In my last post, I responded to Anthony Le Donne’s piece on the so-called “War on Christmas.” I wrote that from my Jewish perspective, there is no war. There is a holiday called “Christmas” that is enthusiastically celebrated by just about everyone in North America and the U.K., which not coincidentally are the only places I know where this “War” is discussed. The so-called “War” is nothing more than a discussion on how we’d each like to be greeted in December (“Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?” Something else? No greeting?), and what kinds of holiday displays may or may not be too religious to be displayed on government property.
But maybe I’m missing something important here. Anthony posted a comment on my blog where he noted how young non-Christians perceive Christianity as anti-homosexual, judgmental and hypocritical. Anthony opined that “some of these impressions are warranted,” and pointed out that Christians have not faced anything like the kind of hatred experienced by American Jews, Mormons, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then … he dropped this little bomb on us:
As a parent, I have another view on this. Do I want my children’s classmates, teachers, coaches, friends, etc. to stereotype my kids as “antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others”? Do I want my children to develop this negative self image of themselves? Of course I don’t. Christians are wrong to feel persecuted or think that there is a war being waged… but I understand why my fellow Christians think that people hate them.
Over at The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne has written an impassioned piece about the so-called War on Christmas. This “war” is a term some pundits use to describe an array of slights against Christians and the Christmas season, from controversies over nativity scenes in public places, to the simple greeting “Happy Holidays” delivered by staff at the Walmart.
You could write a book about it. In fact, Fox News’ John Gibson has written a book about it. It’s available in hardcover at amazon.com for $0.01 (not much of a profit margin, but maybe they make it up in volume). Here’s a blurb from the book’s page on Amazon:
In the United States of America, a nation overwhelmingly Christian, literally any sign of Christmas in public can now lead to complaints, litigation, angry protests, threats, and bruised feelings. Every year the limitations get tighter and tighter and spread to more and more communities, far from the big liberal cities. And as Fox News Channel’s John Gibson reveals in this shocking exposé, it’s not happening by accident.
Secular liberals say they’re just protecting the constitutional rights of non-Christians who don’t want to see or hear about Christmas. But what about the constitutional rights of millions of Americans who simply want to celebrate their traditional holiday—without insulting anyone else but also without having to hide behind closed doors?
Hiding behind closed doors? Really? When every mall and town square is decorated for Christmas for a solid month? When the media is saturated with Christmas advertising, Christmas-themed programming, and worst of all (shudder!), Christmas music? (Much of this music was written by Jews, for whatever that’s worth.) What holiday is celebrated in the West with more enthusiasm, with more stamina and more publicly than Christmas?
I am thinking about the Bible as a sacred commons.
In most general terms, a “common” is any public resource that by law or practice may not be privately owned, or where the public retains rights even where privately owned. Some examples of commons are tidal waters and certain public grazing lands. But when I think of a “commons,” I think of a feature of many of the towns I’ve visited in New England, in the northeast United States. These towns are built around a “commons,” typically “an irregular grassy plot flanked by a tall, steepled church or two and an aging Victorian-style town hall.”
The origin of these New England commons is something of a mystery. They may have started out as common grazing lands, or they may have been organized for purposes of mutual defense. In some sense, these commons belonged to all. Residents of the town might cut down the commons’ trees for firewood, or remove its stones for building purposes. The commons contained the town’s meeting house, and church (or churches). The local militia might drill there, and store their armaments there. The town’s school might be built there. The town’s tavern might be built there. When court convened, it was probably at a building on the commons. Paths and cart tracks crossed the commons in every direction; merchants located their shops nearby. You might find the community bulletin board there, as well as the stocks or whipping post for the punishment of wrongdoers. History might even be made on the commons—the American Revolution began with a skirmish on the commons of Lexington, Massachusetts.
In my last post, I returned to one of my favorite recent topics: violence in the Bible. My focus there was on the Hebrew Bible books of Joshua and Judges. I concluded that post with the question: how do we come to grips with a G-d who insists that G-d’s people must engage in total war, and who leads G-d’s people onto the battleground, in many cases demanding the total destruction of the enemy?
Here’s a particularly chilling illustration of what I mean, taken from the book of 1 Samuel. G-d orders Saul, the newly appointed first King of the Israelites, to attack the Amalekites:
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
In case you haven’t noticed, so far this year I’ve been posting regularly to this blog—just about every Sunday or Monday, I’ve put up something new here. But lately, I’ve fallen off. I have a good excuse: I’ve enrolled in a program at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies. I am currently buried in a class on the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, taught by Professor Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton. This is a serious class taught by one of the top people in this field, and it’s taking up a lot of my time. Something has to give, and lately, it’s been this blog.
With my focus on my Spertus study, it will be logical for me to post here from time to time about what I’m studying there. This means interrupting whatever series I might be working on at the time, whether it’s my unfinished series on posture in interfaith dialogue, or my unfinished series on Jesus’ arrest and trial, both of which series were themselves interruptions of something I’d started and didn’t finish. Ah well. It’s not like I’d be able to write the last word on any of these subjects. And it’s not like you haven’t seen my mind wander before.
