Theological Digest & Outlook
Selections from the March 2001 issue (Vol. XVI, No. 1)
NOTE: THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THE SIGNED ARTICLES ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHORS AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT ENDORSEMENT BY CHURCH ALIVE.
Ever since Jesus put it to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, Christians have had to confront the question: "Who do you say that I am?" It is a deeply personal question. Each Christian must answer it for him or herself.
But it is also the question by which the vitality of a church is judged; and more and more it is the fault line of controversy within Christian denominations. We are at a point in Christian history where churches are being pulled in many competing directions with respect to their understanding of Jesus.
In this issue we grapple with these questions about the identity of Jesus Christ because it is our conviction that this is the issue that lies at the heart of the church’s future.
The comments of past Moderator Bill Phipps in the Ottawa Citizen touched off a firestorm of protest within our church. In the aftermath of his comments, Bill said repeatedly that the result had to be positive because people were finally talking seriously about Jesus. "Everywhere I go," he enthused, "people are talking about Jesus."
Certainly, that people are talking about Jesus is not a bad thing. But we have to ask: What are people talking about? In Jesus’ own time, people talked about him widely. People said all sorts of things about him. What defines the church, the community of believers, however, is that discourse about Jesus has a certain shape and follows a certain direction. Jesus is the topic of plenty of bafflegab. But do his disciples speak the truth about him? That is the central, defining issue at stake.
Press coverage of Moderator Phipps’ forays into christology implied that he was saying something new. Of course, he wasn’t. He was echoing in popular form a current of theology that has been flowing for over 150 years. It is marked by the idea that Jesus, while being a remarkable fellow, is in no way unique. He embodies the characteristics of a type of religious person found in all major religions. This emphasis on the non-uniqueness of Jesus is at the root of a number of trends in the church today including the recent shift from inter-Christian to inter-faith ecumenism and, as I discuss in my article, the primacy of social science versus historical-theological categories in researching the life of Jesus.
Christians need to recognize that the present debates over the identity of Jesus have deep roots. They are not just the latest crazy idea. They have been gathering momentum throughout the course of decades, if not centuries. Those who take their stand on the scriptural witness to Jesus Christ face powerful opposing currents, not only within secular society but also from within the Christian Church.
Therefore, it is becoming ever more important to take seriously that question: Who do you say that I am?
"JESUS AND THE JESUS SCHOLARS"
By Paul Miller
The Gospel of John concludes with the opinion that if everything Jesus did was written down, "the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." (John 21:25.) I wonder if John realized how prophetic he was. These days hardly a week goes by without a new book appearing on the scene claiming to reveal who Jesus really was and what he really did. We have witnessed a veritable explosion of Jesus books, a chaotic, riotous rainforest of books each the product of the most up-to-date "Jesus scholarship."
Now the reader might be forgiven for thinking that a "Jesus scholar" is anyone who studies Jesus in a scholarly way. But the term has taken on a quite specific meaning. Traditionally, Jesus scholars and New Testament scholars were essentially the same people because studying Jesus was one and the same task as studying the New Testament. But today’s generation of Jesus scholars seeks Jesus behind or apart from the New Testament. Jesus and the Bible, they say, are two completely separate historical phenomena not be confused.
Within the tribe of "Jesus scholars" are several distinct clans. Some are serious students of the historical Jesus but have no commitment to Christian faith. They might be found teaching in Religious Studies or Near Eastern Studies departments of secular universities. A second group, not always completely distinct from the first, define themselves as Christians and perhaps teaching at a denominational seminary or faculty of theology. But they seek a radically revised picture of Jesus from the one traditionally taught in the church. Included in this group would be feminists along with most of the members of the famous Jesus Seminar, a colloquium of Jesus scholars which meets in California to debate the historicity of Jesus’ sayings (and, incidentally, gets plenty of media exposure along the way.) Then there is a third group who are more like tabloid journalists than genuine scholars. Their main interest is sensation. You can find their books prominently displayed at Chapters.
Now at first sight Jesus scholars seem to be all over the map to the point where it is hard to tell what they have in common besides an interest in Jesus. The conclusions they reach about Jesus are wildly diverse. Thomas Cahill puts it slightly saucily but quite accurately: "Jesus was a peasant revolutionary. No, he was an urbane wise man, something like an Eastern sage – no, more like a Greek skeptic. It’s all in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Vatican is trying to keep it quiet; Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross; he managed to escape, marry Mary Magdelene, and move to southern France (as who would not if he could?)" In part this reflects the temper of our times. Contemporary "Jesus scholars" are imbued with the postmodern doctrine that all truth, including historical truth, is in the eye of the beholder. My Jesus is as valid as your Jesus.
However, there are a couple of common threads running through all their various approaches. First, they all claim that the real Jesus is the Jesus of history, by which they mean something quite specific, namely, Jesus reconstructed by the methods of historical research. Secondly, they all view the New Testament as more of a hindrance than a help in finding the Jesus of history. The New Testament, they say, reflects more the biases of the early Christian communities than the historical Jesus. The New Testament is like a mist enveloping the true Jesus. We can see his outline, but only barely. Finding Jesus is like nothing so much as an archaeological dig. We must chip and sweep and brush away all the accumulated debris of Christian mythology to get at the genuine article.
But I would say there is a third common thread. While claiming to offer accounts of Jesus that are more historically plausible that what has been written before, in important respects they are really quite unhistorical.
First, they are unhistorical to the extent that they lack the most basic scholarly virtue: intellectual humility. This is mainly, though not exclusively, true of the group I refer to as the "tabloid journalists." Their claim is that everyone was on the wrong track until they came along. For two thousand years the world has been in the dark about Jesus – until now. No one has ever understood Jesus – except us. Karl Barth noted a temptation among theologians which he described as a moment of "intoxication" when "the consciousness of being able to be right turns into the consciousness of actually being right." In this fatal moment the scholar surveys a figure from the past and sees, not a fellow seeker after truth with a wisdom that has its own independent dignity, but a mere forerunner of the present. The entire past exists only as a preparation for the true vision of the present. Barth’s insight describes no one so well as John Shelby Spong, erstwhile Episcopal Bishop of Newark and scourge of conservative Christians everywhere. Spong’s self-proclaimed mission is to "liberate" Christianity from what he calls "fundamentalism," by which he means any version of Christianity that takes the truth of the Bible more seriously than he does. Christians have a clear choice between two irreconcilable alternatives, according to Spong: they can side with his reinterpretation of Jesus and the New Testament; or they can languish in the outer darkness of fundamentalism," "literalism" and "fear of the truth." Spong approaches history with the air of contemptuous superiority that only an unself-critical child of the modern era could exhibit without blushing. He "has a view of the past which assumes that our ancestors were all unenlightened troglodytes" and he has come to set the church free.
