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Jews and Christians: Siblings in Strife

By Ronald H. Miller, Ph.D.

Striving From the Womb

“And the Lord said to Rebecca: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided’.” Genesis 25:23

Though often understood in the past as mother and daughter, Judaism and Christianity are more commonly regarded today as siblings.(1) Like Jacob and Esau struggling in Rebecca’s body, these two religions emerged in strife from the womb of biblical Judaism. Whether one chooses to begin the history of biblical Judaism with Adam’s family, with Abraham, or with Moses, a common denominator in all three of these narratives is animal sacrifice. “The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering [the first-born sheep of his flock].” Genesis 4:4b. Abraham learned that rams, not first-born sons, were the acceptable sacrifice to bring to God. Genesis 22. Moses sealed Judaism’s most important covenant with God by sprinkling the people with the blood of sacrificed oxen. Exodus 24:8. When Solomon built God’s Temple some three thousand years ago, this became the locus of an everlasting sacrifice to the Lord. A bull was sacrificed every morning and every evening as a whole burnt offering. After a brief hiatus following the destruction of this Temple (and indeed of the city of Jerusalem itself) by the Babylonians, a Second Temple was dedicated in 516 BCE. The centerpiece of the Temple liturgy was the practice of animal sacrifice. This continued through the lifetimes of Jesus and Paul until the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE.

In Search of a Hermeneutic

With the destruction of the Second Temple, Biblical Judaism lost its heart; the priests their raison d’etre. A hermeneutics was needed, an interpretation of this tragedy capable of opening a door to a viable future for this exiled people. The Pharisees were religiously observant and theologically liberal; there were about six thousand of them in a total Jewish population of some seven million in the first century BCE. It is the Pharisees, who become the rabbis, who offered a compelling hermeneutics securing a future for Jews and Judaism. They argued that the sacrificial system rested ultimately, not on the blood of animals, but on the dedication of human beings to God symbolized by acts of animal sacrifice. And so the times of animal sacrifice were replaced by the times when the community gathered for formal prayer three times daily. And the holiness of the Temple’s altar was replicated in the table in every Jewish home where the Sabbath was sanctified every week in a special meal and where the Exodus event was celebrated annually in the Passover meal, the Seder.

No less compelling was the hermeneutics put forward by a nascent group of messianic Jews, followers of Jeshu ben Josef (Joshua, the son of Joseph) whom they now confessed as Jeshu ha Messiach (Joshua the Messiah). And in the Greek language that carried their message he would be known by words closely resembling their English translation: Jesus Ho Christos, Jesus Christ. What was the rival interpretation of this messianic sect? In his total obedience to God, Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice after which no other would ever be needed. “Unlike the other high priests, he [Jesus] has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.” Letter to the Hebrews 7:27. Jesus the Messiah is both Priest and Sacrifice.

The Galilean Hasid

After a brief teaching career, largely to illiterate peasants, Jesus was executed by the Roman domination system. He left behind no writings. He was a Galilean hasid or holy man, a healer, and a wisdom teacher. In his own Jewish tradition, he would be known as a moshel meshalim, a master of parables. The Gospel of Thomas, discovered in its entirety only some fifty years ago, begins with the assertion that it is in the understanding of Jesus’s teachings that immortality lies. (2) In other words, these teachings can lead to the transformation of consciousness, conscience, and community central to all spiritual endeavor. Jesus reminds human beings of their deepest divine identity and encourages them to live from that source. His central image for this divine presence in human lives is God’s reign.

Saul/Paul

The name of Thomas was by no means the only one evoked as carrier of Jesus’s authentic message. Some Christians heard the voice of Jesus in his brother Jacob (James in English) or in his close companion, Mary Magdalene, or in the fisherman, Shimon, whom Jesus had dubbed Cephas (Peter/Rock). And then there is the man who never knew Jesus during his earthly career, Saul/Paul of Tarsus.(3) Fourteen of the twenty-seven books of the Christian Testament are attributed to him and the book that is supposed to be a history of all twelve apostles (Acts of the Apostles) is in fact largely a biography of Paul. In the development of normative Christianity, his voice virtually becomes the voice of Jesus. A contemporary biographer of Paul states: “I shall argue that what Paul meant was not something other than or contrary to what Jesus meant, but that we can best find out the latter by studying the former.” (4) This is a thesis with which a large number of current Pauline scholars, myself included, would strongly disagree.

