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Interwoven Destinies: Jews and Christians Through The Ages

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Jewish and Christian Laity Need to Learn Their Own HISTORY

  • Jan 9, 2012

Professor Michael J. Cook has a serious complaint about one aspect of what Jewish and Christian scholars are saying about Jesus, the early churches, the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity and their subsequent history of rising and falling hostility. The growing scholarly consensus is not trickling down to "our churchgoers and synagoguegoers," to the laity, the people in the pews. Cook, ordained Rabbi and Professor of Early Christian Literature at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, made this point very forcefully in Baltimore in May 1986. The occasion was the Ninth National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations. Professor Cook spoke there on "Turning the Corner in Dialogue: A Jewish Approach to Early Christian Writings." 


That paper is one of several there presented by Jewish and Christian scholars, updated and published in 1993 as INTERWOVEN  DESTINIES: JEWS AND CHRISTIANS THROUGH THE AGES, edited by Roman Catholic Eugene J. Fisher. The essays range historically over seven phases of Jewish-Christian interaction with insights into why those interactions have so often proven hostile, even violent. The phases divided out by scholars are


-- (1) the life and teachings of Jesus of Galilee to roughly 30 - 33 CE;


-- (2) From Jesus's death to the early writings of Saint Paul (mid 60s);


-- (3) the "Parting of the Ways" of the two Abrahamic Faiths from 70 (destruction of the Jerusalem temple) to 350 (earliest Christian Creeds within a Christian Roman Empire);


-- (4) From the Christian Roman Imperium till the Crusades;


-- (5) from the Middle Ages till 1600 (nadir of Jewish-Christian relations); 


-- (6) from the Enlightenment to Nazi Germany (1933 - 1945);


-- (7) from the 1944 Allied liberations of Nazi death camps to the present.


Within each of those seven periods scholars both Jewish and Christian have formed a broad consensus as to "what really happened" but have not managed to push those insights down to or disseminate among their laymen. A rare exception in popularized scholarship was the 1985 JESUS SEMINAR. Admittedly, thinking new, scholarship-drenched thoughts about the Jewishness of Jesus can be traumatic for previously uninformed laywomen, Jewish or Christian. But Michael J. Cook offers this perspective: "the trauma is no greater than that which scholars, clergy, and tens of thousands of university students have passed through in their religious studies courses -- all of whom have survived..."


Sweeping through all the essays of INTERWOVEN DESTINIES is the growing hypothesis, especially among Jewish scholars, that Jesus lived and died a faithful Jew. He was not, as once widely perceived, an apostate. Scholars increasingly stress that the first canonical Christian writer, Saul of Tarsus, received a very harsh reception in Jerusalem from James the brother of the Lord, Kephas and from John precisely because Saul/Paul attributed to Jesus preaching of disobedience to the Law that the first companions of Jesus did not remember him teaching. And perhaps some of Paul's thinking, rightly or wrongly understood, was at work in the psyches of the three synoptic evangelists. The Jesus of Mark is less hostile to Jews and Jewish observances that the Jesus of the later writers Matthew and Luke.


Proof texts suggested by Cook: the earlier Mark 12:28-34 and the later Matthew 22:32-40. In Mark an admiring scribe/lawyer engages in a friendly exchange with Jesus on which is the greatest commandment. At the end, Jesus compliments his interlocutor: "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." In Matthew, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees "test" Jesus with the same question. Some verses later Jesus warns people to be on their guard against religious authorities.


Scholars now hypothesize that anti-Jewish strictures attributed to Jesus in Paul and the Gospels are not based on accurate recollections of eye-witnesses but later defensive efforts putting words into Jesus's mouth as earliest Christians engaged in polemic with Jews. The very earliest Christian leaders (other than Paul) imitated Jesus in his Jewishness; they attended synagogues; they prayed in the temple; the observed the rules of clean and unclean foods. They preached Jesus as Jew of Jews, whose teaching was consonant with Judaism. As years passed new Christian leaders first portrayed Jesus as "regretful" of Jews not following him, later as hostile to Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees.


Scholars now think that the closer we get to the actual Jesus in the New Testament, the closer we come to an observing Jew and the farther from a Jesus who thundered against Jews who did not accept his mission as Messiah. It thus becomes necessary to reach back beyond Matthew and Luke to the less anti-Jewish Mark. And back behind Mark lies a Jesus who never disrespected the Law of Moses.


INTERWOVEN DESTINIES: JEWS AND CHRISTIANS THROUGH THE AGES is must reading for novices taking their first steps to understand how such terrible breaks between Jews and Christians came about and how still existing misperceptions and dislike might be fruitfully addressed by Jewish and Christian laymen and neighbors. The book is clearly written. The individual essays are bite size and well documented. The book is a keeper.



Jewish and Christian Laity Need to Learn Their Own HISTORY Jewish and Christian Laity Need to Learn Their Own HISTORY

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