Scholars of the class represented by Spong have the one magic key that will unlock every mystery and solve every problem. For Spong, the key is midrash. Midrash was a technique of imaginative commentary on Scripture practised by the rabbinic Judaism of Jesus’ time. Although Spong never really explains (or in my opinion understands) midrash adequately, midrash is the universal code to unravel every New Testament conundrum. The entire New Testament is One Big Midrash. B.S. – "Before Spong" – nobody ever saw this. But now, A.J. – "After Jack" – we can finally read our Bibles aright after centuries of being led down the garden path by simple minded literalists. The extraordinary arrogance of this claim seems not to have dawned on the Bishop.
There are other examples. One fine new volume is Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. Chilton, professor of religion at Bard College in New York is also a Fellow of the famous Jesus Seminar. He begins by noting the frustration that scholars have long felt because "their students and the general public" (darn them) have insisted on clinging to "legends" like the virgin birth and the resurrection. Thank heavens, help is on the way in Chilton’s breakthrough discovery that Jesus’ was a mamzer – a child of dubious parentage. If you know this about Jesus, everything else becomes clear, according to Chilton. Jesus’ life is the tale of progressive emotional scarring from the exclusion and prejudice he suffered because Joseph and Mary weren’t properly married. Wherever he went from infancy on tongues would wag, heads would shake and Jesus stored up all the hurt in his sensitive heart. Chilton’s Jesus is a tormented, troubled, brooding, soul who suffered from manic depression. The breaking point came with decisive consequences for world history when the ostracism of the religious establishment prevented him from taking part in public mourning for his father Joseph. This final indignity provoked him to storm the Jerusalem temple, that bastion of religious correctness, with an army of zealots, leading to his arrest and death.
Even stranger than Chilton’s book is Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Barbara Thiering, a minor Australian scholar. The Gospels, she says, are written in an elaborate secret code. Thiering’s research purports to show that Jesus was an Essene, a member of the mysterious Qumran sect. Once you know this about Jesus, she says, everything else makes perfect sense. Among the revelations that follow from her reading are that John the Baptist was not a wild and wooly voice in the Judean wilderness was actually the Essene "Pope." He and Jesus had a falling out which led to a major schism in the group. "Lazarus" of Bethany was actually Simon Magus (!) and his "raising" was Jesus’ overturning of his excommunication from the sect. The "Holy Spirit?" A secret name for Annas the High Priest. "Jerusalem," "Bethlehem" and "Nazareth" do not refer to geographical locations but different rooms at the Qumran monastery. Jesus was the victim of internal politicking. He and Simon Magus (who, you might be surprised to learn, is the second most important figure in the birth of Christianity) were crucified. Jesus was given poison to end his suffering but only lost consciousness. He was buried along with a large quantity of aloes, a common purgative. Simon was later buried alive in the same tomb. He administered the aloes to Jesus, cleansing his body of the poison. Jesus came to, escaped from the tomb …. and, well, you get the picture.
Of course this is all fiction not fact. "Scholars" like Thiering take a "one-answer-to-every-question" approach which is a sure fire sign that ideological rather than historical interests are at work. "Every ideologist carries a single burning coal in the tongs of his mind," one explanatory idea that illuminates every obscurity." Anyone who knows history, though, knows that it has to do with persons and events which cannot fit neatly into any preconceived scheme.
Jesus books are unhistorical to the extent that their conclusions cannot be supported by the available evidence. Spong’s, Chilton’s and Thiering’s works are fanciful, bordering on the absurd simply because they lack the true historian’s deference before the task of interpreting the past. We are told that Mary was a victim of rape and that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene. (After all, what would you expect of a Jesus whose main role is to support the author’s views on moral relativism and sexual liberation?) Chilton irons out the wrinkles in the different infancy narratives by concluding that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Galilee, not Bethlehem in Judea. His father Joseph was an itinerant carpenter who was hired to do some renovations on Mary’s parents’ house, and, well, one thing led to another, Mary found herself in the family way and pretty soon Joseph was leaving his first wife and taking his children from that marriage to set up house in Nazareth. It all makes perfect sense. The only problem is that there is not one shred of evidence to substantiate these conclusions.
However, the sin of permitting one’s conclusions to run far ahead of the evidence at hand is not committed only by those on the lunatic fringe of Jesus scholarship. Burton Mack is one of the key members of the Jesus Seminar and Professor of New Testament at Claremont in California. His field of study is Q, the hypothetical document from which Matthew and Luke may have taken much of their source material. Back in the nineteenth century, textual analysis of the Gospels showed clearly that while Matthew and Luke incorporated Mark into their accounts, they shared material that was not contained in Mark. This led scholars to theorize that an early written document consisting mainly of Jesus’ sayings must have existed. They nicknamed it "Q" from the German Quelle which means "source." Now, the first thing to remember about Q is that it does not actually exist. No one has ever seen a manuscript of Q. None of the New Testament writers refers to Q. Its existence is not attested in any independent source. Q is a theory which may help to explain the process by which the Gospels of Matthew and Luke came to be written. Its existence may be inferred but not proved.
Burton Mack has no such reservations when it comes to Q, however. Far more than an hypothesis, Q, he says, is "the lost Gospel." Not only can we reconstruct what was in Q, we can be on quite intimate terms with the community that produced it. According to Mack, the "Q community" was an early movement inspired by Jesus’s ethical teachings but unaware of his resurrection or miracles. These were invented by a later generation Christians who wrapped a simple teacher in an elaborate triumphalistic mythology. Mark is the villain of Mack’s story. It was Mark who turned Jesus into divine being and the founder of a religion. How does Mack know all this? The logic goes something like this: We can reconstruct Q. Q consists only of Jesus’s sayings, but nothing about any empty tomb or resurrection. Therefore, the "Q community" must have known only of his teachings, not his resurrection. This is an argument from silence, the most dangerous form of historical reasoning. While we may guess what was included in Q we really have no basis for speculating on what, if anything, was excluded from Q – assuming of course that Q really existed.
But Mack goes even further. The Q community dates from the very dawn of the Jesus movement. Its members had been up close and personal with the real Jesus. Therefore, their knowledge of Jesus must have been deeper and their account more reliable than those of the Gospel writers who were at least two generations removed from the events about which they wrote. So, the real Jesus is not the mythological Jesus of the Gospels but the counter cultural Jesus of Q who never intended anyone to worship him. By implication, if we today want to find the real Jesus we need to clear away all dogmatic and ecclesiastical accretions and return to the simple "lost" Jesus of Q.
