Monday, April 30, 2007

Dershowitz, The Trial of Jesus and Biblical Exegesis.

Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz has some arguably controversial views on the use of torture and the state of Israel. He has nonetheless written an interesting comment on the trial of Jesus in his book America on Trial, Inside the Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation (New York, Warner Books, 2004).

In the first chapter Dershowitz describes how the Bible was used as a source of inspiration in the development of American law. Particularly references to the trial of Jesus have abounded in American legal history. Commenting on Jesus’ trial Dershowitz states that “[t]he relationship between the Jewish and Roman authorities, and their relative responsibility for the conviction and crucifixion of Jesus, is among the least trustworthy and most conflicting aspects of the Gospels.”

Dershowitz emphasizes that although the substantive laws of the Bible made certain kinds of religious heresy punishable by death, it also had a variety of safeguards that made it nearly impossible to execute anyone. Roman law, however, had looser standards of proof, especially towards non-Romans, and it is therefore not surprising that Jews wanting to get rid of a religious troublemaker would turn him in to the Roman authorities. Dershowitz then argues that the Gospel accounts are more favourable to the Romans than to the Jews, due to Christian expansion into the Roman world.

In his analysis Dershowitz is aligning himself with a long line of critical biblical scholars who see aspects of the Gospels, in particular the Gospel of John, as a result of anti-Jewish sentiment by 1st and 2nd century Christians.

While the critique from Dershowitz and critical scholars is valuable in forcing Christians to re-evaluating their understanding of Bible, their analysis seems to make the mistake of imposing later religious thinking onto the Gospels. Although Christians have used the Gospels to fan anti-Jewish sentiment, critics should be careful not to attribute such sentiment to the Gospel writers.

The critical approach should also serve as a reminder for Christians not to impose supervening exegesis onto the Biblical texts. The classic example of how such exegesis gets it wrong, is the interpretation of the statement in Matthew 1:22 that Jesus' birth fulfills Isaiah 7:14. Christianity has traditionally understood this text as a prophetic foretelling of the nature of Jesus birth, i.e. birth by a virgin. The writer of Matthew, however, is not emphasizing Mary’s unmarried status, but is making the point that just as the birth of a boy by a young woman was a sign of deliverance to King Ahaz, the birth of Jesus is the ultimate sign of deliverance. Jesus, Matthew writes, will therefore be called Immanuel by his people because he will save them from their sins (see Math. 1.21-23).

1 comment:

  1. Your comments on Dershowitz’s book makes interesting reading on a number of points. He somewhat echoes Geza Vermes polemic regarding the trial of Jesus.

    NT Wright, in a book written together with Marcus Borg titled 'The Meaning of Jesus – Two Visions' doubts whether the variety of safeguards were fully in place that night when Jesus appeared before the High Priest. Wright writes “The problems about a hasty night hearing have been very much overblown; it may not have been an official trial, and regulations drafted in a cool hour two hundred years later (in the Mishnah, our main source) are hardly good evidence for what might have happened in an emergency, at a festival season, under the eagle eye of Rome.” ('The meaning of Jesus – Two Visions' NT Wright, Marcus Borg - page 101).

    What Wright is also addressing is the political nature of the trial before the High Priest, who together with other Sadducees and numerous Pharisees obviously had vested interests in the Romans remaining in power. Jesus was certainly a threat to that interest – the ruling Jewish elite could not afford further disturbances in the temple, which might lead to insurrection.


    The author of the Book of Hebrews, the gospel writers, as well as Paul have often imposed what we might also refer to as ‘supervening exegesis’ onto OT (and possibly apocryphal) texts.

    “Dr David H Stern, . . . a Messianic Jew . . . describes four rabbinical modes of scriptural interpretation. The Jewish authors of the NT both understood and used these four modes:

    “p’shat – the plain literal sense of the OT text quoted in the NT

    Remez – where a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p’shat (the implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers were themselves unaware)

    Drash or Midrash (search) – an allegorical or homiletical application of the text – as opposed to exegesis which is extracting from the text what it actually says

    Sod (secret) – where a mystical or hidden meaning is arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters and the like.”

    (Quoted from Donald E Curtis – Hints, Allegories, and Mysteries: The New Testament quotes the Old).

    The above comment has also been posted at locus standi.