Monday, January 7, 2019


The more I study famous individuals who had tremendous impact on society, the more I realize that many legends were created about them after their death. Over time, they become super human beings. This happened to many people, including Moses, Jesus, Alexander the Great, Buddha, and others. 

Take the case of Moses, for example. There are no extra biblical sources that refer to him or to the Exodus. The stories about his infancy read like other birth legends of Akkad. Furthermore, was he an Egyptian? A Midianite? A Levite? The Hebrew Bible derives his name from the fact that he was “pulled out” (Ex.2: 10) from the Nile river. In reality, his name comes from an Egyptian word meaning “to give birth” or “son of.”  We do not even know his actual name. Granted, it is difficult to “invent” a personality like Moses. He must have existed but the details of his life are not available to us. He was a great leader about whom various legends were created, in time making him “a prophet…whom YHVH knew face to face” (Deut.34:10), a teacher par excellence (Moshe rabbenu –“Moses our teacher”), but not divine.

What about Jesus? A critical analysis of the New Testament shows that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels is very different from the Jesus of John. Besides, was he from Bethlehem or Nazareth? Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish-Greek philosopher, and the contemporary of Jesus, does not mention him. Josephus, the Jewish-Greek historian who lived around the same time, has two short references to Jesus (Antiq. 18:3/3 and 20: 9/1) but they are highly controversial. Most scholars agree that Jesus must have been a Jewish charismatic leader who was put to death by the Romans in the 1st cent. CE. The details of his life and his teachings, however, are not known for sure. 

The scholarly search for Jesus, the man, began in the early 18th century with Samuel Reimarus, a German scholar, who stressed the Jewishness of Jesus. Others followed, including Albert Schweitzer, who, in his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, questioned many of the traditions regarding him but emphasized his eschatological teachings. More recently, others proposed some extreme positions, such as Barbara Thiering , who in 1992, argued in her book, Jesus  and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the historical Jesus was the leader of the radical faction of the Essenes, a Jewish group which, during the Roman period, lived in Qumran. It appears that it will be impossible to know exactly who Jesus was. Samuel Sandmel, a New Testament scholar, expressed his frustration when he stated that “the Jesus of history is beyond recovery” (We Jews and Jesus, p. 107). Jesus must have been a noteworthy Jewish personality about whom various legends were created. A charismatic leader, he ended up becoming divine for many. 

What about literary attribution to someone else? In the ancient world it was not uncommon to attribute a book to an outstanding individual who lived in the past. According to Jewish tradition, for example, the first Five Books of the Hebrew Bible, were written by Moses (e.g., Deut.31:9). Modern Biblical scholarship discounts this claim, and maintains that these books were written by scribes representing four different schools of thought (the so-called JEDP) over a long period of time, and then attributed back to the great Moses.

Similarly, the thirteen Pauline epistles in the New Testament present Paul the Apostle as their author. However, scholars agree today that many of these letters (e.g., Colossians, Ephesians) were attributed to Paul, not written by him. In Jewish religious literature we have the case of the Zohar, a medieval kabbalistic book, which, although written by Rabbi Moses de Leon (13th cent. Spain), it was attributed by him to Shimon bar Yohay, a 2nd cent. Tannaitic sage from Galilee, who was active after the destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem in 70.

Moses and Jesus were outstanding individuals who had tremendous impact on their society. Over time, however, many teachings were attributed to them. That says a lot about their teachings but very little about their personal life. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA
Framingham State University, Philosophy/Psychology Dept.