Adele Reinhartz is currently the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, where she also holds an appointment as Professor in the Department of Religion and Culture. She received her education at the University of Toronto and at McMaster University, and also taught for many years at both of these universities.
Her main areas of academic interest are the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John, Second Temple Judaism, and early Jewish-Christian relations. Her most recent work in this area is a book entitled Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (Continuum, 2001). In addition, she has done much work on the use of the Bible and Film, which is the subject of her most recent book, Scripture on the Silver Screen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), and the book that she is currently preparing for publication, Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford University Press). Adele and her family have spent sabbatical years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and they consider Jerusalem to be their second home.
Shabbat Shalom*: You have recently published Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (2001) as well as an essay in Jesus, Judaism, and Christian Anti-Judaism (2002), a book you have coedited with Paula Fredriksen. And “hot off the press” is your newest book, Scripture on the Silver Screen. Could you explain for us why you take interest in the issues of Jesus, Judaism and the Gospels? And what are your reasons for publishing in this direction?
Adele Reinhartz: My initial interest in the New Testament was an outgrowth of my interest in Second Temple Judaism. While working on my bachelor’s degree in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, I became very interested in Rabbinic Judaism and in the period prior to the Mishnah, which is the first major document of Rabbinic Judaism. Accordingly, I chose my graduate studies in a way that would allow me to learn more about Jewish life and thought in Judea and the Diaspora before the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 of the first century. This area, including the influence of the destruction of the Temple on the development of Judaism, became my major interest. In this context, I was interested in the New Testament insofar as it provides evidence for Judaism in the first century.
Before long, I also became interested in the New Testament for its own sake. It is a fascinating document, and one that certainly had a major impact on Western culture and civilization and on the way in which we people from a Western background understand the world, whether we are Jewish, Christian or neither.
For many years, I did not focus on issues of anti-Judaism. However, more and more this has become a major interest, especially with respect to the Gospel of John, in which anti-Judaism is so prominent. This interest has been encouraged by my colleagues and others who are open to the idea of somebody non-Christian studying the New Testament. Many people now are interested specifically, as probably you are as well, in what a Jew might have to say about the New Testament and why somebody Jewish might get engaged in the study of this text. So, partly it was for my own interest, partly for the interest of other people—and I think these are legitimate interests—that I started working seriously on these topics.
Shabbat Shalom: Why does the Gospel of John attract you in particular?
Adele Reinhartz: It started as an aesthetic attraction. The Gospel of John is an elusive book. Wherever you look there are ambiguities and problems of interpretation. I notice that a lot of people gravitate towards topics where there is certainty, but I like exploring areas of uncertainty. And the Gospel of John is certainly one of the most enigmatic texts of the Christian canon. Much of my work uses the methodology of literary criticism. You can clearly perceive that this text was very well crafted in the way the stories are told and the material is arranged. Later, when I got more engaged with this Gospel, I became very concerned about the Gospel’s statements about Jews who do not believe in Jesus. In my book Befriending the Beloved Disciple I explained that when you are looking seriously at the ways in which the Gospel of John represents the Jews, a lot of questions are raised. These are disturbing questions, but they are very interesting. Thus I have been engaged in that Gospel for 25 years now, and the reasons for my interest in it have shifted over the years.
Shabbat Shalom: In your essay “The Gospel of John: How the ‘Jews’ Became Part of the Plot” (in Jesus, Judaism, and Christian Anti-Judaism) you write on page 114: “There is in fact no solution that gets the Fourth Gospel ‘off the hook.’ It is not possible to explain away the negative presentations of Jews or to deny that the Johannine understanding of Jesus includes the view that he has superseded the Jewish covenant and taken over its major institutions and symbols.” This seems to be a pretty stark statement, at least in light of the long scholarly discussion on the portrayal of Jews in the Gospel of John. How do you personally deal with your observation? Are readers of the Gospel reading the authorial intention correctly when they see Jesus, his disciples and Christians superseding “the Jewish covenant, institutions and symbols”?
Adele Reinhartz: I think they are reading it correctly in the sense that this is what the author is trying to tell us. That does not mean that it is correct, or helpful, or moral from a contemporary point of view. Here is an important point for anybody who studies this Gospel: one needs to be able to see it in its historical context as representing the views of an individual or a community. These views are first-century views and do not necessarily belong in our modern understanding of ourselves as Jews and Christians. In fact, one has to say, in many cases they emphatically do not belong to our time. Maybe such a position is easier to hold for somebody who is not a Christian, although I also have similar views of parts of my own tradition. I think there are simply aspects of these ancient texts that are dangerous and that have to be discarded. When I say that the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as someone who has superseded Judaism, I am not saying that such a claim is correct. People who read that Gospel today and hold such a view need to think again.
Shabbat Shalom: Have you in your study of the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular, detected how Jesus himself would portray his position to traditional Judaism?