Paul exemplifies marvelously the type of personality categorized by William James as “a sick soul.” James writes: “Wrong living, impotent aspirations; ‘What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do,’ as Saint Paul says; self-loathing, self-despair, an unintelligible and intolerable burden to which one is mysteriously the heir.” (5) The propensity of such a soul is to feel deeply the pain of the world (what German writers call Weltschmerz). Reality is most profoundly described for such a person by Virgil’s immortal verse: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. “Reality has a tearful dimension and life’s transciency touches our souls.”

James intends no negative judgment in his use of the term “sick soul”. The “healthy-minded soul” is of no more than equal valence. The terms describe two ways in which God-seekers evolve. The healthy-minded soul grows incrementally into holiness, whereas the sick soul is typically catapulted into sanctity by a profound conversion experience. As a sick soul, Paul saw the taint of sin everywhere and experienced Christ as his rescuer and redeemer. So it is to Paul, not to Jesus, that we can trace the headwaters of that mighty river in Christian theology called Original Sin. Different from the sins known to virtually all the classical religions, this Sin is a condition of our being, not a result of our choice. The seed planted in Paul becomes a tree watered by Augustine and nurtured by Christianity’s great reformers, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin. (6)

Sin and Redemption

Once humankind is understood as ineluctably entangled in this primordial and inherited Sin, alleviation of this condition must come from somewhere beyond the capacities of our human nature. Thus Christ’s saving death, more than his example and teachings, become the focus of his message. And since only those aligned with this atoning death through faith and baptism can be saved, Christianity’s exclusivism inexorably follows. The experience of Paul and his interpretation of the message of Jesus was neither shared by all Christians in the first century nor should be the only template of orthodoxy for Christians today. Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and theologian, writes: “Jesus was repositioned from moshel meshalim to mediator, and the spiritual journey was reframed from a quest for divinization to a rescue operation.” (7) No longer was the transformation of consciousness and conscience primary; being saved from Sin absorbed all other aspects of Christian identity. Jesus was no longer a Reminder of the divine mystery at the heart of our own being; he was now the Redeemer of a fallen humanity.

Emphasizing Jesus as Reminder, rather than Redeemer, has consequences for Jewish-Christian relations. First of all, if the focus is on the life and teachings of Jesus rather than his death, then the role Jews play in the story of Jesus’s arrest and execution becomes less significant. Second, if Jesus called all human beings to recognize their own divine depth, then Jesus is not the only Reminder on the horizon. Ultimately this means that Buddhists are made whole and holy as Buddhists, Muslims as Muslims, and Jews as Jews. The exclusivism so prevalent in Paul’s writings disappears. These two changes alone, if they had won the status of orthodoxy in place of Paul’s teachings, would have led to a vastly different history of Jewish-Christian relations in the subsequent two thousand years. But it was Paul who won the victor’s laurels and it was Paul’s influence that shaped the only history Christianity was to write—at least to our own day.

Paul’s three premises fall neatly into place. First, all are under the power of sin. Second, salvation from sin comes from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. Third, only those with faith in that salvific action can be made whole and holy. “Everyone is in the same predicament: since all are sinners falling short of God’s glory, they are all made God-centered by the gift of God’s grace. This comes about through Jeshu the Messiah, who is the redeemer put forward by God as an atonement sacrifice in his blood, made real for us by our faith.” Romans 3:22b-25.(8) Alternative theologies have always existed but never prevailed; and thus Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism have largely been derived directly from these words of Paul.

In Paul’s world, there is no access to God except through Jesus Christ. This applies to Jews and Gentiles alike. Thus “even today when the Torah is read, that veil covers their minds, and it is only by turning to the Lord that the veil can be removed.” 2 Corinthians 3:16. (9) When visiting the cathedrals of Europe, I was often struck by the matching statues flanking the doorways: Church and Synagogue, two women: one reigning with crown and scepter; one with veiled eyes and holding broken tablets. The Hebrew Bible has become the “Old” Testament (testamentum is the Latin word for covenant); without internal validity, it exists only as prophecy pointing to the fulfillment that will later be canonized as the twenty-seven books of a “New” Testament. Replacement theology, also known as supersessionism (literally, that which “sits on” something else), has been born and continues to characterize much of Christian theology to our own day.

