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About this episode:
Jesus was a Jew. But has modern Christianity become divorced from its Jewish roots? Can we recover the distinctly Jewish teachings of Jesus the rabbi? And how should we understand the shared story and differences between these two great religious traditions?
Journalist-priest Rev Giles Fraser tells his own story of reconnecting with his Jewish roots. He engages with Professor Amy-Jill Levine, who has spent her academic life as a Jewish scholar engaging the story of Jesus, in what promises to be a personal and lively exchange on the commonalities and distinctives of Judaism and Christianity.
Rev Giles Fraser is rector of St. Mary’s, Newington and a well known UK journalist and broadcaster. His recent book ‘Chosen: Lost and found between Christianity and Judaism’ tells the story of the personal crisis that followed his resignation from St Paul’s Cathedral and the healing journey of reconnecting with his Jewish roots.
Prof Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her publications on Jesus and Judaism include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Atheism or Christianity? Which makes best sense of who we are?
- Episode 2: God, AI and the future of humanity: Is technology the key to immortality?
- Episode 3: Identity, myth and miracles: Can we find a story to live by in a post-Christian world?
- Episode 4: The fine tuning of the Universe: Was the cosmos made for us?
- Episode 5: The Origins of Life: Do we need a new theory for how life began?
Justin Brierley (JT), Amy-Jill Levine (AJL) and Giles Fraser (GF)
JB: We’ll start with you AJ… Tell us a little bit about growing up and what it was like to essentially I suppose grow up as a Jew in a distinctly Christian community, as far as I’m aware?
AJL: Not only distinctly Christian, but distinctly Roman Catholic… I grew up in New England, in Massachusetts, in a neighbourhood that was almost entirely Portuguese-Roman Catholic. So I broke with Our Lady of Fatima… I used to go to mass with my friends, because it got me out of Sunday school. And when I was a little child I liked going to mass; the services were shorter than they were in the synagogue, but other than that it was pretty much the same thing – it was a bunch of guys in robes, speaking in a language I didn’t understand. And there was a lot of sitting up and sitting down. And the major difference was that you got fed during the mass, but you got fed after Sunday school.
So my parents told me that Christianity – which for them meant Catholicism – was very, very much like Judaism; we worshipped the same God, the one who created heaven and earth. We prayed the same prayers, most notably the Psalms. We take authority from the same books, whether it’s Genesis or Isaiah or the book of Esther – so we’re related. So my initial sense of the Church was that it was like the synagogue we did not go to. Because in the town next door there were three synagogues, and there’s the one we went to, and there’s the one my uncle Arnold went to that my father would never set foot in, because he didn’t like the rabbi. And it was all part of the same thing.
And we all went to public school… So religious education class was after school, and we’d get on the bus that took us to school in the morning, to first grade, to second grade, and we’d talk about what we’d learned in religious education class – I in the next town in Hebrew school, and they at Catechism. And every once in a while we had, ‘you have Moses?!’ – ‘we have Moses!’; ‘you have David?!’ – ‘we have David!’ And then my Christian friends had a bunch of other people, and I’d go home and ask, ‘Who’s this Jesus guy?’ Everybody was named Mary – all the women were Mary – and my parents would say, ‘well, they’re Jews!’ – ‘Oh! Like, they’re part of the family, but like, the family we don’t talk to!’ So my initial sense of Christianity – and it’s still my sense of Christianity – is it’s a relative, and there were some problems; as we aged in the branches, those family have moved in different directions.
And then a little kid said to me on the bus when I was seven, ‘you killed our Lord’. And that created some other questions that were not quite so friendly. So not only as you mentioned have I dedicated my entire academic career looking at Jesus in the Gospels, to recover the Jewishness. I’ve also dedicated it to help Christians read their Gospels and understand their Lord, without having to import anti-Jewish stereotypes. I think Jesus looks fabulous; I think he’s terrific; I would have a glass of wine with him – why, because he’d pay for it – with no problem whatsoever. I don’t think you need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good, and it bothers me that so often that happens in Christian preaching and teaching.
JB: Wow, you’re getting an applause there from Giles. I’m really looking forward to this. I’m looking forward to this conversation immensely, because I think there’ll be a lot of interesting agreement – maybe some disagreement as well as we go along, we’ll see.
Tell us a bit about your story then Giles? Maybe start with the book – call it a ghost story – why is it a ghost story, this book, ‘Chosen’?
GF: Well, it’s a ghost story because… So it’s 10 years ago this October that I resigned from St Pauls Cathedral; occupy movement came and there was all of that – and for half a millisecond in was front-page news in this country, people may remember it… But actually, the story is really about what happened next. And at a sort of very low point, me not knowing quite what I wanted to do with my life, not really having a plan, I was encouraged to go and apply for a job in Liverpool, which was the be the dean of the cathedral in Liverpool. So I got a train up there… I always get to places ridiculously early, and I got to Liverpool like 3 hours early or something, sat outside the station, drank coffee, smoked lots of cigarettes… And then this sort of strange thought wafted. I thought, ‘I know nobody here; what am I doing in Liverpool?’ It feels like a sort of exile, you know? I just don’t know anybody there. And then this thought came, ‘actually, I have one very tenuous connection’ – which is that a distant relative of mine used to the synagogue, for 40 years, in Toxteth. So I got a cab and I went up there.
