In my last post, I looked at what is probably the earliest anti-Jewish statement in the New Testament, Paul’s diatribe in 1 Thessalonians that it’s the Ioudaioi (commonly translated as “Jews”, but possibly meaning “Judeans”) who killed Jesus, persecuted Paul’s followers and murdered the prophets, thus incurring G-d’s displeasure and earning G-d’s wrath. My question there, and here, is: who, exactly did Paul intend to accuse? Did Paul mean to be understood in the way many Christians historically have understood him, to condemn all Jews as being murderers and enemies of G-d? Or is it possible that Paul meant to make a different and more limited statement?
In the discussion following my last post, some of my readers made helpful suggestions on how Paul’s diatribe might be interpreted in a less anti-Jewish way. Following the version of 1 Thessalonians set forth in the New Living Translation of the New Testament, we discussed the possibility that Paul meant to condemn only those Jews directly involved in the death of Jesus and the prophets. But while it might have been possible to distinguish a segment of Jews who played (or did not play) a role in the death of Jesus, we were not able to identify in our discussion what subset of Jews might (or might not) be associated with prophet-killing. There’s no evidence in Tanach that any Jews killed prophets (we have one minor prophet reportedly killed by one King of Israel), but if Paul meant to condemn those Jews who had failed to heed the prophets … well, that would cover pretty much everyone.
Perhaps last time, we approached this question in the wrong way, as a problem in the translation of Paul’s epistle from the ancient Greek into modern English. We approached this question as if, if we lived in Paul’s day and spoke Paul’s Greek, we’d know exactly who Paul meant to condemn. But perhaps Paul’s accusation lacked this kind of clarity from the get-go. Perhaps Paul intended a “fuzzier” sort of accusation.
I’m about to tackle a series of posts here on Christian anti-Judaism and Jewish anti-Christianity. Neither are pleasant topics! But we are devoted here to interfaith discussion of topics at the Jewish-Christian intersection, including our shared histories. Sadly, much of this history is a history of animosity. We must understand this history in order to understand each other, and hopefully, move past this history into a new and friendlier era.
But before we get started … I want to try something new here. The purpose of this site is to encourage interfaith dialogue – encourage this dialogue generally, but also encourage that it take place right here, in the comments to my posts. We’ve had some good discussion here so far, but I want to see if we can do better. So in this post, and maybe in a few posts upcoming, I’ll suggest a topic for discussion in the comments. You can ignore my suggestion, and discuss anything related to my posts that comes to mind … but as my posts can be a bit esoteric, I’ll try to suggest more concrete discussion topics.
Today’s discussion topic: what do you think makes for a “good Jew”? What personal qualities do you associate with being a good Jew? If a Jew is striving to be a better Jew, what should the Jew get better at doing? Don’t be afraid to suggest qualities that might strike you as less than earth-shaking! In the recent Pew Study of Jewish Americans, 69% of Jews said that leading an ethical and moral life is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. But 42% said that having a good sense of humor is essentially Jewish, and 14% said it is essentially Jewish to eat Jewish food, so obviously not everything that makes one a “good Jew” has to be deadly serious.
It is a funny thing about the history of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity: there’s been much written about this subject, but the direct supporting evidence is rather thin. For example, consider the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person. Despite the recent controversy surrounding Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? – Ehrman answers this question with an emphatic yes, Jesus did exist – there is precious little written about Jesus within 100 years of his death outside of Christian sources, and much of what was written is both disputed and tantalizingly brief. To be clear, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus really existed. But it’s unlikely that we’d know anything about Jesus if Christianity had not survived to create and perpetuate its own historical record.
When it comes to the history of first Century Christianity and Judaism, we never have as much information as we’d like. This is certainly the case when it comes to the topic of my last post here, the fiscus Judaicus tax imposed on Jews by the Roman Empire after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E. The sad truth is, we know a lot less about this tax than we wish we knew.
My first two posts here have focused on the works of Daniel Boyarin, in particular his books Border Lines and The Jewish Gospels. It is part of Boyarin’s project to consider religious borders, to destabilize them, and to question their legitimacy. While I’ve been critical of Boyarin, I’ll confess (again) that I admire his project. As Boyarin points out with great eloquence and considerable relentlessness, there’s something in the religious effort (or at least, the effort in Judaism and Christianity) to define who is in and who is out that is – dare I say it? – not kosher. The effort denies us the right to move as necessary from one side of the border to the other, and it creates an untenable position for those located where the border is being defined.
Yet as I wrote in my first post, there may be such a thing as a good religious border. I made a comparison to an open door – the doorway signifies the passage from one space to another, and allows us to assume the roles of host and guest, roles that can be said to have a sacred quality. I could go further and argue that it is a fundamental human right to close one’s doors and claim a measure of privacy. But it’s an open question whether a religion has an analogous right to close its doors, in effect to say who is allowed in and who must stay out.
On this question, let’s consider a terrific article by Rachel Adler, professor of Modern Jewish Thought, Judaism and Gender at USC and Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Dr. Adler wrote a piece in 2004 for The Reconstructionist magazine with the unwieldy title “’To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest’ – Boundaries, Borderlands and the Ethics of Cultural Negotiation.” In this article Dr. Adler eloquently makes the point I tried to make earlier, that the discussion of human diversity is necessarily “talking about the positioning and texture of boundaries”, in that in is through these boundaries that a group maintains “its distinctiveness and its integrity.”