A Convergence of Christianity and Judaism?
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI joins debate with Rabbi Jacob Neusner on what is dubbed “the Jewish-Christian dialogue.”
Neusner initiated the debate with his provocative book A Rabbi Talks to Jesus.
Rather than attempt to identify the points of difference between these ‘protagonists’, let me quote Neusner’s own assessment of where the debate rests.
Neusner says this in an article for the Jewish Forward titled The Pope and I: A Debate With Jesus Is Joined By Benedict XVI : “Where Jesus diverges from the revelation by God to Moses at Mount Sinai that is the Torah, he is wrong, and Moses is right. In setting forth the grounds to this unapologetic dissent, I meant to foster religious dialogue among believers, Christian and Jewish alike. For a long time, Jews have disingenuously praised Jesus as a rabbi, a Jew like us really; but to Christian faith in Jesus Christ, that affirmation is monumentally irrelevant. And for their part, Christians have praised Judaism as the religion from which Jesus came, and to us, that is hardly a vivid compliment.
“Jews and Christians have avoided meeting head-on the points of substantial difference between us, not only in response to the person and claims of Jesus, but especially in addressing his teachings. He claimed to reform and to improve, “You have heard it said… but I say….” We maintain that the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement, and that Judaism — built upon the Torah and the prophets and writings, and the originally oral parts of the Torah written down in the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrash — was and remains God’s will for humanity.
“By that criterion I set forth a Jewish dissent to some important teachings of Jesus. It is a gesture of respect for Christians and of honor for their faith.”
Now, what I find remarkable about Neusner’s assessment (and I shall revert to the Pope in a moment), is his statement that “the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement, and that Judaism — built upon the Torah and the prophets and writings, and the originally oral parts of the Torah written down in the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrash — was and remains God’s will for humanity.”
I find this remarkable for several reasons.
First, it does not appear to recognize the primacy of the Ten Commandments, or the distinction between the Ten Commandments and the laws Moses derived from the Ten Commandments.
Even if we are to assume that the Torah is “perfect and beyond improvement”, surely we still need to address the distinction between that which God is said to have deemed of such fundamental importance that He saw fit to write it down personally, and in His own hand, and that which He saw sufficient to relay through His messengers.
The great Jewish philosopher, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, who lived at about the same time as Christ, makes this distinction central to the understanding of the Torah. He says this: “For it was suitable to [God’s] own nature to promulgate in His own Person the HEADS and PRINCIPLES of all particular laws, but to send forth the particular and special laws by the most perfect of the prophets … to be the interpreter of His holy oracles.” [my emphasis]
Deuteronomy 5:22 reinforces Philo’s point: “These words [the Ten Commandments] the Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: AND HE ADDED NO MORE. And HE wrote them in two tables of stone.” [my emphasis]
Whether we regard the events at Mount Sinai as literal or symbolic, the effect is the same. Certain Principles were given added weight by being said to have emanated from God Himself, in His own hand.
Ignoring that distinction, or elevating the other Mosaic laws to equal status as those said to have been delivered in God’s own hand, diminished the point of the distinction, and leads to some very curious results, which brings me to the second point.
If the Torah is “perfect and beyond improvement”, and reflects what “was and remains God’s will for humanity”, then it must rest with Neusner to explain why so many of the laws expounded in the Torah are simply ignored by Jews today, including him, I expect.
Let me give just a few examples.
Immediately after Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments), we find certain laws and ordinances expounded. Exodus 21:1 – 11 deal with buying and selling human beings. Although the KJV refers to these human beings as “servants”, they are for all intents and purposes slaves. Verse 4 says this: “If his [the slave’s] master has given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he [the slave being freed after 7 years service] shall go out himself.”
I should be interested to know how many Jews would consider such an arrangement acceptable today, or whether Neusner thinks such a state of affairs is acceptable?
Let us take another. “And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.” [Exodus 21:17]
Or the laws set out in Deuteronomy, for example.
A woman not found to be a virgin on her wedding night shall be brought “to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.” [Deuteronomy 22:21]
Then we have the man committing adultery with a married woman: “Then they shall both of them die.” [Deuteronomy 22:22]
And, of course, there are the laws dealing with homosexuals: “And if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.” [Leviticus 20:13] Now, even if one finds homosexuality abhorrent, how many today would advocate such punishment?
Such laws are far more reflective of strict Sharia Law which so many in the West find so distasteful. Are such laws really “perfect and beyond improvement”? And do they really reflect “God’s will for humanity”?
Or should we distinguish between such laws, and the “heads and principles” of all laws, the Ten Commandments, as Philo noted?
In fact, the “writings” which Neusner references, which I take to include Proverbs, specifically refers to the question of ‘interpretation’. “To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: To understand a proverb, and the INTERPRETATION; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.” [Proverbs 1:4 – 6]
The plain fact is that in practice Jews, or at least the vast majority of Jews, do not subscribe to the letter of many, if not the majority, of the laws prescribed by, or ascribed to, Moses, as distinct from the spirit of the Principles annunciated in the Ten Commandments. And no matter how “dialogue on theological truth”, as Neusner describes it, attempts to finesse the issue, the ‘truth’ is that it is the Ten Commandments which are “perfect and beyond improvement” and reflect “God’s will for humanity”, and only the Ten Commandments.
