June 16, 2004
What's wrong with this picture?

So last night in Bible study we're reading John 8, where Jesus' arguments with the Jewish authorities reach fever pitch. They call him demon-possessed, he calls them children of Satan, and they get ready to stone him before he escapes at the last minute. The discussion was ... well, it was not very interesting, with people making the obvious points. Until the very end, when a guy says he thinks that the reason the Jewish people are having so much trouble now is that they rejected Jesus.

I was hoping my pastor, who is Jewish, might have something pithy to say about that, but he gave such a non-answer that I don't even remember what it was. Nobody, in fact, raised an argument against him. It feels wrong to me, it feels repugnant to me actually, but I never really thought about it before so I don't know the theology of such a concept. So this seems like a question for my wonderfully educated readership: what do you know about this?

Posted by Camassia at June 16, 2004 02:20 PM | TrackBack

That comment seems to suggest that the solution to anyone who is having trouble is to come to Jesus. Does this mean that Christians don't have troubles? With that logic, one could say that the martyrs of the Church are evidence that Christianity must be flawed.

Beyond that, was the comment suggesting that God is punishing the Jews for rejecting Jesus? Hopefully, the Third Reich taught us more than enough of the ugly place that kind of thinking will take us.

Maybe more relevant, how can we know that someone has rejected Christ? Does the person have to refuse to say some magic words? Or, as Karl Rahner suggests, could there be "anonymous Christians" (those who follow the spirit of Christ, but maybe not with the same "formula" as Western Christianity)? Or, as Paul Tillich suggests, if Jesus Christ is the truth, wherever we encounter truth, it is of Christ. How can we stand in judgement of the truth of another, especially in regards to their relationship with God?

Posted by: Jake on June 16, 2004 09:20 PM

I'll send you my dissertation when its done. Suffice to say, that's a pretty ridiculous comment to make, but most scholars can't really agree why.

I think there IS something to it in the sense that we know what it means to be fully and properly human through Christ, manifested in our being engrafted into the church and formed by the biblical narrative. Jews reject an essential part of that, and thus they have an inadequate teleological understanding (along with about 90% of so-called practicing Christians, who read the narrative poorly, which is almost as bad, if not worse).

Where it is not okay -- and what your person seemed to suggest -- is that Jews are experiencing the wrath of God for having rejected Christ. That's just a dangerous logic to roll with absent a more complete explanation of election, and the relation of God to eternity. It is also important to remember that wrath is a function of God's love. We know how God relates to us -- even wrathfully -- only in the fullness of Christ's death and resurrection.

There are also atonement issues. That is, is the atonement efficacious for those who do not have "faith." I would argue that it is (a position known as "objective" atonement"), which was the dominant position in the church before Luther. There was a turn BACK to objective atonement with Barth and some of his followers (Yoder).

There's a nice chapter in Yoder's "The Politics of Jesus" on this issue. There is also a fantastic book worth a read if you can handle some technical stuff, Douglas Harink's "Paul among the Postliberals."

Posted by: Mark on June 17, 2004 06:36 AM

Sounds like the kind of attitude I get from my fundamentalist friends, who pray for me because they question whether I am truly saved. Mostly they doubt my salvation because I am active in leading worship in my church, which they believe women should not do; because I do not share their politics; and because I do not shun gay folk. In short, they judge me because I do not believe the same way they believe. I am not a part of their band of brothers. I am "other." It's a rather xenophobic attitude, I think.

Posted by: Dash on June 17, 2004 07:02 AM

When I hear the statement "the reason the Jewish people are having so much trouble now is that they rejected Jesus," big warning bells go off in my head because of what might be implied/believed.

First, the person might be implying that the Jewish people in particular, and as a whole, share in the guilt of the death of Christ. This belief is wrong and anti-semitic. The Catholic Church emphatically refuted this at Vatican II in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions:

"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. John 19:6); still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today." (Nostrae Aetate, 4)

Second, the person might be implying that the Jewish people as a whole are somehow rejected or cursed by God. This belief is also wrong and anti-semitic. Quoting again:

"Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ." (Nostrae Aetate, 4)

The actions of the Jewish authorities at the time of Christ did _not_ change God's heart, gift or call towards the Jewish people:

"As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation (Lk. 19:44), nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading(cf. Rom 11:28). Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle (cf. Rom 11:28-29)." (Nostrae Aetate, 4)

If I had been at the Bible study, I'd have brought up these points and the Scripture verses to back them up, at the very least.

