Dear Professor Stark,
I have recently read your book “Discovering God” and I was deeply impressed. I’m also interested in the history of religions (although it’s not my profession), and the said book has contributed much to my understanding. For example, just from your single chapter regarding the historical context of the Indian religious movements, I’ve learned much more than from whole books.
I admire your method that abandoned the notorious Marxist-materialist approach, that downplays or outright dismisses the religious and spiritual human longings, and tries to reduce everything to class struggle or psychological discontent. For that matter, the criticism you’ve laid down in the introductory chapter is jewel. With it you’ve also uncovered the great fact that most, if not all, religious reformations began with the elite and the privileged and not with the meek and downtrodden masses.
I’m a practicing Jew, and with your permission I would like to comment and question a few of the ideas you’ve proposed, from an “inside” Jewish perspective.
Many (even religious Jews) overlook the fact that Judaism – at least in its pre-Exile form – is a covenant between YHWH and a chosen people. Indeed, in later ages as most of the Jews were exiled from their land, it acquired a much more personal religious outlook. This was a centuries long process that started around the time of destruction of the First Commonwealth by the Babylonians during that famous Axial age. However, I believe that the national aspect of Judaism cannot be stressed enough. While YHWH is the Universal One and Only God, His covenant with a specific people makes the faith a special and worldly matter.
It is in this national factor in mind, I would like to address two issues which came up in your book.
You are right to point out that conversion is seldom because one “sees the light” and accepting creed but rather because close relationship with the community. That’s why in Hebrew the convert is termed ger - someone who dwells amongst us. But, in light of what I’ve mentioned above, joining Judaism involves joining a nation, and that’s quite different altogether. Nowhere in the Tanach do you find hostility towards other nations as such. Rather, the prophets expect others to lead moral life – preferably incorporated within ethical monotheism and guided by Jews. Therefore, Jewish missionaries are quite an anomality, because they supposedly, trespass into another people’s territory. Perhaps, during the first centuries c.e., Judaism was more liberal towards converts, but there were voices that opposed this trend:
“Rabbi Ḥelbo says: Converts are as difficult for the Jewish people as a scab”
Consequently, I haven’t found direct evidence that Judaism was a proselytizing faith. It appealed to Gentiles just like Christianity would because of its monotheism, morality and community life.
On page 196 you’ve sited Maimonides:
“Moses our teacher was commanded by the Almighty to compel all the inhabitants of the world to accept the commandments.”
You referenced Berger, “The Jewish-Christian Debate”, p. 107. I’m afraid Berger stumbled upon an incomplete version of the Maimonides Codex.
The correct and wider citation is (Laws of Kings and Wars, ch. 8):
Moses only gave the Torah and commandments as an inheritance to Israel, as stated (Deuteronomy 33:4): ‘..the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob,' and to all those who desire to convert from among the other nations, as stated (Numbers 15:15): 'the convert shall be the same as you.' However, someone who does not desire to accept Torah and mitzvot, should not be forced to.
By the same regard, Moses was commanded by the Almighty to compel all the inhabitants of the world to accept the commandments given to Noah's descendants.
Anyone who accepts upon himself the fulfillment of these seven commandments and is precise in their observance is considered one of 'the pious among the gentiles' and will merit a share in the world to come.
The seven commandments that were given to Noah’s descendants are the blueprint of the Noachide covenant which a requirement for all human beings to be ethical monotheists. Only Jews, as Chosen People, are obligated to live up to higher standard which is traditionally drawn out in 613 Biblical commandments.
2. Jesus and early Christianity
I believe that there was a “historical Jesus”. However, his “transformation” into Christ is not quite explainable. It seems that you’re claiming that the Jewish followers of Jesus already saw him as divine, but I find the opposing claim much more plausible.
“All religious Jews were strict monotheists. The early followers of Jesus were religious Jews. Therefore, they did not worship Jesus. Consequently, Jesus’s divinity must have been “invented” by Gentile Christians (p. 291).
By the time of Jesus, the Deuteronomist “YHWH Only” worldview was completely dominant among Jews. The Maccabean Wars have further rid Israel (at least in Jewish towns) of any signs of graven images. While Jews, like Philo, found interest in Greek philosophy, they were opposed to any pagan elements. A divine human – a representation of God – goes against the prohibition of making graven images. In terms of strict monotheism this is actually a regression. Jesus, supposedly performed miracles which are not unlike those done by prophets like Elijah and Elisha in the OT. The former was even taken to heaven on a fiery chariot. But no prophet ever acquired a divine status.
Indeed, the Christ story is an appeal to pagans, and in a historic view it was a powerful force that converted millions (if not billions) to monotheism. However, I cannot fathom how it came from Jews.
Perhaps Jesus touched a chord of some syncretic sect that may have followed John the Baptist and held beliefs that merged Platonic and Philonic ideas. Thus, Jesus was revered and identified with the Logos.
If we further recall the national aspect of the Jewish faith, then there is a substantial difference between a “Messiah” and a “Christ”. A Messiah is a historic figure, which may or may not perform miracles, but in the end his achievements are national ones. If had come during the time of Jesus, then his foremost task was to rid the Jews of Roman rule. Indeed, within a hundred years from the crucifixion the Jews have engaged the Romans in three(!) rebellions. The second rebellion (Bar Kochva) had clear messianic aspirations. The prominent Rabbi Akiva believed Bar Kosiva is the Messiah. When questioned by other sages, he answered that he witnessed Bar Kosiva’s strength and military prowess in defeating Roman legions – a completely down-to-earth criterion. Keeping with R. Akiva’s approach, Maimonides states the following:
One should not presume that the Messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true.
Proof can be brought from the fact that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greater Sages of the Mishnah, was one of the supporters of King Bar Kozibah and would describe him as the Messianic king. He and all the Sages of his generation considered him to be the Messianic king until he was killed because of sins. Once he was killed, they realized that he was not the Mashiach. The Sages did not ask him for any signs or wonders.
The main thrust of the matter is: This Torah, its statutes and its laws, are everlasting. We may not add to them or detract from them.
If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.
If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach.
If he did not succeed to this degree or was killed, he surely is not the redeemer promised by the Torah.
The emphasized paragraphs may have been written in response to Christian claims that the future king – a Christ – is to somehow abolish the Law, or achieve something by dying. The only plausible test for the messianic candidate is to do what a messiah is supposed to do. I think Jesus, or his followers understood this point because when questioned by Pilate, he answered:
My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
With your permission, I would like to publish this, and perhaps further correspondence, over the web (in my blog and/or facebook).