Mack’s project is unhistorical because the evidence simply cannot justify his conclusions. It is not impossible that things happened the way he says they did, just as it is not impossible that Jesus was delivered to earth by space aliens. But there is no way of building such a case on valid historical grounds. It is a question of method and of the definition of history. History, in one sense, is the past: "what happened." But, more precisely, history is what we can reasonably know of the past. As the eminent British historian G. R. Elton has said, historical study is not "the study of the past but the study of present traces of the past." Above all, the historian is a person who "knows his evidence … what it can tell and what can never be got from it." To be responsibly historical is to have a keen awareness of what Luke Timothy Johnson calls "the limitations of history." This is a hard lesson for modern people to remember because we are heirs of the nineteenth century doctrine that all knowledge is historical knowledge; that the only way to interpret human phenomena is according to the categories of historical cause and effect; that all significance is generated from within the unfolding of historical events, what Ernst Troeltsch called "the transcendent depths of history." We must keep in mind, however, not only the possibilities of historical inquiry but its limitations which is what many Jesus scholars fail to do. Their stunning new "discoveries" make headlines and sell books but cannot be justified by the evidence.
Furthermore, as Johnson reminds us, "a great deal of what is ‘real’ escapes historical knowledge." There are certain things about the past that no amount of documentary evidence will permit us to know for certain such as motives, thoughts, feelings and the inner texture and logic of human interactions. When scholars venture into the field of what Jesus or any other figure from the past felt or thought, insofar as they depart from the witness of the New Testament they depart the realm of history and enter the realm of speculation. The farther back into the past one travels, the truer this is. We simply do not have the evidence to say for sure what happened at many points in the life of the historical Jesus. A century ago, this led Albert Schweitzer to abandon the very quest for the Jesus of history which, he said, was a "dead end." The Jesus reconstructed by the Jesus scholars of Schweitzer’s generation (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) never existed. He was the product of modern rationalistic theology. Furthermore, Schweitzer suggested, if the real Jesus came today we would not recognize him. He would be a stranger from another world. Schweitzer’s conclusion was overly pessimistic. Research has established a great deal about Jesus beyond a reasonable doubt. However, our knowledge of the past is still constrained by the available sources.
For example, scholars are on pretty solid footing when they say that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke appear to rely on a common literary source. However, Burton Mack is on less than solid ground when he claims that he can reconstruct not only Q but its history of development and transmission and the religious worldview of the community that generated it; and then, on that basis, revise radically our picture of the earliest days of Christianity.
The irony is that scholars on the trail of the "real" Jesus of history are often deeply sceptical about the main body of evidence we do possess, namely, the New Testament. Because of the New Testament we have more information about Jesus than virtually any other ancient figure. Yet, many Jesus scholars consistently discount these writings as unreliable historical sources. The New Testament Gospels, they argue, are too corrupted by the interests of the early church. This presupposition has actually hardened into a firm hermeneutical principle. If a saying of Jesus, for example, reflects what scholars have decided reflects the interests of the early church, then that saying is judged to be non-historical. And if the canonical Gospels are untrustworthy, other early Christian writings such as the Book of Acts or the letters of Paul are doubly so. Yet, the same scholars who discount the New Testament rely more and more on a hypothetical document whose very existence has been assumed but never proven (Q) or a gnostic composition whose date, authorship and provenance are highly disputed (The Gospel of Thomas.)
Why would they do this? In my view it is because the real goal is not only to determine what can be reliably known about the historical Jesus but to deconstruct traditional Christianity. (More on this later.) Contemporary Jesus scholarship brings to mind Soren Kierkegaard who described another overly enthusiastic historicist movement, Hegelian philosophy, as "the howling madness of the higher lunacy."
Jesus scholarship is unhistorical to the extent that it fails adequately to account for the most historically significant fact: that Jesus inaugurated a world-changing movement. Contemporary Jesus scholars begin by driving a wedge between Jesus the early Christian movement. Marcus Borg notes that the current renaissance in Jesus studies is taking place outside the framework of theology or faith. Only by sharply distinguishing Jesus from the faith of the early church can we get at the truth about him. A supporting beam in the architecture of Jesus scholarship is the principle that Christianity and its writings have concealed the real Jesus. To find him, we must remove him from the context which turned him into the originator of Christianity. Again, Burton Mack does this more radically than most. The pre-Christian "community of Q" preserved truth about Jesus that the theology of the New Testament suppressed and silenced.
Jesus, according to Borg, was a "movement originator"; but his was primarily a movement of social criticism rather than religious transformation. Jesus stood with the poor and the marginalized and against the oppressive social structures of his day. His movement was an invitation to engage the world not to leave the world behind. John Dominic Crossan, along with Borg the most well-known member of the Jesus Seminar, argues that Jesus was a kind of countercultural guru in the tradition of Cynic philosophy, a critical voice from the very margins of Jewish society. Without multiplying examples we can simply note that, to a greater or lesser extent, contemporary Jesus scholarship posits a fundamental discontinuity between the historical Jesus and early Christianity. They begin with an animus against the traditional, scriptural portraits of Jesus.
In general Jesus scholars consign of the resurrection to the status of myth. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection, they argue, are the literalistic reification and projection of the inner workings of the primitive mind. No well-adjusted modern person could be expected to swallow it today (Spong.) And yet, as a matter of historical fact, the only real source we have – the New Testament – sees the resurrection as the very key to Jesus’s identity. Luke Timothy Johnson is particularly strong here. He argues, contrary to the Jesus scholars, that the Christian faith has never been based on reconstructions of the historical Jesus but on his resurrection. The deeds and words of Jesus acquire their significance in the light of and as a consequence of the resurrection. Johnson notes that the early Christian community’s belief in the resurrection did not mean that Jesus did not actually die (Thiering) nor that his body was resuscitated in some crude and ghoulish manner, but that "after his death he entered into an entirely new form of existence, one in which he shared the power of God and in which he could share that power with others." By definition, therefore, the resurrection refers not only to what happened to Jesus but what happened to those who experienced it. Their faith was inextricably rooted in the memory of his rising. That is the lens through which they interpreted his deeds and words. That is what gave meaning to the accounts they left of him. And these accounts are the historical residue we have of Jesus’ earthly life.
The resurrection is not itself, strictly speaking, an historical event because the "what" of the resurrection, what happened, what was seen, is beyond the scope of historical research to establish. Many historians rule it out or explain it away, but on philosophical rather than historical grounds. The resurrection could not have happened in principle, they say. It is outside the bounds of human experience. It is an occurrence without analogy. The dead do not rise. Therefore, it must be in one sense or another a fabrication. G. R. Elton, however, warns us of the dangers of leaning too heavily on historical analogy, "the belief that finding similarities in another set of circumstances [from those in question] has any force as an argument." The resurrection can be neither proved nor disproved by historical analogy. But a Jesus who is extracted from the resurrection, from the effect that he had on those who experienced him is less historical not more. Such a procedure would be like searching for the historical Abraham Lincoln without considering the emancipation of the slaves. Abraham Lincoln would have existed even if he had not brought an end to slavery. However, few people besides his descendants would have any reason to inquire into his own history if he had remained a backcountry lawyer. Lincoln’s iconic status is part and parcel of his historical reality. He cannot be approached or assessed apart from the impact he had on others. And so it is with Jesus.
