About a month ago, I worked my way through the book A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1, by the Catholic biblical scholar and Professor of the New Testament in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, Father John P. Meier.
It was kind a of a hard slog. It was meticulously researched, and full of notes and references. The style wasn't bad, but there were times when I found his disparagement of certain other scholars who disagree with his conclusions to be annoying. I was, however, very interested in reading a scholarly historical Jesus account from a Catholic exegete who was known for being honest with where the texts take him, yet at the same time hews to Catholic orthodoxy. Having gotten through it, I'm not entirely sure that I'm up to working my way through the subsequent volumes he's written. The fourth and final volume, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 4: Law and Love, will be published in 2009.
In any case, I found this lone Notre Dame lecture of Father Meier's on Youtube, "Jesus the Jew - But What Sort of Jew?" If you have the bandwidth, I urge you to stick with it, even though it runs about an hour and twenty-one minutes. I think he does a pretty good job of contrasting Jesus as a "marginal Jew" who is similar to, but distinct in very important ways, from the others who can be found in the main strands of Judaism within the Second Temple period - namely, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. He points out that the sayings of Jesus were not always light sayings of sweetness, but often presented unforgettably "violent" challenges. They were sayings that could cut like like sharp stones.
I thought Father Meier had a pretty funny line at about 43-44 minutes in, pointing out how the Pharisees had considered Jesus to be a glutton and a wine-bibber - "He was a party animal... the strange combination of being celibate and being a bon vivant... at least in there, bishops and priests can claim at least some apostolic succession."
Jesus the Supreme Lawgiver
Christ Carrying the Cross, by Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1505-10)
A case in point about Jesus' teachings being like sharp stones... The case of divorce. Rather than doing away with the Law and the Prophets, Jesus deepened their meaning and extended them. "You have heard it said.... but I say..." This rabbinic method of doing midrash was common of teachers, and has often been described as "building a fence around the Torah."
Just before the birth of Jesus, there were two competing "houses", or "schools" of Pharisaic Judaism. Named after their founders, they were Bet Hillel, which was considered the more liberal house, and Bet Shammai, which was considered the more conservative.
Have you ever read the story of how a pagan approached Shammai and told him that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could explain the whole Torah while standing on one foot? Shammai was offended. He went upside the pagan's head with his walking stick and sent him packing. The same man then approached Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it". The pagan subsequently converted.
Some people like to draw parallels between Hillel and Jesus in that Hillel's response sounds a lot like the Golden Rule (with Jesus' teaching stressing a more positive, active role). What they usually don't mention is that Hillel also said that it was acceptable for a man to divorce his wife if she burned his dinner. On divorce, Jesus was more strict than both Hillel and Shammai.
Jesus, speaking with authority, unlike the scribes, extended and deepened the understanding of the law. That is why he is the Teacher and Supreme Legislator. Look at his teaching on adultery and divorce, and how it granted women greater dignity.... I hesitate a little here to bring it up and to presume to be a historian, because I've learned from writers like Paula Fredriksen and Amy-Jill Levine that it's important not to misrepresent Judaism with straw man cutouts and in unfavorable terms when comparing it to Christianity. After checking the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Adultery, though, the analysis confirming patriarchal bias seems to hold up.
To the Pharisees of Jesus' day, the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery" had different implications for husbands than it did for wives. For the husband, only intercourse with someone else's wife was considered adultery. Intercourse with an unmarried woman was not. For the wife, intercourse with anyone but her husband was considered adultery. In essence, the wife was a possession, not a partner with fully equal rights. A man couldn't violate his own marriage, only the wife could. The wife belonged to him, he didn't belong to her. If a married woman committed adultery, she was cheapening her husband's possession. If a man committed adultery with a married woman, he was cheapening another man's possession.
Jesus put a stop to all this in his teaching:
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.' But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.Jesus turns his listener's understanding of these things upside-down. No wonder his disciples said to him, "If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry."
--Matthew 5: 27-32
Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?" He said in reply, "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate." They said to him, "Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss (her)?" He said to them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery."
--Matthew 19: 3-9
In his statements about adultery, Jesus isn't talking about spontaneous arousal. He's talking to men who think they can do anything they like with a woman; to exploit them any way they wish as a sexual plaything. Jesus is emphasizing how the two become one flesh. Women are being granted dignity here. They are to be treated as full partners and not possessions. When Jesus spoke of these things, it wasn't just trading midrash with the Pharisees. It was legislation for us.