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Notes from Limmud 2006

Does a Judaeo-Christian Heritage Actually Exist

Nathan Jeffay

[All opinions outside of square brackets are those of the speaker. All Biblical quotations come from the KJV not because it's the best quotation, but because it saves me a lot of effort typing alternate translations up.]

It has been taken for granted that Judaism and Christianity, rival religions for centuries, are united through a shared tradition, and that the two faiths are little more than adaptations of the same moral code. This is something we're implicitly encouraged not to question—though the people saying how much the two religions have in common often have little contact with the other! Is this a case of political correctness?

In every other area it's obvious Jews present themselves according to the norms of the surrounding society. Is the way we relate to our Judaism exempt from that, or do we relate to Jewish law according to what we learn from society? We live in a Christian, or post-Christian society; does the way Christianity relates to Jewish law affect the way we relate to our halacha?

When was the term Judaeo-Christian first recorded? The first two uses were recorded in 1899 and 1910. This was used to talk about the difference between the two. Use of the term to mean what was shared was first recorded in 1938. At that time there was an obvious need for certain Christians to set themselves apart from what the Nazis were doing; so they came up with this term to describe, basically, the common decency that the two religions had in common.

What was the key component of this shared tradition? The Old Testament? But already this brings in a problem: the idea of the Old Testament was an invention of the Christians; you don't need this concept until you have a New Testament!

The Judaeo-Christian tradition arose when there was a common threat, as a flag for Jews and Christians to distance themselves from the Nazis. Today there is a similar agenda: it's a rallying call, to allow Jews and Christians to come together and distance themselves from Islam—two of the peoples of the Book distancing themselves from the third!

Before proceeding further, the speaker hastens to point out that by challenging the Judaeo-Christian tradition, he is not saying that Judaism is any way superior to Christianity. Judaism does not claim to be the One True Way; it holds that non-Jews can find G-d through their own religions too.

This talk will seek to answer four questions:

  • Does either faith really vest ultimate authority in the Bible?
  • What exactly is the Bible for Christians?
  • So what—is this theoretical theology or a practical problem?
  • And, isn't there still a broad tradition uniting the faiths?

Does either faith really vest ultimate authority in the Bible?

Where does the authority to make the Bible into the Bible come from? Who makes these decisions? Different people would interpret the Bible differently. To give an abstract example, being kind to animals could be interpreted as vegetarianism, veganism or organic farming.

Even leaving the New Testament aside, the canon of the Bible is different in the Christian tradition and the Jewish. So where is the authority of what is Bible coming from?

Samson Raphael Hirsch said, "It is not the Oral Law that has to seek its authenticity in the Written Law; on the contrary, it is the Written Law that has to seek its warrant in the Oral Law." It's only through the Oral Law that we know what the canon of the Bible is.

Both Oral Law and Written Law coexist in Judaism and have equal authority. It's therefore untenable to say that Jews through the ages have been guided by the Bible. Rather, they have been guided by a complex mixture of Oral and Written law. Many Jews do not realise this, because they have been brought up by a culture in which only the Written Law exists. If we lived according to the Written Law only, the practice of Judaism would be completely different.

Are Christians being completely straight when they say that their authority derives from the Old Testament?

Consider Matthew 16:19:

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

"Bound" here corresponds to אסור in Hebrew (and something similar in the Aramaic Jesus would have spoken), and thus means "forbidden"; "loosened" is therefore מותר and means "permitted"; Christians don't get this when they read this.

This is different to the Talmudic principle, because Jesus is saying his disciples have the authority to change the [laws of the] Old Testament. This is the basis of Papal authority, and the whole structure of authority in the Christian community.

Thus, to say that both faiths hand over the ultimate authority to the Bible is an oversimplification. Both have two components to their authority; for Jews it's the Oral Law and Written Law; for Christians it's the Written Law in some sense, and the authority which Jesus gave to his disciples.

What exactly is the Bible for Christians?

Now consider how each of the faiths considers the Old Testament. St Augustine, one of the foremost theologians of the early Church, wrote:

In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.

For Christians, they had to read the OT through the lens of the NT; the NT was almost the code for understanding what was being said in the OT.

Today Jews have many discussions with many faith, with faiths with no shared history with Judaism. In the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge, one of the academics told the speaker, "Do you realise, in the context of the world's religions, how unusual it is that you have a community of Christians who buy into the belief system of another religion, and then work with, or work against, the belief system of that other religion?" You can't understand the relationship between Judaism and Christianity by comparing it to Jewish or Christianity's relationship to other religions. Christianity considers itself the New Israel. We have to consider how Jews and Christians relate to each other and how they can't.

