Hillel and Jesus
Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders


Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997 
ISBN: 0-8006-2564-1 (xxxi, 486 pp); $50.00 (hardcover) 
BT590.J8 H55 1997 or BS1236.G7 H55 1997 

Hillel and Jesus is a comparative study of two major religious leaders. Hillel was a Jewish rabbi who lived from about 60 B.C.E. to about 20 C.E.; Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who lived from about 5 B.C.E. to about 30 C.E. Both of these figures came to play significant foundational roles in the two religious traditions that emerged from the first century C.E.: rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. 

This collection of essays by both Jewish and Christian scholars aims to learn how and in what ways, if at all, can we learn more about Hillel by comparing him with Jesus, and how can we learn more about Jesus by comparing him with Hillel? The premise of the book is that insights from the historical and theological study of these two leaders who emerged near the end of Second Temple Judaism might bear fruit for understanding the historical and theological origins of both traditions. 

Dr. JAMES H. CHARLESWORTH is the George L. Collard Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary

Dr. LOREN L. JOHNS is Associate Professor of Religion at Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio.


Contributors   ii
Foreword (J. H. CHARLESWORTH)   xiii
Preface (L. L. JOHNS)   xvii
Abbreviations   xxv

1. J. H. CHARLESWORTH s 3-30
        Hillel and Jesus: Why Comparisons Are Important
        Hillel and Jesus: Are Comparisons Possible?
3. M. WEINFELD s 56-71
        Hillel and the Misunderstanding of Judaism in Modern Scholarship
4. D. FLUSSER s 71-107
        Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness
5. L. I. LEVINE s 1107-120
        Archaeology and the Religious Ethos of Pre-70 Palestine
6. S. E. ROBINSON s 121-136
        Apocalypticism in the Time of Hillel and Jesus
7. J. SIEVERS s 137-155
        Who Were the Pharisees?
8. J. D. G. DUNN s 156-175
        Jesus and Factionalism in Early Judaism
9. D. E. AUNE s 176-192
        Jesus and Cynics in First-Century Palestine: Some Critical Considerations
10. B. PIXNER s 193-224
        Jesus and His Community: Between Essenes and Pharisees
11. D. A. FIENSY s 225-255
        Jesus’ Socioeconomic Background
12. J. P. ARNOLD s 256-288
        The Relationship of Paul to Jesus
13. J. F. STRANGE s 291-305
        The Sayings of Jesus and Archaeology
14. C. SAFRAI s 306-320
        Sayings and Legends in the Hillel Tradition
15. S. SAFRAI s 321-334
        The Sayings of Hillel: Their Transmission and Reinterpretation
16. D. R. SCHWARTZ s 335-362
        Hillel and Scripture: From Authority to Exegesis
17. P. S. ALEXANDER s 363-388
        Jesus and the Golden Rule
18. H. LICHTENBERGER s 389-396
        Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls
19. C. A. EVANS s 397-426
        Reconstructing Jesus’ Teaching: Problems and Possibilities
20. B. T. VIVIANO s 427-457
        Hillel and Jesus on Prayer
21. J. H. CHARLESWORTH s 460-462
        Retrospective and Prospective Reflections

Indexes   463-490

by L. L. JOHNS

WHO WAS HILLEL? Who was Jesus? Although many scholars are pursuing these questions today, another significant question has received less attention: How does what we know of Jesus help to clarify Hillel, and vice versa? Can what we know about these traditions bring further light to each set of traditions? Ultimately, are we not thereby better informed about the historical persons behind those traditions?

The task of answering the above questions is fraught with both promise and challenge. Such a comparison of traditions requires all the work of tradition criticism. And tradition criticism itself stands on the shoulders of the array of historical-critical methodologies that have properly come to characterize attempts to recover the "historical Hillel" and the "historical Jesus." But even further considerations complicate the project. Historically, such projects have been charged with hidden theological agenda; namely, to demonstrate the superiority of one of these historical figures (and derivatively, one of the religious traditions) over the other. Thus, some of the authors understandably express some caution in these essays about such possible hidden agendas on the part of the other writers even as they take tentative steps toward a common historical understanding.

Past attempts to compare these figures have foundered on one or more of these problems. Furthermore, as J. H. Charlesworth notes in the foreword, there are differences between generations of scholars regarding the relative reliability of the Hillel traditions, to say nothing about the Jesus traditions. How reliable are those traditions? Written Jesus traditions can confidently be dated within 50 years of his death; written Hillel traditions postdate his death by 200 or even 500 years.

