Saturday, September 24, 2011

What if circumcised Christians
had become the majority
in Jewish Palestine
& obtained coercive power? /

Τι θα γινόταν
αν οι περιτμημένοι Χριστιανοί
γίνονταν η πλειονότητα
στην Ιουδαϊκή Παλαιστίνη
& αποκτούσαν δύναμη πίεσης;

Optimism concerning the possibility of converting at least a significant minority in Israel was evident at the time of the private conference involving Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church. At that time (probably the mid 50's), it was mutually agreed that Peter should continue to lead the mission to the Jews while Paul headed the mission to the gentiles (Gal. 2:7-9). Yet the lack of response to Peter's side of the two-fold mission is clearly reflected in Romans 9-11, written perhaps two or three years later. In retrospect we can say that Paul's pessimism was more responsive to the historical evidence than Peter's optimism, and in view of this we must assume that the optimism was theologically grounded in the intensely held conviction that the God whose eschatological messenger had been refused by Israel had nonetheless not abandoned his people.

Was it the addition of this motif of the rejection of God's ultimate messenger that produced an anti-Judaism which granted no theological space for a continuing Judaism? The answer is clearly no. The negative stance toward "establishment" or rank-and-file Judaism had already been assumed before Jesus' death. As Ruether herself observes, it was characteristic of Jewish messianic sects, such as the Essenes, to regard unconverted Jews as outside the covenant (p. 55). Had either the Qumran community or Jewish Christianity acknowledged the authenticity and continuing validity of the religion of the majority, it would immediately have lost its character as a conversionist sect and therewith its original raison d'être.

It is therefore beside the point for Ruether to suggest that "A Jewish Christianity which did not define itself as a new covenant... might have remained as a form of Judaism" (p. 56). If she means that such a Jewish Christianity would have been tolerated more easily by the majority, we will of course agree, and point to the evidence that a Christian sect persisted on the fringes of Judaism for three or four centuries. If, however, she means that such a Jewish Christianity would have been more tolerant of Judaism than were the writers of the New Testament, we must disagree. Had circumcised Christians become the majority in Jewish Palestine and obtained coercive power, it is not unlikely that they would have exercised repressive force against the synagogues of rabbinic Judaism. As a conversionist sect, it could grant validity to the religion of its opponents as little as today's Jehovah's witnesses can acknowledge the authenticity of the established churches.

Just as it was not christology that produced the anti-Judaism which denied a place in the covenant to unconverted Jews, so it was not christology which produced the parting of the ways. Ruether is mistaken, I would argue, in maintaining that:
It was the raising up of faith in Messiah Jesus as a supersessionary covenantal principle—the view that one was not within the true people of God unless one adopted the faith in this form—that caused the break between the Church and Israel (p. 56).
The Jewish community has always shown itself able to tolerate a wide variety of haggadic and halakic nonconformity within its midst, albeit with vigorous protest and healthy disagreement. Intolerance has been severe only when the majority felt that nonconformists were eroding Israel's sense of identity in a way that would lead to gentilization and assimilation. Consequently, it was not the conversionist anti-Judaism with its insistence that faith in Jesus was essential to participation in God's eschatological people that caused the parting of the ways. It was rather that this troublesome thorn in the side of Judaism seemed to challenge the central symbols of the nation's identity. It was not Peter's sermons demanding faith in Jesus, but rather his practice of eating with gentiles that endangered the church in Jerusalem. It was not Paul's proclamation of Jesus that aroused the deepest animosity against him in Jerusalem, but the report, perhaps largely untrue but not entirely without basis, that he was teaching Jews in the Diaspora "to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs" (Acts 21:21). The customs here referred to, we must assume, were those that were felt to constitute the irreducible minimum needed as protection against the ever-present threat of assimilation.

* Douglas R. A. Hare,
"The Rejection of the Jews in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts"
["Η Απόρριψη των Ιουδαίων στα Συνοπτικά Ευαγγέλια και τις Πράξεις"],
Alan T. Davies,
Anti-Semitism and the Foundations of Christianity
[Ο Αντισημιτισμός και τα Θεμέλια του Χριστιανισμού],
Paulist Press, 1979 / Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004,
pp./σσ. 30, 31.

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