What it comes down to is this: Jesus scholars cannot finally explain how their various reconstructed Jesuses – which can range from the banal to the bizarre to the downright offensive – could possibly have been the impetus for a revolution in western civilization. When the study of Jesus is removed from the narrative framework of the Gospels, the result is not consensus but confusion, a crazy proliferation of conflicting and bizarre conclusions. The explanation that the early church invented him simply does not convince. Jesus abstracted from the proclamation, the kerygma, of the early church is an hollow and empty Jesus. If Jesus were only what Jesus scholars say he was – a wandering teacher, a marginal Jew, a mystic or a magician – Jesus scholars would have nothing to write about because, apart from the resurrection, Jesus would be of no historical interest. He would have vanished without a trace into the mists of the past. And scholars would be deprived of the very subject matter that keeps them so busy.
To argue that Jesus was nothing but what Jesus scholars say he was; and that certain of his followers cooked up his story out of a combination of oriental mythology and wishful thinking; and that somehow this mixture brought about a decisive change in human history, hardly seems plausible historically. "In terms of the logic of history," writes Paul Barnett, "there must have been some continuing impulse from the historical Jesus to the proclaimed Christ, some substantive continuity." On the other hand, "the Jesus of the manifold current reconstructions of Jesus research is, in almost every case, a future-less Jesus who is going nowhere, except to historical oblivion."
Contemporary Jesus scholarship is unhistorical to the extent that it is controlled by non-historical methods. These non-historical methods are mainly the those of the social sciences – sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics and demographics, applied to the study of the past. If we could oversimplify matters a little, we could say that the goal of the social sciences is to formulate general theories and large-scale models to explain how society and human behavior works. And, as Marcus Borg says, social science is coming to play an increasingly important role in Jesus research. Borg’s own version of Jesus stands on four legs: the critical analysis of texts; the context of ancient Judaism; the social world of Jesus; and the cross-cultural study of religion. Now, for two hundred years scholars have been employing textual analysis and research into Jesus’ Jewish context. It is the last two approaches – research into Jesus’ social world and the cross-cultural study of religion -- that are now in the ascendant. Jesus scholars like Borg and Crossan rely heavily on the the sociology of the first-century Galilee and Judea to fill out their accounts. Crossan’s work on the historical Jesus places anthropological and sociological paradigms front and center. Although the flyleaf of one of his books calls it "the first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did and what he said," Crossan has surprisingly little to say about Jesus himself. Most of his recent books are filled with sociological studies of ancient peasant societies and literary parallels from Greco-Roman culture. What Crossan wants to accentuate is that Jesus was a representative of a cross-cultural religious type rather than his unique and unrepeatable historical features.
This approach is fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, we are confronted again with the quality of the evidence. The usefulness of scientific models in historical study is a topic of vigorous debate, but it seems to me that the data are simply not there to build up a profile of Jesus’s world complete enough to give us secure knowledge about him. For example, one of the studies Crossan uses as a framework on which to hang the life of Jesus is Richard Horsley’s analysis of "protestors, prophets, bandits and messiahs" in the ancient world. Horsley’s research is based on a mere thirty-five references, mostly in the writings of Josephus, covering a one hundred and ten year period – hardly overwhelming evidence on which to construct an convincing typology. Crossan combines Horsley’s typology with the sociological and cross-cultural analysis of political revolutions to conclude that "before, during and after Jesus, the Palestinian peasantry was in a state of political turmoil" and suggests that this is the primary context for making sense out of Jesus. First, one wonders whether there is enough solid material to substantiate such broad generalizations about the nature of "peasant societies" and but secondly, it is questionable they yield real knowledge about Jesus.
Too great a reliance on social science method inverts what I would take to be proper historical method which begins with individual pieces of evidence about people and events and from them builds up a composite picture. Certainly there is a legitimate place for social scientific methods in historical research. These methods have certainly yielded a rich harvest of knowledge about the world in which Jesus lived. The difficulty arises when the process is reversed and the composite picture is used to draw definite conclusions about the particular historical figure. When the social sciences are true to their purpose, they take masses of data and from them create generalizations and models of broad trends. But we do violence to the integrity of the individual when we define him or her according to such a generalization because it cannot account sufficiently for individual variation. Let us take a contemporary example. Church growth experts use demographic data to show that people under the age of thirty do not like organ music. Statistically this is true and many churches have abandoned the organ in an effort to reach that demographic cohort. However, we are not entitled to say categorically that if a person is under thirty, he or she does not like organ music. In fact, there may be hundreds, perhaps thousands of young people writing their essays to the strains Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Statistically they may be insignificant. But history is more than statistics. Likewise, Jesus may well share characteristics in common with other anti-establishment renewal movement leaders. But that does not mean that a composite type abstracted from many individual examples can fill out what we know of a particular historical individual, Jesus.
The other source for a revised portrait of Jesus that is being used increasingly is the cross-cultural study of religion. The modern study of religion has its roots in the nineteenth century "history of religions" school which claimed that all religions follow a similar pattern of development. Christianity, far from being unique, is one specific example of a universal phenomenon. In the twentieth century, people like William James and Carl Jung began to apply the insights of psychology and anthropology to the study of religion. James’s famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience outlined different broad types of religious personality – the "healthy-minded," the "twice-born," the "mystic," the "saint" and so on. Jung combined the Freudian psychology of the subconscious with religious themes to develop his theory of archetypes – foundational patterns in human consciousness. Along these lines, Marcus Borg categorizes Jesus as a "Jewish mystic" who exhibits characteristics of five religious types: "spirit person, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet and movement initiator." Borg explicitly approaches Jesus according to categories which emphasize his similarity to other religious traditions rather than confining him to a Jewish context.
There is no doubt that typologies can be helpful for interpreting masses of data. But Borg takes things a step further. He employs such typologies to fill in gaps in knowledge. What we do not know of Jesus from direct historical evidence can be inferred from his correspondence to a religious typology. Once again this is using the general to define the specific, moving "to the unknown not from the known but from the still more unknown."
The problem is that typologies can so easily predetermine interpretation of the evidence. In the scholar’s mind, abstractions can quickly turn into realities, mental constructs into facts. Possible construals tend to be ruled out in advance because they do not conform to the model. I experienced this as an undergraduate at York University in a seminar on the parables of Jesus taught by James Breech, a New Testament scholar heavily influenced by Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar. Parables, we learned, were Jesus’ distinctive mode of expression. Critical analysis reveals that Jesus did not use allegory ("this stands for that") in his parables. Therefore, if a New Testament text contains traces of allegory, it could not have come from Jesus, at least not in its present form. But see what has to be assumed to arrive at this conclusion: Jesus never used parable and allegory; or parables on one occasion and allegory on another; or parables that may be open to an allegorical interpretation, or that "parable" and "allegory" are in fact descriptions of something that really takes place in human discourse rather than handy mental constructs that make the literary analysis easier. An induction from historical evidence hardens into a preconception which is then used to further predetermine the outcome.