Nevertheless, while acknowledging the above challenges, the essays in this book demonstrate the value of comparing and contrasting these two remarkable Jewish figures. They lived and worked at the turn of the era and gave rise to two distinct bodies of traditions that live on through the centuries.


Because of the methodological complexity of the task undertaken in this book, the essays included here reflect an array of methodological approaches. The book has three parts. The first part contains an introduction to the central questions of the book and to the methodological challenges facing such a project. In the first chapter, J. H. Charlesworth introduces the project. After touching on some of the missteps and false starts in comparing Hillel and Jesus in the past, he examines some of the basic methodological considerations requisite for such a project. Finally, he offers some general similarities and differences between Hillel and Jesus as a starting point in the discussion.

In chapter 2, A. Goshen Gottstein characterizes past comparisons of Jesus with other religious figures as a "Jesus and X topos." This sort of project is especially problematic, he argues, since a nontheological, history-only, pursuit is not even possible. To place these figures in the same category (e.g., as early Palestinian teachers) is to misuse the very sources containing the traditions of these respective figures. Rabbinical figures were unique individuals who resisted "type-casting." As a result, Goshen Gottstein suggests that the contrasts between Hillel and Jesus may be more significant.

In chapter 3, M. Weinfeld offers a stinging (yet appropriate) expose of attempts by Christian scholars of 50 to 100 years ago to characterize both Hillel and the presumedly monolithic Judaism of the first century of the Common Era. The gross reductionism of Judaism which resulted led in turn to tendentious caricatures which served primarily as a foil for the presumed superior teachings of Jesus. Unfortunately, these scholars did not recognize that the rabbinic literature itself reveals that criticisms of "Pharisaic hypocrisy" represented a debate within the Judaisms of the first and second centuries C.E. Jesus' denunciations must therefore be read as an intramural debate within Judaism, rather than as a symbolic rejection of Judaism as such.

In chapter 4, D. Flusser compares Hillel and Jesus with regard to their "self-awareness." Building on earlier studies on this subject, Flusser concludes that the "I" of Jesus and of Hillel differed significantly, due to their differing self-awareness. Both had a "high" self-awareness, stemming from their own respective convictions about the importance of their mission. But Flusser argues that the move from the Jesus of history to the Christ of faith is not as difficult as has been imagined, since a majority of the New Testament christological motifs are attested already in the high self-awareness of the "historical" Jesus himself. In fact, he probably understood himself to be the Messiah and the "Son of Man." In contrast, Hillel understood himself to be a representative of humanity and thus an exemplar.


After this introduction to the problem, Part Two of the book consists of a collection of specific social and historical studies aimed at clarifying the contexts in which Hillel and Jesus functioned. In chapter 5, L. I. Levine investigates the significance of archaeology for clarifying the religious ethos of pre"70 Palestine. For instance, recent archaeology has clarified the imposing significance and centrality of the Temple as well as those of the priestly class for life in pre"70 Palestine. Similarly, archaeological evidence suggests that we be cautious about identifying the function of the emerging post"70 synagogue with that of the pre-70 synagogue. Archaeology is also shedding further light on the intra-Jewish debate about ritual purity and the crisis of purity faced by turn-of-the-era Jews in the Hellenistic environment of first-century Palestine--an environment archaeology is increasingly revealing as pervasive.

In chapter 6, S. E. Robinson evaluates the "jaundiced eye" with which much of modern scholarship has looked on the apocalypticism of Second Temple Judaism. Robinson traces this modernist skepticism toward nonrational modes of thought and the negative emotional valuation of apocalypticism that accompanied it. After tracing the profound influence of apocalyptic thought on Jesus, Robinson asks how it is that apocalypticism failed to influence Hillel as heavily. Robinson concludes that whereas apocalypticism represented various ways of resisting Hellenism and its influences, the sages sought in various ways to accommodate Hellenism. By helping Judaism to accommodate some forms of Hellenism, Hillel ultimately empowered Judaism to survive Hellenism.

In chapter 7, J. Sievers examines once again that critical question, "Who were the Pharisees?" Sievers’ own approach is to tighten the controls for who qualifies as a Pharisee by admitting only individuals who have explicitly been identified as Pharisees and who can reliably be confirmed as such. This greatly diminishes the number of known Pharisees before the fourth century C.E. to only around twelve. Was Hillel a Pharisee? Ironically, the greatest gain and the one "assured result" of recent study in this area is the conclusion that we know less about the Pharisees than we thought we knew.

