shared heritage—albeit with differing outcomes—that is nevertheless reminiscent of an old adage: we are more alike than we are different.

In section 1, “Jesus in Undergraduate Education,” the essays encompass a broad range of topics.  They serve to debunk stereotypes; challenge the understanding of the Essenes as pacifists; distinguish Jewish and Christian messianic visions; demonstrate when the Gospels mirror miraculous works of Tanakh prophets; report on Jewish institutions recognizing the benefits for parishioners and communities alike in teaching Christianity; introduce the presence of Jewish Talmudic argumentation within the Gospel of Matthew; laud the tectonic shift in Jewish-Christian interfaith relations as a result of the Pope Paul VI’s 1965 declaration, Nostre Aetate, against accusations of Jewish collective, eternal deicide, and against anti-Semitism; the growing awareness and rejection of replacement theology and supersessionism; the repudiation by the Lutheran World Council of Luther’s final sermons, “Against Jews and their Lies”; and describing the literary presence of the Jesus salvation narrative among Jewish artists and authors.

In section 2, “Some Issues in Teaching Jesus,” Garber assembles the wisdom of teachers “on the ground” who have experienced the roadblocks associated with teaching the historical Jesus. The resistance of some Christian institutions to teaching about the connection of Jesus to the Jewish community of Second Temple Israel, is described. However, other authors report a generally satisfying experience in teaching the historical Jesus in the Jewish context. Many episodes in the Gospels—such as the Sermon on the Mount, the punitive cutting off of the right hand pericope, the God of love—have deep precedents in the Tanakh. While secondary schools tend to avoid teaching Christianity in Israel, many mainstream state and orthodox universities choose to offer the subject. And a surprising number of contemporary Israeli artists incorporate themes of the crucifixion, so typically associated with Christian medieval art, in their work.

In section 3, “Teaching Views on Jesus,” the authors acknowledge underlying narratives in diverse portraits of Jesus that can provide coherence or diversity within the classroom. Jesus resists the manly code of honor, aggression, and often militancy that characterized the Roman context. Jesus participates in the long tradition of Talmudic argumentation begun in the Second Temple period amongst Pharisees and Sadducees. The seditionist Jesus fights Roman oppression and the Pharisaic Jesus develops concepts of God the father, the personal God, and the loving God of humanity.

In the anthology’s final article, “Was Jesus a Pharisee? And Does it Matter,” John Pawlikowski opines that heuristic teaching opens minds, excites learners, and responds to student interests and abilities. Speaking as a teacher of Bible as literature, all of the authors in this collection participate in this tradition, making the essays themselves practical, informative, and inspiring sources for introducing the historical Jesus into religious studies and literary classrooms.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Roberta Sabbath teaches in the English Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Zev Garber is Emeritus Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College. He is the Editor of Shofar and the author of The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation (2011).



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