Matthew’s Spin

The first of the twenty-seven books of the Christian Testament is attributed to Matthew, though it is unlikely that the story is linked to the man of that name who appears in the narrative. The unknown author(s) of Matthew is using Mark’s gospel (he repeats over 95% of it), along with a collection of sayings of Jesus called Q (from the German word for source, Quelle). This gospel does not allow Jesus to be addressed as rabbi, since the Pharisees are now the rabbis; the Greek word for teacher, didaskale, is used instead. There are, however, two times when Jesus is called rabbi; both instances, however, come from the mouth of the traitor, Judas. (10) For the gospel writer(s), Judas represents the rabbinic Jews who are the theological rivals of this community.

It is not only the rivalry with rabbinic Judaism that gives this gospel an anti-Jewish spin. Written in Greek, this text can move through the entirety of the Roman Empire, calling people to this new faith. But having a felon as founder, one executed by a Roman official, opens few doors in the Roman world. Consequently, the Roman role in Jesus’s arrest and execution must be downplayed. Pilate is whitewashed; he literally washes his hands of the whole affair in Matthew 27:24. In seesaw like fashion, however, if the responsibility of Roman imperialism is denied, the burden of guilt has nowhere to fall but on Jesus’s own people and thus is born the terrible lie that “the Jews killed Jesus”. Matthew drives this point home by portraying the crowd of Jews gathered in front of the Roman headquarters in Jerusalem as condemning itself by crying out the infamous blood curse: “His blood be on us and on our children.” Matthew 27:25. This was to haunt the next two thousand years of Christian history until the Catholic Church officially declared in 1965 that “the Jews should not be represented as rejected by God or accursed.” (11)

By the time Matthew’s gospel was written sometime in the late 80s, the polemical struggle between rabbinic Jews and the followers of the Jesus Movement was intense. One can imagine the peace of the Sabbath being broken on a Sabbath morning when representatives of rabbinic Judaism and representatives of the Jesus Movement clashed in argument, each side attempting to win other Jews to their respective hermeneutic. We hear an echo of this debate in Matthew 28:11-15. Matthew’s community argues that their Messiah had risen because the tomb was empty; the rabbis would counter that a body can be stolen. The followers of Jesus would say that this was impossible since the tomb was guarded; the rabbis then asked why the guards didn’t see the resurrection. The Jesus Movement representatives would say that they did indeed see Jesus rise from the dead but the Jewish priests bribed them to keep silent. The exchange ends with the gospel writer stepping out of his story into his own time frame by saying: “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (12)

What is most insidious about this passage is the implication that the priests knew and believed the story of the guards that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead. So they were not unbelievers, but believers. But if they were believers, why would they persist in their efforts to suppress the truth of the resurrection? There’s only one possible answer. Because they were in league with Satan, the Hinderer, the fallen angel who from the beginning was committed to thwarting God’s plans. So the Jews are not unbelievers; they are much worse than that. They are believers who have chosen to work with the Devil to suppress the truth of Christianity. This piece of anti-Semitism will be woven into subsequent history and will have a profound effect on Christian attitudes towards Jews. Even in our time it is not uncommon for Jews to be asked to show their horns. (13)

Jews as the Evil-Other

The spin that grows from Paul to Matthew culminates in John, the last of the canonical gospels. Here the term “the Jews” is used over seventy times, almost always with a negative connotation. Jesus and his disciples are curiously separated from their identity as the gospel describes how, after Jesus’s death, “…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” John 20:19. But are the disciples not Jews as well? This strange wall of separation had been built before the first CE century ended. The Jews are not just others, like Hindus or Buddhists; they are “the other” as black to white, as night to day, as Satan to God. Jesus is portrayed as telling the Jewish leaders that their father is Satan: “You are from your father the devil…” John 8:44. This will be a major theme in the two-thousand year history of Christian anti-Semitism, culminating with the Nazi slogan that whoever fights the Jews is indeed wrestling with the Devil. (14)

The ABC’s of Anti-Semitism

With the close of the Christian canon, the ABC’s of anti-Semitism have become part and parcel of Christian identity. The Jews are (A) accursed since they rejected their Messiah and further committed deicide (killing God) in crucifying Jesus who was both truly human and truly divine. They are (B) blasphemous since they secretly know the truth of Christianity and yet publicly deny it. They are (C) contemptible in their perfidy. It was not until 1958, during the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, that the official Holy Thursday liturgy was changed, no longer praying “pro pefidis Judaeis”(for the perfidious Jews). (15) They are (D) diabolical and will be associated with Satan for the next two thousand years. In Mel Gibson’s viciously anti-Semitic The Passion of the Christ, devils move around freely among the homicidal Jews gather in Pilate’s courtyard, urging the benevolent Procurator (who even offers Jesus a glass of water) to crucify Jesus. And so it comes as no surprise that Jews are (E) excluded in Christian society: excluded from salvation; excluded from legal rights and any protection under the law; excluded from living outside of ghettos; and finally excluded from living at all, when the Nazi “final solution” presses forward with ruthless logic on the path that began with Christianity’s sacred texts.

