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.
This is the last of three posts here on modern Christian use of the word “Pharisee.” In my first post, I commented on the odd tendency for Christians to accuse other Christians of being “Pharisees,” a term that has come to mean a self-righteous, overly pious, judgmental and hypocritical Christian. My second post focused on who the Pharisees really were: a popular and democratic sect within Second Temple Judaism that in Jesus’ day functioned as teachers and experts in Jewish law. The sources we have about the Pharisees are quite limited, and describe the Pharisees in both good and bad terms. Even Jesus had some good things to say about the Pharisees, and even the apostle Paul seemed to think that being a Pharisee was not a bad thing.
In his latest book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian scholar extraordinaire N.T. Wright imagines the Pharisees accurately describing themselves as follows:
We are a group of Jews who find ourselves dissatisfied with the way our country is being run and with our life as a people, at home and abroad. We are therefore devoting ourselves to the study and practice of Torah, as a kind of elite corps, intending to advance the time when Israel will finally be redeemed, when our God will reveal his faithfulness to our nation.
How bad do these people sound to you? They don’t sound that bad to me!
In my last post, I questioned the way present-day Christians use the word “Pharisee” to chastise other Christians. In current Christian vocabulary, “Pharisee” is a synonym for “self-righteous,” or “judgmental,” or “hypocritical.” Strangely enough, “Pharisee” is used by Christians primarily as a label to criticize other Christians, even though the historical Pharisees were a Jewish sect.
In an upcoming post, I plan to argue that Christians should not use “Pharisee” as a term of criticism. But first, I need to do a better job of explaining who the Pharisees were. On my last post, commenter Jo Scott-Coe noted that her Christian education lumped together the historical Pharisees with the historical Sadducees. Jo said she’d like to know more about the differences between the two groups.
Improving Jewish-Christian relations requires us to be sensitive about the language we use with each other. Language that seems innocent within each group, that we use with the best of intentions, may mean something quite different in conversation with an “other”.
For example: consider the word “Pharisee.”
This Tuesday, December 10, is International Human Rights Day. On this day in 1948, 65 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I will mark the day by listening to an address by Ruth Messinger, the head of American Jewish World Service, an organization widely regarded for its commitment to fight against worldwide poverty and achieve global human rights.
I mention all this because I am working on a book project with Anthony Le Donne on memory and Jewish-Christian dialog. At the moment, I am trying to write my contribution to the section of the book addressing memory of the Shoah. The world’s discovery of the Shoah led “immediately” to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two events are interconnected.
This is the final piece in my series about the historical Jesus. You can read the first four parts of this series here, here, here and here. In this last part, I’m going to sum it all up, not just how we understand the historical Jesus, but how we can talk about him in interfaith dialog. I will do this with a discussion of Anthony Le Donne’s book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?
But this isn’t going to be easy.
For one thing, Le Donne is a thorough-going, card-carrying postmodernist, and postmodernists are a pain in the neck to write about. One reason postmodernists are a pain in the neck is that they’re having more fun being postmodernist than you’re having trying to understand them. Think of postmodernism as Groucho Marx playing the college president in “Horse Feathers”, mocking the faculty with what may be the best song in the Marx repertoire:
Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!
I write this at a time of escalating violence in Israel and Gaza. This is not the place to discuss the violence. But this is a time to discuss why I created this blog.
This blog considers questions of religious difference and identity. I describe religious identity as a good thing, and religious difference as a catalyst for personal and spiritual growth. But the violence in Israel and Gaza is the product of religious difference, at least in part. Some believe that religious difference leads to religious war. This is not my point of view, but now is a time to seriously consider that point of view.
I would like to view interfaith dialog as an anti-war effort. It is a commonplace notion that dialog leads to peace. But dialog can end in deadly violence; nothing prevents this. I would like to argue that it’s more difficult to seek the destruction of an enemy once one has engaged the enemy in dialog. But I’ve had occasion here to examine the dialog from major Jewish-Christian disputations during the Middle Ages, as well as that accompanying modern-day Christian efforts to proselytize Jews, and such dialog did and does not promote peace.
My goal on this blog is to look at early Christianity and its intersection with Judaism from an interfaith perspective. But what does it mean to write from an interfaith perspective? I have discussed here a handful of topics that I imagine to be of interest to Jews and Christians, but these are topics discussed by many authors belonging to different faiths, and to no faith. What makes my discussion “interfaith”?
An inter-national body like the United Nations requires multiple members; an inter-denominational religious service draws on many religious traditions. But I’m one person, with a single religious affiliation: how can I be “inter”? “Inter-“ is a prefix meaning between, among, or within something – but if I try to write from an interfaith perspective, what exactly is it that I claim to be between, among or within?
This is the third and final post in my series on Isaiah 53. In part 1 of this series, I compared the Christian and Jewish interpretations of this verse: Christians view Isaiah 53 as prophecy concerning Jesus Christ, and Jews hold multiple views, with the predominant view being that Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the people of Israel. In part 2 I examined the clash between Christian missionaries and Jewish counter-missionaries over the correct interpretation of Isaiah 53. With this background in place, I can finally turn to what Daniel Boyarin has to say about Isaiah 53 in his book The Jewish Gospels.
Boyarin sets forth his purpose from the outset: he wants to overthrow the commonly accepted notion that Jews were not expecting a Messiah like Jesus. It is often stated that, during the time of Jesus, Jews were looking for (or at least hoping for) a Messiah-king that would restore Israel’s independence and usher in a time of justice and peace. Obviously, Jesus did not fit this conventional description. So according to many scholars, Jesus’ earliest followers explained Jesus’ messiahship by developing a new idea, one never before imagined by the Jews of that time: that the Messiah was supposed to suffer and die to redeem humans from sin.
One of the most common–and least enlightening–exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. Rabbi David Wolpe.
In Part 1 of this series, I looked at one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible, Isaiah 53. For Christians, Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Jews interpret Isaiah 53 in varying ways, but the dominant Jewish interpretation is that Isaiah 53 predicts the redemption of the people and nation of Israel.
To understand the meaning of Isaiah 53, we need go beyond what this chapter says, and beyond how Jews and Christians have interpreted this chapter. To understand Isaiah 53, we need understand how this text has been used over the centuries. Isaiah 53 has been used in ways that have transformed what the text means.