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Jesus, the Law, and a “New” Covenant Lecture

On October 6, 2016 I gave a lecture at the University of Michigan on “Jesus, the Law, and the New Covenant.  This was keynote address for the Mendenhall Symposium, in honor of the eminent scholar of the Hebrew Bible, George Mendenhall.  The symposium focused on issues on the law and covenant in the the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, and second-temple Judaism, with prominent scholars in these fields presenting papers on key aspects of the subject.

Here is the video of my talk.

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What Can We Do About Presuppositions?
Gospel Evidence that Jesus Existed



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  October 29, 2016

    As a Jew myself, who has lived amongst both other Jews and Christians, in both Israel and America, the more and more I look at the Jesus that has come down to us, the more and more blatanly obvious it is to me that Jesus was through-and-through a red-blooded Jew (that rhymes). But when I look at the writings of Christian apologists — not just from the 2nd century or the 6th century or the 19th century or even the 21st century! — it’s like they are all trying to desparately hold onto some notion that Jesus was somehow different from the Jews around him. For them, there simply must have been something that made him stick out. Even those Christian scholars who will be the first to admit that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, even those scholars will try to find some way to make Jesus special, to make him not 100% Jew — more like 99.5% Jew. As if that 0.5% is enough to give Christians a claim to him.

    But, as I’ve said, as a Jew myself, when I look at Jesus the man — the Jesus who is totally stripped of ex post facto legend and myth, stripped of Christian propaganda and resentment, stripped of all the convoluted, mind-numbing theological and christological layers piled on over hundreds of years — that Jesus doesn’t seem any less Jewish to me than, say, Yochanan ben Zakkai, or Yochanan Gush haLav, or Caiaphas, or Josephus, or Philo, or Herod Agrippa, or Drusilla (the Jewish princess one who was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius), or even the apostate Tiberius Julius Alexander. In other words, Jesus fits in perfectly with the wild mosaic that was ancient Judaism. He doesn’t really stick out at all. Indeed, he’s so typical as to almost be uninteresting!

    But, of course, since I’m in the process of writing a novel based on Jesus I’m inclined to make him interesting, so…

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 30, 2016

      I know the “process of writing a novel” isn’t quick or easy, but I really hope we’ll be able to read it!

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  October 31, 2016

      How’s that going? Have you started writing yet?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 1, 2016

        It’s a side project, so slowly but steady. Several years away at least.

        • Avatar
          llamensdor  November 2, 2016

          While you’re waiting for Talmoore, you can read an absolutely brilliant historical novel by me, Len Lamensdorf, sold on Amazon as “The Murdered Messiah.” Did I break any rules, Bart, by boosting my own book?

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  November 1, 2016

      It seems to me that one thing not understood by those Christians you mention who grab a hold of that 5% is that you can be a bad Jew in some ways (not that any of Jesus’ teachings made him one) and still be a Jew. I’m Jewish and, through my life, have heard a number of discussions and arguments not only over “who is a Jew” but when does “a bad Jew” become so bad that he ceases being Jewish. These Christians fail to understand that disagreement among Jews–even on how to behave on Shabbat –is common and takes place within Judaism. These Christians are probably also influenced by Paul who said that, if you’ve broken one commandment, you’ve broken them all. That’s hardly the way most Jews saw it or see it. I don’t know how Paul came up with that.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 2, 2016

        I, personally, think that Jesus was of questionable ethical intent at best. I think he truly believed that he and his fellows were amongst the צדיקים who would be saved from judgment and would “inherit” מלכות השמים in עולם הבא. I think Jesus actually believed the רשעים, i.e. anyone who didn’t think like him or his ilk, whether Jew or Gentile, would be condemned to the fires of גיהנום. I think Jesus really did believe that he didn’t come to bring שלום but החרב. Now, do I think Jesus was evil? No. I think Jesus truly believed he was on the right side and that everyone who wasn’t on his side was on the wrong side. I think Jesus truly believed that he was on the side of good. But believing you’re on the side of good and actually being on the side of good are two different things. Think about all the people thoughout history who did horrendous things while believing they were on the side of good. (To paraphrase Steven Weinberg: With or without religion, good people will do good, and evil people will do evil, but for good people to evil, that takes religion.)

