Monday, October 10, 2011

A Double-Edged Sword, Part II c: Fulfillment Theology

Fulfillment Theology and Christian Anti-Judaism

Fulfillment theology is related to replacement theology--the doctrine that Christianity not only replaces Judaism but is its fulfillment--Christianity's direction and evolution the intended goal of Judaism. According to that traditional Christian theology, the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old.

That's "Old Testament," not "Hebrew Scriptures" (or Tanakh--an acronym standing for "Torah, Prophets, and Writings," the Jewish name for the canon of the Hebrew bible). The Old Testament and the Tanakh can be seen as two different volumes. Even though they each include books of the same names, the Christian Old Testament is in a different order than the Tanakh, is based on the Septuagint, a Greek translation for Hellenistic Jews completed in the second century BCE, and has different interpretations and a different purpose--in large part pointing to the coming of Jesus and declaration of his followers as the new people of God.

At the beginning of the process the emerging theology was not "anti-Jewish." After Jesus' crucifixion, his followers had to make sense of what had happened, and they did so the same way other Jewish groups and sects of the time made sense of whatever happened to them: by going into their scriptures and seeking explanations and meaning. That meant the Hebrew scriptures--at that time, the only scriptures that existed. They used scripture to anchor and legitimate the evolving tradition, so that Jesus' last supper became in the new tradition either a Passover meal, or he himself represented the sacrificial lamb. Or, as in Luke, the good news needed to be seen as radiating outward from Jerusalem, so Jesus--or Paul--had to go out from Jerusalem. And so on. I'm being very cursory here, with just these few examples.

Early Jesus followers also often used a method of interpretation common in those centuries, a method characterized by viewing scripture as referring to the present day of the interpreters themselves and revealing secrets about those present times.

Back in Judea in those days all of those Jesus followers were Jews. Jews abstained from certain foods, celebrated the festivals and Shabbat (the Sabbath), and all except the Essenes worshiped in the Temple. (The Essenes were a monastic group who had withdrawn from general society because of religious and political issues. They are thought to have taken issue in particular when, in the prior dynasty before the Romans took over in 63 BCE, the high priesthood and the role of the king were combined in the same individual.) All the men were circumcised. Nevertheless, Jews were not Orthodox in today's sense. That did not exist yet. It was the sectarian age of Judaism, and multiple groups (of which several names would be familiar) were arguing with each other about Judaism, its practices and beliefs, and about politics. Some of the disputing groups were apocalyptic (expecting an imminent end to the age), thinking that they themselves were the true remnant (or green shoot) meant to survive and grow in the new age. Whether apocalyptic or not, though, their common practices and concerns made them all (except the Essenes) mainstream Jews to the extent that existed--Jesus and his followers included--even though mainstream Judaism at the time was hectic and sectarian and was no monolithic institution.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, after the end of Judea as a Jewish vassal state of Rome, and after the subsequent Jewish wars, the number of those original Jesus followers in that land was decimated, and those who were left were cut off from the Jesus movement as it was continuing to develop out in the Roman Empire.

According to Michael Cook (Modern Jews Engage the New Testament, 2008), the original religious direction of the Jesus followers failed to survive the upheaval of the fall of the Temple and the Jewish wars. Similarly, according to Bart Ehrman (Lost Christianities, The Great Courses, 2002), the Ebionites, early Christians whose traditions and beliefs were Jewish and who later were declared heretics, were closest to the original Jesus followers in their beliefs and practices. In other words, the tradition that eventually emerged as dominant and is today considered orthodox Christianity, unlike the tradition of Jesus and his original followers, was no longer Judaism.

That's why I have been saying "Jesus followers"--because for some decades there was no new religion. Jesus and his early followers were mainstream Jews in the sense I have described--not a new kind of Jews, not mutated Jews, not Hellenized Jews, not the first Reform Jews (which would not exist for almost two millennia), and not yet Christians.

As long as the vassal state of Judea existed and as long as the Temple stood, the center would hold. The Temple was central to the religion. For Jews, and for the subsequent Christianity, the Temple's fall was a knife edge dividing history. The only two sectarian groups to emerge were the Pharisees, who became the early Rabbis, and the Jesus followers. Each had to figure out how to survive now that the center was gone. From those two groups developed Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

It was as the Jesus movement leapfrogged out of Judea into another culture--the surrounding Hellenic (Greek-like) world of the Roman Empire--that anti-Judaism arose.

