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,’ as opposed to the analytical Greek mind. 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,’ and Christianity ‘is essentially Religion at its highest point in human history.’ 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.’ Although Judaism might be seen as a significant stage in this process, ultimately Christianity replaces, or supersedes Judaism. 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.’ Grubb sees Jesus, in his teaching on humility and loving service as rising ‘altogether above the thought of his age.’ Christianity is ‘a free and “spiritual” religion’ as opposed to the ritualistic, legalistic, ‘narrow Jewish faith.’ Grubb characterises the Jewish conception of God as a ‘distant Lawgiver… as exacting Judge… as abstract Righteousness.’ 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. 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?
 Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. I. Christianity as Life (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1927), 55.
 Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. II. Christianity as Truth (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1928), 17.
 Grubb, 10.
 Grubb, 30.
 Grubb, 196.
 Grubb, Christianity as Life, 88.
 Grubb, 7.
 Grubb, 45.
 Grubb, 86.
 Grubb, 29.
 Grubb, 31.