Jesus scholars will give the impression that no reputable scholars dispute their claims. Borg, for instance, on the basis of a written questionnaire administered to a total of about seventy New Testament scholars (out of the thousands currently teaching in North America) declares the "the old consensus that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world has disappeared." In fact, according to Borg’s survey results, a significant minority of own colleagues in the Jesus Seminar disagree with this. Similarly, Jesus scholars will simply take for granted the usefulness of cross-cultural religious typologies. But major scholars like the anthropologist Clifford Geertz have challenged the use of cross-cultural models in attempting to explain the uniqueness of human culture and history. Cultures are irreducible to generalizations, Geertz argues, and the truth about them is found in their unique differences, not their general similarities.
Finally, contemporary Jesus scholarship is unhistorical to the extent that it is guided more by ideology than history. The underlying motivation of most Jesus scholars is the deconstruction of the classical religious and theological understanding of Jesus. Most Jesus scholars begin with the presupposition that these traditional portraits are a distortion of historical reality; and they set out to make the evidence support this thesis.
Now, I am not suggesting that it is possible to arrive at some value-neutral, "objective" approach to the past. History is always interpretation and even the best historian can never wholly escape his or her presuppositions. In fact, the best historians are those who are conscious of their presuppositions. What I am disputing is the claim by the Jesus scholars their accounts are superior to more traditional ones because they are more historical while, in fact, it is nonhistorical considerations that dominate. Our friend Bishop Spong once again furnishes us with Exhibit "A." Spong claims to be doing history, unlike the ideologically motivated fundamentalists and literalists. But the most cursory reading of any of his books shows that his primary agenda is to overturn traditional sexual morality and the theistic concept of God; and that this has as much to do with the internal politics of the Episcopal Church and Spong’s own media profile as it does with responsible scholarship. His Jesus research is really a means to other ends. The intellectual roots of Jesus scholarship can be traced to a philosophical movement, namely, Enlightenment rationalism which, from the outset, was philosophically "ill-disposed toward the classical religious heritage of the West." Jesus is being researched and written about by scholars who are often indifferent or hostile to church, doctrine and religious tradition; a free-floating Jesus to whom today’s religiously alienated can have direct personal access on their own terms without worrying about the intervening 2000 years of faith and interpretation. The Jesus they find often looks like the Jesus they set out to find. He is a radically politicized Jesus, at odds with institutional religion, indifferent to personal morality, thoroughly non-eschatological and this-worldly, with stronger parallels to world religions than to the traditions of the Hebrew Bible; a Jesus fundamentally different from the so-called "Christ of faith" invented by the early church.
This direction in Jesus studies is profoundly disturbing to those who cleave to traditional Christianity but at least it is understandable within the context of the secular academy. After all, what do academics except "talk about and listen to the latest ideas" (Acts 17: 21)? (All in all, though, it can be amusing to see supposedly non-religious scholars so intent on attacking a religious tradition that they say does not really matter to them.) What is much harder to understand are those who claim allegiance to the Christian tradition, whose stipend is paid by church-supported seminaries, who are charged with preparing men and women for Christian ministry and who champion this approach. It seems to me that they are examples of what the late Ben Meyer called "performative self-reversal" -- sawing off the branch of the tree on which one is sitting.
There is no going back to precritical days when the New Testament was read straightforwardly as an uncomplicated representation of historical events. Even the most conservative scholars have had to come to terms with biblical criticism. And that is not a bad thing because two hundred years of biblical scholarship has given us a rich treasure of knowledge and an immeasurably more complete picture of Jesus and his world than was available to our ancestors. Jesus lived in space and time which means that he is a valid object of historical study. Christians need not fear subjecting Scripture to the searching light of historical investigation. As the New Testament scholar James Barr has noted, biblical criticism began with the noble objective of reading what is actually in the Bible, not to first filter it through a lens of creed or dogma. It was reverence for Scripture that led to the first critical theories about the history of the Bible’s origins and transmission. Criticism, properly employed, still honors the Scriptures on which our faith is built.
But there is a current trend in Jesus scholarship that is making shipwreck of the faith of many. It is important for believers to realize that this ostensibly historical scholarship is being driven by nonhistorical factors; and that the various often contradictory portraits of Jesus are ideological constructs as much as historical representations. Other scholars with credentials at least as impressive as those of the Jesus Seminar have constructively portrayed Jesus in a manner that is both historically sound and in harmony with the living tradition of Christianity. They may not enjoy the media profile of the Jesus Seminar, but their work is solid and worthy. Some of their names have appeared in the course of this essay, notably Luke Timothy Johnson, Ben F. Meyer and Paul Barnett. We could add to them E. P. Sanders, Raymond Brown, C.K. Barrett and many,man more. The best of them are rigorously critical and uncompromisingly professional. But they maintain a respect for and understanding of the biblical text as a coherent religious narrative, not as an historical strip mine to be plundered for ideological purposes. This paper is written in the hope that these voices will be given their proper and deserved place as the Church of Christ continues to engage the one who entered history "for us and for our salvation."
Bearing Faithful Witness
By Foster Freed
The United Church’s most recent contribution to Jewish-Christian dialogue "Bearing Faithful witness" is a few years old now. But Foster Freed alerts us to some of the hidden dangers in the direction of this report.
It needs to be said at the outset that Bearing Faithful Witness: United Church-Jewish Relations Today, issued by a mandated National Task Group, is a formidable document, one that is not easily summarized nor quickly digested. Neither can one lightly appraise a document into which such obvious care and research has gone, as evidenced by the roughly 200-item bibliography and the 75-item glossary of terms.
They have examined an inherently difficult issue: one that is fraught with emotion; one that is clouded by a history that is complex and checkered, and at times terribly unflattering to the Christian Church. To their credit, members of the Task Group have been willing to examine some particularly delicate areas, including some they might easily have ducked. Witness their inclusion–as part of a lengthy series of appendices–of Lois Wilson’s refreshing honest exploration of "Anti-Judaism in Feminist Writings and Theology". Wilson is at times brutally frank about the problem, referring to "the powerful and pervasive anti-Judaism with considerable candour, even when that meant discomforting one of their own potentially supportive constituencies within the United Church. For that they are to be commended.
