Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus 4/4

This is the fourth and final part of ‘Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus’, where I critique early liberal Quaker Edward Grubb’s understanding of Jesus. You can find the first part of the series here.

F. Jesus the Jew

When we reflect on what Jesus means to us today, we need to ask: How does Jesus relate to his cultural and historical context? What is the significance of Jesus being a 1st century, Palestinian Jew? On this point, Grubb offers a mixed answer. He seems to suggest that the Jewishness of Jesus is in some way important, although he does this in a clumsy way, making a crude distinction between the Judaism of Jesus and the wider Hellenistic (that is, Greek) culture of the time. He speaks of the Jewish mind as ‘not naturally philosophical,’[1] as opposed to the analytical Greek mind.[2] This is grossly simplistic to say the least. Following Harnack, Grubb sees Christianity as a Hellenized corruption of Jesus’ original, Jewish message. There is a sense that we need to recover the Jewish outlook of Jesus and clear away the Hellenistic accretions.

However, Grubb gives far greater weight to the idea that Jesus transcends his Jewishness. Jesus is the product of the spiritual evolution of humanity, ‘an emergent order of human existence,’[3] and Christianity ‘is essentially Religion at its highest point in human history.’[4] A life inspired by the Spirit of Christ ‘may be regarded as the goal of the evolutionary process, a manifestation of the immanent Divine Purpose.’[5] Although Judaism might be seen as a significant stage in this process, ultimately Christianity replaces, or supersedes Judaism.[6] This attitude towards Judaism can be described, in a general way, as supersessionism, and has a long history within Christianity, particularly in the specific belief that the Church replaces Israel as God’s chosen people. It has deeply anti-Semitic connotations. While it is true that Jesus must have offered an interpretation of Judaism distinctive enough to draw attention to himself, Grubb emphasises the newness of Jesus message in a way that erases his Jewishness. Again, following Harnack, Grubb believes Christ revealed ‘a new outlook on the universe: a sense that the ultimate Reality is of the kind manifested in personal life and character; and an intuition of what is called the Fatherhood of God.’[7] Grubb sees Jesus, in his teaching on humility and loving service as rising ‘altogether above the thought of his age.’[8] Christianity is ‘a free and “spiritual” religion’ as opposed to the ritualistic, legalistic, ‘narrow Jewish faith.’[9] Grubb characterises the Jewish conception of God as a ‘distant Lawgiver… as exacting Judge… as abstract Righteousness.’[10] All this feeds into the anti-Semitic tropes of ‘the angry, distant God of the Old Testament’, and Judaism as a heartless religion of rules, as if Judaism knows nothing of individual spiritual integrity, or the love of God. The Jewishness of Jesus appears purely as a limitation for Jesus to transcend.[11] Grubb is not unique in this attitude, which is thoroughly in keeping with the liberal Protestant tradition of Schleiermacher and Harnack. Schleiermacher saw Jesus’ Jewishness as an irrelevance, and the Hebrew Scriptures as superfluous to the Church. For liberal Protestants, Jesus preaches a universal message that is best cleansed of its Jewish particulars.

We can see that this approach to Jesus’ context is deeply problematic. Its view of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism is fundamentally distorted by anti-Semitism. It also ignores the fact that the claims made about Jesus – specifically that he is the Messiah – make no sense outside of his Jewish context. There is no other Jesus than Jesus the Jew. Any claims for the significance of Jesus that deny or erase his Jewishness will invariably be anti-Semitic and incoherent. When we reflect on how Jesus speaks to us today, his Jewishness must shape our response.

Finding a new liberal Quaker Jesus

I don’t believe that Grubb’s understanding of Jesus is completely flawed, but there are enough difficulties with the Jesus he portrays to make us think again. The problematic elements of this liberal Quaker Jesus aren’t confined to the 1920s. I regularly encounter them amongst contemporary liberal Quakers. It is not unusual to hear Friends speak of a ‘real Jesus’ behind the propaganda of the Gospels, or the ‘angry God of the Old Testament’.

