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Robert W. Jenson
The subtitle of the conference for which this essay was prepared, "Toward
a Christian Theology of Judaism," is perhaps too presumptuous. The
conference was organized by an ecumenical Christian foundation, and inevitably
its conception reflects Christian fears and hopes. The foundation,
moreover, is one that greatly cherishes its independence from other
structures, which in this case turns out, of course, to include the existing
structures of Jewish/Christian conversation. The board of the foundation
generally approved a conference on the matter, and the directors created a
title and a purpose statement and invited the speakers we thought would
have the most to say.
But the planners did not abandon all caution. And the combination
of just going ahead and doing it, with the remnants of caution, created a
certain asymmetry in the program. The planners were convinced that
Christianity indeed urgently needs precisely a new theology of Judaism.
But as Christians, they did not have quite enough nerve to say flat out
that Judaism needs a theology of Christianity; therefore they did not specifically
ask anyone to speak under that rubric. On that score, we could
only wait to see what would develop.
My assignment is to attempt some bits of a Christian theology of Judaism.
All three main words of the phrase should be taken very strictly.
In the first place, the following is recommended to the self-understanding
of the Christian community. No word of it should be
taken as instructing Jews in anything other than Christianity's problems
and possibilities - except indeed insofar as Jews may find their own sort
of profit from my remarks.
Thus in the following I am doing the Christian theologian's normal
thing, proposing theologoumena to the Christian church. But on this occasion
I am venturing on questions about which it might well be thought
that we need some help, and thus I am laying my proposals before both
Jews and Christians for joint discussion.
Second, I am indeed proposing theology of Judaism. Whether the
sorts of conversation usually called "interreligious dialogue" are at all appropriate
between Judaism and Christianity, I much doubt. For Christianity,
Judaism cannot be an "other religion," and this is true whether or
not Judaism can say anything reciprocal about Christianity. Conversations
aimed at increasing mutual understanding or improving relations
between the communities, however vital and hopeful precisely in our
time, are not in the first instance those to which I hope in this instance to
contribute. What I hope to do is to strike up a conversation with Jews and
Christians about a topic of Christian thinking, and that topic is the Jews
Christian theology is the thinking internal to the life of the church.
Every vital community lives in part by reflective converse about its "self-understanding,"
about the special character of its own continuity through
time, about what we are likely now to call its "mission." The present essay
is offered as a piece of such reflection, where the Christian church is the
community in question.
Finally, it is precisely Judaism that is my concern, as distinct from
what I will call "canonical Israel." In the usage of this essay, "canonical Israel"
denotes the national political and cultic entity that was established
through Moses and David and endured, in one recognizable form or another,
for something like a millennium. This Israel came to an end when
Rome terminated temple-worship and made the land of promise foreign
territory, this time apparently for good.
With other nations or peoples about which such a judgment must
be made, one might go on to talk about lasting achievements and inheritances
and influences living on today, but that would be the end of it. In
the case of Israel, however, there is a remarkable phenomenon: subsequent
communities appeared that to the eye of a secular historian little resemble
canonical Israel and must seem connected to it at most genetically,
but which nevertheless claim to be Israel. Canonical Israel came to an
end, but is claimed not to be ended, in that its identity is claimed by subsequent
and outwardly very different historical entities. This is a remarkable
claim, of a sort that perhaps can be made only theologically.
It is not clear whether we should include the modern state of Israel
among such claimants, though we must acknowledge its great importance
for Judaism itself. The claimants with which we are directly concerned are
the two represented in the conference: the ethnic-religious community
created by the great rabbis in succession of the Pharisees, which to avoid
endless descriptive phrases I will simply call Judaism, and the Christian
As has often been noted, the religious life of Israel in the time just
before the Roman destruction was a sort of capacious denominational
system, united by temple-worship, by Torah - but this quite variously
interpreted - and by allegiance to the land. When land and temple were
gone, two denominations survived that could if need be do without land
and temple, and it is vital to remember that both were indeed denominations
within what is often called late second-temple Judaism.
