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Building a Dialogue Community
Moore, James F.
Our claim is that Exodus 3:14 is the root text of John 8 if we approach our reading midrashically. Thus, we need to look for the point of Exodus 3 in its original setting, the narrative of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush and the voice of God. This encounter is first of all an intervention by God in order to use Moses as a mediator of God’s intent to investigate whether the cries of the people of Israel require action. Indeed, the voice from the bush is a powerful statement about the identity of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:
Exodus 3:7, 13-14: The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt, I have heard their outcry against their slavemasters. I have taken heed of their sufferings, and have come down to rescue them from the power of Egypt, and to bring them up out of that country…”..But Moses said to God, “If I am to come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am what I am [or, I will become what I will become].” (Translation for the most part taken from the NRSV)
The text is clearly aimed at action. The only suggestion about whether the text is about truth is Moses’ concern that the people believe what he says. It is to this concern that the voice identifies itself as “I am (or will become)”. Otherwise the text is about the liberation of God’s people from their misery and sufferings. If the John 8 text is a quintessential interpretation of Exodus 3, then it is aimed at answering the issue of liberation from misery and sufferings. That is the issue and we are left to ask who are the slavemasters in Jesus’ rendering. The error of some Christian reading of this text is to say that the slavemasters are the Pharisees who speak lies and do not liberate while Jesus makes free. This is, most obviously, mistaken if the issue is an internal Jewish debate. We are left to accept that the issue is the new slavery of the people under Roman rule. The issue is again how to liberate the people from their slavemasters.
Of course, this puts the rest of the text of John 8 in a new light. In this reading, Jesus places himself into the role of Moses as the one who speaks for God to the people and the issue becomes how does one know that. The appeal is made to the earlier text and to the I am (the ego emi) to show us clearly that Jesus directs the discussion to the revelation of God’s identity in the Torah. The point all along is how to interpret such a mystical and elusive text as the I am. Nevertheless, the shift in the Exodus text from a question of Moses’ authority to the issue of the identity of God seems to be inverted in the John 8 text and this inversion becomes the crux of the basic problem with this gospel text. If the issue is no longer what is God’s identity but becomes more an authorization of Jesus’ identity, then there are at least three major issues that arise from the John 8 text concerning identity.
The Issue of the Messianic
Of course the John 8 text is more explicit in its reference to the Abraham cycle and thus to that form of addressing the matter of identity. However, I have argued that the principal basis for the claims in John 8 is found in Exodus and not in Genesis. I can return to the explicit references to Genesis below after confronting what I believe is the crucial matter to be resolved in any reading of the John 8 text. The text in John appears to be a discussion about the identity of Jesus. Indeed, the discussion appears to be a discussion about the authority of Jesus set in such a way so as to pit the authority of Jesus over against that of the Jewish leaders. In that regard, the text’s implicit connection with Exodus 3 seems much more central to this argument.
The problematic is that Jesus’ claim seems to set the issue of identity outside of the tradition (“even before Abraham I am”). Thus, the authority of Jesus in this text appears to be rooted in some basis prior to the covenant tradition of Israel. If this is true, and it seems to be true, then the debate appears false from the outset. We have a shift from an understanding of God as given to Moses (“I will become what I will become”) – which is an historical claim based on the notion of the covenant – while the claim suggested by this conversation sets Jesus’ identity prior to that thus in the past not as in the Exodus text in the future, or at least in the developing future. Thus, this text could not be understood as a claim about the messiahship of Jesus but rather something completely different.
In fact, this seems to be the basic flaw of much of the reading which claims that Jesus is the messiah since the argument is almost always based on the past, what has been, rather than on the future, what will be becoming. The central flaw in this route of Christian argument is that it cannot be a case about the messiah which is always a case for what will be and not about what has been. In fact, this is why the notion that the Jewish leaders have only Abraham as father really remains irrelevant to the issue of the messianic. The relationship to Abraham has to do with the covenant and is born out in the Sinai narrative with the covenant agreement. That is quite another matter and probably the heart of the debate if it is a real historically accurate debate at all.
Thus, the text of John 8 cannot be a text about the identity of Jesus at all whichever way we try to take its meaning. It must be about the identity of God and, if so, we must ask why such a debate is or could be crucial for the participants. Above all, we must count as a distortion, then, all efforts to make the text a narrative about Jesus’ identity except insofar as the text can represent an internal Christian debate about how to understand Jesus. If the original discussion is about the identity of God, then we need to ask what perspective this conversation provides on the Exodus 3 text.