Paul has written in his letters, starting about 50 CE, that he had been a persecutor of the new movement, and that after his revelation, he had been both beaten by Romans and whipped by Jews. The traditional Christian belief is that he had previously persecuted Christians for blasphemy and subsequently was himself punished by Jews for blasphemy. That conclusion begs the question because by the time that conclusion was being made, Christians were picturing the scenarios through the lens of anti-Judaism. New scholarly ideas about what happened in both instances--when Paul was the "persecutor" and when he was on the receiving end--involve the Jesus followers having their own ideas about how gentiles were to be incorporated into the people and taking action along those lines, up to the point of disruption and trying to take the converts and potential converts ("God-fearers"). Interruption of services and stealing the converts would have indeed gotten a rise out of the other Jews. No one knows what actually happened, but the idea that Christians were persecuted for blaspheming by saying such things as that Jesus was God would be anachronistic--that's not something that the early Jewish Jesus followers had come up with nor did it even begin to enter the new Christian tradition until closer to the end of the first century of the common era.

The fuss was not over blasphemy; it was over how gentiles were to be brought in. I've heard some Christians going around saying how mean was the treatment of Christians in those days by "the Jews," who "tried to circumcise them." Well, no--they did not try to do that unless the gentile in question was wanting to convert. If you are a Christian and belong to a church now, imagine that an upstart group with a large outside following--composed of people of some other religion--begins insisting on new rules for themselves to belong to your church. Can you imagine their insistence becoming vociferous?

As revolutionary fervor flared in Judea and among Jews, heightening the sectarian tensions, the early Jesus followers out in the empire whose aim was to evangelize the Roman world had their own major interest in separation--more so after the revolts. They already had a huge image problem as followers of an individual whom the empire had executed for sedition. They did not need Jews' rebellious image rubbing off on them.

As those groups of Jesus followers became known as Christians, the followers of a new religion, with all the suspicion that entailed and persecution incurred from their pagan neighbors, their needs continued to emerge. For example, need for a scapegoat. Better to be followers of somebody killed by the Jews for blasphemy rather than executed by the Romans for sedition.

As is known, the Roman Empire didn't take well to new religions. While Jews were considered as peculiar and somewhat problematical for not worshiping at the Roman temples or bowing down to emperors and idols, the Romans liked old, and Judaism was an ancient tradition that therefore received respect and privileges. Now, here came Christians saying the scriptures--still the only ones that existed--were theirs, and that they themselves were the rightful inheritors of the Israelite tradition, yet they were not being recognized by Jews as Jews. Christians needed those scriptures and the tradition they represented to legitimate themselves to the Romans.

To survive--which probably meant to compete and proclaim their religious legitimacy--the early Christians needed to do more than show themselves to be a religion with roots. They also needed an expression of their revelatory experience which established meaning for the death of Jesus. Further, beleaguered by the Romans and perceiving themselves to be in an "us or them" situation vis-a-vis Jews, they looked to their foundational narratives to declare the scriptures theirs, themselves the rightful inheritors, and theirs the intended direction.

They had no power (that came later), but they already had the political and theological need to make Jews the first "left behinds." How great, then, the struggle with their consciences of these early Christians who were commanded to love yet found themselves in enmity and extreme cultural competition. How tempting then to declare their enemy hateful in the sight of God and deserving of what they got.

Centuries later that view was still deeply inculcated, so that even heroes such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up to Nazism, did not necessarily escape the limited view according to which Jews deserved what they were getting because they had not accepted the Christian religion.

Jesus' death would not necessarily have been personal to the Romans or the High Priestly (Sadducee) class whose role it was at that time, standing between Judea and Rome, to keep the peace and get rid of threats to it. According to Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, there were a number of other similar executions in those times--every single one crucified under the sign "King of the Jews." Those crucified men could run the gamut from revolutionary to religious. Although today we tend to think a political revolutionary would be a greater threat to Rome than a religious leader, Rome in those days may not have seen things that way, if, in Judea, that hotbed of unrest, it was religious insurrectionists--men who captured the imagination and inflamed popular sentiment--who were the threat. In short, it didn't matter who they were or what their ideology was if they seemed to be rousing up the people.

But an impersonal silencing of Jesus as an anonymous rabble-rouser would not have made a good story. It would not have been a convincing explanation of his importance nor served the political and theological needs of his followers in those times. No--in order to tell the communities of his followers who was good, who was bad, and who not to align with, the Christ-killer vendetta was attributed more and more widely--first to all the Jewish leaders (paradoxically, even the Pharisees, most like Jesus in their ethics and beliefs, their portrayal in the New Testament notwithstanding), and eventually to "the Jews" en masse.