When Christians say "we can unite around the Bible because we share the Bible", they actually mean "according to our understanding, we can separate off the Bible and ringfence it, and we have a shared right to this, and we can separate off and ringfence rabbinic law to do so." An American academic describes the Judaeo-Christian tradition as an excuse for Christians to speak on behalf of Jews!

[At this point the speaker went into a little story about how he encountered a couple of Christian women who asked him what was he was wearing on his head, and he replied that it was what Jews wear to show that G-d is above them, and they expostulated, "It does not say that in the Bible anywhere!"]

This comes right back to the disputes that Jesus was having with the Pharisees [the theological ancestors of modern Judaism]; the Jews are perceived as twisting the Bible. If the Christians had said there was a shared Noachide tradition, or shared tradition of morality, no one would have been able to argue with that, but picking the Bible as the basis of shared tradition is mistaken.

There is also the issue of loss in translation. Many of the nuances of the Bible are lost in translation, and meanings emerge in translation that weren't there in the first place.

In 1598 King James VI of Scotland (the future King James I of England, of KJV fame) wrote:

The whole Scripture is dited by Gods Spirit thereby (as by his lively word) to instruct and rule the whole Church militant, till the end of the worlde. It is composed of two parts, the Olde and New Testament. The ground of the former is the Law, which sheweth our sinne and conteyneth justice. The grounde of the other is Christ, who pardoning sinne contayneth Grace. The summe of the Lawe is the ten Commandes, more largelie dilated in the Lawe, interpreated by the Prophets, and by the histories are the examples showen of obedience or disobedience thereto... But because no man was able to keep the Lawe, nor anie parte thereof, it pleased God of his infinite wisedome and goodness, to incarnate his onelie Sonne in our nature, for satisfaction of his justice in his suffering for us, that since we coulde not bee saved by doing, wee might (at least) be saved by believing.

This is a key reason for Christianity to ditch halacha—because they feel it is impossible for man, as a sinner, to keep all the commandments.

The whole notion for Christians of the demands their faith puts upon them depends utterly on their concept of "Bible"; which is to say the Old Testament and the New, which are thus inseparable.

Luke 24:44-45:

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.

From the Christian perspective, Scripture is not about legalism: If you can't find Jesus in the stories of the Old Testament, you're not reading it properly!

The Preaching of Peter (third century):

Having unrolled the books we possess, in which the prophets mention Christ, sometimes in parables, and sometimes in enigmas, and sometimes clearly, we have discovered his coming, his death, his cross [...] and we say nothing apart from Scripture.

In the first century, there were many strains of Jewish theology, which sat alongside each other [not always easily...]. But when Christianity came along, it could not exist alongside the others; it obsoleted the lot. It came to sweep away the Greek religion, and sweep away the Jewish religion.

The following theologian was in no way antisemitic—and spoke out against the Nazis—but in theology he believed in calling a spade a spade:

[The Church] has not been able to escape away the fact that its unity is in this sense compromised by the existence of a Judaism which does not believe in Jesus Christ. More than anything else, this makes its own existence problematical... Its very aim as a missionary community is to call men... from false gods to the true God. But this being the case, the existence of the Synagogue side by side with the Church is an ontological impossibility, a wound, a gaping hole in the body of Christ, something which is quite intolerable.

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

We're not just a people the Christians haven't got around to yet, we're the people who rejected Jesus, at his own time.

To illustrate how much Christianity had to change around the reading of the Bible to accommodate their views, consider the following:

Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church.

—Trypho 134, in Justin Martyr (second century)

(This is a piece of Christian Midrash, a disputation into which is placed the character of Trypho, who is none other than the Rabbi Tarfon of Haggadah fame.)

Here Christianity is distinguishing between Rachel and Leah. The Jews are being called weak-eyed and unloved. (Yet the Jews do not distinguish [?sc: between Rachel and Leah like this].)

Galatians 4:21ff:

Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.

Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written [Isaiah 54:1], Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.

A direct clash between their reading of this text and ours!

The Epistle of Barnabas says the only reason for Abraham to circumcise his household is because the gematria in Greek of the number of people in his household corresponds to "Jesus"!

Isn't there still a broad tradition uniting the faiths?