The debate about the messianic is, however, fascinating in that the distinction between Christianity and Judaism, as it has been perceived from the Christian perspective, has usually revolved on this point. The claim has been that the messiah has come in Jesus and that Jews have simply missed the prime opportunity for which they had been waiting. I will let my colleagues provide a Jewish perspective on this supposed question; however, I can point to the complexity of a Christian response. First, I have argued that the debate over the identity of Jesus is a distortion of the texts themselves, thus is a false posing of the issues. Second, I would suggest that the notion that John 8 is a prime example of this debate is simply mistaken. Third, and most importantly it seems to me, the move to make the question of the messiah an ahistorical question is simply insidious. It is insidious first of all because it transforms the notion of the messiah into a vacuous notion that has meaning only in some heavenly realm. Thus, it is protected from challenge by historical developments and cannot be defended by any form of historical argument. In the end, such a view leads to simply dismissing history as without any ultimate significance or twisting and thus justifying all of history as part of a larger messianic plan. After the Shoah this sort of view is unthinkable even if it persists, largely because of certain ways of reading texts like John 8.
Once we accept that the messianic must be an historical claim, then we open up the argument to the historical evidence and no such ahistorical defense of the messianic claims of Jesus can be defended. Jesus is not the messiah because the messiah language is tied to the unfolding of covenant history in the fashion that we can see implied in Exodus 3. There cannot be closure to the messianic but only genuine expressions of the covenant. The argument must be about that matter and not about the messianic.
The Apparently False Debate
The second major distortion of readings of John 8 is the assumption that this argument represents an authentic debate between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Clues in the line of discussion falsify such a view. The Jewish leaders are portrayed in ways that are simply impossible to conceive. This false perception, however, has been basic to Christian teaching of contempt. The most obvious problem is the notion that the Jewish leaders would have begun this debate as they are reported to have done. Surely no Jew of the first century would have said that “we have never been slaves to anyone.” This phrase shows how likely it is that the whole discussion is constructed and links with a later period. (Even then it is a discussion for Christians and not between Jesus and the Jewish leaders or between the church and Jewish leaders).
We are clearly led to see that the meaning of this text is found in its church use and not in its depiction of Jesus’ views or of early Jewish views or of some actual Jewish-Christian dialogue. If we would grant the notion of dialogue (an interesting midrashic move), then the text takes on entirely different meaning. If we ask the hard post-Shoah questions, the text becomes an entrée into a discussion of the credibility of the church. If those questions are asked, then the full message of Christianity is brought to ruin. If we sustain this text as a litmus test set in dialogue, history proves the point made by the Jewish leaders – “you have a demon.” It is only clear that the demon emerges in full force in our own time.
Thus, this is a false debate based on claims that have no truth in themselves either as a true depiction of dialogue or a true depiction of Judaism or a true depiction of Jesus. In reality there could have been no such debate and no conflict, especially of this sort between Jesus and other Jewish leaders. All other aspects of the record of Jesus’ teaching show emphatically that there was no essential conflict between Jesus and the Judaism of his time. We are, thus, compelled to see that the conflict is manufactured by the church and it is the teaching of contempt constructed by the church in a rush to respectability in the Roman-Hellenistic world that carries this lie through the centuries only to be resurrected over and over again in incidents like the shooting spree of a Benjamin Smith or the attack on the Los Angeles Jewish center.
Only a Thoroughgoing Reconstruction Will Do
An entire generation of Christian scholars aiming to build a post-Shoah theology has shown that a retreat to the texts to find meaning is itself a meaningless gesture. We misread the point, the scenario, if we think that such re-reading of texts accomplishes anything. This is why an exegesis alone cannot suffice. An exegesis alone only serves to reset an historical context frozen in time and fails to see both the lie of the text and the construction of false reality by the text in its persistent liturgical and pedagogical use. To set Judaism and Jesus, thus Christianity, overagainst each other has no possible context for re-interpretation. The idea is itself a lie and must be simply rejected, and with this rejection the text must also be rejected. An exegesis alone will only lead us to the threshold of this rejection, but only a thoroughgoing reconstruction can possibly respond to the tremendum of the Shoah for Christian theology.
So what is this re-construction? Let me assure you that this Midrash is ready to deconstruct Christianity as we know it and this is its truth. We cannot reclaim Jesus the Jew as our teacher unless we give up the claim that begins this narrative – “I am the light of this world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” And with this radical new direction we can reject the other claims that have been so damaging – “You are from your father, the devil” and “The reason you do not hear them is because you are not from God.” Indeed, history shows that it is likely that the opposite is true. Only an inversion of this text can be true to this history, the history of Shoah.
