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the Danger of
by David Hulme
Millions have had the blessing of education in the 20th century.
We have all learned useful knowledge from our schooling that has enhanced our ability to perceive, analyze, and understand the world in which we live.
There can be no doubt about the value of a good education.
But is everything we learn simply to be accepted at face value? Do our teachers always tell us the truth? Or do they sometimes pass on preconceived ideas from their teachers?
Should we not seek to "prove all things and hold fast that which is good"?
It is in this context of checking for the biases of authoritative teachers that I want to address a slowly unfolding story of damaging preconceived ideas in the world of theology.
Consider that some scholars now admit that for the best part of their history the established churches have been in error about important aspects of the founder of Christianity and His early followers.
Is it possible that the churches that have sprung up in the name of Christ have been fundamentally wrong about Him and His teaching and practice?
Is this a claim to be attacked?
What about a claim that the New Testament church was in fact far more Jewish that the churches have taught, or that traditional Christianity has practiced anti-Judaism?
Surely there is no evidence that the churches have been so fundamentally in error, is there?
Well, as they say, "truth is stranger than fiction."
The subject of early Christianity's Jewishness has been avoided in fact by most scholars because of a long standing bias in the theological world.
Now a change is under way and it is causing a rethink of some of the underlying approaches of traditional Christianity.
If understood in their totality, the implications are profound.
Consider the following quotes from a 1996 book of essays, Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit, edited by Howard Kee, emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at Boston University and Irvin Borowsky, Chairman of the American Interfaith Institute:
"Expressed bluntly from the Christian perspective, to be anti-Jewish is to be anti-Christian.
These quotes are from the essay by Robert J. Daly, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology. In a companion piece in the same volume John Pawlikowski, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union of Social Ethics in Chicago, writes the following about what most call the Old Testament:
"It is now becoming increasingly apparent to biblical scholars that the lack of a deep immersion into the spirit and content of the Hebrew Scriptures leaves the contemporary Christian with a truncated version of Jesus' message. In effect, what remains is an emasculated version of biblical spirituality."
Admitting to the weaknesses of his professional education, Scottish Presbyterian minister, Dr. David Read says,
"Reflecting on my own experience, I find that seminary training did little to awaken me to the spiritual content of the voluminous literature of Judaism both before and after the Christian era."
In this context Read's honesty brings him face to face with a reality that all who have taught error must confront. He asks:
"Have I been encouraging certain false assumptions and misrepresentations that have been part of the homiletical diet in a great many Protestant churches? There is, for instance, the simplistic picture of the Judaism of Jesus's contemporaries as a religion of harsh legalism dominated by a law whose regulations, ever expanding, were ruthlessly enforced by a kind of super-clergy known as Pharisees."
These statements and others like them grow out of a deepening recognition among some scholars and teachers that anti-Judaism has plagued traditional Christianity almost from inception. Even some of the most famous names have perpetrated the deceit.
One figure in early church history was openly anti-Jewish. According to Wallace Alston, a minister in Princeton, New Jersey:
"...Marcion tried to get rid of the Hebrew Scriptures altogether, being convinced that the church was making a mistake in aligning itself with the religion and literature of the Jews."
Who was Marcion? Let me read a little from the work of Dr. John Garr, a Messianic Jew.
"In the middle of the second century, the Hebrew foundations of Christian faith were attacked by the first great heresy that challenged the church. Some of the ideas of this heresy so permeated the church's corporate psyche that it has not yet fully recovered its spiritual and scriptural equilibrium.
The bias inherent in Marcion's thinking was carried forward by other well-known theological names.
According to Williamson and Clark, professors at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis:
"...when we read the eight sermons preached by Chrysostom in late fourth-century Antioch or Luther's dying pleas that all Jews be expelled from Saxony, we know that Chrysostom and Luther intended to say what they said. Theirs was an intentional, conscious anti-Judaism."
The conclusion that these theological "greats" have been so thoroughly in error on this fundamental point should serve to give us all pause for thought. If these famous names could get it so wrong about the founder of Christianity and His early followers, how else might they have misled us?