In chapter 8, J. D. G. Dunn recalls two points of emerging consensus among students of Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins. These are: (1) that Judaism was a diverse phenomenon at the beginning of the first century C.E.; and (2) that Jesus must be understood within that diverse Judaism. Dunn wishes to push beyond that consensus to ask how first-century Jews would have interpreted that diversity. That is, would various groups within the Judaisms of Jesus' day have maintained the normativity of their own theological perspectives? If so, how did Jesus fit into all of this? To answer these questions, Dunn analyzes the function of the designation "sinner" within the literatures of that period. Dunn argues, contra E. P. Sanders, that the designation "sinner" is no minor matter in comparison with the designation "Jew" but that Jesus himself protested against using sinner in a factional way.

In chapter 9, D. E. Aune examines the recent consensus among some scholars engaged in Jesus research that the historical Jesus is best understood against the background of Jewish or Hellenistic wisdom traditions (e.g., as a Cynic philosopher) rather than against the background of Jewish apocalypticism. In order to address this consensus, Aune first assesses what we can know of Cynicism as such in the first century C.E. Was there a Cynic "school" in the first century C.E.? Aune then tackles the more methodologically challenging issue of how to assess parallels in the sayings, systems, and thought structures of the first-century world. He concludes that although the formal similarities between the chreiai attributed to Jesus and the Cynics are striking and deserve detailed study, the Jewish-Cynic Jesus hypothesis as articulated so far has fallen short in its potential to clarify the historical Jesus.

In chapter 10, B. Pixner suggests that the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem lived in close proximity to the Essene community there. Pixner reviews his discovery of the Essene Gate in the southwestern corner of Jerusalem. He then reviews connections between the Essenes and the Christian Jews of the first century. He suggests, for instance, that the Last Supper was probably held in an Essene guesthouse. A crucial link for such connections is James, the brother of Jesus. Pixner explores the various possible connections between the family of Jesus and the Jerusalem Essenes and then lays out a three-stage understanding of the tenuous relationship between the early Christians and the Jerusalem Essenes, a connection which could no longer be maintained after James's death.

In chapter 11, D. A. Fiensy examines the socioeconomic conditions of Herodian Palestine in an attempt to recover an understanding of the ancient agrarian society in which Jesus lived. Two specific questions form the heart of Fiensy's investigation: "What was the socioeconomic environment structure of Galilee during the tetrarchy of Antipas?" and, "From which socioeconomic rung did Jesus come?" Fiensy concludes that only about 1% of the population of Palestine belonged to the elite class in Jesus' day. As a skilled carpenter, Jesus would have come from Palestine's artisan class. Thus, while the socioeconomic distance between Jesus and the elite classes would have been enormous, Jesus was probably not economically destitute before his ministry.

In chapter 12, J. P. Arnold addresses the assumed "paradigm of discontinuity" between Paul and Jesus. Arnold challenges past characterizations of a Pauline school that was antithetical to Jesus' own thought and teachings. This antithesis was most visible in the Tübingen school and has been rearticulated most recently (in revised form) by G. Lüdemann. In contrast, Arnold emphasizes the continuity between Paul and Jesus, primarily with regard to Paul's knowledge and use of traditional material about Jesus. More specifically, he points to evidence of Paul's appreciation of the historical Jesus in Paul's "transmission of traditional material about Jesus, his application of these traditions to the needs of Gentile converts, and his defense of these traditions against opposing Jesus traditions which represented ‘another Jesus’ and a ‘different gospel.’"


With these social and historical studies as background, Part Three looks more specifically at the sayings of Hillel and Jesus and the ways in which those sayings have been used in subsequent scholarship. In chapter 13, J. F. Strange argues for greater appreciation for the role and importance of archaeology in developing the social and historical context for the New Testament writings. Strange laments simple and unnecessary mistakes made by some New Testament scholars due to their inadequate knowledge of the geography and archaeology of Palestine. The undervaluing of archaeology as a discipline stems in part from a too-narrow understanding of its task. It is not primarily the unearthing of artifacts, though this represents one elementary level of the discipline. The deeper, more significant layer of archaeology as a discipline is the reconstruction of past social systems and relations. With these comments as backdrop, Strange goes on to demonstrate some of the payoffs of the archaeology of Galilee--Sepphoris in particular--for understanding Jesus and Galilean Judaism of the first century C.E.

In chapter 14, C. Safrai examines the nature and function of sayings and legends in the Hillel tradition. Safrai begins with a four-part typology of Hillel sayings: (1) sayings attributed to Hillel himself in m.Ab 1 and 2 and in Abot de Rabbi Nathan (ARN); (2) sayings by others that were incorporated into a story or legend about Hillel; (3) sayings attributed to Hillel found in other rabbinic literature; and (4) otherwise unknown or hidden sayings of Hillel that can be extracted from existing stories and legends. Safrai then does a form-critical analysis of sayings from each of these categories in order to trace their distinctive literary dynamics.