Given the weight and complexity of this document, which ran to well over 100 pages when I down-loaded it onto my computer, it is perhaps not surprising that the response to it has focussed on its most controversial recommendation, housed in Part One of the document, which contains "A Proposed Statement for the United Church of Canada". Along with a number of other recommendations, including our Church’s reiterated "recognition of anti-Semitism as an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ", are a series of three recommendations, the first of which rejects and repudiates "belief in the displacement or replacement of the covenant of God with Israel", the second of which rejects "supersessionist understanding of God’s action in Christ and in the Church", and the third of which takes the further, pastoral step of rejecting and repudiating "all mission and proselytism seeking to convert Jews to Christianity".
This last is a recommendation that cannot help but produce a reaction in a number of different quarters. It is also a recommendation which–like the Bearing Faithful Witness document itself–is less straightforward than at first meets the eye. That is certainly true when it is viewed from a Jewish perspective. Jewish response to both the Report as a whole, and this recommendation in particular, has been predictably supportive. Melanie Collison, writing in the Jewish Free Press, describes Bearing Faithful Witness as a ground-breaking report which "states clearly that Judaism is an equal sibling of Christianity, and that evangelism and conversion are to be abandoned." Nor is it surprising that the issue of proselytization is of present concern to North American Jews, given what one knowledgeable Jewish observer describes as "the absolutely unprecedented success of Christian missions to the Jews." One wonders, however, whether the Jewish community may not only overestimate the extent to which the United Church of Canada is involved in such missions, but as well the influence the United Church can be expected to exert over those who are. One also has the uncomfortable sense that Jewish preoccupation with Christian mission to the Jews obscures the far more basic concerns North American Judaism needs to confront at this time, concerns not unlike the ones "oldline" Christian denominations are presently facing, or failing to face.
Furthermore, the issue of Christian mission to the Jewish people is also less straightforward than Christian conservatives sometimes imagine it to be. Christian theologian Ellen Charry, who draws upon her own Jewish background, does not hesitate to affirm that "something of God is disclosed in Jesus Christ that we did not and could not know or see before." Nevertheless, she cautions that "the Christianization of Jews is [a] traumatic...undertaking," noting that "for a Jew to become a Christian is not analogous to a Methodist becoming a Roman Catholic". Regardless of our theological perspective vis a vis the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, it behoves all of us to reflect upon Charry’s trenchant warning: "There are profound historical and psychological reasons for respecting the Jewish right to privacy. The smell of the crematoria yet lingers in Jewish nostrils."
Matters are no less complex from a liberal Christian perspective, i.e., from the perspective of those who will be most at home with the recommendations of this Report. Indeed, the use of the word "proselytization" in this recommendation may obscure the real issue, since the practice of proselytization is one that Jesus himself called into question. Surely for Christians the issue turns not on "proselytization" but rather on "evangelism", by which I mean not so much the "conversion" of non-Christians, but rather the on-going work of bearing appropriate witness to the Gospel. While I applaud Charry’s suggestion that "one thing...Christians might do...[is] encourage Jews to speak of God again," it seems to me that the issues are more complex than even she acknowledges.
In the first place, the contemporary North American scene includes a growing number of those, like Charry and myself, who have embraced the Gospel from a Jewish background. Given the Report’s acknowledgment that Judaism is "at once a religion, a people, a nation, and a covenant," it simply will not do to regard such individuals as having severed–on the day of their baptism–all connection with their Jewish roots. For that reason, I believe that it is presumptuous for a largely Gentile denomination to issue a blanket repudiation of all Christian mission to the Jews. We may well have the right to issue that repudiation on behalf of Gentile believers, although I am not convinced even of that; we certainly have no right to do so on behalf of Jewish Christians.
In addition, the contemporary North American Jewish community is in many ways no less fragmented–and possibly even more secularised–than its Christian counterpart. Both the fragmentation and the secularisation raise issues for any proposed ban on proselytization, prompting us to ask a key question, namely, "who counts as a Jew?" To cite some of the many ambiguities: what are we to do vis a vis the increasing number of young people who are coming of age as the off-spring of mixed marriages? Do we follow the Rabbinic standard of treating those with Jewish mothers as Jews, and those with Jewish fathers as Gentiles? I somehow doubt such a criterion makes any sense from a Christian perspective; indeed, it does not even make sense from the perspective of Reform Judaism.
And what about those Jews who have become alienated from their roots? To speak from personal experience: when I began to explore the Christian tradition in my mid-20s, I did so as a battle-weary veteran of the sixties. Estranged from my own Jewish roots, I nevertheless remained sufficiently Jewish to find myself not only attracted to–but at the same time deeply repelled by–the Church of Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, my initial embrace of the Gospel was both pain-filled and highly tentative; by the grace of God that embrace has proven to be a happy one in more ways than I can even begin to number. My experience raises a significant question, however. Would it have been better for Christians to have withheld the Gospel from me (leaving me, no doubt, in the state of despair in which I was mired), in the conviction that my ethnicity entitled me to hear good news only from within Judaism? Even to ask such a question is to reveal both the delicacy and the complexity of the issues raised by a Christian mission to Jews.
To ask that question is also to reveal both the particularities and the peculiarities of the framework adopted by those who shaped the Bearing Faithful Witness document. The Report’s Appendix B, "What is Anti-Judaism", makes a cautious distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Acknowledging the difficulties of making this kind of distinction, the Report nevertheless suggests "that such a distinction has some practical value". On the one hand, "anti-Judaism is the negative stereotyping of Jews and Jewish beliefs"; on the other hand, anti-Semitism "is hatred of Jews". The Report then makes clear that its focus "is only indirectly about anti-Semitism. It is more about combatting ignorance than about directly combatting prejudice. It is about confronting anti-Judaism in the was we interpret Christian Scriptures and in the way we use the Scriptures in the church." The decision to address anti-Judaism rather than anti-Semitism is a significant one, and one which helps account for many of the emphases of this Report. Nevertheless, it is a decision that produces in me uneasiness on a number of counts.
To cite the most obvious example: by focussing on what it calls anti-Judaism rather than on anti-Semitism, the Report has no choice but to regard Christian mission to the Jews as anti-Judaic, especially since the erroneous assumption is made that belief in the "finality" of Christ automatically makes someone guilty of a belief in the superiority of Christianity. Given the missionary thrust that is inherently part of the Gospel, this is a slippery slope indeed, since it can then be argued (and has been argued) that the shadow-side of Christian witness is the implicit devaluation of the world-view of anyone who happens to be on its receiving end. The logical next step in this line of thinking is discouragement of all forms of evangelism. Implicit in this is the sense that the early Christians just got it wrong. There is also the danger of over-simplifying the complex relationship between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, a relationship that is more paradoxical than the shapers of this Report acknowledge. There can, of course, be no denying that a certain kind of anti-Judaism, rooted in ignorance of Jewish belief and practice, has over the centuries fed (and, in some quarters, continues to feed) the well-springs of anti-Semitism. And yet, anti-Judaism–understood as "the negative stereotyping of Jews and Jewish beliefs"–is prevalent within the Jewish community itself, many of whose members remain woefully ignorant of their religious heritage. In that sense, I have no choice but to regard myself as far less anti-Judaic today (having come to appreciate and cherish many aspects of Judaism through the eyes of people like Wiesel, Fackenheim and Heschel), than in the days of my secular youth, when my attitude toward Jewish religious practice was one of indifference bordering on contempt. Nor is it the case that those Christians most preoccupied with evangelism to the Jews are inevitably but one small step away from anti-Semitism. On the contrary, personal experience suggests that such people tend to put Jews and Judaism on a pedestal! Lest we forget: one of the first acts of the Hitler regime in Germany, was to outlaw all Christian mission to the Jews!
