Jewish and Christian Use of Scripture

Jewish and Christian use of Scripture

By Paul M. van Buren

The Jewish People and the Church are two communities having quite different interpretations of a common text. For Jews, Tanach is their basic law, their constitution, and also their Rettubah with their God. Christians have and read their Old Testament for a totally different reason: it was from their beginning and remains their ABCs and grammar book from which they learned and continue to speak of Jesus Christ. That explains why they told the story of Jesus from the beginning as the story of Israel. The only Jesus the Church has even known is the one who came wrapped in Israel’s Scriptures, and the church has never had the one without the other.

One story from the common text, that of the Binding of Isaac, became foundational for both communities as they took shape in the first century of the common era. Jews saw in Isaac their first martyr, voluntarily offering himself for his heirs and then restored to life by God. That same reading of the story could be the clue to how Peter and his friends first came to speak of Jesus’ death as a voluntary sacrifice and of his being raised up by God. Consequently, the Church and the Jewish people are bound together by the Binding of Isaac, which has put us in something of a bind. We could, however, come to see this rather as a bond, were we to recognize together that God’s love is able to encompass more than one beloved son, and that the story of the beloved son Jesus confirms rather than replaces the story of the beloved son Isaac.


Dr. Paul M. van Buren
Professor Emeritus
Department of Religion
Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


The Need for the American Interfaith Institute

By: James H. Charlesworth

The purpose of the [American Interfaith Institute] is to focus the attention of Jews and Christians on two mutual concerns: their common origins, and the present relations of Jews and Christians in the world.

This [Institute] is unique in one dimension. It seeks to celebrate not only similarities but also differences.

There is no reason today why Jews and Christians should be fearful of one another. In a world becoming increasingly more secular and hostile to those who believe in the biblical God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — Jews and Christians should explore ways to look to each other for support. Each has canonized as God’s inviolate word the injunction to love the brother. The task then is to recognize a common bond, a shared mother (Early Judaism), and to turn fratricide into fraternity.

The past history of the relations among Jews and Christians has been tragic. From about the end of the first century C.E. Jews and Christians tended to see only what was different in the other. They then cast scorn on such differences. Polemics caused Jews to claim that Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman soldier, Ben Panteras. Christians replied in kind: the Jews were the ones who crucified Jesus; they were “Christ killers.”

Only the historian working with ancient sources and their later alterations can show that both of these are not founded on historical research. They are legendary accretions to the memory of the synagogue and the church. Unfortunately, the relationships among Jews and Christians were too often founded on legends and distortations of history.

Christianity moved increasingly farther from Early Judaism. It was shaped by many forces in Early Judaism; perhaps the most formative was Jewish apocalypticism. Rabbinic Judaism also appreciably developed from Early Judaism. It was shaped almost exclusively from the Hillelite branch of Pharisaic Judaism. Fortunately, the founder of Christianity was in many ways similar to the Pharisees, especially the liberal attitude to Torah of Hillel.

Eventually, especially after the defeat of Bar Cochba in 135 C.E., Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity went separate ways. Each could look at the other as distinct and strange. The tendency was to see only differences and to hate them. Sometimes the Jews were considered the enemies of Christianity. At other times they were perceived as those to be converted to Christianity.

More recently philanthropists sometimes tried to isolate and celebrate only the similarities between Jews and Christians. They were well meaning; but they were myopic.

The full picture must be seen. Jews and Christians, if they are to develop a sound, honest, and informed relationship, must celebrate both similarities and differences.

For examples, they share the following:

• the same parent (Early Judaism),

• a common collection of sacred scriptures (The Tanach or Old Testament)

• the worship of one and the same God

• the Ten Commandments

• and profess a similar dream (a return to the paradisaical harmony of Eden and full fellowship with God).

The differences are also profound. Here are the most important of them: Jews tend to stress the importance of being God’s chosen people, and the sole hiers of his promises. Jesus was not the Messiah. Christians emphasize in differing ways the uniqueness of Jesus. Beliefs about him range widely, moving upward from the One who made God truly present in the lives of his followers, through the Son of God, to full equality with God himself. These are vast and insurmountable differences. Can they be acknowledged and celebrated? This newsletter is dedicated to the affirmative response.