In chapter 15, S. Safrai follows up on C. Safrai's work with an investigation of the manner in which some of Hillel's sayings were transmitted and how they were understood and interpreted by later generations. S. Safrai is specifically interested in whether and how the sayings were reinterpreted and adapted to changing situations by later sages. In pursuit of this task, Safrai considers several sayings, following their use and reinterpretation by later generations of sages within the rabbinic tradition.

In chapter 16, D. R. Schwartz analyzes Hillel's use of Scripture. Schwartz suggests that Hillel was above all a sage of oral tradition, not an interpreter of texts. Hillel's ethical and legal teachings are grounded most clearly on his own authority and that of his teachers in the Pharisaic tradition, not on that of Scripture. Thus, for Hillel, the Oral Law has primacy despite evidence that later sages were more interested in Hillel as an interpreter of Scripture. For Hillel, opinion usually preceded exegesis, not vice versa. Instead of assuming that biblical warrant does and must exist for legal rulings, "the same type of common sense approach which limited his reading of Scripture also allowed for rulings based on tradition or on his own authority." By the time of Yavneh, the need was for greater stability and controls over such readings and thus Hillel's hermeneutical/theological approach lost sway.

In chapter 17, P. S. Alexander focuses on the Golden Rule. After clarifying that the Golden Rule is more a general proposition than a fixed form of words, Alexander investigates the reliability of Golden Rule traditions and their meaning. Alexander concludes that the historical reliability of the traditions connecting Hillel to the Golden Rule is not as strong as those connecting Jesus to it. In fact, the link is weak enough to invalidate any attempt to compare how the historical Hillel and the historical Jesus used the Rule. Although the Rule clearly originated long before Hillel or Jesus lived, one cannot trace confidently the trail or direction by which the Rule passed between Chinese, Graeco-Roman, and Jewish traditions. Alexander does suggest, however, that although the traditions tell us nothing reliable about Hillel and Jesus as historical figures, the appeal to the Rule as summum ius in both traditions does illuminate the traditions themselves in helpful ways.

In chapter 18, H. Lichtenberger revisits the fateful 1865"66 essay by Franz Delitzsch in which he compared Jesus and Hillel. Lichtenberger points out that "unlike other Christian scholars who depicted Jews or representatives of Judaism … in a derogatory way, Delitzsch portrayed Hillel favorably--but only in order to show how much superior Jesus is in comparison to him." Echoing the cautions of others in this volume about the theological motivations of such comparisons, Lichtenberger does suggest, however, several promising ways in which the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate Jesus traditions once thought original to him.

In chapter 19, C. A. Evans focuses on the problems and prospects of reconstructing Jesus' teaching. In contrast to some tradition critics, Evans argues that the biggest challenge is not determining what saying or tradition is original to Jesus--a big enough challenge!--but in determining what the saying or traditional originally meant. At the heart of Evans' essay is his appeal for a reexamination of Jesus' teaching "in a manner that is more sensitive to the first-century Palestinian context." Careless or misinformed assumptions about a saying's original meaning have often led to inaccurate historical assessments of its originality. Misunderstandings of the original Sitz im Leben of many sayings have also contributed to such inaccurate assessments. Evans illustrates his thesis by reexamining the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Pounds. He shows how these parables may plausibly have been spoken by Jesus by demonstrating how Jesus' own understanding of their meaning may have differed from Luke's later interpretation of them.

In chapter 20, B. T. Viviano concludes this section with a comparative analysis of Hillel and Jesus on prayer. After briefly rehearsing some of the high points in twentieth-century studies on prayer, Viviano compares Hillel and Jesus traditions with regard to prayer, concluding that the evidence--sparse as it is with regard to Hillel and prayer--suggests that both had mystical and prophetic moments and both were simultaneously lovers of and wrestlers with God. Viviano then analyzes the "Lord's Prayer" and revisits Joachim Jeremias's comments on the significance of Jesus' address of God as "Abba." He concludes by suggesting that while Hillel represents a more "creation-centered, sapiential outlook on prayer," Jesus' prayers reflect his sense of apocalyptic urgency regarding the coming redemption.

Finally, J. H. Charlesworth concludes this collection with an epilogue of retrospective and prospective reflections on the exercise. He suggests nine positive points of consensus that have emerged from this project and argues that the results clearly demonstrate the value in and need for interdisciplinary and interconfessional projects such as this.
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Created and maintained by Loren L. Johns, Associate Professor of Religion, Bluffton College. Last updated 18 March 2000.