First, there was and is the Judaism of the sages, which is adaptable to
the absence of the temple and to exile from the land, in that it finds the
identity of Israel in familial descent from Abraham and Sarah and in
Torah-study and obedience, which latter can be done anywhere. Second,
the Christian ecclesia, in close parallel, has its identity around one in
whom it believes Torah "became flesh and dwelt among us" and who is
risen above the limitations of space so that, like the written Torah, he can
be found anywhere. Rabbinic Judaism and the church have each added a
second volume to canonical Israel's Scriptures, to create a double canon
- in the one case, the double Torah, and in the other, the two Testaments.
And the synagogue and the church have throughout their histories
lived in remarkably paired, if sometimes horrific, lock-step.
Both of these historical consequents to canonical Israel raise the
theological claim to be Israel. It is of course the compatibility or incompatibility
of these claims that agitates us. A Christian theology of Judaism
will be at its center an attempt to understand Judaism's claim and in so
doing to understand its own better.
That there should be any difficulty in understanding Judaism's
claim to be Israel may, of course, seem preposterous to Jews. But for
Christian theology it is not merely a difficulty but a torment. Christian
faith is the conviction that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus
from the dead and installed him, if hiddenly and proleptically, as the
Messiah of Israel, and that by this prolepsis he has opened the ingathering
of the gentiles to Zion. That the vast majority of Abraham and Sarah's
descendents have rejected and do reject this claim, and maintain a claim
to be faithful Israel without acknowledging Jesus' resurrection, must indeed
give the church furiously to think, and has done so since at least the
time when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. From a certain angle of vision,
the mere existence of Judaism looks much like a refutation of Christianity
- and may indeed be just that.
Only consider Paul in those famous three chapters of his letter to
Rome (Rom. 9-11). We see in them a man who is not in control of either
his problem or his warrants. What ought to have been happening, as Paul
is bound to think, is that the Jewish diaspora received his news of resurrection,
of the beginning of that great day, with thanksgiving. But that is
not what is happening. How is Paul to understand this? He cannot shrug
it off: his whole mission is to gather gentiles precisely to Israel. Is it then a
sign that God has rejected his people, or that God is confirming their rejection
of him? He cannot think that either: for to his "kinsmen" belong
- and only ponder his list - "the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the
giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs,
and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ" (9:4-5).
To be sure, that "according to the flesh" may be a momentary
thought about a way out of the problem, but Paul of all people cannot finally
take it, he cannot devalue what is "according to the flesh," not when
he proclaims so fleshly an event as a crucifixion as the central saving fact
- the Roman troops did not, after all, hang Jesus' spirit. Nor can he possibly
think that God's "promises" will not be fulfilled - and it is of course
the Israel of his "kinsmen" whose participation in the promises is at issue;
if it were simply some invisible Israel he again would have no problem.
Paul takes such refuge as he can find in Isaiah, in the notion of a
"remnant" and in the mystery of God's absolute will. But who is the remnant?
Who is predestined? Are these the same? Is the remnant and/or the
predestined only those minority Jews like himself who do accept the gospel?
Or the church, plainly soon to be predominantly gentile? Or "all Israel"
after all? It has gone like that ever since.
A theology of Judaism has of course been propounded, which we label
"supersessionism." It was never dogmatized, but its hold on the church
was long considerable. "Supersessionism," in the current semi-technical
sense, is not the church's claim to be Israel. It is the theological opinion
that the church owns the identity of Israel in such fashion as to exclude
any other divinely willed Israel-after-Israel. It is perhaps worth noting
that typically Judaism has equivalently denied the legitimacy of the
church's claim - so that had Constantine become a God-fearer instead of
a catechumen, "supersessionism" might again be a problem, but in
mirror-image. Supersessionism is - to say the least of it - not now
much in favor, a point to which I shall return.
It will have been noted that my starting point is thus a mere historical
observation: that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are parallel claimants
to be Israel after canonical Israel. This is obviously an observation
from a viewpoint outside both communities - or at least from as far outside
as historical observations ever get. It deliberately abstracts from each
community's own conception of its continuity with Israel. Each community
has practices of continuity with canonical Israel, and interpretations
of those practices and so of itself, that display a continuity with Israel not
displayed in the life or reflection of the other. From inside either community,
therefore, so blunt a paralleling with the other may appear improper.
