Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Can Jews and Christians Learn from History? A Reponse
I am delighted to respond to Edward Kessler’s excellent paper. My only problem is that I agree with almost everything he says!
Historically Jews and Christians have needed each other, usually not for positive reasons but rather for self-definition. The question “Who am I?” has so often in the past been answered with “I am what the other is not.” At best this tension has resulted in creativity by adding clarity to the philosophy and theology of each faith tradition. In embryonic Christianity it was this tension which gave rise to christological development and in Judaism it resulted in Maimonides developing his 13 principles of faith - principles which caused great problems in the Jewish community but were of great value to Christians, enabling them to better understand the nature of the Jewish people.
Edward rightly stated that in the early years of the “parting of the ways” and development of Christianity, there were indeed signs of great tolerance between the two communities. Many of the problems which gave rise to the terrible anti-Judaic polemic can clearly be traced to western philosophy such as the neo-Platonism of Origen along with a mass of Hellenistic ideologies. We know that even Judaism may be influenced by some of these pre-Christian philosophies as the Greek term Synagogue implies. If, however, we look at the teachings of the Eastern churches and their relationship with Judaism we often find a very different pattern of relationships. The Anglican priest and educationalist Derek Webster has provided us with some unique insights into the early Coptic monastic tradition by his translation of the writings of Abbot Nicholas and his disciple John the Little.
An Extract from ‘The Abbot and the Dwarf’ by Derek Webster
In Judah God is known,
his name is great in Israel.
His abode has been established in Salem,
his dwelling place in Zion. (Ps 76:1,2)
At first they thought that he was dead. The caravan stopped but briefly to leave the Jew with Abbot Nicholas and John Dwarf. “He stepped into a nest of scorpions. Now their poison does its work. We travel quickly and cannot comfort him. Let him die in peace or lodge until we return. You will be well paid.” So the Steward sought hospitality and healing for Jeshua the Scribe. He beckoned three slaves. Two carried the sick man, obviously in a high fever, to the guest chamber. The other brought a small chest and placed it by the sleeping mat.
While John washed Jeshua’s body, Nicholas prepared a compress of figs for the foot and a drink of vinegar and desert herbs. The fever remained for ten days and nights during which time the Scribe drifted in and out of consciousness. On the morning of the eleventh day he revived. Sitting up a little he firmly refused Nicholas’ medicine. “It tastes like wine from the vine of Sodom,” he whispered. “...and...the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes...are bitter, their wine is the poison of serpents... .” said Nicholas, finishing the scripture for him before bursting into friendly laughter.
As Jeshua regained his health, he proved a cheerful and considerate guest. A middle-aged, slightly built man, whose beard was already flecked with grey, he was from a noble family in Jerusalem. He had journeyed to Egypt to claim an inheritance. Now he waited with patience for the return of the caravan. As the days went by his friendship with his hosts quickly grew. Talking quietly to John one hot afternoon, in the shade of the courtyard wall, he said: “May I ask you three questions?” John smiled, guessing what was to follow. “The first is this. When sick did I drink wine or eat what crawls or creeps? Did I partake of cheese and fowl together?” “My friend, when the Abbot knew you were of the ancient race, he took care to provide only what your Law allows. The wine you drank was not offered to idols. Of what crawls, you ate locusts. But that is permitted. Cheese too you ate. Yet not with fowl. Is this a king’s house that we eat flesh daily?” John laughed at the idea. Jeshua smiled and continued: “The second is this. Is my guest chamber a place where any other seeking your consolation has died?” “My friend, none has given up life here. Though for some days we feared for you! You are not made impure by a shadow from any sad corpse,” said the Dwarf. Jeshua went on: “The third is this. In washing and binding me each day, did you observe any bodily discharge?” “None,” said Nicholas, who had arrived unnoticed. “Do not fear. You are not unclean. Though our knowledge is small and our provisions few, we met your Codes where we could. Though, of course,” he added, his eyes dancing, “you eat, drink, rest and gain strength for life in the cells of two desperate Gentiles.”
Brightness returned to Jeshua’s face. There was relief that no impurity had been committed and lightness at Nicholas’ gentle humor. Then he said quietly: “You have preserved my life for me. In doing that you have obeyed the heart of Israel’s Law, for it gives life. When flesh and blood are threatened, lesser precepts sleep. The School to which I am bound argues that men should live through the law, not find death in it.” Nicholas said: “Our Law gives life too. In his care that your life might return, John showed his love. That is the Master’s Way which is our Law. Among us it is called the Law of Love.” “Perhaps,” said Jeshua very slowly, “our two ways are like twin rivers which followed the same course for a great while before separating. Will they meet again?” Nicholas pondered for some time, then said: “May not two wrestlers train for the same contest with differing teachers, diet and exercise, yet both fight well? Each follows the advice of his tutor. Each eats what is given for power. Each performs the set movements. But why? To what end? Is it that each may know: The gladness of strength and delight in skill, The excitement of combat and the joy of victory? Yes, but more. What each becomes bathes all his life. Yet, grey with time, as each road closes, may they not meet, embrace, laugh and weep a little at youth’s shadows? Thus the practices of religion prepare for what stretches far beyond them. The Law is a friend, drawing to His Very Presence, Through its observance spirit rejoices with Spirit. Its outwardly shape gives shelter to Truth. So purity in body sings a perfection of heart. So discipline reveals Love. There will be a day, my friend when, in the stillness of contemplation, He will give us love enough to call each other first neighbor, then brother. Finally we shall see, not Jeshua, not Nicholas - only Him. We will meet again.”
