Jesus and Judaism held my attention in ways that academic volumes rarely do. What makes Hengel’s and Scwemer’s work so engaging is its close attention to and citation of the sources that provide the historical context for Jesus. The skillful use of original sources wedded to a narrative presentation of the Jewish history and context around Jesus produces an engaging historical work.
Jesus and Judaism likely will be (and should be) a standard work on the history of earliest Christianity and Jesus in particular for the next decade.
First published in 2007 as Jesus und das Judentum, Jesus and Judaism is “the last major work completed during Prof. Hengel’s lifetime” (xiv). It is in fact the first and “a planned four-voume history of early Christianity” (xvii). Sadly, Hengel will not see the release of subsequent volumes since he passed away in 2009. Volume two came out in 2019 in German, and one can help for the series to continue to be translated, if possible, by Wayne Coppins who has done an admirable and skillful job translating this volume.
With 800 pages plus twenty pages of introductory material, the scope of Jesus and Judaism spans a wide field of topics. The seven parts of the book begin with Judaism and end with the resurrection of Jesus. The authors rigorously study the material sources in and around Jesus and Judaism of that time period.
Hengel and Schwemer write as those who have spent a lifetime of historical study (which is true of Hengel and may very well become true of Schwemer). What makes their arguments stand out is their judicious use of evidence to develop a restrained narrative of events. It would be difficult to accuse them of imposing a story upon history. That does not mean they do not have a narrative for the history they recount. But that story fits the evidence well without feeling like it was forced.
The authors also engage with the various quests for the historical, while adapting what they judge to be grounded in history and rejecting the excesses of these quests. That said, they do not shy away from beneficial history data.
For example, they spend time detailing the social milieu of Galilee and Jerusalem in which wealthy landowners lived in the city while renting out their land to Galilleans. The uptake here is that Jesus’s parables make much more sense in this light as in the case of the parable of the wicked tenants (288–89).
One particularly interesting position they take concerns John the Baptist. They call him the presupposition of Christinianity in a play on Rudolf Bultmann’s claim that the message of Christ is the presupposition of Christianity (182–85). John the Baptist functions as the first prophetic witness to Jesus (185). In this way, they affirm that “Jesus’ activity and suffering” are “the historical and theological origin of early Christianity” (185). Such an emphasis, led to by sound historical analysis, clarifies how Jesus and early Christianity relate. They do so organically.
Their historical engagement of early sources also corrects false tropes against the development of Christianity. Not only is Jesus himself the origin of Christianity, but non-Christian sources validate and confirm his historical reality which gainsay the argument that Jesus did not exist. Hengel and Schwemer write:
“The frequently heard accusation that no Greek or Roman historian before the end of the first or the beginning of the second century mentioned Jesus and his movement demonstrates only the critic’s ignorance of the situation of the ancient sources. Between 30 and 120 CE there are no historians preserved for us who could have written about Jesus and his movement Christ and the Christians, except for Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius—and they do so!” (207–8).
Much more could be said, but suffice it to say, the authors do not shy away from making use of historical sources and correcting insufficient historical arguments.
Given the judicious use of material evidence and the genre of the work, I find myself in a position in which I do not have any negative critique nor can come up with a negative critique worth pursuing. Any interested Christian or researcher should read this book, if they want to know more about Jesus and Judaism via historical analysis.
Conservative readers will feel that the authors do not give sufficient credence to the inspired nature of Scripture nor conservative views. Progressive readers may find the book too conservative in its affirmation of the historical Jesus and his relationship to the Christian community. Both can nevertheless appreciate the book as a work of history and analysis worthy of reading.
The publisher provided me with a review copy.