Encouragement in that endeavor can be found in the words of the late Jewish biblical scholar, Samuel Sandmel, Distinguished Service Professor of Bible and Hellenistic Literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In We Jews and Jesus (Oxford University Press, 1965, 1973; p. 152) he wrote the following:

For almost eighteen centuries Judaism and Christianity faced each other as enemies. In the past hundred years we have learned much that earlier centuries failed to learn. Perhaps we have now learned that, in a world of many currents and crosscurrents, Judaism and Christianity are not so much on opposite sides of the fence as on the same side. We are not so much opposed as we are different from each other, working in cooperation. The helmsmen of the craft of faith are of different persuasion, but through steering carefully across the currents and crosscurrents of troubled times their direction may well be toward a mainland of understanding, and thereby of blessing to humanity.

Explorations: What it is Not

Philosophers know that describing “what a thing is not” never clarifies “what it is.” All the universe must be exhaustively negated except one solitary thing or person. Grammarians show that good English is to be written without the use of negatives, especially double negatives, whenever possible.

Phenomenologists and sociologists know differently. If those who read what you write think they know what you mean before you write it, but are wrong, it is best to say “this is not what I mean” before it is wrongly interpreted. Prejudices often blind the reader to what is actually written.

Perhaps, therefore, it is appropriate to say a few words about what the newsletter is not. Explorations has no hidden agenda. Note well:

• it is not a missionary tract aiming to convert Christians to Judaism or Jews to Christianity;

• it does not presume to have answers to all or even most of the problems causing distrust between Jews and Christians;

• it does not seek to ignore, or stress, the differences among Jews and Christians;

• it does not seek to question the integrity of the confessional perspectives of Judaism and Christianity.

This is not a religious newsletter; it is a letter about religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, and others, most notably Islam.

Reflection on these issues shows that Explorations is a call to put behind us the fear, distrust, and hatred that have destroyed the mutually beneficial interaction, with all its tensions, that characterized the relationships among Jews and Christians at the very outset.

James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, at Princeton Theological Seminary

German Feminist Theology Confronts Anti-Judaism

By: Catharina von Kellenbach, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Feminist theology in Germany continues to be in a precarious situation, struggling for recognition and institutional support in Germany’s conservative university system. Only a handful of feminists are employed by German theology departments (Roman Catholic or Protestant) and most feminists end their academic careers after their Ph.D.’s (one needs a second Ph.D. in order to teach at the university level). It is all the more remarkable to see the extent to which German feminist exegetes and theologians have taken on anti-Judaism. Beginning with the debates in 1986, feminists have slowly undergone a “double paradigm shift” which combines a consciousness of sexism with an awareness of anti-Judaism.  Scblangenbrut, Germany’s only feminist religious journal, observes in its tenth anniversary edition that anti-Judaism now “belongs to the standard repertoire of theologically working feminists [which]…distinguishes the appearance of feminist theology.”2

Most feminist work on anti- Judaism focuses on exegesis, Christology and theology and tries to uproot the theological traditions of anti- Judaism. There is general agreement that anti-Judaism manifests itself in three distortions which deform Christian (feminist) portrayals of Judaism: (1) Christianity is reaffirmed and reclaimed by emphasizing patriarchal aspects of Judaism and by depicting it as the antithesis of Christian values and beliefs; (2) Jewish monotheism and Jewish culture are faulted for the rise of patriarchy and Judaism becomes the scapegoat for the decline of Goddess religions or the church’s male domination; (3) Jewish literature and ideas are appropriated and Judaism disappears as a viable rival religion but is seen only as the prologue of Christianity.’

In a recent anthology by feminist exegetes who wrestle with these anti- Jewish mechanisms, Marlene Crusemann examined the history of interpretation of Paul’s prohibition of women’s speech in the Corinthian congregation (1Cor. 14:33-34).’ She found little anti-Jewish rhetoric among patriarchal scholars who agreed with Paul’s categorical silencing of women in the church. However, anti-Jewish strategies emerged as scholars began to search for ways to undermine this verdict’s authority by emphasizing its rootedness in the “legal praxis of the synagogue” and by pointing to Paul’s inability to fully overcome his Jewish (i.e. patriarchal) background or Pharisaic education. Anti-Judaism helped discredit repressive Christian teachings on women by construing them as a Jewish holdover. The availability of anti-Judaism helped liberal and feminist Christians to claim the New Testament as a supportive ally in women’s struggle for justice  as full human beings and it softened the feminist critique of Christianity.