The Presbyterian minister I mentioned a few minutes ago, David Read, gives us a clue to a major area of misunderstanding that has come from the anti-Jewish bias when he says:
"I remember in my early days as a preacher being forced to reconsider the assumption that the New Testament gospel of God's grace had replaced the Law as the center of a living religion and therefore presumably rendered most of the Old Testament obsolete."
This subject of law and grace has plagued the Church since the first century. Here's another stunning statement from the Jesuit scholar, Robert Daly:
"...the doctrine that God's covenant with Israel has been abrogated and rendered worthless by the new covenant in Jesus Christ is no longer, at least not in the Roman Catholic and similar traditions, an acceptable Christian position."
Last year a couple of us had the benefit of meeting a Dutch Reform scholar, Peter Tomson. He had written a book in 1990, titled Paul and the Jewish Law.
In this work he identifies three common but erroneous received ideas about the Apostle to the Gentiles.
The first mistaken assumption he mentions is to believe that the center of Paul's thought is an attack on the Jewish Law.
The second is to think that for Paul the Law no longer had any practical meaning in his everyday life.
The third traditional assumption is to accept that in order to understand Paul one need not consult Jewish literature, but only Greek gentile works.
Tomson sets out to show the weakness in these three approaches that have dominated thinking about Paul.
He clearly explains that the first notion appears nowhere in literature before the Protestant Reformation. It originated during that time. That is to say that for almost 1500 years there is no evidence that Paul's writings were considered an attack on the Law.
Pawlikowski writes of Paul that:
"...(his) claimed total opposition to Torah which theologians, especially in the Protestant churches frequently made the basis for their theological contrast between Christianity and Judaism (freedom/grace vs. Law) now appears to rest on something less than solid ground."
The second erroneous assumption comes from the writings of the early church fathers.
It's the idea that for Paul the Law meant nothing in a practical sense any more.
Tomson writes that around the end of the first century, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, said that the practice of the Jewish Law is forbidden to Christians, and a Jew who becomes a Christian should stop living as a Jew.
The prohibition against taking part in Jewish ritual was declared official canon law at the Councils of Antioch (341) and Laodicea (c.360).
By the time that Chrysostom wrote in the late fourth century, he could berate Christians in Antioch who were observing Trumpets, Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles with the Jews.
According to Tomson:
"All of this was to stress the fundamental view of Jewish tradition as being inherently evil, obsolete, and, needless to say, irrelevant for practical Christian life"
The third assumption, that Paul can only be understood by reference to Greek works is also dismissed by Tomson. He refers us to Paul's contemporary, the Alexandrian Jewish historian/commentator Philo, for evidence of what can be learned of Paul through Jewish sources. The point here is that we can discover far more to indicate Paul's continued adherence to Jewish practice than might be traditionally assumed.
What is now happening to some scholars is that they are recognizing the need to be honest about their bias. In fact according to Pawlikowski the trend has been going on for some time:
"Using Vatican II's Nostra Aetate as a benchmark, we are now almost three decades into the contemporary Christian-Jewish encounter. In actual fact the roots of the dialogue go back somewhat earlier as a pioneering generation of biblical scholars, educational researchers, and ecumenists laid the groundwork for that historic document as well as for similar statements in other Christian denominations. But their impact remained rather peripheral until the Council formally launched the process of uprooting the classic theology of Jewish displacement from the covenant in the light of the Christ event and replaced it with a theological work based on the notion of the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant to which Christians have been joined. We can discern three important phases of the dialogue. . .
Now you might ask, "where is all this going?" Does it mean that suddenly everyone will be accepting the beliefs and practices we share? We will come to that as we proceed.
Let's think a little more at this point about where we have recently been ourselves.
As I say, it's important to be able to put our recent experience into perspective.
We have been asked to believe about Jesus and Paul what some scholars are now rejecting in part.
And the profound anti-Jewish bias in majority thinking on Paul is even more disturbing when we recognize that it has led to the kind of wrong-headed, distorted theology described by the essayists I've quoted.
How many over the years have bought into the idea that Jesus came to do away with the Law, or that Paul did not teach observance of the Law? And what have been the consequences in the lives of those who believed the lie?
Again the Presbyterian minister, David Read, makes the following cogent point about how to improve today's teaching:
"Sermons could reflect not only the often quoted statement that 'The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,' but also the words of Jesus: 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill' (Matt. 5:17)."
