A review of Ellis Rivkin, What Crucified Jesus?
by Howard Clark Kee, Ph.D
At a time when the Roman Catholic Church has once more taken action to remove anti-Judaism from Christians’ understanding of the death of Jesus, it is highly commendable that Eugene J. Fisher, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has participated in the reissuing of a set of perceptive essays by Ellis Rivkin, What Crucified Jesus? (New York, NY UAHC Press, 1977) Dr. Rivkin is the Adolph S. Ochs Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
In these studies Rivkin persuasively shifted the focus from the question “who” was responsible for the execution of Jesus to the basic issue of “what” had developed in Judaism and in the wider Roman world of the first century of the Common Era that led to this tragic event. The subtitle of the book indicates the important factors in this development: “Messianism, Pharisaism, and the Development of Christianity.” It is these features which are analyzed in Rivkin’s essays, which draw heavily on the evidence from Josephus’ writings.
He makes the point that because Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God and claimed to be the Messiah, Son of Man, he was perceived as a threat to the political order in the region, which was based on Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Roman imperial powers in order to maintain order. The political implications of Jesus’ message resulted in a trial before the °regional council, the synedrion, the name of which was transliterated by the rabbis as Sanhedrin, after the failure of the First and Second Jewish revolts against the Romans. The authority of the council was in regard to social and political issues. The synedrion was presided over by the high priest – an appointee of the Romans – and it “had no authority over religious matters” (50). As for the coming of the kingdom of God which Jesus announced that “of necessity (it) would displace the kingdom of Rome” (53). Thus it had revolutionary implications for the procurator and the high priest if the crowds were to join this movement (61).
It was before this body, established by the Romans, that Jesus was examined on political, not religious grounds, since this council had no authority on religious matters, as the Sanhedrin did in the period following the destruction of the temple and the launching of the rabbinic movement: “No institution of Judaism had anything to do with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus” (73). What crucified Jesus was the Roman imperial system, operating through those who were willing to serve on the council of collaborators with the Romans (77).
In an essay, “Anti-Semitism in the New Testament,” Rivkin points out that the Roman imperial system not only crucified Jesus but shattered the Jewish leadership and institutions. Texts “filled with hostility” should therefore be read “as time-bound and human-bound” (128) – read in the unique historical context which gave rise to them – in contrast to those parts of the New Testament which should be read as “the record of God’s effort to lift human beings out of the realm of the tragically human into the realm of the serenely divine” (128). He goes on to describe Reform and Orthodox Judaism – as well as Christianity in the New Testament – as forms of what he calls “mutation revelation,” in all of which are displayed “divine light and the human prism” (147). The direct experience of God in both Jewish and Christian traditions is the highest value which they offer, and should not be obscured by the elements of conflict which reflect the period of their historical origins. Rather than choosing as normative one of these options, Rivkin is convinced that there have been and will continue to be various revelations “until the ushering in of the Messianic Age gives us, at long last, the fullness of God” (151).
Rivkin perceptively analyzes “The Meaning of Messiah in Jewish Thought” (155-181). He notes that there was in Judaism of the first century, no comprehensive agreement on the issues as to whether Messiah would renew the Davidic dynasty, whether his role would be primarily cultic, and whether God’s plan for his people was linked to the prophetic promise. During the long period in which Israel was dominated by “Pentateuchalism and Aaronide absolutism” (158), as affirmed in Sirach 46- 49, the Pharisees claimed the right to interpret and to supplement the Law of Moses, and that if their perception of the law were internalized in the conscience of the individual,. ..the Heavenly Father would reward one’s loyalty with immortality” (167). The Pharisees acceded to Roman nile, and only reluctantly supported the Jewish revolt against the Romans, never linking it with messianic expectations.
It was in the tradition of the apocalyptic hopes expressed in the book of Daniel and other pseudepigraphic writings announcing the soon coming of the rule of God (170), that Jesus appeared and is represented in the New Testament. It was the Pharisaic belief that the heavenly father would reward the righteous with eternal life and resurrection which was taken up by the followers of Jesus, who perceived him to be the agent through whom God’s new law was conveyed to the new covenant peoples and by whom the kingdom of God had been brought near. The early Christian use of the language of the kingdom had clear political implications in the opinion of the Roman authorities, however, and it was with the aim of repressing this movement that Jesus was crucified. That is “What Crucified Jesus.”
Howard Clark Kee
Professor of Biblical Studies, Emeritus, Boston University