Although these German feminist discussions of theologycal anti-Judaism occurred in the shadow of the Holocaust, few feminist theologians addressed the Shoah and Germany’s genocidal anti-Semitism directly. Originally, many feminists had understood women as victims of Nazi masculinism and militarism, who stood by powerless and helpless as German men devised the policies of the Aryan Herrenrasse. But this simplistic and self-serving picture could not be upheld because it denied German Christian  women’s  power and agency vis a vis their Jewish neighbors. Britta Jiingst’s recent book, Auf der Seite des Todes, das Leben, argues that a German feminist theology must contextualize itself in relation to the Holocaust and rethink central categories, such as “women’s experience,” power, evil, and God in light of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ manifold involvement in the victimization of Jewish women.’

Jungst takes the story of Ruth and Naomi as paradigm for Jewish- Christian feminist dialogue after the Shoah. The Moabite Ruth, symbolic of German Christian women, must leave her home and commit to the Jewish woman, following her into an uncertain future despite Naomi’s initial objections. For Jungst, Jewish- Christian feminist dialogue, as unlikely as it seems in Germany today, is rooted in an irrepressible hope for redemption and faith in a “weak messianic power” which has the potential to disrupt the cycle of catastrophes. It is a path without signposts or divine guidance which depends on the two women’s love for each other and their crafty manipulations  of powerful men and religious tradition. But in the end, Ruth’s stubborn love of Naomi is blessed by God with the birth of the ancestor of the redeemer. While Jungst’s hope that Christian feminist theology will commit to the survival and well-being of Jewish women may be overly optimistic, her book is among the hopeful signs that the demons of anti- Semitism may be cast out from German feminist theology.


1.Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewita, ed. Verdränte Vergangenbeit, die linS bedrangt.. Feministische Theologie in der Verantwortung flit. die Geschichte, (Mfinchen: Kaiser 1988), p. 19

2.Ilse Milliner, “Gretchenfrage,” Schlangenbrut (May 1993), P. 5

3. See Christine Schatimberger, ed., Well wir nicht vergessen wollen…zu einer feministischen The¬oligie im deutschen Kontext, (Munster: Morgana Verlag, 1987). :Johanna Kohn-Roelin, “Anti-Judais¬mus-die Kehrseite jeglicher Christologie” in Doris Strahm, Regula Strobl, eds., Vom Verlungen nach Heilwerden: Christologie in feministisch-theolo¬gischer Sicht, (Fribourg: Edition Exodus, 1991), p. 65-91. Anita Natrnenig, “Antisemitismus und femi¬nistische Theologie,” in Charlotte Kohn-Ley und use Korotin, eds., Der feministische Siindenfall: Antisemitische Vorurteile in der Frauenbewe¬gung, (Wien: Picus Verlag, 1994), p. 185-209.

4.Katharini von Kellenbach, Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings, (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994).

5.Marlene Criisemann, “Unrettbar frauenfeindlich: Der Kampf urn das Wort von Frauen in 1 Kor 14, (33b) 34-35 im Spiegel andjudaistischer Elemente der

6. Britta ,hingst, Auf der Seite des Todes, das Leben: Auf dem Weg zu ether christlichfeminis¬tischen Theologie nach der SbOab, (G0tersloh: Chr. Kaiser/Gatersloher Verlagshaus, 1996).

Demonization and Polemic

Anthony J. Saldarini (R.I.P.) Professor of Theologyoston College, Massachusetts

Polemical and apologetic tirades have a long and “respectable” history and seem to be a permanent aspect of human society and religion. Some of the New Testament attacks on Pharisees, scribes, Jews, chief priests, etc. were made by Jewish followers of Jesus against Jewish rivals with whom they bitterly disagreed over the way the Jewish tradition is to be interpreted and lived. Earlier during the Hasmonean period (167-63 BCE), Jews killed Jews in disputes over political sovereignty and fidelity to Torah. Later attacks by gentile Christians against Jews rejected the Jewish tradition entirely Violence split the Christian community from the moment it achieved political power under Constantine. No one is innocent. Even today religiously committed people attack secularism as though non-theistic secular tendencies in the West were the root of all evil and the churches and synagogues were the repository of all values and good.

Vituperation and the demonizing of the other in the “debate” over abortion plagues both sides. In seeking a solution for prejudice we are impeded by a paradox. Humans tend to associate with one another, yet for stability, continuity and security, humans want boundaries and social markers. When the meaning of these markers, language, customs, culture, ritual, etc. become exaggerated, they lead to nihilation of others and to negation of differences through rejection, demonization, and destruction of outsiders.