The theological emphasis of this Report (anti-Judaism rather than anti-Semitism) also appears to account for the document’s silence on the question of the United Church’s stand on the State of Israel. Not that this question is a purely political one, as the report acknowledges when it speaks of "the importance of...land for Jews." Despite that acknowledgment, the question of the land is largely missing here, an omission which lends an air of unreality to the Report. After all, the only long-term crisis in the relationship between the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Jewish community was precipitated by Observer Editor A.C. Forrest’s stand on the State of Israel. It is obvious that the Report’s focus on particular kinds of theological issues relegated that question to the sidelines, and that the members of the Task Group spared themselves a considerable headache when they chose to avoid it. Telling a United Church audience that it must suspend its mission to the Jews is about as daring as demanding that the United States suspend all foreign aid to Cuba. Calling on our Church to rethink its Middle East position, on the other hand, would surely have sparked controversy, though it might also have succeeded in moving the Church to a greater appreciation of the deeper ambiguities that plague the whole question of Jewish-Christian relations.
Even if we put the question of the State of Israel to one side, the impression remains that there is much more to the Jewish-Christian reality than this Report evokes. That the important theological differences (as well as the significant theological convergence) between Judaism and Christianity are fascinating and important subjects, is not to be denied. Nor can the potential value of a sustained theological dialogue between the two religious communities be ignored. Nevertheless, one wishes that the Report had asked some additional questions, not only the three highlighted at the outset, namely: "Is our handling of the Bible consistent with the faith of Jesus? Is our handling of the New Testament consciously reflective of Christianity’s Jewish roots? Do our Sunday morning services bear false witness against our Jewish neighbours today?" These are, to be sure, important questions. But it is a mistake to ask them in isolation from the more basic question: how do we as Christians and Jews live together as neighbours? In isolation from that question, the others take on an abstract and academic quality. In this I suspect that I am representative of most North American Jews, who are far more interested in the concrete reality of Jews relating to Christians (i.e. Christian anti-Semitism), than in the abstract reality of Judaism contrasted to Christianity (i.e. Christian anti-Judaism).
That having been said, the authors of Bearing Faithful Witness have, to their credit, done a splendid job of bearing faithful witness to the living reality of Judaism. Especially valuable are the numerous clarifications of technical terms, found not only in the glossary but throughout the Report. Extended passages explain such concepts as "Torah" (the subtleties of that multi-faceted term are well handled), the name YHWH (I agree with this report’s contention that the name YHWH ought not to be used in worship), and the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (which has a significantly different order than the Protestant canon of the Old Testament). Attention is also paid to a handful of difficult biblical passages that are shown to be no less troubling to Jews than they are to Christians. Above all, an excellent case is made as to why "stereotypical slogans about Judaism are, more often than not, inaccurate and unhelpful and should be avoided". In this regard, Bearing Faithful Witness does its job, and does it well. Indeed, if the only consequence of this Report is to entice every member of the United Church to read one good book on Judaism, that would be a very significant contribution.
Alas, the Report does not succeed in bearing an equally faithful witness to the Christian reality. Were this merely a matter of the Report’s obsession with theological "correctness", it would be easy to ignore. Thus, the Report’s hand-wringing over comparatively minor issues such as the Church’s use of the terms Old and New Testament, and the debate as to whether it is appropriate for Christian worshippers to stand only for the Gospel reading, prove to be mere irritations. As for the former, the Report rightly concludes that there is really no good substitute for the terms Old and New Testament, and therefore urges congregations simply to refer to Scripture readings by the title of their book. That is unexceptional advice, although it is hard to square all the fuss over the alleged insult in the use of the term "Old" Testament, with the Report’s sustained argument favouring the priority of the Old Testament on the grounds that it is the original (i.e. the older!) section of the Church’s scripture. As for the issue of standing for the reading of the Gospel (would it require the fingers of more than one hand to number the United Church congregations that practise this on a regular basis?), it is hard to avoid the impression that this has less to do with concern for the sensibilities of our Jewish brothers and sisters, than with a failure to respect the sensibilities of our high church colleagues. It is worth remembering that Jewish worship provides a different liturgical honour to the reading of the Torah than it affords to the reading of the Haftarah. Why should Christians not be permitted to treat their own scriptures with a similar measure of liturgical nuance?
Of far greater concern than these minor quibbles, is the unrelenting hermeneutic of suspicion to which the writings of the New Testament are subjected. Nearly one fifth of the Report is devoted to an extended examination of those passages in the New Testament that can be–and have been–interpreted in an anti-Judaic way. I am not questioning the appropriateness of including a section such as this one; indeed, the Task Group chose only to deal with a selection of those many passages that can and/or have been misused from a Jewish perspective. My frustration is with the failure to provide readers with a framework for understanding such passages so as to enhance, rather than diminish, their authority as Scripture. The notable exception is the important point the Report makes concerning the need to re-imagine first-century conflicts as taking place between different groups of Jews, not between Jews and Gentile-Christians. That is a helpful way of dealing with the at times troubling use of the word "Jew" in the New Testament, especially as it is employed in John’s Gospel. Beyond that, one rarely finds the sort of hermeneutic which the Report successfully provides when examining an Old Testament passage like I Samuel 15. With the Samuel passage, the clear intent is to demonstrate how such a text might continue to function authoritatively for both Church and synagogue. That intent is far from clear when it comes to consideration of difficult New Testament texts, where passages under examination are generally accounted for or discounted in terms of their author’s excessive enthusiasm for Jesus (John’s Christology comes in for an especially rough ride) or the author’s often suspect motives.
We are told, for instance, that the depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion found in sermons throughout the book of Acts "serve the self-interest of the Christian church which wants to be on the good side of Rome". In other words: Luke–or Luke’s source–lied, and did so for reasons of crass political expediency. Frankly, I do not see how such a passage can subsequently retain–or how Luke-Acts as a whole can retain–any authority whatsoever for sensitive readers who come to believe that there is no other way of accounting for such passages.