As he left to join the caravan, Jeshua opened his small chest and gravely presented to Master and disciple two prayer shawls. Watching them depart, John said: “So goes the Hebrew Jeshua. Does he know the Greek form of his name?” “Yes, I think he knows,” said Nicholas, “that it is Jesus.”1
Here, in the development of Eastern Christianity, we see a wonderful example of the respect that Jews and Christians had for each other. The Abbot even intimates that the Jew is also a pilgrim on the road to salvation, a theory which would have found little support amongst the Western churches of the same era. The history of oriental Jewish Christian relations is very different from the relationship between western Christians and Ashkenazic Jews. Even after the development and spread of Islam in the Middle East, the relationship between Jews and Christians was usually excellent. They existed together as the Dhimmi, often needing each other for survival. Here in the Orient they had so much in common, even in worship one only has to compare the worship of the Sephardic Synagogue and the Syrian Orthodox liturgy. One service is in Hebrew, the other in Aramaic, and yet there is a commonality in rhythm, rubrics and form.
I recently participated in a seminar with Aba Gabriel, the Ethiopian Archbishop of Jerusalem. The audience comprised of twenty-five young evangelical students from the USA. They had come to Israel to study the Jewish roots of Christianity, and thinking that they were onto something new, they showed total surprise when they discovered that this ancient community had never lost its Jewish roots. They still see themselves as being intimately linked to the people of Israel, still observing dietary laws and some Jewish feasts, and revering the Holy Prophets.
Why has the experience of the Western Church been so different from that of the Church in the Orient? Could it be that we have lost our orientation? The word orientation literally means “from the east”. When the Church lost its eastern roots, when it stopped looking to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, it lost its Judaic roots and replaced them with pagan attributes. To look to the east is to continue to have a theology of the land - the land of our fathers and the origin of both our faith traditions.
Edward also made clear the importance of education if we are to learn the lessons of history. As Christians we need our Jewish brothers and sisters to help us understand the scriptures we share. One of the most significant examples of the productivity of Jews and Christians studying together takes place during the Puritan era. With the Jews having been expelled from England in the 13th century, the Puritans, with their renewed desire to understand the Old Testament, found it near impossible to find sufficient instruction in Hebrew. Eventually the scholars of the movement travelled to Holland where they studied under the Rabbis of Amsterdam. The result of this new knowledge had long and lasting consequences. Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to England and doctrine of God’s faithfulness to Israel, people and land, became a popular belief.
The church needs to realize and popularize the fact that we need to grapple with Judaic interpretation of scripture if we are to understand both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. So, my first point is that we need to remember our origins. We have a joint history and purpose. Jews and Christians are called together to be joint trustees of a sacred ethic which should benefit the whole of society. Secondly, I would say we need to learn the nature of power in religion - which can be used or abused. Just as a hammer and chisel can create a beautiful sculpture or cause destruction, religion can also create something beautiful or destroy. It can cause conflict or war, or healing and wholeness. The more power a religion has, the more likely it is to be destructive. Christianity first gained power with the conversion of Constantine. With Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, we see that the developing Western anti-Judaic polemic is given the power to cause destruction which eventually results in the Shoah.
The power of Judaism only begins in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel. From the life of an oppressed minority, the Jewish people have, for the first time in thousands of years, had the opportunity to live under their own sovereignty. This post-Shoah period was both the highest and lowest point in the history of Jewish Christian relations. The high point was the beginning of the reassessment of Judaism by the Church in light of the Shoah. The historic first conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) in 1947 resulted in the publication of the Ten Points of Seelisberg. The low point was the broadly negative response by much of the Church to the establishment to the state of Israel. The birth of Israel also saw the end of the excellent relationship between Jews and Christians in the Middle East.
The Lessons of History
Thus, for the past 50 years the Shoah and Israel have been the dominant issues in the relationship between Jews and Christians. And, as a people, we are impelled to learn the lessons of history.
Christians need to: i) see how we have abused the power of and in our religion; ii) realize the catastrophic effects of Supersessionism; iii) repent of anti-semitism; iv) reorientate, look to the East and become acquainted with our ancient tradition; v) have an understanding of our origins, seeing Jesus as a Jew; vi) create a Christian midrash of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament - a midrash which is popularised and not only kept in places of learning; vii) look to Judaism and see the importance of community and continuity; viii) strive for healing between the Eastern and Western Church; ix) reassess the teaching of Judaism.
For Jews, I respectively suggest, there is a need: i) to understand the power of religion, its use and abuse; ii) to learn from what happened to and at the hands of Christianity after Constantine’s conversion; iii) for healing between Eastern and Western Jews - Ashkenazi and Sephardi; iv) not to fall into the trap of allowing power to abuse the alien in the Land - just as Jews were abused when they were aliens in other lands for 2000 years; v) reassess how Christianity is taught to Jewish children so that the positive changes in attitudes are acknowledged.
Last night my friend and mentor, Lord Coggan, died. It was Archbishop Coggan who in many ways was the Cardinal Bea of the Anglican world. Having been both President and Chairman of CCJ, he was invited to preach at the 50th anniversary at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In his memorable address he challenged Jews and Christians to look to the future and develop a joint mission based on our common heritage of God, the Judeo-Christian Ethic, and the Sabbath. We can and must learn from history to use our joint power to create that which is beautiful, just and Holy. Together we must seek to bring the Messianic age in all its fullness. Then the words of the prophet Micah will be realized: “When the nations shall learn war no more, and we shall sit under our own vines and fig trees... And we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever.” (Mi 4:3,4)
* Rev. Canon Andrew White is an Anglican priest and is Director of the Center for International Ministry at Coventry Cathedral.
1 Derek Webster, The Abbot and the Dwarf (St. Paul Publications) Ch. 19.