We understand that there is continuity and consistency between the Old and the New Testaments, or the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apostolic Writings, as some would prefer. It is not surprising that Christ's teaching confirmed that continuity. In reflecting on the work of Jesus, Williamson and Allen remind us that:
"...the good news or work of God manifest in the New Testament is a
Recognizing that the context of Jesus' life was within the Israelite religion of the Hebrew Scriptures, Pawlikowski notes:
"(some) biblical scholars share the conviction that Jesus must be returned to his essentially Jewish context if the Church is to understand his message properly."
But how was Jesus was removed from His context and why? The idea was promoted in the 20th century by the influential theologian Rudolf Bultmann. But now Bultmann's ideas are under attack.
According to Pawlikowski:
"We are presently witnessing the rapid demise of the virtual stranglehold Rudolf Bultmann and his disciples held over New Testament interpretation for several decades. The Bultmannian school did everything possible to distance Jesus from his concrete ties to biblical and Second Temple Judaism so that he could emerge as a decidedly more "universal" person. Intended or not, such portrayals opened the doors for the development of theological anti-Judaism."
What are the consequences of all this for Christian belief, understanding and practice? It's clear that right knowledge is needed. Teachers who understand the truth and who are unhampered by bias and misconception need to speak that truth.
One essential truth is that Jesus taught the Law of God. He was unequivocal about its application to everyday life and its permanence.
John Garr writes:
"For Jesus, there was no question of Torah's continuing importance: "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19)."
The contextualization of the early Christian church within the Judaic, or more accurately the ancient Israelite religious tradition, is so important that without it, understanding of the faith that Christ introduced, is impossible.
Again from Pawlikowski:
"Emergence from the Bultmannian perspective is now leading New Testament scholars to several general conclusions about Jesus and the early Church. Included is the view that the Jesus movement must be described as a reform movement within Judaism whose members, prior to the war against the Romans, did not have a self-understanding of themselves as a religious community against Judaism."
The implications of these lines of thought are many and diverse.
What, for example, does the new perspective tell us about the apostle Paul?
Does it free perceptions of Paul from the traditional wrong assumptions that Tomson has identified?
Let's understand what these scholars are saying about Paul. According to Pawlikowski:
"Scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, Alan Segal, Lloyd Gaston, and others have now come forward with new studies which challenge the predominant view of Paul's outlook towards Judaism.
There is a new willingness among certain scholars such that they can admit that the traditional characterization of Paul as a rebel against the Law is deeply flawed.
Carol Ann Morrow, a Catholic editor, reminds us that:
"... scholarly opinion is shifting toward a more 'Jewish' Paul, a Paul who was proud of his own Jewishness, who responded pragmatically to problem situations but who continued to observe the Torah himself."
David Wenham, an Oxford University professor, has written an entire book, published in 1995, about the relationship between Jesus and Paul.
Was Paul a follower of Jesus, or was he the real founder of Christianity as some have claimed?
Wenham's careful literary analysis reveals a Paul completely aligned with his Master.
One reviewer of the book says that it is important, because it shows that "the wedge often driven between Jesus and Paul is a figment of scholarly imagination."
Wenham concludes his book this way:
"Paul would have been horrified at the suggestion that he was the founder of Christianity. .... Paul saw himself as the slave of Jesus Christ, not the founder of Christianity. He was right to see himself in that way.
Unlike Bultmann, Paul was not out to divest Jesus' teaching of its original context in order to reach a bigger world. He was faithful to the original context.
The writers that I have been quoting are reaching for the conclusions that their research demands. But they don't quite get there.
Peter Tomson, in my estimation, has arrived at a wrong conclusion despite his wonderful beginning. He concludes that Paul did indeed teach Jewish Christians to keep the Law, but that he freed Gentile Christians from the same obligations.