In actual fact, thoughtful New Testament scholarship can provide other ways. As N.T. Wright has reasonably argued:
One must...guard against attempting to reconstruct history by studying the much later effects of stories and events. To suggest that a story is biased, or to suggest that continuing to tell the same story is likely to perpetuate a biased and perhaps violent point of view, is not to say anything one way or another about its historical value. The social responsibility of the historian to his or her own day must be balanced with the professional responsibility to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Society is not ultimately served by suppressing truth or inventing falsehood. The stories must speak for themselves.
When the New Testament stories are allowed to speak for themselves, they consistently point to at least some involvement, by at least a handful of first-century Jews, in the death of Jesus: an involvement that does not at all stretch credulity. If scholarship can one day conclusively demonstrate this to be a complete fabrication, I for one will have no choice but to relinquish the confidence I have placed in the fundamental soundness (notice that I said the fundamental soundness, not the inerrancy) of the New Testament witness. On the other hand, if scholarship finds irrefutable confirmation that this is in fact the case (say, through some new archaeological discovery), I would hardly view that as justifying renewed Christian anti-Semitism. Indeed, given the perpetually shifting winds in the area of New Testament studies, I am unable to share the touching confidence Bearing Faithful Witness places in the prospect of new biblical scholarship to eliminate anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic tendencies in the Christian community.
Nor am I able to understand the seeming lack of confidence this Report displays toward those portions of the New Testament that might have helped counter anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic tendencies from within the canon. The example of Romans 9-11 is instructive, for this text plays a marginal role in Bearing Faithful Witness, receiving scant consideration rather than the extensive treatment to which it is entitled. After all, Romans 9-11 provides a canonical rebuttal to those who want to embrace the "displacement" or "supersessionist" theologies that Bearing Faithful Witness wishes to repudiate. Rather than a thorough examination of that passage we are treated to an utterly gratuitous reflection on the assertion that "Paul did not intend to write deathless ‘scripture’". Once again, the authority of New Testament writings are undermined in a way that would not be countenanced by the authors of this Report were it the writings of an Old Testament author under review.
How does one respond fairly and faithfully to that kind of a pattern? The whole purpose of a Report such as this one is to move us beyond a defensive posture vis a vis Judaism and the Jewish community, and surely that is a good thing. What one therefore misses in this Report is not defensiveness, but a willingness to embrace the distinctively Christian dimension of our heritage with the same obvious affection the Report manifests for those dimensions of our heritage which we share with Judaism. I find myself, somewhat unexpectedly, returning to the Report’s critique of the practice of standing for the reading of the Gospel, a critique I have already labelled a mere irritation. But when viewed in light of another of the Report’s assertions, that "Torah must become an important undertaking for Christians, perhaps the most important biblical study," larger concerns are raised.
Referring to the first two hundred years of the Christian era, Jacob Neusner writes: "in the same time, people born within miles of one another...took up the same challenge, which was to show that revelation–in the Torah, for Judaism, in the figure of Jesus Christ, for Christianity–corresponds to the results of reason and takes place in nature as much as in revelation out of supernature." Notice the distinction Neusner draws between a Torah-centred appropriation of Israel’s faith, and a Christ-centred appropriation of Israel’s faith. Why am I left with the uncomfortable impression that the shapers of this Report would tamper with that most important distinguishing mark of the Christian Church?
Notice, as well, that parallel Neusner draws between the Rabbinic affirmation of particularity of revelation in and through the Torah and the early Church’s affirmation of particularity of revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Again, why am I left with the uncomfortable impression that this Report–especially in its tortured discussion of Jesus’ Messiahship–is affronted by the scandal of particularity when it comes to Jesus, but oblivious to it when it comes to Torah? In short, why does a Report that urges Christians to permit Jews to be Jews, appear to be embarrassed at the prospect of Christians being Christians?
One suspects that the answer to that question has something to do with a loss of confidence in the ability of the Gospel to shape people with the capacity to reach out in love (rather than in hostility) across the particularities of their Gospel-shaped world. Ironically, Jacob Neusner–writing as an American Rabbi–is far more optimistic when it comes to the prospect of contemporary North American Christians and Jews engaging one another in meaningful theological conversation. Indeed, Neusner is critical not only of the bad-faith with which Christians have tended to enter into disputation with Jews, but also of what he describes as Judaism’s "long-term policy of passive, disdainful indifference," where Christianity is concerned. He believes that the time is ripe for a fresh encounter between the two faiths, not merely a polite exchange of platitudes, but genuine engagement:
...for engagement with the other, empowerment of the other, the serious encounter with the other, and rather than dismissal whether with contempt or in fear or out of courtesy–controversy and argument nourish the healthy and mature relationship. Controversy marks health and measures strength: confidence in one’s own position, respect for that of the other.
Is it not ironic that so many Christians no longer share Rabbi Neusner’s confidence in the potential for robust encounter between Judaism and Christianity? While it would be a mistake to disregard Andrew Greeley’s wish for Jews and Christians to stop having unnecessary disagreements, there are surely some areas of disagreement that will remain. Can we not share Neusner’s hope that these areas of disagreement–rather than having to be papered over or abandoned–might one day be engaged with maturity, civility and mutual respect?
The example that comes to mind is that of Corrie Ten Boom and her family. Let me be clear that I am not offering them as a way of white-washing the tragic failure of countless other European Christians to protect Jews during the Nazi horror. Corrie Ten Boom’s example does, however, raise a pertinent question: why did someone whose personal faith-stance was indistinguishable from the one found to be so problematic in the pages of Bearing Faithful Witness, choose to risk her life on behalf of Jews, friends and strangers alike? Nor can the issue of risk be overlooked; I suspect that a failure of nerve on the part of European Christians was every bit as significant in leading millions of Jews to the ovens, as was actual malice. It took considerable courage to stand up to Nazis.
If, as Bearing Faithful Witness claims, anti-Semitism is on the rise (even if those claims are exaggerated, experience teaches that it will be on the rise sooner or later), the Jewish people will need all the friends they can find: not fair-weather friends, but those who are willing to put their own lives at risk. Indeed, as the father of children who would be counted as Jews–not by Rabbinic standards, but by the standards of any future Hitler–this is one matter on which I see myself as having a personal stake. And I am counting on the Church to mould future generations of Christians: Christians who know enough about Judaism to respect it; enough about Christianity’s own Jewish roots to honour them; enough about the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism to repudiate it. Above all, I am counting on the Church to mould Christians who–far from being lukewarm because they are estranged from and confused about their heritage–are motivated by so shameless and powerful a devotion to the Jew from Nazareth, Messiah Jesus, that they are enabled to live boldly and risk extravagantly, the way Corrie Ten Boom lived and risked. One fears that our Church, if it were to embrace the hermeneutic of suspicion embedded in Bearing Faithful Witness, might eventually lose its ability to produce any Christians at all, let along Christians of so rare and distinguished a vintage.
Reprinted from Touchstone (Winnipeg) January 1999 issue. Used with permission.