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As one who had authority

I've been rereading David Klinghoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. It's a strange book, as his overarching purpose seems to be to illustrate the tensions between Judaism and Christianity to get them to unite against that other dangerous Jewish heresy, Islam. Follow that? I can't really, either.

In its details, however, it's a much more interesting book. It's not surprising to me that the New Testament rests loosely and often imprecisely on the Old. Its description of Messiah-hunting at the time of Christ reminds me all too much of the Life of Brian - not that Klinghoffer draws the connection. There is much here to challenge Christian faith, and I strongly recommend reading it to break down some common assumptions about how Christ's story fits (or doesn't) with the Old Testament stories to which New Testament writers strove to bind it.

From a Quaker perspective, there's a retelling of Jesus' story that's especially fascinating, because in many ways it seems to me to echo what happened with the Reformation in general and early Quaker history in particular. Klinghoffer writes, after reflecting on efforts to describe Jesus as a rabbi:

One naturally wonders what it was Jesus taught in those Galilean synagogues, starting in Nazareth, that the more they listened to him preach, the more the congregation became outraged...

What Jesus rejected was the oral Torah that explains the written Torah. Essential to rabbinic Judaism, this concept of an oral Torah recognizes the Pentateuch as a cryptic document, a coded text. It posits that the Bible's first five books were revealed to Moses along with a key to unlock the code. Jesus derides this orally transmitted interpretation on matters including the details of Sabbath observance (no carrying objects in a public space, no harvesting produce or use of healing salves except to save a life), praying with a quorum, burying the dead, refraining from bathing and annointing on fast days like Yom Kippuer, donating a yearly half-shekel to the Temple, and hand washing before eating bread.

Stated laundry-list fashion, such commandments from the oral tradition may seem like trivialities. But from the constellation of such discrete teachings there emerges the gorgeous pointillist masterpiece of Torah - not merely "the Torah", the finite text of the Pentateuch that the Christian founder accepted, but the infinite tradition of Judaism as a whole, reflecting God's mind as applied to human affairs. (55-56)

Klinghoffer walks through the "laundry list" in detail, examining how the oral tradition expanded on the written word and how Jesus challenged each of these items. He also examines - and dismisses - some ways later scholars have tried to soften the conflict. Given the central question of why his hearers were outraged by Jesus' statements, I have to think he's on to something. The deeper parallels with Quakerism, though, emerge after this consideration:

For Jesus, oral Torah was a man-made accretion without transcendent authority. He tells a group of Pharisees, "So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God," citing Isaiah, "In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." [Matthew 15:7, 9] Elsewhere, "Woe to you lawyers also! For you load men with burdens hard to bear." [Luke 11:46]

This explains why he felt it was appropriate to teach solely on his own authority, rather than by citing previous sages, which is how the rabbis taught: "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as one of their scribes." [Matthew 7:28-9]

There could be only one reason for this: Jesus did not see himself as a link in the chain of tradition. This was a repudiation of the very heart of rabbinic faith. Without tradition, either the cryptic text of the Pentateuch was locked forever, its true meaning indiscernible, or it was open to all to guess as their intellect or whim directed them - a free-for-all of scriptural interpretation where the Torah means whatever the reader wants it to mean. (58-9, paragraph break added)

This dispute over tradition was echoed centuries later when the Reformation separated a large group of Christians from the oral apostolic tradition that had been central in Catholicism (and Orthodoxy). Protestants re-focused on the written text of the Bible, elevating Scripture to new heights. It was echoed again on a smaller scale by Quakers who rejected many of the conclusions those Protestants had reached, either for their continued reliance on old tradition or for their lack of strictly biblical support.

Quakerism seemed to its opponents to lose valuable connections with past interpretation and to risk total anarchy, with everyone interpreting the Bible however they wanted - potentially, with everyone "as one who had authority".

Klinghoffer even notes a geographic and personal dynamic that Quakers would echo:

A phenomenally charismatic person, Jesus mocked the Jewish establishment of his day and was adulated by a following from Galilee, the region where he conducted his brief ministry, famous in this period (says Professor Geza Vermes) for the ignorance of the local populace. Knowing no better, loathing Pharisees as their own teacher did, they thought Jesus had Judaism all figured out. (59)

George Fox was certainly charismatic, and his ministry blossomed in the north of England, a part of the country that Puritans frequently despaired over. He and his followers certainly took advantage of northern resentments (including those toward lawyers) as they built the movement that would become Quakerism before moving south. James Nayler may even fit the story better, coming from the north and entering Bristol in a re-enactment of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, finding himself immediately condemned and his movement imperiled for posing a danger to the state.

The Nayler story makes me wonder how self-aware the Quakers were of these echoes, something I need to research more deeply. I did run into a paper questioning Fox's and Nayler's rhetoric about Jews and Pharisees (as well as the song "Lord of the Dance") which points out (in note 30) that "there is little evidence in [Nayler's] writings that he understood that Pharisees were a sect of first-century Judaism", which seems especially strange.

Still, if the Quakers had been as successful in their missionary endeavors as they had hoped, perhaps one day an Anglican holdout would have penned Why the Anglicans Rejected Quakerism - with a very similar message.


I've not read Klinghoffer's book, so perhaps this comment is misplaced. But I cannot accept the reasoning in the excerpt you quote, since it is flawed:

"Without tradition, either the cryptic text of the Pentateuch was locked forever, its true meaning indiscernible, or it was open to all to guess as their intellect or whim directed them - a free-for-all of scriptural interpretation where the Torah means whatever the reader wants it to mean."

Contrary to Klinghoffer, there are many possible alternative positions between these two extremes. One such alternative is that the text is open to interpretation by any body, but with each reader guided by the Holy Spirit. I am reminded of Marx's statement that each generation makes its own history, but not in circumstances of its own choosing. Likewise, each of us may interpret a text ourselves, but doing it ourselves does not necessarily mean we acting by whim.

I agree that "there are many possible alternatives between these two extremes".

At the same time, though, I can understand how someone at the extreme takes any of those middle positions to be a mistake. If the "true meaning" is actually available, through the oral tradition, then discarding the oral tradition in favor of anything else would seem like a huge mistake.

Even traditionalists usually have a place for divine assistance in reading, but the operation of that assistance is usually not described as "each reader guided by the Holy Spirit."