Justin Martyr and Trypho the Jew

It was just about the time that the last books of the Christian Testament were being written (between 100 and 110 CE) that Justin was born in the city known today as Nablus in Samaria, the territory between Judea to the south and the Galilee to the north. He was of Greco-Roman ancestry and was educated as a Platonist. He was in Ephesus, on the west coast of Asia Minor (Turkey today) when he converted to Christianity at about the age of thirty. Shortly after this, the Jews rebelled against Roman occupation, an effort that was soundly put down by the Romans in 135 CE. It was during this period of Jewish militancy that he met Trypho, possibly the famous Rabbi Tarphon. His published Dialogue with Trypho, a lengthy work of over two hundred pages, was written when Justin was living in Rome where he was eventually killed in one of the outbreaks of Roman persecution. It is thus that he is known in Christian history as Justin Martyr. (16)

The Dialogue with Trypho bridges the world of the Christian Testament and the world of the Church Fathers (the patristic age). In its pages we see the reactions of an educated Christian to Jews and Judaism. Replacement theology provides the foundation for Justin’s argument: “The law promulgated at Horeb is already obsolete, and was intended for you Jews only, whereas the law of which I speak is for all men. Now a later law in opposition to an older law abrogates the older, just as a later covenant voids an earlier one.” (17) Christians constitute the new Israel and the scriptures of the Jewish people can be rightly understood only as Christianity’s Old Testament. “We are the true spiritual Israel and the descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.” (18) For Justin, it is indeed the Jews who killed Jesus: “You crucified the only sinless and Just Man (through whose sufferings are healed all those who approach the Father through Him).” (19) The Jew has become the quintessential enemy of Christian truth and thus writing a tractate “Adversus Judaeos” (Against the Jews) would soon be a prerequisite for all aspiring Church Fathers.

Victim to Victor

Justin and other early Christian Apologists could inveigh against the Jews theologically but were powerless to do anything to them politically. Christians had enough trouble themselves trying to survive the waves of persecution periodically emanating from imperial Rome. That all changed, however, in the early fourth century when Constantine declared Christianity a legitimate religion and co-opted the energies of the Church for his own political goals. With Christianity now on the ascendancy, the traditional religions (both the official Roman pantheon and the various popular cults) were driven into the countryside. Paganus means rural in Latin and thus these diverse religions were eventually included under the umbrella called “paganism”.

What then was to be done with the Jews? Now that Christians had political power, poisonous polemics could become punitive policies. Should the Jews be killed, forcibly converted, or driven into exile? The views of the great Christian theologian Augustine (354-430 CE) prevailed and set the tone for Christian relationships to Jews for the next millennium. The Jews were not to be slaughtered; they were to be scattered. Living in a contemptible state among Christians, Jews would be an eternal sign of the truth of Christianity. And when Jesus returned, their conversion would be Christianity’s final victory. (20) The Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn wrote that without Augustine’s “lovely brainwave, we would have been exterminated long ago.” (21) The policy was not entirely “lovely” but it did provide for survival, albeit with diminished status.

La Convivencia :711-1492 CE

Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism was not unremitting. Moments of hope occasionally broke through the darkness of ignorance and persecution. One of those “moments” lasted almost eight hundred years. The center of this interreligious phenomenon was the city of Toledo, though it flourished throughout much of Spain. The bathhouses in Spain were the gathering places where Jews, Christians, and Muslims met on common ground. And conversations begun in bathhouses ended up in the writings of scholars who borrowed freely from the ideas of their interfaith dialogical partners. The great thirteenth century Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas, quoted frequently both from the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Muslim philosopher Avicenna. Despite such great promise, this wonderful interlude in a long history of persecution came to an abrupt end with the introduction of the Inquisition to Spain and the subsequent expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Spanish Christians now sought blood purity, limpieza de sangre, a forerunner of the racial purity so highly prized by the later Nazis.