So what? All this is very interesting; but can't we just get on and be proponents of this Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is very nice?

First possible answer: Put aside all the detail. Go back right to the beginning of Genesis, and read no further than this. At the end of the day, surely, both faiths are monotheistic.

Only, of course, they're not. Quoting from the Epistle of Barnabas again (6:12):

For the scripture says concerning us, how he says to the Son, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea" And the Lord said when he saw the fair creation, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth":

These words refer to the Son.

[You can't even take the first chapter of the Bible free from context, you have to] try and understand the text: Why does it say "Let us make man"? In Christian theology, it's the Father talking to the Son. People [sc. Jews] don't get this; they think to the Christians G-d was one before He incarnated as Jesus, but that's not the case: In Christian theology they were separate from the word go!

The second possibility is to agree to disagree. There is a shared tradition with certain elements which we will agree to disagree about. But even this doesn't stand up to scrutiny:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes unto the Father except through me.

—John 14:6

There is one way, and one way only, to interpret any of the tradition, and that is through Jesus!

Are you acquainted with them, Trypho? They are contained in your Scriptures, or rather not yours but ours. For we believe them but you, though you read them, do not catch the spirit that is in them. Be not offended at, or reproach us with, the bodily uncircumcision with which G-d has created us, and think it not strange that we drink hot water on the Sabbaths.

Justin is saying here that Scripture is not what we (the Jews) think it is. [He's also succumbing to the same failure to understand Judaism, in re hot water on Shabbos, as the two old women above.]

At the time the Marranos [Crypto-Jews of Spain and Portugal] were most persecuted, they would learn Judaism from the public signs warning people about Jewish practices to look out for [for the purpose of reporting suspected Jews to the Inquisition]!

The biggest problem with this shared heritage is not that it does not stand up to scrutiny, but that we end up looking at Judaism through the prism of Christianity, and hence come to misunderstand and misrepresent our own religion.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2007-01-01 01:10 pm (UTC)
ext_8103: (Default)
From: [identity profile] ewx.livejournal.com

I understand that most Christians would take exception to the suggestion that they're 'not monotheists' - the Trinity is usually considered to be a single divine being with three aspects.

The charge is a long-standing one though - at the time of the Crusades for instance Muslim writers sometimes referred to Christians by the epithet 'polytheist' (as well as displaying deeper confusion about Christian beliefs and practices).

Date: 2007-01-01 01:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I understand that most Christians would take exception to the suggestion that they're 'not monotheists'

True, and the speaker could have put it more tactfully; but the fact remains that the Trinity is not something non-Christians tend to grok; and in Jewish thought Christianity is seen as straddling the borders of monotheism, polytheism and idolatry.

Date: 2007-01-02 01:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hatam-soferet.livejournal.com
Hrm. Thank you for posting that. I shall send it to W.

Date: 2007-01-03 08:04 am (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
I agree that there are dangers in glibly assuming that Judaism and Christianity are basically the same thing. They are radically different in theology, in ethics and everything else, and any attempt at dialogue which doesn't acknowledge that is at best meaningless warm fuzziness and quite likely actually harmful. There is a long history of antagonism between the two religions too, primarily in the form of Christian persecution of Jews after the first couple of centuries, and it's dangerous to gloss over that to claim that we all love eachother and everything is harmonious.

However, I don't entirely agree with this lecture as summarized here. For one thing it puts way too much emphasis on the Bible. It's true to say we don't really have much of a shared text, and that's an important point. Though there is a much bigger range in Christian attitudes to the Bible, particularly the question of whether authority is primarily textual or primarily Apostolic, than this summary would suggest.

But aside from the important differences in the way we read some of the same words, the point this talk is completely omitting is that Judaism and Christianity very much do have a shared cultural heritage. Jews and Christians have lived together for the whole of European history, and the two traditions have inevitably influenced eachother, with repeated cross-fertilizations continuing for centuries after the original split and into the present day. I agree it's a problem if this is used as an excuse for Jews and Christians to respond negatively to Islam. But the fact is that Jews and Christians do have a much more closely linked history with eachother than either group has with Muslims.

The point of saying Judeo-Christian rather than just Christian, though it definitely can be used too loosely, is to acknowledge the Jewish contribution to Western civilization and not to be chauvinistic. Our culture is shaped by Jewish as well as Christian (or post-Christian) writers, scientists, politicians, philosophers and so on.


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