To avoid these destructive tendencies Jews and Christians should accept and understand one another’s practices and beliefs and leave to God and history the formal resolution of our differences. We should relate to one another carefully, respectfully, and constructively. Both traditions must subject their beliefs, practices and communal relationships to prophetic critique. Just as the prophets sought to reform and preserve Israel from within, community members in each tradition must promote growth and openness to God. God’s relationship to Jews, Christians, and all peoples must be mutually and deeply acknowledged. When disputes divide Jewish and Christian communities, apologetic expressions designed to protect each tradition should embrace what is good in others as well as self.  Disputes should be resolved through attention and fidelity to God’s teaching and not by polemics seek in the rejection or destruction of the other.

A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People


Since its inception in 1969, the Christian Scholars Group has been seeking to develop more adequate Christian theologies of the church’s relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people. Pursuing this work for over three decades under varied sponsorship, the members of our association of Protestant and Roman Catholic biblical scholars, historians, and theologians have published many volumes on Christian-Jewish relations.

Our work has a historical context. For most of the past two thousand years, Christians have erroneously portrayed Jews as unfaithful, holding them collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and therefore accursed by God. In agreement with many official Christian declarations, we reject this accusation as historically false and theologically invalid. It suggests that God can be unfaithful to the eternal covenant with the Jewish people.

•We acknowledge with shame the suffering this distorted portrayal has brought upon the Jewish people.

•We repent of this teaching of contempt.

•Our repentance requires us to build a new teaching of respect.

•This task is important at any time, but the deadly crisis in the Middle East and the frightening resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide give it particular urgency.

We believe that revising Christian teaching about Judaism and the Jewish people is a central and indispensable obligation of theology in our time. It is essential that Christianity both understand and represent Judaism accurately, not only as a matter of justice for the Jewish people, but also for the integrity of Christian faith, which we cannot proclaim without reference to Judaism.

Moreover, since there is a unique bond between Christianity and Judaism, revitalizing our appreciation of Jewish religious life will deepen our Christian faith. We base these convictions on ongoing scholarly research and the official statements of many Christian denominations over the past fifty years.

We are grateful for the willingness of many Jews to engage in dialogue and study with us. We welcomed it when, on September 10, 2000, Jewish scholars sponsored by the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore issued a historic declaration, Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity. This document, affirmed by notable rabbis and Jewish scholars, called on Jews to re-examine their understanding of Christianity.

Encouraged by the work of both Jewish and Christian colleagues, we offer the following ten statements, for consideration of our fellow Christians. We urge all Christians to reflect on their faith in light of these statements. For us, this is “a sacred obligation.”

1.  God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever:  For centuries Christians claimed that their covenant with God replaced or superseded the Jewish covenant. We renounce this claim. We believe that God does not revoke divine promises. We affirm that God is in covenant with both Jews and Christians. Tragically, the entrenched theology of supersessionism continues to influence Christian faith, worship, and practice, even though it has been repudiated by many Christian denominations and many Christians no longer accept it. Our recognition of the abiding validity of Judaism has implications for all aspects of Christian life.

2.  Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew: Christians worship the God of Israel in and through Jesus Christ. Supersessionism, however, prompted Christians over the centuries to speak of Jesus as an opponent of Judaism. This is historically incorrect.  Jewish worship, ethics, and practice shaped Jesus’  life and teachings. The scriptures of his people inspired and nurtured him. Christian preaching and teaching today must describe Jesus’ earthly life as engaged in the ongoing Jewish quest to live out God’s covenant in everyday life.

3. Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today: Although today we know Christianity and Judaism as separate religions, what became the church was a movement within the Jewish community for many decades after the ministry and resurrection of Jesus. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Roman armies in the year 70 of the first century caused a crisis among the Jewish people. Various groups, including Christianity and early rabbinic Judaism, competed for leadership in the Jewish community by claiming that they were the true heirs of biblical Israel. The gospels reflect this rivalry in which the disputants exchanged various accusations. Christian charges of hypocrisy and legalism misrepresent Judaism and constitute an unworthy foundation for Christian self-understanding.