A similar gap in logic is pointed up by the scholar Peter Phan, professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. He says of the official Roman Catholic position:
"The Old Law is a preparation for the Gospel. . . .It prophesies and presages the work of liberation from sin which will be fulfilled in Christ: it provides the New Testament with images, 'types,' and symbols for expressing the life according to the Spirit" (no.. 1964) Concerning the sabbath, for example, which is said to be "at the heart of Israel's law (no. 348), Catechism declares that for Christians the ceremonial observance of Sunday, which is 'the eighth day' (no 349), replaces that of the sabbath" (no. 2175)
Earlier I asked where all of this is leading.
From this kind of comment you can see it leads not necessarily to a change in practice on the part of those who study these matters, but perhaps to a tolerance of people like us.
I believe that it provides us with an opportunity to say what we do believe and practice, in a more reasonable atmosphere.
What might these new perspectives lead to in terms of the day to day practice of Christians who really want to know what Christ and the early Church did?
If indeed the modern follower of Christ wants to emulate his or her Leader, which first century Christian practices should be imitated?
In presenting the case for practicing Christianity as the early church did, it would seem reasonable to begin with this straightforward premise:
The earliest followers of Jesus did what He did.
He was after all their Master and Leader.
Their practice was not going to deviate from His own without direct revelation from Him.
How "Jewish" were Jesus and His first followers?
The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were written after most of the epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John. Yet they still reveal Jesus and a group of men and women set firmly within the practices of an ancient religious tradition.
Was the early church faithful to the Torah? Again from John Garr:
"In apostolic times, there still was no question: 'All scripture [Torah] is God-breathed and is useful for . . . training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work' (II Timothy 3:16), and, 'For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. . . . Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom. . .'" (James 2:10,12).
But when the early Church members observed the law of God, they did so with enriched understanding. They read Paul's teaching in Romans 8 and understood that it was possible to fulfill the law in the Spirit, not that the law was done away
v.3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,
That scholars have understood some of the issues we have wrestled with in recent years is clear. Here is the International Critical Commentary by Cranfield, on this verse:
"The use of the singular ('requirement') is significant. It brings out the fact that the law's requirements are essentially a unity, the plurality of commandments being not a confusing conglomeration but a recognizable and intelligible whole, the fatherly will of God for his children. God's purpose in 'condemning' sin was that His law's requirement might be fulfilled in us, that is, that his law might be established in the sense of at last being truly and sincerely obeyed the fulfillment of the promises of Jer 31:33 and Ezek 36:26."
Cranfield adds this footnote:
In a 1994 book on Romans, the author John Stott, makes these remarks about this passage in Romans 8:
"'who ... live ... acccording to the Spirit.' It is this phrase which directs our attention to law-abiding Christian behavior as the ultimate purpose of God's action through Christ. In this case the law's dikaioma or 'just requirement' refers to the commandments of the moral law viewed as a whole, which God wants to be 'fulfilled' (i.e. 'obeyed', not 'satisfied') in his people. ... This is not perfectionism; it is simply to say that obedience is a necessary and possible aspect of Christian discipleship. Although the law cannot secure this obedience, the Spirit can."
So the early Church was taught the necessity of obedience to the law through the Spirit.
For example when the early Church obeyed the food laws of the book of Leviticus, they better understood the separation from uncleanness that a Christian must exemplify. It's unthinkable that Christ did not obey the food laws.
But His coming has given deeper meaning to the physical adherence to such practices.
Again what are the implications for those who would follow Christ today?
The answers can be found in the epistles and examples of the earliest followers.
Take Paul's comments on the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
In 1 Cor 5:8 he says:
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
The scholars who have exhibited the courage to walk down the road of repentance from the theological errors of the past have not yet taken their thinking to its logical conclusion.
For that reason there is a willingness in their writings to cling to some of their former teaching. When Paul is the center of discussion, there is a reluctance to conclude that he would have taught the Gentiles to obey the Law as he himself did.
Yet we know that Christ kept the Law.
We know that Paul teaches us that we have the mind of Christ.
We know that Paul taught the Gentiles to follow him as he followed Christ.
Add to that what we have just read in Romans about obedience.
And then there is David Wenham's argument that Paul was in alignment with His master in his thinking and teaching.
Now you have a strong argument for the practice of Christianity as you and I have been taught.
What the scholars who are at work in this field cannot yet conclude is that Paul could not have gone against his own teachings or the example of Christ in the practice of everyday Christianity.