If we still think that it’s worth asking how Jesus speaks to us today, can we avoid the pitfalls the Grubb fell in to? I have my own thoughts on how we might heal our liberal Quaker understanding of Jesus – I particularly think theologians like James Cone and Jürgen Moltmann have much to offer us – but there isn’t space for them here. And it may be that we need to spend time unpicking the knots of our flawed image of Jesus, before we can weave the threads into an image that works. For now, I offer some queries that may help us reflect better on how Jesus speaks to us today:

  • How do you take the whole of the Jesus-story into account, even the parts that make you uncomfortable?
  • How might you have created Jesus in your own image?
  • How do you make sense of Jesus’ message of Divine justice?
  • How does your privilege shaped your understanding of Jesus?
  • How do you make sense of the political nature of Jesus’ death?
  • How do you make sense of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead?
  • How does your understanding of Jesus spring from his Jewishness? Is your understanding of Jesus supersessionist? How would you know if it was?

[Featured image photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash]

[1] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. I. Christianity as Life (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1927), 55.

[2] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. II. Christianity as Truth (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1928), 17.

[3] Grubb, 10.

[4] Grubb, 30.

[5] Grubb, 196.

[6] Grubb, Christianity as Life, 88.

[7] Grubb, 7.

[8] Grubb, 45.

[9] Grubb, 86.

[10] Grubb, 29.

[11] Grubb, 31.

9 thoughts on “Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus 4/4”

  1. There’s something about this “It is not unusual to hear Friends speak of a ‘real Jesus’ behind the propaganda of the Gospels” that I’m not sure I understand correctly.

    I’ve said things very much like that, if not actually that, and what I mean is that yes, the Gospels are propaganda both in the technical sense of being material mean to advance a theological cause as well as being very selective, highly skewed, somewhat confabulated, partially untrue accounts, motivated by an ideology, and yes the the “real” Jesus is hidden behind them. But I mean that behind the Gospel character is a faithful, temple-worshipping Jew, probably a Pharisee, fully dedicated to the Law as he understood it (a description which would also apply to Paul) and the Gospels are meant to distract us from that figure. The Gospels, I think, are part of the apparatus by which the Jesus movement within Apocalyptic Judaism turned itself into something else, something un-Jewish that wasn’t what Jesus (or Paul) seemed to have in mind.

    In terms of your queries, I genuinely can’t tell if this makes me supersessionist or not. I hope not. Could you help me work it out?I do find the almost all mainstream Christian thought on this matter is supercessionist, almost by definition, but I’m not a Christian so I’d hope at least to make different mistakes.

    1. Thanks for reading Keith. I think what I’m trying to say is that any Jesus other than Jesus the Messiah proclaimed by the early Church is one we cannot know or follow. There is no ‘real’ Jesus worth bothering with. The central question the NT presents us with is ‘Is Jesus the Christ?’, and I think liberal Quakers have tended to answer ‘No’ but want hold on to Jesus anyway, which I don’t think is possible without making Jesus in our own image.

      Your position doesn’t sound supercessionist to me! I suspect it’s easier for non-Christians to avoid supercessionism, although I think theirs a form of universalism I’ve heard Quakers espouse that’s sort of supercessionist, seeing Judaism and Christianity as evolutionary stepping stones towards a universalism that transcends culture. I think you’re right that the bulk of Christian thought has been and is supercessionist, which makes ‘is Christianity inherently supercessionist’ an important question. I think it’s a question that Christianity has only really been grappling with post-Holocaust. I’m reading Moltmann’s ‘The Way of Jesus Christ’ (1990) at the moment, which engages with Jewish thought about the Messiah – it’s a book that definitely moves in the right direction.

      1. Hi Mark, thanks for following up. I’ve read some academic articles suggesting that even if we could work out anything about the historical Jesus with any confidence, such knowledge would be of no use or interest to the church. Those articles seemed like a dodge to me: I do think that what (little) we can confidently infer about 1st century apocalyptic Jewish figures, including Jesus, can be useful to the people of the church, while very much not being helpful to the church, any church, as an institution. I’m not sure if that’s what you mean. I am reluctant to hand Jesus over to Christians and say that only they can have any insight into what he did and what any of it meant, and that I have to agree with them if I want any access to him. Does that mean that I must invent a new Jesus in my own image? I don’t think so.