Vatican Documents on Jewish people and the Shoah:



Posted by: Fr. Terry Donahue, CC on June 17, 2004 07:51 AM

I agree with a good deal of what has already been said, especially in Father Donahue's message. And the evangelical scholar Douglas Harink's book is very good on this question (I did think that it was relatively accessible, though).

Here is an excerpt from reflections given by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Fourth European Day of Jewish Culture in 2003 that might prove to be helpful:

"Upon Israel, the one people of God, the Apostle grafted the wild olive of the Gentiles, and the Church of Christ slowly acquired a concrete form 'upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets' (Eph 2: 20), in the two branches of Ecclesia ex circumcisione and Ecclesia ex gentibus, as admirably shown in the Paleo-Christian mosaic in the Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine.

"The corpus of the Sacred Scriptures - the Jewish ones of the TaNaKH (Torah, Nevi'im and the Ketuvim), which in the Christian canon came to be known as the Old Testament, as well as those of the New Testament - agrees in witnessing that God did not abandon his Covenant with the Hebrew (or 'Judaic') people of the 12 tribes of Israel. Of course, what can appear to be a dangerous, exclusivist particularism is balanced, in the Scriptures themselves, by a twofold messianic universalism, both ad intra, in the tension between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jews of the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel), and ad extra, in the tension between the Jewish people ('am Israel) and all the peoples called to enter into the same communion of peace and redemption of the first-born people of the Covenant.

"Consequently, as a 'messianic people', the Church does not replace Israel, but is grafted onto it, according to the Pauline doctrine, through adherence to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, who died and rose; and this link forms a spiritual bond that is radical, unique and insuppressible for Christians. Although the contrasting concept - of an Israel once (olim) pre-chosen but later rejected by God for ever and now replaced by the Church - may have had widespread dissemination for almost 20 centuries, it does not in reality represent a truth of the faith, as can be seen both in the ancient Creeds of the early Church and in the teaching of the most important Councils, especially of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, n. 16; Dei Verbum, nn. 14-16; Nostra Aetate, n. 4). Moreover, neither Hagar nor Ishmael were ever rejected by God, who made them 'a great nation' (Gn 21: 18); and Jacob, the astute 'usurper', received Esau's embrace in the end. The most recent document published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission on The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001), after recognizing the 'surprising strength of the spiritual bonds that united the Church of Christ to the Jewish people' (n. 85), concludes by noting that 'in the past, the break between the Jewish people and the Church of Christ Jesus might at times have seemed complete in certain periods and in certain places. In the light of the Scriptures, this should never have happened, because a complete break between the Church and the Synagogue is in contradiction to Sacred Scripture' (ibid.)."

So, the Jews cannot be seen as some sort of rejected Other that stands in a binary opposition to Christianity. If the Jews are seen like that, we will immediately fasten on their sufferings as a confirmation of our faith, and will be tempted to see them as conpiratorial to assuage our own insecurities and failures. Instead, we must see the Jews as elder brothers, so that, as Cardinal Kasper has said elsewhere, "Judaism is as a sacrament of every otherness that as such the Church must learn to discern, recognize and celebrate."

Thanks for your blog.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on June 17, 2004 08:29 AM

Thanks, all. As to the first point, I don't think the idea that a person (especially a Jewish person) can accept Truth without explicitly accepting Christ is going to fly in a reading of John 8, since Jesus spends roughly the whole chapter arguing the opposite. So I'm proceeding from the assumption that they do reject him. The question is, is there any reason to believe Jews are in a different boat from other non-Christians?