        And as a Jew by birth myself, I’m saying this not because I have anything personal against Jesus or Christianity in general, but simply because this is the man I see when I strip away all the layers of legend, religious propaganda and theological delusions. I see a typical misguided cult leader.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  November 4, 2016

          I’m Jewish but can’t read Hebrew or Yiddish.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  November 5, 2016

            Hebrew was my first language. Having lived in Israel, Los Angeles, New York and South Florida (places one might run into Jews) from my (anecdotal) experience, Jews can be relatively evenly divided into three groups: Those who can speak Hebrew fluently; those who can speak or read a smattering of Hebrew, mostly prayers and Bible passages; and those who couldn’t speak or read Hebrew to save their lives. While I’m not shomer — and I’m an atheist to boot — I would say to any fellow Jew who considers themselves “practicing”, if you’re not reading the Torah in Hebrew, then you might as well not even bother. Reading it in Hebrew is an entirely different experience. English translations don’t even come close to capturing the prosody and poetry of the Hebrew. That’s just my opinion.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  November 6, 2016

          I too am an atheist (not denier of divinity, just have never believed) and have never (in my 70 years) considered myself a practicing Jew. I have been told many times that reading the Tanakh in its original language is crucial to really understanding all its subtleties. But being able to understand it that way has never been crucial to me. Except for my first ten years, I have always lived in a primarily gentile environment and most American Christians base their beliefs (to the extent they base them on scripture) on the English versions they’ve read. When we “talk religion,” and it becomes important to make a point about the Hebrew or Greek, I do so with what little knowledge I’ve gleaned over the decades of reading studies of Jewish history, the historical Jesus, Christian beginnings, and the formation of the New Testament. You don’t have to know Hebrew to see that Genesis 2-3 is not a story of the Fall. You can show that to people even by referring to the English text.

    • Avatar
      Teodora  November 4, 2016

      As Jesus would have said, “you are not far from the kingdom of God” :).
      I think understanding that Jesus was a man is key to true Christianity and it’s the only way it makes sense in a broader perspective of the relationship between humans and God and the reason He created them.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  November 5, 2016

        What do you think that “sense in a broader perspective” is?

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 30, 2016

    Your productivity continues to amaze me. I can’t possibly keep up with all of your work so how do you do it all?.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2016

      Well, today I’m watching only one NFL game (Patriots), which I’ll record to skip commercials and be able to get in while having my workout!

  3. Avatar
    bradseggie  October 30, 2016

    As to Jesus being an Essene, here’s an argument I heard.

    1. The Dead Sea Scrolls are from an Essenic community at what is now called Qumran.

    2. Later the Damscus Document was found, of the same nature as the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating that the community at Qumran was called Damascus during the first century.

    3. Paul was on the Road to “Damascus” to persecute the early Christians. His writ could not refer to Damascus, Syria, because it would have no legal effect outside of Israel (or the Roman territory). He was therefore going to a “Damascus” within Israel.

    4. One would deduce that Paul had a writ to go to Qumran to persecute the early Christians. Thus, the early Christians were Essenes.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2016

      Wow. That’s a real stretch!!!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 31, 2016

      If anything, Jesus was probably much more like (and much more influenced by) Galilean theocratic revolutionaries like Zadok the Pharisee (צדוק הפרושי), who was probably the intellectual/spiritual leader of the Galilean rebels led by Judas the Galilean (יהוד גמלא). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judas_of_Galilee

      It appears the 1st century Jewish theocratic nationalist movement was split between those who advocated active rebellion against Roman and Jewish authorities (such as Judas the Galilean), and those nationalists who promoted a more passive, patient anticipation for the the arrival of the heavenly armies of God (YHWH Tzva’ot — יהוה צבאות) who will wipe out the unrighteous (Jew and Gentile) and establish the “Kingdom of heaven” (Malkhut Shamai’a — מלכות שמיא) on earth with the righteous remnent (שרידי צדיקים). Jesus seems to have been part of the latter group.

    • Avatar
      stourleyk  October 21, 2019

      Paul’s efforts to force Damascan Jews to get back to their faith would not have been a legal issue, no matter how harsh his methods were.

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    Antisthenes  October 30, 2016

    God is quite clear in Leviticus that his covenant is everlasting and that Atonement is to be made once a year for sin. He also states ad infinitum which regular sacrifices or punishments are due for everything else he proscribes. He therefore appears to accept that mankind will sin, specifies what penalties are due and how to repent annually so what role does Jesus (God himself again) need to play?

