This past week I gave a lecture at the University of Michigan called “Jesus, the Law, and the New Covenant.” The occasion was a symposium in honor of the life and work of Old Testament scholar George Mendenhall. I never knew Mendenhall. He was a highly prominent figure in the field of Hebrew Bible in the middle of the 20th century, known especially for his work on the significance of “covenant” for understanding both the Hebrew Bible and the history of the Israelites. The symposium itself was a day-long affair in which scholars of Hebrew Bible, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, and post-biblical Judaism gave academic papers dealing with the concepts of covenant and law in their fields of interest.
The organizers of the conference asked me to give the keynote address the evening before the symposium itself. When I was asked, I told them how deeply honored I was, knowing the importance of Mendenhall’s scholarship. But I pointed out that my expertise is not Hebrew Bible, and I would not be able to interact intelligently with his work, his theses, and the scholarship that emerged in his wake. But they knew that already when they invited me. They thought that I could make a presentation to a larger general audience (the symposium papers were all serious scholarship for scholars only) on something I did know about, the historical Jesus. I thought it was an interesting idea, so I agreed.
It was a terrific symposium. I won’t be discussing here on the blog the various papers that were presented – virtually all of them by scholars I had never met before, since I do not, as a rule, have many contacts with, say, scholars of Ancient Near East or rabbinic Judaism. I thought it might be interesting, though, to have a thread dealing with the topic of my own paper, as the issues I addressed are indeed of central importance for anyone interested in knowing about the historical Jesus, the writings of the New Testament, and the relationship Christians in the early church had with Jews and with the Jewish Scriptures.
First let me discuss …
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