The Ghetto

Backlash movements of ignorance and repression almost inevitably followed times of dialogue and hope. Pope Paul IV found it unseemly that Jews “whom God has condemned to eternal slavery because of their guilt” were found living in decent homes in the nice parts of town. Sometimes they even lived near churches. On occasion they were doing well enough to hire Christian servants. They even dressed like reputable citizens. All of this weakened the message that Jews were to convey by their diminished status, the message that they were forever cursed and meant to be contemptible in the sight of God and human beings alike. And so a papal statement was issued on July 12, 1555 requiring Jews to live on a single street or in a separate section of the city, an area with only one entrance, one gate whose key was in the keeping of a Christian. (22) Distinctive clothes, restricted civil rights, limited living space—the marginalization of the Jews was complete.

Lessing and Mendelssohn

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born in 1729 and died of a stroke in 1781. Philosopher and playwright, he believed in freedom of religious thought and religious tolerance. I always enjoy visiting his lovely residence in Wolffenbeutal. Today it is a museum but his gentle spirit still hovers over the house and grounds. Here was a man who in an age when anti-Semitism was the air Europeans breathed, dared to write a play, Nathan the Wise, modeled on the famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Lessing regularly obtained the required legal permit, allowing Mendelssohn to leave the ghetto as a Schutzjude (a protected Jew) to attend philosophy meetings and gatherings of the arts. Escaping the poverty and degradation of the Dessau ghetto, Mendelssohn bested Immanuel Kant in a philosophical competition, translated the Hebrew Bible into German, and proved himself to be“ a revolution all by himself, rising by sheer talent to the heights of German cultural life”. (23)

Free…And Yet

In the wake of Napoleon’s wars, Jews were allowed to emerge from the ghettos and enter civic life in the countries of Western Europe. The emancipation that Moses Mendelssohn had but a taste of by way of exception now became the norm. Overnight Jews were transformed from prisoners to guests in their respective host societies. They celebrated the enlightened thinking that led to their emancipation; and yet, clouds of ancient prejudice continued to glower menacingly above them. In 1894 a certain Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the French general staff, was accused of spying for the Germans. After a secret military trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Even though his innocence was later established, the military court reconfirmed its judgment of his guilt. Years passed until a civil court declared his innocence in July of 1906. (24) But it was too little too late. European Jews saw all too clearly that under the apparent tranquil waters of tolerance, currents of anti-Semitism were broiling.

With the rise of Adolph Hitler to power in Germany, two millennia of anti-Semitism reached their logical conclusion. The final solution was not that Jews live in contemptible circumstances in ghettos but that they not live at all. Only about one percent of Europe’s Christian leaders actively opposed this genocidal policy. Europeans had long been accustomed to Jews being deprived of rights, deprived of respect and dignity, deprived of life itself. Pope Pius XII saw himself as responsible for Catholics, but not for human beings outside of his flock. He worked for the safety of Jews who had converted to Roman Catholicism but showed little concern for Jews as Jews. By and large, he and Europe’s other Christian leaders stood silently by as Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps. (25)

In the Wake of the Holocaust

As the world absorbed the horrors of genocide on a scale never known in human history, some Christian individuals and groups began to awake from their long slumber, realizing their responsibility for a path that began with the letters of Paul and ended in the ovens of Auschwitz. The “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, voted on by some two thousand bishops at the Second Vatican Council, was officially promulgated by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965. It is an ambiguous document, reflecting a dawning awareness of Christian responsibility for Jewish suffering accompanied by a continued rhetoric of denial. The document does not reach that clarity of vision articulated by the theologian Rosemary Ruether when she boldly declared that the good news of Christianity has consistently been a bad news for Jews and that the essential credibility of Christianity, as well as its legitimate continuance, depends on changing that reality. (26) Nor does it challenge the essential thesis of replacement theology stating that it is only in Christ that Jews can ultimately be saved.

Like most of the documents of Vatican Two, Nostra Aetate is a compromised text. Thomas Merton, monk and interreligious thinker, commented in a journal entry for September 10, 1964:

Abraham Heschel has sent me a memo on the new Jewish Chapter at the Vatican Council. The new proposal is incredibly bad. All the meaning has been taken out of it. All the originality, all the light are gone and it has become a stuffy, pointless piece of formalism with the stupid addition that the Church is looking forward with hope to the union of Jews with herself… (27)

Anti-Semitism is indeed rejected but with a strange sense of disassociation in that it is condemned “at any time and from any source” (28) but without the obvious recognition that a crucial “time” was the two thousand years in which a large part of the Jewish community lived in “Christian” Europe and a major “source” was the very same ecclesiastical group now sitting in solemn session to ratify the document.