4. Judaism is a living faith, enriched by many centuries of development: Many Christians mistakenly equate Judaism with biblical Israel. However, Judaism, like Christianity, developed new modes of belief and practice in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple. The rabbinic tradition gave new emphasis and understanding to existing practices, such as communal prayer, study of Torah, and deeds of loving- kindness. Thus Jews could live out the covenant in a world without the Temple. Over time they developed an extensive body of interpretive literature that continues to enrich Jewish life, faith, and understanding.  Christians cannot fully understand Judaism apart from its post- biblical development, which can also enrich and enhance Christian faith.

5.The Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians: Some Jews and Christians today, in the process of studying the Bible together, are discovering new ways of reading that provide a deeper appreciation of both traditions. While the two communities draw from the same biblical texts of ancient Israel, they have developed different traditions of interpretation. Christians view these texts through the lens of the New Testament, while Jews understand these scriptures through the traditions of rabbinic commentary. Referring to the first part of the Christian Bible as the “Old Testament” can wrongly suggest that these texts are obsolete. Alternative expressions — “Hebrew Bible,” “First Testament,” or “Shared Testament” — although also problematic, may better express the church’s renewed appreciation of the ongoing power of these scriptures for both Jews and Christians.

6. Affirming God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish people has consequences for Christian understanding of salvation:  Christians meet God’s saving power in the person of Jesus Christ and believe that this power is available to all people in him.  Christians have therefore taught for centuries that salvation is available only through Jesus Christ. With their recent realization that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is eternal, Christians can now recognize in the Jewish tradition the redemptive power of God at work. If Jews, who do not share our faith in Christ, are in a saving covenant with God, then  Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ.

7. Christians should not target Jews for conversion: In view of our conviction that Jews are in an eternal covenant with God, we renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews. At the same time, we welcome opportunities for Jews and Christians to bear witness to their  respective  experiences of God’s saving ways. Neither can properly claim to possess knowledge of God entirely or exclusively.

8. Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God:The New Testament contains passages that have frequently generated negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. The use of these texts in the context of worship increases the likelihood of hostility toward Jews. Christian anti-Jewish theology has also shaped worship in ways that denigrate Judaism and foster contempt for Jews. We urge church leaders to examine scripture readings, prayers, the structure of the lectionaries, preaching and hymns to remove distorted images of Judaism. A reformed Christian liturgical life would express a new relationship with Jews and thus honor God.

9. We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people: The land of Israel has always been of central significance to the Jewish people. However, Christian theology charged that the Jews had condemned themselves to homelessness by rejecting God’s Messiah. Such supersessionism precluded any possibility for Christian understanding of Jewish attachment to the land of Israel. Christian theologians can no longer avoid this crucial issue, especially in light of the complex and persistent conflict over the land. Recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security in a homeland of their own, we call for efforts that contribute to a just peace among all the peoples of the region.

10. Christians should work with Jews for the healing of the world: For almost a century, Jews and Christians in the United States have worked together on important social issues, such as the rights of workers and civil rights. As violence and terrorism intensify in our time, we must strengthen our common efforts in the work of justice and peace to which both the prophets of Israel and Jesus summon us. These common efforts by Jews and Christians offer a vision of human solidarity and provide models of collaboration with people of other faith traditions.

We urge all Christians to reflect on their faith in light of these statements

For us, this is a sacred obligation

Signed by the Christian Scholars Group

Jewish-Christian Dialogue: One Woman’s Experience

Mary C. Boys
Professor of Practical Theology, Union Theological Seminary New York City
Excerpted from Mary C. Boys, Jewish-Christian Dialogue: One Woman’s Experience, New York: Paulist, 1997

In retrospect, I recognize that my involvement in Jewish life “happened” rather than resulted from any systematic plan. First there was our family friend, Pauline, then the impact of the ecumenical impulse of the Second Vatican Council, followed by encounter with the thought of Rabbi Heschel. Friendships with Jews developed during my studies in the mid-1970s, and the circle widened during my seventeen years at Boston College, including time in Israel. My current appointment at Union Theological Seminary expands that network, including my involvement with colleagues across the street at Jewish Theological Seminary, where I serve as an adjunct professor. Of great personal significance is the deep bond of trust and affection that developed over a decade of work with Jewish educator Sara Lee.

