«ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
☼ THURSDAY MAY 6 2021
the baptism of rabbi jesus
The most surprising conversation I witnessed as a university theology student was in my last year of school. It was between a fellow student—a pastor—and our professor, and it reached a back-and-forth which had our professor flaberggasted.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I forget what exactly started it, but the pastor insisted Jesus was not a Jew. Our professor—teaching on Jews and Christians amidst Greco-Roman society—countered that of course Jesus was a Jew.
It was a bit surreal to me—as well, it seemed, for most others in the class. But his sentiment is shared by many. Lots of Christians have a blindness, an ignorance toward the cultural context of the text—though thankfully this is changing as scholarship over the last century has begun to grapple with the Jewishness of Jesus and of Paul, thereby bringing the historical recognition to the common table.
Much is lost when we don't recognise the Jewishness of our Christian origins. We miss out on profound allusions, and on intended meanings.
By way of a subtle example, in Matthew 18:20, Jesus states that when two or more are gathered in his name, he is with them. Without Jewish background, we don't realise that in chapter 3 of Tractate Avot of the Mishnah1, Rabbi Chanina teaches that when two sit together and discuss Torah, the Shekhinah—Divine Presence—is with them. That is, Jesus is equating himself with the Jewish concept of Adonai's dwelling and immanence on earth.
For a more overt example, the Lord's Supper is presented as a reinterpretation of the Passover Seder. During the main course, the head of the household broke bread and distributed it along with the third (of four) cups of wine to all the participants present.2 The Passover—initially a celebration of the creation of a people and their corporate liberation as based in Exodus—is here shifted by Jesus to be for a new liberation of God's people. It is a reinterpretation intended to re-create the Jewish people, liberating them from the consequences of their rebellion and from their bondage to the pagan structures of the Roman world.
As you can see from these inadequately brief examples, the insight of Jesus' Jewishness gives us a more robust understanding of the text.
There is a particular story I've been musing over for some time. It's a familar scene—one we grow up hearing a lot. The scene is set with a prophet who lives in the wilderness, one who wears animal skins, and who diets on insects and honey: John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the forerunner to the Messiah—the proverbial Elijah. What's taken for granted in this scene hundreds of years later is the rabbinic nature of the characters. John would not have been some solitary wild prophetic man. Nay, John would have been a rabbinic teacher, a leader of disciples whose way of life was based on a particular brand of Torah interpretation. Granted, as an Essene or Essene-type rabbi, John would've espoused a nomadic lifestyle which would give him the 'wild' reputation we today imagine.
Likewise, Jesus of Nazareth would have been a trained and well-educated rabbinical figure—and one whose authority and perspective was becoming well-known among the other leaders and their people.
What we have here, in other words, is a meeting of two rabbis. One rabbi preached to the people a dramatic repentance that included a rebellious ritual cleansing at its centre—rebellious because it did not need the mikvehs of the Temple, which were controlled by the Pharisees, and neither did it require the private, lush ones prescribed by the Sadducees. The other wandering rabbi preached a similar message of repentance, one that was equally radical but one that was more integrative, apocalyptic, and political.
For me, this fascinating shift in the colours and tone of the painting reminds me of not only how different (and incorrect) our mental pictures in the West are of Jesus, but also how far removed we are—culturally as well as temporally—from the time he walked upon the earth. And with our eyes attuned to the contours of the scene, we notice that John's objection to Jesus' request of baptism is completely understandable (and still prophetic). These two men were rabbinic leaders in their own right, figures who taught halakhah—'the way,' or more litereally, 'the path that one walks'—to their community of disciples and sought to do so as accurately aligned to Adonai's will as possible.
And so what we have is a well-established and much revered rabbi being approached by a relative newcomer to be ritually purified by baptism. But this newcomer's authority and demonstrations of power were already making waves throughout the people—so much so that Rabbi John himself immediately recognised his inferiority to the Galilean rabbi and instictively rejected the request on the grounds that the roles should in fact be reversed.
Just imagine witnessing this encounter: one well-respected, well-known rabbi bowing down before and submitting to a relatively new, 'up-and-coming' rabbi. Wouldn't this pique your interest? Wouldn't it make you stop and wonder?
This re-imagining also changes the way we see the dynamic in the calling of the 12 apostles by Jesus. The fishermen, tax collectors, etc. jumped at the chance to be the prestigious inner circle of a rabbi for good reason: the top followers of a rabbi were normally chosen from a group of students who had to go through a ritual application for the position—and thus Jesus flipped the process around by finding a bunch of uneducated working class men. It was an honour to follow so closely to a rabbinical teacher—and an unexpected honour for these average dudes.
Doesn't that intrigue you? Wouldn't that make witnesses stop and wonder—who is this Rabbi Jesus? ✤
1. The Mishnah is the written compilation of the Oral Torah, which is itself a tradition of Scriptural interpretation and application. The Oral Torah was written down in the 2nd century CE and is divided into categorised sections, compiling Jewish traditions of the preceding four centuries.
2. In the time of Jesus, many Passover traditions were introduced by the Pharisees. The cups of wine, reclining at the table, and the singing of hallel were newer traditions at the time that are now staples of Passover.