The Way Forward

A new path was opened when the United Church of Christ became the first major Protestant denomination in the United States to reject Christianity’s traditional replacement theology. The document adopted on June 30, 1987 at a meeting in Cleveland, Ohio included the recognition that the Christian Church has frequently “denied God’s continuing covenantal relationship with the Jewish people expressed in the faith of Judaism.” (29) After asking for God’s forgiveness, the document then goes on to state explicitly that Christianity has not superseded Judaism. In other words, Christianity is not to be understood as the successor religion to Judaism. It is not a New Testament supplanting an Old Testament. All salvation is not through Jesus. God covenants with people in different ways: with Jews through the covenant of Sinai, with Christians through the covenant mediated by Jesus.

Following an honest act of contrition and a firm purpose of amendment, this rejection of supersessionisn and the consequent affirmation of a dual covenant theology are indispensable to the transformation of Christian attitudes to Jews and Judaism. Rosemary Ruether writes:

The supersessionary pattern of Christian faith distorts both Jewish and Christian reality. We should think rather of Judaism and Christianity as parallel paths, flowing from common memories in Hebrew scripture, which are then reformulated into separate ways that lead two peoples to formulate the dialectic of past and future through different historical experiences. But the dilemma of foretaste and hope remains the same for both. For both live in the same reality of incompleted human existence itself. (30)

With these words, Jacob and Esau have at last embraced. The long years of strife can be acknowledged with repentance and forgiveness. There is hope now for a new future. “Hinei ma tov ou ma naim shevet achim gam yachad”. “Quam bonum et jucundum est habitare fratres in unum”. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers can sit down together in unity”. The opening verse of Psalm 133– whether sung in Hebrew, chanted in Latin, or prayed in English –proclaims a shared experience of siblings finally finding a common ground where they can live and prosper in an atmosphere of trust, mutual understanding, and peace.

And Yet…..

Unfortunately, every movement forward generates a backlash. Fundamentalist Christianity continues to assert that people can be saved only by full acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Mainline churches not embracing a dual covenant theology (such as the Roman Catholic Church) seek ways to include Jews and other non-Christians in the salvation available only through Jesus. Such church leaders speak of “anonymous Christians”—people who sincerely seek to do God’s will as Jews or members of other sacred traditions and are thereby included in the community of the saved anonymously, without knowing it. If Jesus is the unique incarnation of the divine, these churches argue, then this has no equivalent in other religions. Universalism inevitably stumbles on the dogmas supporting the long history of exclusivism.

No one can say where the future of these two faith communities lies or how long it will take for any of the visions of future to be achieved. Ultimately the path to the future will be determined by the ascendancy of one or other of the two theological models discussed earlier. In the “Christ as Redeemer” model, Jesus is different from us in kind. He is a heavenly being, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. He came to this earth to die for the Sin under whose power humankind lay in bondage. His death constitutes his defining legacy and accessing that death provides humanity’s only hope of salvation. In this model, Judaism can never be seen as an ally, an alternate covenantal path to God. If this model prevails, then the relations of Jews and Christians will largely replicate the history of the past two thousand years.

On the other hand, in the “Christ as Reminder” model, Jesus is different from us in degree, not in kind. Every human being is an incarnation of God, though Jesus surpasses most in his level of transparency to his divine identity. Jesus’s teachings, more than his death, define Christian existence. He opens up a way to God that complements the paths to the divine represented in countless other sacred traditions. Jews and Christians can be allies in their similarities and in their differences. Neither is to be defined in reference to the other; each is to be understood in its own integrity as a path to the holy. If this model prevails, then another and radically different history will at last be written.