And, as I have argued in previous articles [The Law: Salvation, the State, and the Kingdom of God, and Are We Genetically Programmed by, and with, the Ten Commandments?, and in my books], science is now beginning to suggest that we human beings have a “morality module” in our brains, a module, I argue, which is modeled on the Principles underlying the Ten Commandments.
Such discoveries by science tend to support, therefore, those verses in the Scriptures which say precisely that: Genesis 1: 27 (man in the image of God); Deuteronomy 30:14 (the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart); and, on the Christian side, Luke 17:21 (the Kingdom of God is within you).
Which brings me to the Christian side of the ‘debate’.
“Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me: I will render to the man according to his work.” No, not Christ, but Proverbs 24:29.
But Christ did say this: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” [Matthew 5:38 & 39]
What we see here is Christ taking further a movement away from the strict Mosaic law already under way in Proverbs.
But Christ is at pains to stress that He is not seeking to change the underlying Principles of The Law, only the interpretation.
He affirms the immutability of The Law, by which He clearly means the Ten Commandments. He says this: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, ‘Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, ‘till all be fulfilled.” [Matthew 5:17 & 18]
Now, I appreciate that Neusner’s point is that Christ could not ‘interpret’ the Law because only God, according to Neusner – if I read him right, can do so, and the Jews do not recognize Jesus as the son of God, or the Messiah.
But that misses the point!
It seems to me that Christ was making precisely the point made by the Jewish philosopher Philo. Christ was distinguishing between the Principles of the Ten Commandments, and the interpretation of those Principles.
Thomas Aquinas said the same thing as Philo: “The precepts of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) differ from the other precepts of the Law, in the fact that God Himself is said to have given the precepts of the Decalogue; whereas He gave the other precepts to the people through Moses.” [ST II, Q 100, Art 3]
So if we take, for example, the adulteress who was brought before Christ for a stoning. Christ doesn’t say there is nothing wrong with adultery, he brings the issue of the punishment into question. After those eager to cast the stones disperse, Christ tells her to go and “sin no more”.
The Seventh Commandment does not dictate a punishment. Moses determined the punishment. Christ re-interpreted the Commandment to lighten the punishment while affirming the Principle.
But the important point to note is that few Jews and Christians today would regard a good stoning appropriate for any crime, let alone adultery. Yet both, I expect, would still regard adultery as a sin, even a crime. So, in practice, both Christians and Jews are constantly ‘reinterpreting’ the Principles underlying the Ten Commandments. It is a simple fact – and I believe it is a simple fact because human beings are ‘programmed’ with the Principles underlying the Ten Commandments and are constantly trying to come to terms with them – unconsciously, I suspect.
Yet, like the Jews, in practice, many, or most, Christians do not follow strictly Christ’s teachings, or interpretation of the Principles underlying the Ten Commandments. For example, few Christians would ‘turn the other cheek’ if a family member were under threat or attacked. Few Christians (although I know there are some) would argue that we should have done nothing after 9/11. Few Christians would argue that we should not have a military to defend the country. All these things appear to contradict Christ’s teachings, so we find justification by reverting to the Old Testament.
In other words, what we are doing is trying to synthesize the various interpretations of the Ten Commandments from the Torah, the Prophets, the writings (like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – “a time to kill, and a time to heal”), the Gospels, and the other books of the New Testament. We often hear the Old Testament quoted more in certain churches than the New when ‘turn the other cheek’ does not seem appropriate for the circumstance.
Even the issue of Salvation is not that different between the Jewish and Christian versions. Both seek to regain the ‘right to life’ lost by ‘original sin’. So we see the New Testament end in the last Chapter with this: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life.” [Revelations 22:14]
And Christ’s Commandments, the Law, are the same as the Commandments handed down on Mount Sinai (Matthew 5:17 & 18 quoted above).
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” [Matthew 7:21]
And our Father in heaven made His will abundantly clear – He descended down to earth to write it on two tables of stone. And Christ stated emphatically that not “one jot or one tittle” shall pass from God’s revealed will until all be fulfilled – that is, until His will is established as the Principles which govern human behavior and human government – until the Kingdom of God is established on earth.
So, what all this tells us is that once we move beyond the ‘theological’, and if I may say so, infantile, ‘no he can’t – yes he can’ arguments that encumber this ‘new debate’, we find that both Moses and Christ recognized as the immutable Word of God the Ten Commandments, and in particular, the Principles which underlie those Commandments. And in practice today, both Christianity and Judaism converge in the practical interpretation of those Principles, and their application.
We may not be doing a very good job of interpretation at present, but that is because no one has really ever brought up the issue.
If we do, then the other ‘differences’ may well converge as well. After all, we both recognize the same God, and we both recognize that He revealed His will when he descended to earth to deliver it.
By Joseph BH McMillan
Copyright © Joseph BH McMillan 2014 All Rights Reserved