I should explain in a little more detail the argument the guy made. In the Old Testament, he pointed out, various misfortunes befall Israel when it abandons God: conquests, famines, plagues etc. Basically, he sees the pattern continuing as Jews continue to be unfaithful to God by not recognizing the Messiah. But he would agree with Mark's point that wrath=love, because he claimed that in doing this God is trying to draw the Jewish people closer to him. My pastor, I think relieved to hit on a safer topic, started giving his usual points about how adversity draws people closer to God. I don't know if I buy this as a blanket principle, but it seems especially inapposite if most of the people causing your adversity are nominal Christians (though in the last 50 years I guess it's mostly been Muslims).

So anyway, part of the question is how you look at those curses in the Old Testament. When I put this question to Telford after I posted this, he said he didn't think the curses in Deuteronomy were actually inflicted by God so much as that when the Jews abandoned God they no longer had his special protection and were subject to the same Darwinian forces as everyone else. So by that line of thinking, even under the Old Covenant the Jews didn't get special punishments, just special graces, and the same would be true now. (Come to think of it, that also answers a question Rob put here a long time ago, but that's another subject.) But I gather not everybody looks at it like that.

The other part of the question is, how much does God still think of Jews as a body, a chosen people? This connects to what Fr. Terry was talking about. Normally, I don't think of the God of Christ as paying much attention to national and ethnic boundaries. But clearly in the Bible, the Jews were a special case, and I gather this guy believes that they still are. I wish I had more than Vatican documents to go on with this, because these are Lutherans we're talking about.

Mark reminds me again, I really must read that Yoder book. In fact, I think I'll place an order with the library right now...

Posted by: Camassia on June 17, 2004 08:46 AM

I was going to suggest Yoder as well. Do head there at once.

Posted by: Hugo on June 17, 2004 09:49 AM

I didn't see Neil's comment before I commented (evidently, we were writing at the same time). It occurs to me that maybe the question of whether the Jews are still covenant people has two sides. The idea that they can collectively still have God's promise also, in the OT, carried with it a collective responsibility and collective guilt. The Catholic position seems to be that they still have the covenant but they don't carry collective guilt, which, while appealing, is a position I don't completely understand.

Posted by: Camassia on June 17, 2004 12:28 PM

Dear Camassia,

You ask whether the position that the Jews "are partners in a covenant of eternal love" (John Paul II) with God means that they should also be subject to the terrible and visible consequences that come from divine reproaches (e.g., wandering in the desert, destruction of the Temple).

I think that I should proceed very cautiously. But we can say that the position that the Jews "are partners in a covenant of eternal love" means recognizing that "Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion" (The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible). That is, Jewish hermeneutics is an ongoing and legitimate tradition.

Part of that tradition has included "collective guilt" - the equation of sin and suffering. But, as the Anglican Bishop Richard Harries has recently written,

"We come to one of the most important insights of the biblical and Rabbinic writings: the protest against this whole way of thinking. Protest against the idea that a particular individual is suffering because of his or her sins; protest against the idea that God has sent the suffering that they might develop in character. Classically it is expressed by Job in reaction to the false comfort offered him. In the Rabbinic writings, although the general tendency is that people should be encouraged to accept suffering as a test, protest is allowed to break through. In a Midrash from the later Palestinian period on the Song of Songs Rabbi Yohanan became ill. When he was told that his great suffering would bring great rewards he replied: 'I want neither them nor their reward.' In the Babylonian Talmud the question 'Is suffering dear to you?' is answered with even more emphasis, 'Neither it nor its reward.' Then in the discussion on death, the connection between sin and suffering is even more decisively refuted. The discussion focuses on Adam, whose death was regarded as a punishment for sin and Moses who lived a righteous life but who still died. A conclusion of the dialogue is 'There is death without sin and there is suffering without transgression' and the refutation of the contrary opinion is a 'Definitive refutation.' "

I think that this tradition of protesting against the equation of sin and suffering has become much more prevalent in numerous forms since the Holocaust; only the Satmar Hasidim have claimed that the Holocaust was a punishment. Thus, one might say that the Jewish understanding of "collective guilt" has developed out of sheer necessity - just as Christian understandings of numerous theological matters have developed - and that this is a development that we should respect as a legitimate reading of the Bible.