Adele Reinhartz: Well, I find it hard to say what Jesus himself would or wouldn’t have done. The whole enterprise of the historical Jesus research is something I intentionally stayed away from, because I regard it as so problematic. However, if you ask me what I really think about Jesus and his relationship to Judaism, I don’t think he was engaged in a critique of Judaism as such or that he questioned its fundamental beliefs and practices. If I have to speculate from a historical point of view, I find it highly unlikely that Jesus would have seen himself as a supersession of Judaism in any way. Such a thought seems to be a later construct.
Shabbat Shalom: What would be the evidence for that?
Adele Reinhartz: If you take a look at the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, for example, much of what Jesus says can be documented from Jewish sources as well. Jesus’ teachings on divorce, for example, fall within the spectrum of what we know from other sources that describe the range of discussion within Judaism. So, I don’t think that Jesus as a historical figure set himself over against Judaism in the way that is implied in the Gospel of John.
Shabbat Shalom: How do you see the Jewishness of Jesus revealed clearly in the Gospels?
Adele Reinhartz: For example, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival. That in itself requires some commitment, preparation, and travel, and also implies that he participated fully in Jewish life. The same is seen in the debates over the Sabbath and other issues. We have no evidence that he criticized the observance of the Sabbath as such or that he did not obey the dietary laws. He was surrounded by Jews. He was preaching primarily to Jews. Most of his followers are Jewish. And he lived within the spectrum of what was happening in the Jewish context in the first century. I don’t see any evidence to contradict that.
It is interesting that in the Gospel of John when the Greeks come to see him—not that I necessarily take this as historical—the Gospel implies that Jesus does not reach out to the Gentiles during his lifetime, but that the Christian movement includes Gentiles after his death.
Shabbat Shalom: If Jesus as a Jew preached to Jews and certainly his immediate followers were Jewish, how does it come about that this initially Jewish community that follows Jesus develops over some time into a community that is quite hostile to Judaism and Jews?
Adele Reinhartz: I wish I knew the full explanation for this phenomenon. I can just offer a few suggestions that may or may not be useful. I do not want to blame Paul for anti-Judaism, but once participation in the Christian community was opened up to Gentiles and they became the primary source of converts or participants and did not have to pass through a Jewish conversion ritual, then you already have the stage set for anti-Judaism, especially in a context where the majority of Jews apparently did not become Christian. This may have led members of the Jesus movement to have some resentment about Jews who did not follow their lead. So there are two factors: first, the majority of Jews did not become part of this group in a major way, and, second, the Gentiles who are now part of the community no longer maintain the basic rituals of Jewish covenantal life. These factors provide the basis set for setting the followers of Jesus over against Judaism, as opposed to being a group within Judaism.
As a Jew, I have to say that I have not really been persuaded that the basis of the historical conflict is theological. Yes, theology became the mode of discourse, the way we talk about differences between Judaism and Christianity. But my hunch is that what one does is more decisive than what one believes in.
We know from the first century, as we know from our own time, that Judaism is a highly flexible system when it comes to theology. In Judaism you can disagree bitterly and still remain within the same community.
Shabbat Shalom: Is it because of such a flexible theological system in Judaism that it has been said that it is not the Messiahship of Jesus that from a Jewish perspective would be the real problem causing to separate Jews from Christians? For we know that in Jewish history there were many messianic claims that did not result in separation.
Adele Reinhartz: Yes. For example, there are some who believe that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, is a Messianic figure. I find this claim implausible, and so do many other Jews, but there are certainly many Jews within the Hasidic movement who believe it. I haven’t seen any movement to stamp them out of the Jewish community.
Around the first century I see similar things happening. For example, in the Bar Kokhba movement in 132, Rabbi Akiba apparently believed that Shimeon Bar Kosiba was a, or the, Messiah. We don’t know to what extent others believed this to be true. But in any case, nobody argued that he or his followers were not Jewish. People may have objected to him on all sorts of grounds, but not on grounds that he was not a participant in the Jewish community.
However, as soon as you have a group that comes in and does not circumcise the children and does not observe the dietary laws, then you can’t marry them and you can’t eat with them. In ancient Judaism where there was no highly developed of secular Judaism as there is today, such nonobservers would de facto become excluded from the mainstream community.
Shabbat Shalom: So your guess is that the basic issue of separation resides in the Jewish covenantal lifestyle?
Adele Reinhartz: Yes. Last year I attended a conference in honor of my former teacher Ed Sanders at the University of Notre Dame. There John Maier, who wrote the three-volume work A Marginal Jew, read a very interesting paper in which he came to these same conclusions. For him, Jesus had been very likely a completely observant Jew who had his issues with the Jewish community, as every other Jew, probably for all times, has had. But the issues that eventually led to the separation would have been issues of praxis and not issues of theology. The way in which these were debated was theological, but the crux of it was not theological.