    Which sins are expunged by Jesus’ “new covenant”? It seems that the modern evangelical uses it to excuse Marcion’s wrathful God but does that mean that during the intervening period between God’s first presentation of the law and Jesus’ ministry, it was still OK to put children to death for being rude to their parents etc?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      I think the idea is that now a perfect sacrifice has been made, the older sacrificial system is no longer needed.

  5. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  October 30, 2016

    The name Yehoshua has the form of a compound of “Yeho-” and “shua”: Yeho- יְהוֹ is another form of יָהו Yahu, a theophoric element standing for the name of God יהוה (the tetragrammaton YHWH, sometimes transcribed into English as Yahweh or Jehovah), and שׁוּעַ shua‘ is a noun meaning “a cry for help”, “a saving cry”,[11][12][13] that is to say, a shout given when in need of rescue. Together, the name would then literally mean, “YHWH (Yahu) is a saving-cry,” that is to say, shout to YHWH [God] when in need of help.


    why is it impossible to reconstruct “jesus” name? is it because some important hebrew and aramaic dialects are no longer available to us to help us reconstruct ?

    and you will be hated by all because of my name

    “onoma ” in greek

    but what is the name? how to pronounce it? and if jews were named the name of “jesus” and were singing
    “a cry for help”, “a saving cry”

    then what does it mean “hated ” ?

    jews seem to have loved the name in their religious practices especially when they were being persecuted

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      You can’t construe the meaning of the name Jesus in Hebrew because it is Greek. The Greek name is just a name; it doesn’t mean anything special other than as a name. (Just as most names don’t mean anything)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 1, 2016

        Well, if you want to get technical, “Jesus” is an English name, derived from the Greek name Ιησούς, which itself comes from the very much Hebrew name יהושוע, which was actually the name of the figure we call Joshua in the Bible. That is, “Jesus’s” “name” was actually “Joshua,” if you want to get technical.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  November 2, 2016

        Do you think Mary and Joseph gave their child a Greek name?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 4, 2016

          No, his given name was Yeshua. In the Greek writings about the event the name is naturally given in Greek, Ιησους. In English translations of those writings his name is translated as Jesus.

  6. Avatar
    michael_kelemen  October 30, 2016

    I thought that this was your best lecture (and I’ve enjoyed many of them). The only funny thing was that you were looking down at the floor most of the time.
    Also, I can’t understand Marcion because Jesus derived his significance completely from the Jewish bible so how could you possibly do away with it?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      I think I was looking at the floor because I was trying to figure out what to say!

  7. Avatar
    ffg  October 30, 2016

    Awesome lecture. The quick history of anti-semitism in the Q and A session is highly informative as well.

  8. Avatar
    Jason  October 30, 2016

    Have you dropped a few pounds?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      About a year ago. Went on a diet and lost a pound a week for seven months. Now the chore is keeping them off!

      • Avatar
        Jason  November 1, 2016

        Well, you look great. Res firma mitescere nescit! (The only latin I knew (from “American Flyers”) before I started reading your books.)

  9. Avatar
    sladesg  October 31, 2016

    You made a comment in the video about Jesus *probably* being a teacher of the Law. In what sense do you suppose he was? The Pharisees certainly questioned that very fact on occasion, and I don’t think Jesus (or any of his followers) ever mentions having learned under anyone other than God himself. This is weighed against the almost certain probability that you’ve mentioned before regarding the illiteracy of Palestine, and that Jesus falls into that category. So, in what sense was Jesus a teacher (historically speaking) of which we can be certain?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      I don’t think Pharisees ever accuse Jesus of not being a teacher of the law. They accuse him of teaching the wrong things. And in an oral culture, teachers do not necessarily have to be literate.

  10. Avatar
    drussell60  October 31, 2016

    Another great lecture! Thank you so much for sharing you scholarship and insights into the life of Jesus, and the ancient world. Wish I could have attended as you were within a reasonable driving distance from my home near Detroit. I’ve no question to add other than wondering if you knew David Noel Freedman. His Anchor Bible series is a great gift indeed. You were also in the range of some good AA microbreweries. I hope you had some time to partake.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2016

      No, to my regret I never met him. And yes, I did have some very nice beer!