Thus, acknowledging that the Jews have God's promises does not mean that we can use a literalistic reading of, say, Deuteronomy 11 and 28, to interpret modern suicide bombings as a divine reponse to disobedience.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on June 17, 2004 02:50 PM

I agree Neil. This would also mean that we cannot use the scriptures to justify the heavy-handed treatment of the Palestinians because some Israelis claim a divine right to the land; that the suffering of Palestinians is "God's will."

Or allow a particular interpretation of the Revelation to John to lead to the conclusion that the USA must consistently side with Israel, in order to be one of the "good guys" on the last day.

Some days I think the invention of the printing press has caused more grief than progress. Now every literate person can claim a special revelation, based on their personal interpretation of the scriptures.

Posted by: Jake on June 17, 2004 06:32 PM

Another useful resource on this issue is the chapter on ethnicity in Richard Hays' book on New Testament ethics. In terms of Jews being covenant partners, you have to say that God does not go back on God's promises. Many people believe that is actually the theme of Romans (as opposed to justification by faith) (incidentally, I don't think the theme of Romans is either of those, though those elements are there).

A useful way to look at it is that Israel has been opened up to include the Gentiles. Certain people in Israel have refused to share table fellowship with Gentiles AS Gentiles -- that is, without their becoming Jewish. Therefore, Israel is one elect community in schism, the two parties being Jews and the Church.

It is required of Christians that we make overtures of fellowship toward Jews (if we fail to do so, Barth says it is a "fatal but sure sign" that we've gone wrong; that's the title of my dissertation, actually: "A Fatal but Sure Sign"). Hays notes that these attempts at communication, if undertaken honestly, are "tense and risky". Still, we do them because that's what Christians are called to do, regardless of success, because of the hope that the schism is repaired eschatologically.

The tricky part is whether the emphasis should be on getting the Jews to accept Christ for the salvation of their souls (the usual Christian bit), which overemphasizes the subjective elements of atonement, or, rather, for the sharing of fellowship with Christians. I think the latter, for reasons too complicated to recount here.

Posted by: Mark on June 17, 2004 08:53 PM

Dear Father Jake,

Yes, of course you are right. I was very impressed by a lecture that the Archbishop of Canterbury recently wrote (but, alas, did not deliver) on these matters, that said in part:

"Gary Burge, in an important study of the situation from an evangelical point of view (Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians), stresses the fact that if biblical arguments are used to defend the state of Israel, biblical principles must be used in defining what makes the people itself distinctive and in assessing the common life of this people, instead of moving seamlessly from biblical Israel to the modern state and bracketing out the prophetic challenge to biblical Israel. The Israel of Scripture is a community whose identity is bound up with a calling to show wisdom and justice, a calling which successive modes of government for the people fulfil in very varying degrees; the land of Israel is not a gift given in the abstract to the Hebrew tribes: it is a territory given as the necessary backdrop of stability for a law-governed community to flourish. It is, so to speak, 'leased' to the people for their use (Lev.25); God remains the true owner of the land. The prohibition against selling off or diminishing the land inherited in any family is not in the least meant to be a reinforcement of absolute possession; it is rather a warning against using God's land, into which the people are invited, as a means to build up private wealth, instead of using it as the means to secure just provision for all for whom God has made you responsible. It is extraordinary that such texts can be deployed as they sometimes are by self-styled conservative Christians in arguments about land exchange and settlement patterns with such total disregard for their actual wording and purpose."

If, as the Vatican has said, "Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion," we also can and ought to insist, as brothers and sisters, that such readings be accountable to those Scriptures we share.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on June 17, 2004 09:37 PM


Was the the address he was supposed to give at the Sabeel Conference? Quite disappointing that he decided at the last minute to send someone else, because he was afraid "some might misunderstand" his presence.

I ranted about it a bit at the time.

Rowan is an excellent theologian. I just wish he'd be a bit more assertive as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Posted by: Jake on June 18, 2004 08:52 PM

Dear Father Jake,

The excerpt was indeed from the address. I really don't know enough about the Sabeel Conference to properly contextualize the Archbishop's decision.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on June 21, 2004 07:53 AM
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