The Far Western Wall

I apologize for not posting last week, and for falling behind in responding to your comments. No excuse other than the usual. Life intervened. Some weeks, it’s easier than others to throw something up here (pun intended).

What’s news: first, esteemed scholar Dale Martin has written an article for the Journal of the Study of the New Testament titled “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous,” which as his titles go is not nearly as much fun as his “Sex and the Single Savior.” Anyway … Martin argues in his new article that Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem “to participate in a heavenly-earthly battle to overthrow the Romans and their high-priestly client rulers of Judea.” According to a Newsweek article, Martin is arguing “that Jesus and his followers were likely expecting that an apocalyptic showdown was on the horizon, one in which divine forces (in the form of angels) would destroy Rome and Herod’s temple and usher in a holy reign.” Evidently, Jesus expected that he and his disciples might be required to do “some fighting” in this apocalyptic showdown. For this reason, according to Martin, most or all of Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords around Jerusalem during Jesus’ last days … and it was this sword-carrying, an act that may have violated Roman law and was certainly frowned upon by the Roman rulers of Judea, that got Jesus arrested and crucified.

Martin’s thesis is provocative, to be sure. But before you dismiss Martin’s thesis out of hand, remember: he is one of the most prominent and respected scholars in the world when it comes to the Historical Jesus. Personally, I can’t figure out how Martin can defend such a thesis. If most or all of Jesus’ followers were carrying swords in violation of Roman law, why weren’t most or all of these disciples arrested? To find out the answer, I’m going to have to find the time to read his article, not to mention the $30 it’s going to take to buy the article. SIGH. The price I pay to keep my readers informed!

Next news: we’ve been sighted and cited by esteemed New Testament scholar James McGrath! McGrath is the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. Dr. McGrath is best known to me as the author of the popular “Exploring our Matrix” blog on the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel – it’s clearly a place you’ve got to go if you want to find people discussing the historical Jesus or Dr. Who, or bunnies discussing creationism. Dr. McGrath was nice enough to note the discussion here about the follower of Jesus who lopped off the ear of the servant of the high priest. At this moment, Dr. McGrath and I respectfully disagree concerning the historicity of this story. The gist of Dr. McGrath’s take is that the story is “puzzling,” but that it’s probably a true story, because … who would make up such a story? The gist of my argument is that the story is puzzling, but that it probably never happened, because … the story is puzzling. (There’s a little more to each of our arguments; I told you this was just the gist.) Again, I can’t get past the evidence that during Jesus’ final days, it was only Jesus who the authorities sought to arrest. Maybe I’m making too much of this evidence. Maybe not. In any event, I’m grateful for my brief back-and-forth with Dr. McGrath.

Finally: something for us to discuss. Friend of this blog Anthony Le Donne has pointed out to me the existence of a “prayer wall” that’s been constructed in a Presbyterian church in Ohio. The wall is pictured above. The wall is a “Prayer Wall” because worshippers at this church can write a prayer on a piece of paper, roll up the paper and place it into a crevice in the wall. The church calls its wall “a visual witness to the work of the Holy Spirit.” Nice. Right?

Does the placing of prayers in the Presbyterian “Prayer Wall” make you think of the Jewish practice of writing prayers and placing them in crevices in the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? It should. That’s what this Presbyterian church wants you to think. “The design of the Prayer Wall reminds us of the Jerusalem Wailing Wall,” proclaims the church’s web site, using an outdated (and to some, undignified) Christian name (“Wailing Wall”) for the Kotel.

The church’s web site goes on to describe the Kotel as “an interfaith holy place of prayer for people from all over the world.” This is a peculiar way to describe what many believe to be the holiest of all Jewish sites. Yes, for certain, Christians can visit the Kotel and pray there, just as I can pray at the Vatican. That doesn’t make the Kotel or the Vatican an “interfaith holy place.”

But I didn’t write this post to complain about this church’s web site. I wrote this post because I’m not sure what to make of this. There’s a church in Ohio that has gone out of its way to take a Jewish practice, one performed at Judaism’s holiest site, and to adopt it for Christian purposes. “Just like the Jews do,” this church seems to be saying. Am I supposed to be flattered by this? Or angered? Or does it not matter?

For once, I’m not going to say what I think. Not yet, anyway. I want to hear: what do you think?

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    It’s a curious story. I’d be interested to know more about the conversation that preceded the erecting of the Presbyterian wall. What did people in this congregation think they were doing? Why was this important for them to do? Whose idea was it? Did anyone object to it? How would they feel about Jews coming to THIS wall and praying audibly and publically in Hebrew?

  • Robert

    “The church’s web site goes on to describe the Kotel as “an interfaith holy place of prayer for people from all over the world.” This is a peculiar way to describe what many believe to be the holiest of all Jewish sites.”

    The prophet Isaiah would not have understood this holiest of all Jewish sites in an exclusivist manner when he called it a ‘house of prayer for all nations’ (56,7). The Christian gospels also present Jesus as combing this verse of Isaiah with Jeremiah 7,11 (den of thieves) during the story of the temple cleansing. This would presumably be the basis for the presbyterian congregation considering this remnant of the temple to still be ‘an interfaith holy place of prayer for people from all over the world’.

    • Robert, be fair. There are many shades of gray between “interfaith holy place” and a place understood in an “exclusivist manner.” The fact that a holy site is open to all does not make it an “interfaith holy place.” As for Isaiah … well, it isn’t easy to consider what our notion of “interfaith” would have meant to Isaiah … or for that matter how he would have understood the major world religions that make up our concept of “interfaith” today. But I don’t think he meant “house of prayer for all nations” to mean that folks should come to the Temple mount to pray to foreign gods.

      • Robert

        Sorry, I thought I was being fair. No, I don’t think Isaiah intended this to mean a place for the worship of foreign gods or idolatry, but I didn’t think these presbyterians intended that either. As for ‘interfaith’, they may have only meant Jewish and Christian, but we would have to ask them what they meant by the term.

        • It would be peculiar if this church used “interfaith” to mean Jewish and Christian only. That’s certainly not how the Kotel operates in practice.

          • Robert

            I suppose it is possible that they meant ‘Jewish and Christian only’, in the sense of ‘no other faiths need apply’, but that is not what I was saying. I think they may have merely had Jews and Christians in mind because they were imitating a largely Jewish practice in a Christian congregation in Akron, Ohio.

  • We have such a prayer wall for our children’s service on Saturdays. To place a rolled prayer in a slot is simply an action, like lighting a candle. It is not called after the Western Wall, but it does remind me of it. That Wall is not part of the ancient temple, but part of what remains of the ‘temple mount’ as expanded by Herod the Great. When we were in Jerusalem, I think we were not encouraged to pray at that wall. (It seemed too busy.) We searched for but did not find the bit of the wall that is buried in the depths of Old Jerusalem. By the way, I have no difficulty with our praying together. Shared prayer against some of our current troubles may be more effective than some of our current violent desires and acts.

    • Bob, I agree completely about praying together. The question is, I think, whether this church is appropriating something that does not belong to them, without permission. I don’t have problems with a prayer wall per se. We Jews can’t claim a monopoly on the practice of writing prayers on paper and then sticking the paper into a wall. I think my problem is more with the church’s web site. To say, “we modeled our wall after your wall,” well, I don’t know what to think of that. To say, “your wall is an interfaith site” troubles me more. I’m happy to have you as a guest in my home, but that doesn’t mean it’s your home too.