  11. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 2, 2016

    You offered a reason for Christians adopting the Jewish scriptures “that most people have not thought of,” that it made their religion seem ancient, rather than a novelty that would be taken less seriously in the Graeco-Roman world. Is this a common view among scholars, or are you in the minority?
    P.S. I just thought about Acts 17:21, which indicates the Athenian intelligentsia were fascinated with novel ideas. Were they an exception to the rule, or is that an unfounded claim Luke is making?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2016

      I’m not sure if I read it somewhere or came up with it myself! I don’t recall it being a common view. On Acts 17:21 — good question! I don’t know.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  November 2, 2016

        I’ve read of it a couple times years ago but can’t recall which authors said so.

  12. Avatar
    llamensdor  November 2, 2016

    Without its basis in Jewish scripture and Jewish history, Christianity is nothing. The antiquity of the Jewish belief system adds to its importance, but that is only a peripheral matter. Wasn’t it Julius Caesar who offered dispensation to the Jews to excuse them from performing pagan rites? If you omit Jewish scripture and history, where does Jesus come from and what does he represent?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2016

      Jews were never required to perform pagan rites, except in a few notable times and places. Without his Jewish roots, Jesus doesn’t make any sense.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  November 4, 2016

        Thanks. According to some online sources, Hyrcanus (Judea) sent troops to Egypt, which helped lift the siege by Pompey of Caesar’s army in Alexandria. In thanks, Caesar lifted some harsh decrees of Pompey’s against the Jews.
        Caesar allowed the Jews to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and limited taxation to 12.5 % of produce. Other online sources say Caesar decreed that Judaism would be a permitted religion, which could be practiced in the diaspora as well as in Judea. I haven’t verified this stuff, but it’s where I got the idea the Jews were excused from performing pagan rites.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 5, 2016

          Jews were almost never forbidden from practicing their religion even before this important episode (by the Romans or most anyone else).

        • talmoore
          talmoore  November 7, 2016

          The pendulum swung back and forth a lot, which is something we see a lot with religious nationalist movements throughout history. In the 500 year period from the return of the Jewish exiles in Babylon until the destruction of the Temple, there were times when outside pagan rulers (e.g. Antiochus Epiphanes) would push the Jews to be less “Jewish” and the Jews, in turn, would push back hard in the other direction, which is a very common reaction throughout human history (hence why it’s called reactionary). But then those reactionary times would begin to swing back towards a less conservative religiosity, usually out of some practical political necessity. For instance, look at how the Maccabean revolt started out as a hardcore reactionary movement that, within only a few decades, became so moderate to the point where new Jewish reactionary movements, such as the Essenes started forming as a conversative reaction to the very same ruling class that came from previous conservative reactionaries! This constant ebb and flow is very much the rule throughout human history. That’s why, for the most part, ancient Jews were free to worship however they wanted…up to a certain point.

  13. Avatar
    michael_kelemen  November 4, 2016

    Indeed: “Without his Jewish roots, Jesus doesn’t make any sense”. So, how did Marcion’s view make sense to so many people?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      They weren’t modern historians who realized the importance of original context! (And they weren’t connected with Judaism themsleves.)

  14. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  November 5, 2016


    First, it is curious that Jesus refers to following him as “taking up the cross” at a time before he is supposed to have died on a cross. If we are to assume Jesus knew about crucifixion before his own death, then he was apparently characterizing one’s following of him with severe persecution and death…which is a very far cry from anything experienced by modern-day Christians. Today’s Christians do not believe that following Jesus involves a serious sacrifice of one’s life, the way “take up your cross” would have been understood by Jesus’ original hearers in the first century, so “take up your cross” only increases the legalism of his gospel message. You don’t just “accept Jesus”, you have to live a life which constitutes taking up your “cross”, and you also have to follow the commandments.
    end quote

    when i read this bit “taking up the cross” i always wondered how is it possible jesus is saying this when all his encounters with authorities , mobs etc he runs away and escapes death

    and as the quote says

    1. christians don’t lose their life under persecution i.e they are not being killed everywhere

    so is this good evidence it is mark himself who is suffering and writing about his own horrible life?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      Mark, or the story tellers before him that influenced him.

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