So I have been brought gradually and unscientifically into Judaism: invited to table for Shabbat and Seder in homes of friends, walking atop the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, using my halting Hebrew in synagogue services, meeting monthly for six years with a Jewish-Catholic women’s group, and absorbing Jewish culture—Yiddish terms and Eastern European foods, dialectic and humor. I’ve read in order to understand more fully what this involvement might mean, but my study has been as unscientific as my engagement. At times it’s been theological and historical, as I’ve developed an intense interest in the interaction of our two communities of faith in the first four centuries. I’ve read about Jewish practices, historical and religious studies of Israel, Jewish communal life, education and feminism. Such an unscientific formation leaves many important areas untouched, such as study of the Talmud. What my engagement and study have done is to discipline and animate my commitments as a Christian.

How so? My encounter with Judaism has forced me to look squarely at the way Christians over time have treated “the other.” It has breathed new life into a central religious practice, Sabbath-keeping, and lifted up some important dimensions of prayer. My encounter with Judaism, above all, has challenged me to a deeper relationship with God. It also has revealed Catholicism as it knight be, evoking at times what is deepest and most powerful in my home tradition.

Roberta Bondi writes that the work of “real” theology is “learning to see God and understand reality and ourselves as we really are in order that we may grow and thrive and become the loving people God wants us to be.” (Roberta Bondi, In Ordinary Time. [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995], p. 22). This describes as well my encounter with Judaism. It has engendered at times considerable dissonance, as I’ve faced my parochialisms about God, reality and the Christian community It has, in Diana Eck’s words, “enabled me to understand my own faith more clearly and has required that I understand my own faith differently” (Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras [Boston: Beacon, 1993], p. xii) 2 Involvement with Jews has simultaneously opened a whole new realm of questions about the multiform ways in which the world’s peoples approach the Divine. Judaism has opened new vistas on God and God’s diverse peoples. It has also challenged me to rethink my theological foundations as a Christian, and to broaden my educational horizons.

As a religious educator, I believe one of the most pressing questions we must address is this:  What sort of education and formation in faith enables persons to participate intelligently in a religiously pluralist society? I believe serious and sustained encounter with another religious tradition is critical to fostering intelligent participation in religious pluralism. It forms commitments that are at once clear and ambiguous, rooted and adaptive, even as it animates a more vital understanding and practice of one’s own tradition of faith.

The leadership in our churches is rightly concerned about the sorry state of religious literacy among its members, particularly the young. But our efforts to convey Christian life in clear and compelling ways must be grounded in truth—and that means attentiveness to a God beyond the bounds of the Christian imagination. Those of us who believe, with Rabbi Irving Greenberg, that “pluralism is God’s will” must incarnate that claim in the way we live and teach our faith.’

Educational practice in the Church rests on our understanding of God and of God’s relationship with the many peoples of this world.

In a pluralistic world, no Christian can responsibly educate other Christians if he or she has not encountered in some significant way the beliefs and practices of a religious “other.” It is the “other” or the “stranger” who may reveal to us aspects of the Divine Presence we never dreamed of, or who may illumine our way of faith by asking questions that shatter our complacency and challenge us to look more profoundly into our own tradition.

What did Christianity Lose When it Parted from Judaism?

By: James D.G. Dunn
Lightfoot Professor, Department of Theology, University of Durham, England.


The obvious way to answer this question is to look at the consequences for Christianity and its modification of each of the four pillars of Judaism. In each case, what appears at first as a straightforward answer becomes rather more complex on closer inspection.

1. Monotheism: The simple answer is that Christianity lost the clarity of a belief in God as one, that is, one without further qualification. Of course, Christianity continued to claim that it is and always has been a monotheistic faith. But there is no doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity, if it is to be adequately appreciated, requires well- informed and highly sophisticated powers of thought. So much so, that many Christians could be described as effective tri-theists in their actual understanding of the Trinity.

Here, however, it is necessary to appreciate the extent to which earliest Christian thought of God was simply an extension of Jewish reflection on the same subject (divine Wisdom, apocalyptic and mystical vision, the Shekinah, etc.); and whether a more “straightforward” monotheism involves too much of an over-simplification of a subject unavoidably complex for merely human language. The propriety of attributing (divine) pre-existence to other than God alone is not only a Christian question (the pre-existence of the Torah). The fundamental problem of how to conceptualize both the unknowable transcendence of God and, at one and the same time, God’s self-manifestation in the world was (and is) Jewish before it became Christian. Similarly the questions of how God may be known and of the status of the vehicles of God’s self-revelation raise the same issues in both Judaism and Christianity. The function of Jesus within these complex questions may be more of a piece with Jewish monotheism than is at first apparent. Nevertheless, the contrast between the apparently simple clarity of Jewish (and Muslim) monotheism and the apparent complexity of Christian Trinitarianism remains a stumbling block and to Christianity’s detriment.