I have argued in a similar way in my work on the Gospel of John and the Johannine community. We similar way in my work on the Gospel of John and the Johannine community. We talk about the separation between the Johannine community and the Jewish community that is captured by the claim by some scholars that the Johannine Christians were expelled from the synagogue. It’s a very tricky concept, because when many scholars of the Gospel of John talk about expulsion, they assume that it’s an act that an organized Jewish community did on account of theological differences. This theory has been severely criticized, although people still hold to it. It’s a theory that in my view does not have any historical plausibility for many reasons, not the least of which is that there was no centrally -organized Jewish community that could have made and enforced such a policy. Even now Judaism has nothing like the Pope in Vatican City. You don’t have a kind of worldwide Jewish organization that has the moral or political clout to force any measures upon the synagogues. And you certainly didn’t have it in the period before or after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in the first century.
Anyone who participates in any sort of group or community knows that the dynamics within a community are very complicated, especially the dynamics of conflict. I am part of a community where people have left our synagogue to go to a different one. Now from my point of view, as someone who remains in the synagogue, I see them as having departed. They have resigned their membership; they decided to leave. But they perceive themselves as being pushed out or excluded. So it is all a matter of perspective. If they were to write the history of their relationship with the synagogue, they would say, “We were excluded from the synagogue.” And I would say, “Yes, there were issues, there were conflicts, and they made the decision to leave.” Why should it be different in the first century? Why should we assume that the dynamics were any less complicated? What we have in the Gospel is a perception from one perspective, from the perspective of those who no longer participate in synagogue life.
Shabbat Shalom: Do you see the perspective of the people who for you stand behind the Gospel of John—the Johannine community—as being Jewish, or are they Gentiles?
Adele Reinhartz: Ethnically speaking, probably a mixture. In terms of their own self-identification, they are no longer identifying as Jews. They are identifying as believers in Jesus as their primary religious community.
Shabbat Shalom: Does the Jewish-Christian separation then mainly center around Jesus?
Adele Reinhartz: We need to distinguish between the ancient situation and the present situation. In terms of the Johannine community, you can’t discount the role of Jesus, because the Gospel itself says that anybody who confesses Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. So, you can’t discount that beliefs about Jesus towards the end of the first century had some role. However, I think this would not have been decisive at that time. What would have been decisive would be the degree to which believers in Jesus maintained Jewish practice and how they talked about Jesus within that context.
In our current context, Jesus certainly stands as a major problem. And, of course, we cannot separate that out from all other aspects of the history of Jewish-Christian relations over the last 2000 years. Whatever the situation was in the ancient world, you cannot skip directly from that time to the present. You simply cannot erase what has gone on, both in terms of theological developments within Christianity, in sociological development within the nature of churches and the kinds of rituals and practices that they developed, in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. Everything that has been done in the name of Jesus has become part of what we are dealing with today. And that makes it just about impossible for us to use what may have been a much more fluid situation in the first century as a model for what should be today.
Shabbat Shalom: In what way did your reading of the Gospels and your exposure to Jesus affect your religious thinking, if it did? To what extent has this experience made you a better Jew, or even drawn you closer to Christians?
Adele Reinhartz: I am not really sure that it did in terms of thinking about my own religiosity. I do not see Christianity as relevant to the way that I understanding myself as a Jew. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I just don’t see the connection. What it has helped me with, of course, is understanding how it is that other people could believe the Christian message. I grew up in Toronto in an immigrant neighborhood and most of my friends were Italian, because that was the time of the large wave of Italian immigration to Canada. So most of my friends were Catholics, and I spent time in their homes. I really couldn’t get my mind around it. While I accepted that their faith was different than mine, I thought that their beliefs in Jesus (filtered through their young perceptions, of course) were very strange. I am still not sure I fully understand Christian faith, but perhaps I do see more clearly what role such faith could have in somebody’s life. But it doesn’t have that role in my life and it doesn’t have any personal appeal to me.
Shabbat Shalom: So Christianity is simply an object of study and intense interest for you?
Adele Reinhartz: It’s an object of study. There are other reasons why I study Christianity, and one is, as I said, that I believe that the New Testament is a very important source for understanding Second Temple Judaism. When I talk to Jewish groups about the New Testament, part of what I want to convey to them is that they shouldn’t be afraid of studying this text. Many Jews grow up with a sense of taboo around studying the New Testament, maybe because of the very reason Christians want Jews to study it, out of a fear on the Jewish side of its power and that, maybe, if you study it you will be converted. I can come before them as a model of someone who feels that my understanding of the world has been enriched by studying these texts. If we do not study the New Testament, we are giving up an important source of Second Temple Judaism, and in this period we have almost no sources for Judaism in Palestine. Of course, the New Testament has to be read with an understanding of its ideological perspective, but so does every other ancient source.