As everybody knows, that vendetta has not died out and remains in many people's views of reality and in wide theological and political use to this very day, official pronouncements or no.

In those polemic times, Christian leaders and writers of the New Testament turned the Hebrew scriptures upside down via the Christian Old Testament, justifying themselves and condemning Jews. They proclaimed themselves the inheritors, proclaimed Judaism as superseded, replaced, and fulfilled in themselves, proclaimed themselves as the real Israelites and God's chosen people.

With the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, Christianity gained the power with which to enforce their theology--Constantine's Sword, according to James Carroll's book title.

To make sure the status quo remained locked into place, it became necessary over many centuries to prevent contact and communication between Jews and Christians--to make Jews into untouchables, put them beyond the pale or behind ghetto walls, to avoid "harm" to Christian people. In that way a state of constant vigilance ensued, requiring repeated testifying to the prevailing views, repeated testifying to how Christians must read and view the Old Testament, and to belief in Jews as "Christ's enemies" and in the triumphal victory of Christianity. Great energy expended lest the "reversible image" flip back and the believer glimpse another view!

One religious group gaining earthly power, turning the group from which they originated out of their own tradition and attempting with all their strength to replace them, suppress them and get rid of as many as they could. If it hadn't actually happened in history and wasn't in some ways still going on it would seem unbelievable--a new fantasy series.

Not all Christians nor all Christian groups still adopt that stance, of course. But as "Jews" became the name for evil within the Christian tradition, it became possible to successively project that name back outward on whatever people was being seen as the evil du jour, then switch the defining evil qualities du jour back onto "Jews." I think no one can proclaim very convincingly that the problem of Jew hatred is gone.

The problem, of course, is not Christianity. The problem is not the proclamation of Christ to the Christian people. The problem is that this good thing, making it possible for millions to find God and be closer to God, still to great extent goes hand in hand with proclaiming Jews as Jesus' opposite and as suitable targets for blame and harm. More about how religion--not just Christianity!--works in establishing such targets, in the next section.

Is it possible to think about these things yet retain one's faith? I say yes, more so, to strengthen it.

As a Jew, and considering all that has happened, how wonderful to be here and able to write and talk about it!

What do you say? Jews are out in the world, now, along with everybody else. Will talking to Jews make Christians lose their faith? Is it still necessary for Christians to hear about and proclaim the error of "the Jews" in the present day and age?

I keep hearing reference by some Christians these days to the early Christians' being "kicked out of the synagogue." Focus on that may enable those who no longer buy into the Christ-killer motif to still celebrate early Christianity as a triumph of the social-justice Jesus over Jewish leaders and the Temple, thus justifying traditional narrative and liberation theology alike. The time in question is the late first century CE, when Judaism was trying to regroup and survive after the destruction of the Temple. The story from some Christian perspectives goes on to insist the Jews expelled the Christians for blasphemy, coldly throwing them on the tender mercies of the Romans, who could then condemn them for "atheism."

The problem with this story is that it just kicks the can down the road, so to speak. Maybe "the Jews" didn't kill Jesus for blasphemy; they just expelled Christians from their synagogues for blasphemy.

First of all, Jesus followers were not expelled during his ministry, and that notion is considered anachronistic. Second, scholars used to believe there was a Council of Jamnia (Yavne) toward the end of the first century at which the separation of Christianity from Judaism became a fait accompli, with Christians expelled from synagogues as referred to in the Gospel of John. Yavne was the gathering place of the Rabbis in post Temple-destruction days which served as a new center for Judaism and its recovery and preservation.

Nowadays, however, it seems up in the air whether there was any "Council of Jamnia" at all. At any rate, the final division of Christians and Jews was complex and did not occur in one fell swoop or according to some Council of Nicea-like accords. If it had, there would not have been any need for the book of Hebrews (thought also to be from the end of the first century), telling Jesus followers that they didn't need the synagogue and to leave Jews and Judaism behind, or the writings of John Chrysostom, an important Church Father of the fourth century who railed against Christians who still were worshiping and celebrating festivals with Jews in synagogues.

Even today I know a smart, sweet rabbi who retired to Atlanta. He teaches in the senior citizens program of a local university and has a coterie of retired Episcopalian and other Christian ladies who followed him to lunch-and-learn at my synagogue--and they were still not expelled!

This post was begun October 10, 2011, and completed December 26, 2011. I should say also that it reflects not the conclusions of any Jewish group or denomination, but my own conclusions--which are a work in progress.