In this piece, I want to return to one of my favorite topics: violence and nonviolence in the Bible. You might recall, a while back I had a blogger back-and-forth with friend of this site Anthony Le Donne about problem Bible texts. In our discussion, we hit on some doozies. There’s the war rule in Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are given permission to kidnap female captives and force them into marriage. We also discussed G-d’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to conquer certain cities in a way that does not “leave alive anything that breathes.” Somehow, these awful Bible passages become less awful when we isolate them. We can dismiss Deuteronomy 20, since it’s historically unlikely that the Israelites conducted a military campaign like that envisioned in the Torah’s war rules. We can try to live with Deuteronomy 21 by remembering that warfare in the ancient world was normally conducted outside of anything like a Geneva Convention, and that the treatment of women captives described in the Torah was probably an improvement over the prevailing norm.
An essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology … Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision – both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing – again – continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided … This sort of critical discussion, I would contend, far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way. The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God’s chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history.
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 12
I’d like to take a giant step backwards from the matters I’ve been discussing lately – Christian anti-Judaism, Paul, Jesus’ arrest and trial, swords (or the lack thereof) – and talk more generally about what I’m trying to do here, and what I think I can do here.
The purpose of this site is to get people talking. If you read one of my posts and think to yourself, “I want to ask Larry a question,” or “I want to share another way of looking at this question,” or even “I must tell Larry something he’s failed to take into account,” then I’ve done my job. I understand that most of my readers will never post a comment – I am a regular reader of many blogs where I never comment – but to the best of my ability, I want to break down whatever barrier stands between you (my reader) and leaving a comment. Even better: I want people to comment on other comments. I’d love to get discussions going and step away from them, and watch them go on for days and weeks. That’s a tall order! I haven’t yet come close to accomplishing this goal – the closest I have come, I think, is in the comments to the post you can read by clicking here! They’re really, really good.)
The talk I want to get going here is loosely referred to as “interfaith dialogue,” and if you think about it, the expression “interfaith dialogue” is a strange one. We say “interfaith dialogue,” as if there was something like “Judaism” capable of talking, and something like “Christianity” capable of listening. Obviously, “interfaith dialogue” is a figure of speech, and we routinely use such figures of speech. We refer to “talks” between “Congress” and the “White House” as if buildings could speak, or between “India” and “Pakistan” as if land masses could listen. We aren’t confused by references to talking buildings and land masses: we understand that these talks are conducted by unnamed people representing these nations and institutions.
In my last two posts, I looked at a recent article by Dale Martin arguing that Jesus was arrested and crucified for leading an armed band of disciples into Jerusalem on Passover to join in a heavenly-earthly battle to inaugurate the Kingdom of G-d. After my last post, Professor Martin was interviewed about his article over at The Jesus Blog – I think he makes a better case for his argument in this interview than he did in his article, so the interview is certainly worth a read. I’m still not on board with Prof. Martin, for all the reasons I’ve stated earlier, but I want to emphasize that Martin is one of the smartest people in this room, and I share his focus on the presence of swords in the Gospels. He thinks that Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords for a reason central to his mission; I doubt that they were carrying any weapon like a sword, and I don’t think these swords were ever used. This is a good time to emphasize, both my opinion and Martin’s are minority opinions (at least Martin has the intellectual credentials to go out on a limb – so why am I doing out here on the opposite limb?).
I looked at Martin’s article because it speaks directly to my focus here in recent weeks on the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Specifically, I’m interested in the Jewish involvement in what happened to Jesus – did the Apostle Paul have any reason in 1 Thessalonians to write that the Ἰουδαίων (pronounced “Ioudaiōn,” and commonly translated as “Jews”) killed Jesus? Most recently, I asked what crime Jesus was charged with at his arrest.
Note that I purposely avoided asking why Jesus was arrested – the reasons why a person is arrested may be quite different from the crime named in the indictment against that person. Consider the well-known case against the gangster Al Capone, who was indicted for tax evasion. It’s obvious that the Feds did not go after Capone because he failed to pay taxes on the money he stole. Here, I won’t ask whether Jesus was arrested because the Jewish authorities were jealous of his popularity, or because they saw him as a threat to incite a riot, or because they thought he was a zealous political revolutionary, or (as the New Testament puts it) because Jesus came to Earth “as a ransom for all people.” It’s a complicated matter to determine anyone’s motives, let alone the motives of a Jewish leadership that lived 2,000 years ago and left us with no record of what they were thinking.
Greetings! In my last post, I began my analysis of Dale Martin’s controversial new article, “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous.” In this article, Martin claims that Jesus and his disciples were armed with swords during Jesus’ final Passover in Jerusalem. Martin further claims that Jesus and his disciples carried swords in order to join an “angelic army” to do battle with the Roman Empire … and further, that Jesus was arrested and crucified because of those swords.
In my last post, I examined what I called Martin’s POINT 1, his conclusion that most or all of Jesus’ disciples were armed. It’s my view that Jesus’ group might have carried swords (perhaps for self-defense against robbers and other bad guys), but I don’t see anything in the Gospels proving that they were carrying swords. I then looked at Martin’s POINT 2, that it was against Roman law for Jews to carry swords in Jerusalem. I concluded that we don’t know much about the state of Roman criminal law in Jerusalem, but that this question is largely irrelevant, since Pontius Pilate could have executed Jesus for carrying swords or for any other reason (or no reason). But for certain, if Martin is right and Jesus and his companions were carrying swords in anticipation of joining in an earthly-heavenly battle against Rome, then for certain this could have resulted in Jesus’ arrest.
We’re now ready to address a third critical point in Martin’s article.