Another Way – The Dialogue Community, Building a New Community
The way to reconstruct is to open the multi-logue that redoes the scene of John 8 in a way that inverts the narrative. This dialogue begins with a recognition that the light that might lead us to truth is found in the soul of all touched by God. We begin our discussion by recognizing that wisdom shared by all who speak the truth will set us free. We continue our conversation by saying that we know you speak the truth because your words are from God. We then conclude by admitting that we hear them, the other, because finally we reject the pride of exclusivism and come to respect all who would speak truth and seek the freedom and wellbeing of humankind. This is dialogue, actually multi-logue since it invites a plurality of voices who can speak. And this can happen simply by entering into two millennia of inverting the dialogue of John 8, creating a dialogue community. This has already begun but it is so early in this new age we seek and the dialogue must be emphatic and we must teach about it from our classrooms and from pulpits and in meetings and live it in standing on the barricades for respect for all others. Is this a dream? Yes, but is there another way?
The Remaining Issue
One more issue remains, the issue we began this entire set of essays with in the introductory essay. An inversion of this text in dialogue does effectively invert the teaching of contempt in the production of a dialogue community and in the denunciation of the teaching. I have argued that this requires us to see that the center of Christian teaching cannot be a teaching about the identity of Jesus, certainly not the ahistorical Jesus presumed by the words of this text, but rather it is about the identity of God, the God of the covenant history. In that way, teaching is always open to historical judgment and comes face to face with history of the Shoah. In addition, I have argued that the debate between Jesus and Jewish leaders so exemplified by this text is a false debate and once the debate is rejected as false the text must be rejected as false. Even more, we see that historical evidence at least makes the supposed claims of the Johannine Jesus suspect and the claims of the depicted leaders believable – that rather than being lights to the world Christians possess demons. But what remains is the plan of action that can meet the debacle of religious ideologues who use Christian-like teaching as a justification for violence.
Jean Paul Sartre long ago noted that such ideologues operate on the kind of blind faith that is not susceptible to rational argument but which even chooses to reject such arguments.1 This insight lets us know that a multi-logue will not do as a direct plan of action. We can address this issue only when we act together with our Jewish colleagues (and others when appropriate) to actually denounce and combat hatred of this sort. We cannot remain silent nor can we stay on the sidelines. Amazingly, the John 8 text reveals a message that can speak to this issue. We recall that the discussion so clearly marked by the words of hatred and contempt in this text are addressed to “the Jews who believed in Jesus.” What is amazing is that these very believers are the ones that Jesus labels as children of the devil. One reading often taken is to think of these believers as a symbol in the narrative of the ultimate depravity of Judaism. That is, even those who are inclined to believe finally reject Jesus. Isn’t this at the core of the teaching of contempt? But if we see that the meaning of this text is multiple, that there is ambiguity at the heart of this narrative we might see another message. And if we note that the text links with Exodus 3 we are led to conclude that the issue is truly one of belief but one the reverse of what I have just said. The issue is whether the people of Israel will believe that we are from God. What is hidden in this text is the truth, in part, that something in the nature of the relationship that believers have with Jesus leads them to be children of the devil. Indeed, this has been born out time and time again. If we take these to be Christians and not Jewish leaders, then the issue remains: what allows for any Christian to be believed by the people of Israel as coming from God? The question is left open for if they were from God then they would know Jesus for who he was and not for what they supposed him to be. But the issue that remains is how they will act. Will they act so as to bring freedom and hope and healing? After all, this is the intent of the Exodus narrative and not whether Moses is from God. The issue is whether release from bondage happens. Then perhaps we can talk about freedom. Then, maybe we can see that the proof is in the acting, our acting. And how long will it take until Christians can be accepted as coming from God? Is there any other way but to act together with our Jewish friends until the day when that may happen? And would this be closer to the messianic hope? This surely takes us beyond dialogue to praxis, even toward a new dialogue community – and that is the message that finally makes sense of this whole
1 An insightful discussion of this matter together with a careful dismissal of Daniel Goldhagen’s cognitive argument is a helpful context for my point here and can be found in: Richard Kamber, “Goldhagen and Sartre on Eliminationist Anti-Semitism: False Beliefs and Moral Culpability,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 13:2, Fall 1999. Pp. 252-271