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1. This is, for example, the central thesis of Alan Segal’s classic work, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Harvard University Press, 1986).
2. For further discussion of the implications for Christian spirituality in this ancient text, confer my book, The Gospel of Thomas: A Guide to Spiritual Practice (Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock,Vermont, 2004).
3. Shaul(Saul) was his Hebrew name and Paulus(Paul) his Roman name. It was not uncommon then or now for Jews to have a Hebrew name used in the synagogue and a secular name used in the larger society. It is a mistaken notion that Paul’s name was changed from Saul to Paul at the time of his conversion. He always had both names.
4. Garry Wills, (NY, Viking, 2006), p. 10.
5. James, Williams The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longmans, Green and Co., New York 1902, p. 190.
6. I treat this topic in The Sacred Writings of Paul, translated and annotated by Ron Miller (Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2007) both in the Introduction (pp. xxix to xxxii) and in the body of the text (most explicitly pp.18-19).
7. Bourgeault, Cynthia, The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart (Jossey-Bass Publishing, San Francisco, California, 2003), p. 17.
8. This is my own translation from p.29 of my book on Paul: The Sacred Writings of Paul: Selections Annotated and Explained, (Skylight Paths, Woodstock VT, 2007).
9. Op.cit. p. 119.
10. The anti-Jewish spin of this gospel is developed both in my translation and commentary on Matthew’s gospel, The Hidden Gospel of Matthew (Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2005) and in the book on Matthew that I wrote with a Jewish colleague, Laura Bernstein: Healing the Jewish-Christian Rift: Growing Beyond Our Wounded History (Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2006).
11. This was in Nostra Aetate, the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” promulgated on October 28, 1965. This text can be found on pp. 970-971 of Volume Two of Degrees of the Ecumenical Councils, edited by Norman Tanner, and published by Sheed and Ward and Georgetown University Press in 1990.
12. For an excellent treatment of other “Jewish stories” found in rabbinic writings, see Peter Schäfer’s Jesus in the Talmud ( Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2007).
13. One of my Jewish students was recently at a restaurant in Florida where he was asking a waitress whether there was pork in a certain menu item. She was curious about his question and when he told her that he was Jewish, she asked, “Can I see them?” Several other of my Jewish students or colleagues have been asked this question, especially in the American South.
14. There is no better place to study this entire history than in James Carroll’s masterful Constantine’s Sword (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Massachusetts, 2001).
15. The entire prayer read: “Oremus et pro per perfidis Judaeis: ut Deus et Dominus noster auferat velamen de cordibus eorum; ut et ipsi agnoscant Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum.” Quoted from the Missale Romanum used in all Roman Catholic services. In English: “Let us pray for the perfidious Jews, that our God and Lord will remove the veil from their hearts so that they will acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord”.
16. This background information, as well as all subsequent quotes from the dialogue, is taken from volume six of The Fathers of the Church (the Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1948).
17. Op. cit., p. 164.
18. Op. cit. , p. 165.
19. Op. cit. , p. 173.
20. James Carroll, op. cit., pp.215-219.
21. James Carroll. Op. cit., p. 219.
22. James Carroll, op. cit., pp. 375ff.
23. Edward Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, New York, Paulist Press, 1985, p. 162.
24. Edward Flannery, op. cit., p. 185-189.
25. James Carroll, op. cit., pp. 523-535.
26. This is the overriding thesis of her excellent book, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism, New York, Seabury Press, 1974.
27. Thomas Merton, A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965, edited and with a preface by Naomi Burton Stone, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988, p. 76. A few months earlier, on July 13, 1964, Heschel had visited Merton in his monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. They spoke about one of the earlier and bolder proposals for a conciliar document, one that was discarded along the path of political compromise.
28. Degrees of Ecumenical Councils, op. cit., p. 971.
29. This was reported in The New York Times National News on Wednesday, July 1, 1987, in an article by Ari Goldman entitled “Church Affirms Validity of Judaism”, p. 8. This was subsequently published in the minutes of the Sixteenth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, June 25-30, 1987, pp. 67-68.
30. Rosemary Ruether, Disputed Questions, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989) pp. 71.

One Response to “Jews and Christians: Siblings in Strife”

  1. Mary Hexter Moneypenny 27 May 2011 at 7:08 pm Permalink

    Re “13. One of my Jewish students was recently at a restaurant in Florida where he was asking a waitress whether there was pork in a certain menu item. She was curious about his question and when he told her that he was Jewish, she asked, “Can I see them?” (meaning “his horns” I assume) Several other of my Jewish students or colleagues have been asked this question, especially in the American South.” — I hope the student immediately got up and left the restaurant. Is this an example of just plain ignorance, a kind of “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” (or say)-type of lapse of civility — or is it more troubling, a malevolence that is spoonfed to infants along w/their pablum? Either way, maybe it’s just as well that I left FL — but can KY be much more hospitable?


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