I know, I know – I’ve been on a Matthew Thiessen kick as of late. First, my review of his fantastic book Jesus and the Forces of Death. Then his interview over at the OnScript podcast. Now, this post. But let me briefly explain why I am a bit obsessed. Thiessen reminds me of Paula Fredriksen, the author of Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press, 2017). No, it isn’t the hair. Rather, both Fredriksen and Thiessen write in such a clear and compelling way that you come away from their work not only with the feeling you’ve learned something of value but also with a model to pattern your own writing after. I know I’m no Fredriksen or Thiessen but I feel like if I can write half as well as they do then both of my readers will be better off for it. I digress.
Thiessen recently posted over on his academia.edu profile his contribution to the recently released edited volume Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Essays on the Relationship Between Christianity and Judaism (Lexham Press, 2021). In his essay “Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion?” Thiessen argues that on the basis of the data we have in the Synoptic Gospels, we can at least say that as far as their authors were concerned Jesus had no interest in starting a religion apart from Judaism. Jesus valued the temple as the dwelling place of Israel’s god, the ritual purity system as the means by which the impure can deal with their impurities and approach God, and the Sabbath as the day prescribed by God to rest. Poignantly, Thiessen notes that if the historical Jesus had rejected these as passé then why do the Evangelists “depict him in a way that contradicts this truth? Could the gospel writers ‘really have understood nothing’?” (p. 31) This question has implications for the study of the historical Jesus since if the Gospel writers were wrong then their historical value is seriously undermined.
This essay is packed and fully referenced so you’ll find some great material in the footnotes from which to launch your own expedition on the subject. But if you’re wondering if Jesus was trying to start a new religion, Thiessen’s piece is a great place to start. It’s clear that as far as the Synoptic Jesus is concerned, Jesus was a first-century Jew with a Jewish worldview and therefore Jewish beliefs about Temple and Torah.