Pawlikowski comes closest to admitting that a Gentile might want to live as Paul evidently did:
"...observance of Torah was not necessarily a bad thing in Paul's eyes so long as a person recognizes the primary source of salvation. In fact, some scholars are now persuaded that Paul likely favored the continuation of Torah practice among Jewish Christians. And should a Gentile Christian freely decide to undertake Torah observance there is nothing in Pauline teaching, as now interpreted, to suggest that such a person would be endangering their faith or salvation. Hence, the traditional contrast between Judaism as a religion of law and Christianity as a religion of freedom/grace is profoundly simplistic [emphasis added]."
This is a surprising and bold admission on Pawlikowski's part. It is the nearest statement that I've seen in any of the new pro-Judaic literature, to the Church of God's long-time understanding of the belief and practice of the early New Testament church.
Some scholars, it seems, are edging their way toward a recognition that the first century followers of Christ, including Paul, emulated their Master. And that some among the Gentiles might have emulated Paul.
There is even a willingness to acknowledge that God's plan for Israel is incomplete, (as it is for most of humanity).
The Jewish people of Paul's time were not yet redeemed.
The promise of their salvation was, and still is, outstanding according to Paul.
Again the Roman Catholic scholar, Peter Phan, in a commentary on the current Catholic position notes:
"With regard to Paul's attitude to the Torah in particular, it must be remembered that "he never suggested that the Law (Torah) had ceased to be God's will for the Jewish people" and that regarding the Jews and the Torah, Paul states that "even after the founding of the Church, the relationship is enduring and valid, for 'God's gifts and call are irrevocable'"
That being the case, it seems irrrational to suggest that Jesus, Paul, and God in Heaven would require anything less than obedience to the Law of the Kingdom from all of God's people, Jew or Gentile.
Frederick Holmgren, Research Professor of Old Testament at a Chicago seminary, writes:
"Jesus embraced the Torah of Moses; he came not to end it but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17) to carry its teachings forward, Further, to those who came to him seeking eternal life, he held it up as the essential teaching to be observed (Luke 10:25-28). Despite Jesus' conflict with some interpreters of his day, both Jewish and Christian scholars see him as one who honored and followed the Law. When Jesus proclaims the coming rule of God, he speaks nowhere in detail about the inner character of this rule. He does not need to because that has already been described in the Old Testament and spoken of in Judaism."
The Roman Catholic examination of anti-Judaism has produced a wealth of commentary. With respect to Christ and the Law, the following details from official Vatican statements are significant:
"Jesus accepted and observed the Law (cf. Gal. 4:4; Lk. 2:21-24), extolled respect for it, and invited obedience to it (Mt. 5:17-20). Therefore, it can never be valid to place Jesus' teaching (gospel) in fundamental opposition to the Torah. The dynamic reality that is Jewish Law should never be depicted as 'fossilized' or reduced to 'legalism"' (p.66). Guidelines also states: "the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded upon it must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor (cf. Dt 6:5; Lv 19:18; Mt 22:34-40)"
We have arrived at what could be a significant turning point in theological understanding. If the evidence of anti-Judaism examined in this article is accepted, and the logical conclusions and practical lessons drawn, then popular Christianity could be revolutionized. It could become "the faith once delivered to the saints," for which Jude instructs us to "earnestly contend."
There is, however, some indication that the lesson has not been learned yet, and may not be learned. Commenting on progress in Roman Catholic approaches to anti-Judaism, Phan includes a troubling alert:
"A parallel new study of Protestant materials, still under way, is showing somewhat more mixed results with some of the old stereotype still in place or even reappearing in certain denominational texts."
In other words there is still a long way to go before a correct view of the essential Jewishness of Jesus and the early church can be achieved. Nevertheless the scholars are to be thanked for their tenacity in searching out the dangerous misconceptions that have been perpetrated in the name of the founder of Christianity and His early followers.
For now, Peter Tomson provides a useful conclusion to this discussion. He writes that:
"....an adequate reading of Paul requires a correct approach of ancient Judaism; and both presuppose a reflected distance toward Christian tradition. This desideratum implies nothing less than a paradigmatic shift in the basic perceptions, aims, and methods of established Christian scholarship."
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