Thus, for example, rabbinic Judaism defines Jewishness in part by
descent from Abraham and Sarah. This is a palpable continuity with canonical
Israel that the church obviously lacks - and would lack even if
Jews so defined were a majority within her. On the other hand, for instance,
the second volume of the church's canon is a narrative, in part of
her own history, that simply carries straight on from the end of canonical
Israel's Scripture, in a fashion in which rabbinic Judaism has little interest.
My paralleling of the two communities is purely formal, and no
one, I think, should be alarmed by it. Whatever balance of continuity and
discontinuity each community claims or acknowledges for itself, and
whatever balance an omniscient historian might make between them, the
observed parallel remains, and I will regularly return to it, as a sort of
cleared ground for theological reflection.
There are now few Christian theologians willing to be called
supersessionist. There are doubtless several reasons for this.
Guilt is surely one. As most Christians and many Jews have insisted,
Nazi anti-Semitism can hardly be laid directly at the door of Christian
theology, not even at the door of supersessionism. Nevertheless, there
have been centuries of anti-Jewish Christian polemics - that is, of Paul's
anguish or John's resentment on the lips of those who unlike Paul or John
were not Jews themselves - and these must surely have shaped the culture
in which anti-Semitism is possible. Moreover, it is easily documented
that anti-Semitism - however itself occasioned or grounded - has
sometimes quite directly shaped Christian theology. Thus establishment
of "historical-critical" method as the way to appropriate the Old Testament
was driven in considerable part by (sometimes explicit) desire to
distance Christianity from a despised Judaism.
But perhaps more decisive in the church's present attention to Judaism,
and so in its sharper eye for the falsity of supersessionism, is a possibly
terminal time of troubles in Christian theology's always stormy affair
with Hellenic religious wisdom. As Christian theology sees ever more
clearly what different wisdom Isaiah and, say, Plato offer, in the same way
we see ever more clearly how Jewish the Christian claims and fundamental
patterns of understanding are, indeed how very much the predominant
gentile part of the church is indeed grafted onto someone else's tree.
And just so, Judaism looks less and less alien to us. My gloss, "The Torah
became flesh and dwelt among us," may have been surprising, but only a
few years ago it would have been incomprehensible.
Christianity needs a theological interpretation of Judaism, and not a
supersessionist one. How do we do that? My proposals will not be very
systematic, except insofar as there is a step that seems to me the necessary
first one. In describing this first step I must repeat contentions earlier
published and can only ask patience from any readers who may have
come upon the earlier work.
Christianity simply is the claim that by raising Jesus of Nazareth
from the dead, the God of Israel has marked him as Messiah and therefore
in his own person the fulfillment of the promises to Israel-and this in a
comprehensive way that was not typical of all strands of Jewish expectation
and still is not. This claim can be understood in a way that leaves no
remainder of expectation, that takes Israel's mission as concluded with the
life, death, and resurrection of this one Israelite. If one then further tacitly
identifies Judaism with canonical Israel - an odd thing for Christians to
do, of course - supersessionist conclusions must follow: if Judaism is a
direct continuation of canonical Israel and if canonical Israel's mission is
concluded, Judaism can have no further divine purpose.
Some projects of non-supersessionist Christian theology have supposed
that in order to avoid this, the minor premise of that supersessionist
syllogism must be rejected; that is, the church's high claims
about Messiah Jesus must be attenuated.
Excerpted from JEWS AND CHRISTIANS
Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism||1|
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|Our Father Abraham: A Point of Theological Convergence and Divergence for Christians and Jews||41|
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|The Church as Israel: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism||78|
|From Supersessionism to Parallelism in Jewish-Christian Dialogue||95|
|Recovering the God of History: Scriptural Life after Death in Judaism and Christianity||114|
|Did God Forgive Adam? An Exercise in Comparative Midrash||148|
|Birds Never Sing in This Forest||171|
|Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity||179|
|A Symposium on Dabru Emet||183|