        Indeed, my answer to “Is Jesus the Christ?” is “no”. If it were “yes” then I’d (have to) be a Christian. I have no interest in taking away anyone else’s belief in that he was, or whatever comfort they gain from it. But I don’t think their belief has any ontological significance for me. Back when I lived in Singapore I was very close to a woman from an Indonesian Muslim background, and she would say to me “Allah is as close to you as the end of your nose!” and boop me on the nose to reinforce the point. I didn’t and don’t agree, and if I did I’d (have to) be a Muslim. But I would never want to take away from her the comfort she got from believing that. Just as when I was in India, I wouldn’t want to take away from anyone the comfort they got from praying to Ganesh for help before embarking on a new endeavour. I don’t personally believe that Ganesh is standing by to help me with anything, and if I did I’d (have to) be a Hindu. And so on. But I can learn valuable lessons for my own life from Muslims and Hindus, and many others.

        So far as I can tell, no Rabbi in 2000 years has agreed that Jesus was the _melekh mashiach_, and they kind-of are the experts in the field. Jesus didn’t fulfil the scriptural description of the Jewish messiah (he’s not a descendant of David, for an easy example, and the Gospels are strangely emphatic on that) and it’s very unclear what are the scriptures that the various Christian creeds assert Jesus did what he’s claimed to have done “in accordance with”. Does Moltmann suggest otherwise? That would be interesting.

        For these and other reasons I don’t commit to the creed (although I emitted the words often enough back when I was fulfilling my family’s expectation that I’d attend Mass) and am not a Christian. None of which has or should have any bearing on anyone else’s belief, founded on their experience. As it happens, I’ve had experiences in a gathered Meeting for Worship which very closely resemble what Christians describe experiencing when “visited by angels”, or when the Holy Spirit descends in a Pentecost-like setting—but I wouldn’t use those explanatory frameworks for my experiences because those frameworks have no resonance for me. Any more that I would use an explanatory framework based on Brahma consciousness, Buddhist enlightenment, or an encounter with Allah. None of which has any bearing on the experience or belief of folks who find that those frameworks do work for them. Is that a kind of universalist supercessionism? I hope not! Although I can see the danger of it becoming so.

        For me, Meeting for Worship is a repeatable technique for accessing that sort of experience—and the life changes that come with enough exposure to it—with, I think uniquely, no requirement to sign up to any particular explanatory framework beforehand. I’ve no doubt that many devout Catholics do experience that state as a result of Communion during the Mass, let’s say. I never did and I can’t imagine doing so. But, to even get legitimate access to the Host in a regular Sunday Mass you need to have already signed up to a particular explanatory framework concerning what the Host is and how the Eucharist works. Quakers don’t do anything like that. Does that mean we have a more highly evolved spirituality that credential faiths? I don’t think so, but I recognise that some may do. That’s not a path I’d want to go down.

        Are Christians necessarily supercessionist? Looks that way to me. I’ve noticed more and more Jewish commentators rejecting the label “Judeo-Christian”, pointing out that they most certainly don’t accept Jesus as the Christ, and Christians most certainly don’t feel bound by Torah, and that this label is often a not-so-subtle way of rejecting Islam and othering Muslims. This being especially ironic. some note, as in practice Judaism and Islam resemble each other much more closely than either one resembles Christianity. So that’s a mess. Of course Luther was a raging anti-semite so that was baked in to a lot of Protestant thought. As you say, post the Shoah, ideas have changed a lot. The Catholic Church has recognised its very shameful history with respect to Jewish people living in Catholic lands and is currently in a very uncomfortable place where Catholics _must not_ try to convert Jews (while having a duty convert everyone else), but also must believe that Jesus will not return until all the people of Israel recognise him as messiah, so how’s that going to work? Catholics are to view Jews as their respected “elder brothers” in the human family relationship with God, while not looking too closely into the question of why God has chosen to have the Jews continue to not believe in his person as Jesus. All very strange to me, and I’m quite relieved to not need a way to straighten that out in order to seek the Light.