2. A People and a land: With the upsurge of nationalist sentiment in the wake of Communism’s collapse in eastern Europe, we hardly need reminding of the powerful interaction of ethnic identity and homeland. The promise to Abraham of seed and land has remained a fundamental element in Jewish self-understanding for three thousand years. Ethnic as well as religious solidarity and the hope of “next year in Jerusalem” was one of the major factors in maintaining Jewish identity through all the long centuries of the Jewish diaspora. No wonder the reestablishment of a Jewish state in 1948 is seen by so many (not all) as integral to the identity of both Jew and Judaism.

In contrast, Christianity begins with a reaction to that sort of identification of covenant people with a particular ethnic group and land. Of course, it still regards the Holy Land as just that, and Jerusalem is still a focus of pilgrimage and a powerful religious symbol. But Christianity’s self-understanding as genuinely international (universal is a misleading term of contrast) in effect cuts the umbilical cord with a particular nation’s history and sense of homeland. The loss is felt as may be seen in the repeated hopes of a new Jerusalem, whether in Phrygia, or among England’s “dark satanic mills,” or at Salt Lake City, or in the affection which Christians focus upon other cities like Rome or Canterbury, or in the confusion of Christianity with “Victorian civilization” or “the American way of life.” But the gut-level identity-factors of blood and soil are lacking.

On the other hand, the promise of Abraham included a third element — the promise of blessing to the nations. The tension between these different elements has been and still is a tension within Judaism — the tension between election from among the nations and (consequent) obligation to the nations, the tension between understanding God as both God of the Jews and as the one God of all nations. This tension Paul, the Pharisee become apostle, was able to exploit effectively in defending his own mission to Gentiles.

Moreover, the merging of ethnic and religious categories creates its own problems. The terms “Jew,” “Judaism” and “Israel” become inevitably confused. “Who is a Jew?” is still a question without a wholly satisfactory answer in modern (as in ancient) Israel. “Who is Israel?” is a question which Jew and Christian share in common not to mention the further thought, that the vision of the wandering people of God, who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” who look for “the Jerusalem above” whose citizenship is in heaven, offers a different model which puts in question the value to be placed in blood and soil

3 & 4. Torah  and Temple:  The other most obvious loss for Christianity was with regard to these two powerful foci of Second Temple Judaism’s identity. In each case, however, the matter is more tantalizingly complex. We have to ask, who parted from whom?

As regards the Torah, we have to take account of a twofold movement, what we might describe as a parting of the ways from both sides. Rabbinic Judaism, we may say, from late first century onwards began to reconstitute Judaism firmly around as well as upon Torah, but, at least arguably, at the cost of devaluing other forms of Second Temple Judaism. Consequently, a Christianity which recalled as central within its tradition the controversies of Jesus and Paul with the predecessors of the rabbis, and which understood the significance of Paul’s work in terms of a decisive and final breach with the law, was bound to find itself adrift from Judaism thus self-defined.

As regards the Temple, the irony of the twofold development was that a rabbinic Judaism emerged which no longer needed the Temple as focus, at least in the same way as before the latter’s destruction. Whereas Christianity, despite Paul’s spiritualization and Hebrews’ dismissal of the Jerusalem cult, found it necessary to reinstate its own version of the cult with the reemergence of the categories of priesthood and sacrifice as real not just spiritualized.

In other words, and depending on perspective, we may need to speak of gain and loss on both sides. It may not be for me to suggest what rabbinic Judaism lost. But it could be said that what Christianity lost was the focus on praxis rather than on doctrine as the key criterion of identity, and the flexibility of a teaching debated as against a dogma propounded. Christianity may claim to have gained the possibility of a richer sacramental sensitivity, and of a fuller integration of cultic worship with cerebral appreciation of scripture. But the fact remains that while Judaism has been more characterized by the figure of the teacher, Christianity has been more characterized by the figure of the priest.

Does this mean that in the last analysis Christianity and Judaism  are  two  quite different kinds of religion, whose overlapping history and features are incidental and tangential? Or rather that each has to recognize the other as in some way constitutive of it own identity? The fact that both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism both share significant degrees of both continuity and discontinuity with the formative period of late Second Temple Judaism important to both, encourages me to say “No” to the first question and “Yes” to the second.