Shabbat Shalom: You recommend that Jews read the Gospels, including to learn about Jesus, as a source text of Second Temple Judaism. Would you see any other reasons why a Jew should read the Gospels? Could Jews learn something about their relationship to Christians?
Adele Reinhartz: Given the major role that Christianity has had and that it continues to have in our culture, it is important to know something about it. That is one of the arguments put forward in my recent work on film. When I am speaking to a Jewish audience I certainly make it explicit that the impact of Christianity in our culture, including the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, is so profound that we can’t really understand either “high culture” or popular culture without understanding something about the New Testament. But I don’t recommend that Jews go to the New Testament for spiritual guidance. I would recommend against that. If spiritual guidance is what they are interested in, then they should be seeking it within the many riches of our own Jewish tradition.
Shabbat Shalom: When you are speaking to a Christian audience, how do you recommend them to read the Gospels? In other words, in what way should a Christian read the Gospels?
Adele Reinhartz: They should do it with a serious consciousness of the historical context and with an openness to considering that some of the views and some of the attitudes expressed in the Gospels are no longer divinely sanctioned today, to put it as strongly as that.
Shabbat Shalom: What advice would you give to Christians to help them understand better the Jewishness of Jesus? Could they learn something about the Jewishness of Jesus that brings them closer to Judaism or to the Jews?
Adele Reinhartz: I think that a true awareness of Jesus as Jewish and as operating within a Jewish context is helpful in understanding or putting some sort of perspective on the way that the Gospels talk about his conflict with Jews. And here I would want to differentiate between what we could know about Jesus and what we might know about the early communities. People in a community like that which may underlie the Gospel of John are already profoundly separated from Judaism, but as I said earlier, I don’t think this is true for Jesus. So if we want to understand the Johannine community we do have to understand how they were trying to define themselves over against Judaism. But Jesus was not trying to define himself over against Judaism.
We are really doing these texts an injustice if we absolutize them. I know that this is what religious communities do; certainly some denominations within Judaism do this with respect to the Hebrew Bible. We see them as the Divine Word and they are absolutely normative for our lives today. However, I think that is a great mistake, both for Jews and for Christians in their own traditions, because then we are holding on to ideas and attitudes that, if we really look at them, would contradict other profound ideas such the notion of God as just and good. By understanding the Gospels and the Hebrew Bible in their historical context, we are better able to function in the contemporary world.
Shabbat Shalom: It seems to me that the recent avalanche of studies on the Jewishness of Jesus and Judaism in the Gospels has something to do with the Jewish-Christian dialogue initiated mainly after the Holocaust, maybe in order to help believers in these traditions to understand each other better and maybe even to bring them closer together. How do you assess the immense work on Jesus, his Jewishness, and Judaism in the Gospels and the New Testament?
Adele Reinhartz: I see it as a very welcome development. The history of New Testament scholarship shows that in the nineteenth century and up to the middle of the twentieth century there is a theological foundation to the way in which some scholars talked about Jesus, Judaism, and Paul which really minimized Jesus’ Jewish identity. The Holocaust and Christian reflections after the Holocaust have made that sort of approach unacceptable. Not that there are not people who still think that way, but as a scholarly approach it is simply no longer acceptable.
When people are rediscovering Jesus’ Jewishness, they are just paying attention and giving validity to an aspect of the Gospels that was always there. It’s not anything new. Only the viewpoint is different: now we are setting Jesus within the Jewish context as opposed to setting him over against the Jewish context. I regard this development as very positive. Whether it brings Jews and Christians closer together depends on how we define “closer together.” A situation where Jews feel free to study the New Testament, and Christians understand the need to study Jewish texts, is desirable and will allow for dialogue. However, a prerequisite for dialogue is the acceptance of each other’s differences and not an attempt to persuade someone else that your viewpoint is correct. A basis for mutual understanding also includes an understanding of how you are different from me and how I will never be like you.
Shabbat Shalom: My final question is this: I guess you would still have some open questions in your study of the Gospels and of Jesus. Let’s suppose you have the possibility to ask God one question. What would that be?
Adele Reinhartz: It would be a question around how God could have allowed an event such as the Holocaust to occur. A second question would pertain to the current situation in the Middle East, and the possibilities for a resolution that would be positive for both sides.
Shabbat Shalom: The question about Shalom?
Adele Reinhartz: Yes. That’s right.
Shabbat Shalom: Do you have a question about Jesus you would like to pose to God?
Adele Reinhartz: I don’t have so much curiosity about Jesus. At one point I thought that what I would like to know most is what really happened in terms of the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Intellectually I would be interested in knowing that. However, if I did have the opportunity to ask God just one question, it would not be about Jesus.
*This interview was conducted by Martin Pröbstle (Oct 8, 2003).