  2. I’m deeply grateful for this whole series, and particularly for this final section on the Jewishness of Jesus that queries us as to whether our own understanding of Jesus is supersessionist, and in what ways, — and how we’d know. As what we call a Conservative or Wilburite Friend here in North America, which means that I hold closely to the original teachings of George Fox and the early Quakers (“Christ is come to teach His people Himself,” etc.), I’d say that the best person to ask about whether we’re supersessionists is Christ Himself, who indwells us all and *is* the Truth. He does teach us if we’ll let Him.
    But there are supersessionists and supersessionists: I’d call the Jeremiah a supersessionist for prophesying a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34) and Hosea for saying “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), implying an invalidation of the temple sacrifices mandated by the Torah. And then Jesus was a supersessionist for citing Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 9:13, 12:7), not to mention His scandalous overturning of the Torah (“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you…”) in Matthew 5:43-44, which rejects the commandment to hate Moabites and Ammonites forever laid down in Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Perhaps the arch-supersessionist is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who takes the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and in Hebrews 8:7-10:18 declares the “old covenant” abolished. But then, the survivors of the 70 C.E. destruction of Jerusalem, forced by circumstance to reinvent a Judaism without a Jerusalem Temple, could be considered supersessionists of a different kind: they superseded Second-Temple Judaism with synagogue-centered Rabbinic Judaism, evolving the Talmud and other guides to Jewish life that persist to this day. What else were they to do?
    The question, it seems to me, is not whether we’re supersessionists — for we all are, but whether we’re scorners of our own Hebrew origins, and of our Jewish cousins who carry out our mandate to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our might (Deut 6:5) often more faithfully than we do! We forget that Paul taught us that we gentiles were a wild olive branch grafted into Judaism’s tree (Romans 11:17-18), and a grafted branch we remain, children of Abraham and Sarah by adoption, whose circumcision is that of the heart (Romans 2:29), as early Quaker Isaac Penington described it so movingly.

    1. Thanks for reading John. You highlight one of the difficulties of the term ‘supersessionism’. If we use it to mean change and development that happens within a tradition, then as you say, everyone becomes a supersessionist, and it ceases to be a helpful term. If we use its very specific meaning – the belief that the Church replaces Israel as God’s chosen people – then liberal Protestantism (including liberal Quakerism) isn’t technically supersessionist, because they reject the idea of chosen people completely. I think supersessionism is most usefully described as the characterisation of Judaism as ‘outdated’, ‘primitive’, irrelevant or dispensable.

  3. Ironically enough, last week our Franciscan friar’s homily began with “unless you understand that Jesus was a Jew you will not understand Christianity.”

  4. A highly insightful and well written series – thank you!

    One question I must ask.

    I have seen this before… So I am very intrigued with your reference to Jesus as s Palestinian. Especially due to the “Jewishness” of this, the final section of the series.

    Could you shine light as to why you refer to Jesus as a first-century Palestinian?

    to the best of my knowledge, during the time of Jesus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem were in what was commonly called Judea.
    The land where Jesus lived did not take on the name Palestine until the second century.

    It was about 100 years after the crucifixion of Jesus that the Romans defeated the Jews and renamed the land of the Jews from Judea to Palestina.

    The Romans did so in order to punish the Jews and to make an example of them to other peoples considering rebellion.

    The Romans took away the Jewish name, Judea, and replaced it with the name of an ancient enemy the Jews despised. The Philistines were an extinct Aegean people whom the Jews had historically loathed as uncultured and barbaric.

    The use of the word Jesus and Palestine is ironic especially when we read about his Jewishness.

    I have read this in a few places now… and I’m struggling to understand if it’s mere politics or if there is something I misunderstand of the term

    1. Thanks for reading the blog, and for your question. Here I’m referring to Palestine in the context of the region, rather than a specific nation/people/state. My understanding is that this is a name for the region that pre-dates Jesus. The Oxford History of the Biblical World refers to the region in this way.

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