And I knocked on the door of this synagogue – it was all locked up – and there was a caretaker, it was so fortuitous. And the caretaker showed me in, showed me around this extraordinary synagogue built by Christian church builders, so it felt strangely familiar, quite puginesque. And there on the wall was this huge oil painting of Reverend Samuel Friedeberg, who was my great-grandfather’s brother. And I looked at this painting, and then I lost it – I absolutely lost it. I broke down at the side of the road, and I cried and cried and cried. My father’s… I come from on my father’s side a very, very long line… I mean, we came to this country in the 1820s – one of the earliest Jewish families in this country. And throughout that time, they sort of increasingly sort of lost their Jewishness, I guess. They sort of like changed their name, they merged, they tried to fit in – dealing with anti-Semitism here. And when the war started, my father, who was a little boy in Golders Green, was taken out of the London because it was so dangerous, because the Nazi’s were dropping bombs on Golders Green, and went out to a small country prep school in Biddeford in Devon. And they had little blue crosses on their caps, and Christianity ended up being all he knew. And that’s how I grew up.
And this experience of seeing this distant relative really awoke something in me that I hadn’t properly dealt with, which is something about my past, something about where I came from. And so I live in a household… my father’s Jewish, my wife is Israeli, my two boys are Jewish, we speak Hebrew at home, me quite badly – if you asked my five-year-old what my Hebrew’s like, he’ll say, ‘your Hebrew’s rubbish dad!’ My Hebrew is rubbish! And anyway, we try and sort of live this life where we model a creative relationship between Christianity and Judaism. We live next door to the church; I’m the priest – and yet when we’re in the house, we speak Hebrew and do Jewish festivals. So there’s all of that. So I live that tension and most of the time, it’s wonderful – it’s absolutely creative, and I love what AJ said, it’s fantastic – there are so many things that you get to learn, so much creative… And yet there are times when it’s painful. There are times when it’s really difficult and painful. And that’s what we live, and it’s an extraordinary and wonderful thing.
JB: It’s a super book; I really enjoyed reading it. AJ’s had the opportunity to read it as well, and it is part memoir/family history/theological reflection – obviously going into some detail as well on that whole situation of ten years ago, the occupy at St Pauls and your own resignation – we might get to some of that as well in the course of this show. What was your response to reading the book, AJ?
AJL: I think Giles nailed it when we talked about it as a ghost story. There’s a past that haunts, and sometimes ghosts are friendly, and sometimes ghosts are things you just have to deal with. So I think that’s the right genre, not in the sense of scary, but this is part of my past and how do I acknowledge it, and what does it mean for me today. And that was the part… I mean, besides the history, which I really liked because I’m a historian – but that stuff was familiar. Having a memoir attached to that and showing how this is not only Giles’ personal history but how the history of Judaism and Christianity impacts an individual today, I thought was extremely helpful. Because it shows how relevant the past is, once we acknowledge it, and how difficult it is, if we don’t acknowledge it and don’t wrestle with it.
JB: One of the interesting things about all this of course is that Giles, had your mother been Jewish, you would have been Jewish, ethnically, as it were. But it was by dint of the fact that your father was Jewish, that you are not yourself Jewish. I mean, AJ, maybe you could explain where that tradition comes from, which in some ways is so different to the usual sort of way things work in the world isn’t it – that things descend on the father’s side, rather than on the mothers side?
AJL: Well at the time of Jesus, it actually did descend on the father’s side, and that was the dominant view. And it shifts sometime in the second century, right after the Bar Kokhba revolt, and although the reasons are not clear, a number of them has been given. The one that appeals to me the most – and this is a personal judgment rather than a historical judgment – is in a time of war, there is rape. And what do you do with the children? So if you ensure that there’s a maternal line rather than a paternal line, then the children and consequently their mothers do not find themselves exiled from the community and the horrible things that happen, the traumas continued. So there are a number of reasons for this, but in any case in the second century, it shifts over to the maternal line.
And then because Jews have no ‘head Jew’ to tell us what to do – and if we did we wouldn’t listen anyway! And so we had these different movements in Judaism, as you have different movements in Christianity – you have Anglicans, not all of whom obey the Archbishop of Canterbury, right, and then you the episcopal version and various other versions of whatever that communion is – they’re off doing their own thing. So in the reformed movements – and I don’t know if this is a problem where you are, but here in the States, people keep saying ‘reformed Judaism’, it’s not reformed – that’s Presbyterians. So it’s a reformed movement, where they say if either parent is Jewish, as long as the child is raised in a Jewish household.
So now we have these big questions about who counts as a Jew and who doesn’t count as a Jew. The lovely recollection of brother Daniel, in the book, who is raised as a Jew during the Shoah – during the Holocaust – converts to Catholicism, and then wants to enter the land of Israel under what’s called ‘The Law of Return’ – which is if you were a Jew, you could get citizenship and then they have to take this to the courts to decide, well, this guy is clearly a Jew, because his mum is a Jew, but he’s also a Catholic priest. In or out? Split vote. And he gets in not because he’s Jewish, but because they honoured him and accepted his request. So Jews are still debating this thing.
JB: And the way you end your book Giles is actually sort of asking the question: are my children Jewish or Christian? I mean, what’s your answer to that ultimately?
GF: Well you know, so book ends with me baptising Jonah my youngest in the river Jordan, at the place where by reputation Jesus himself was baptised, by tradition. And the interesting thing about it is that the people who gathered there… I was out in Tel Aviv learning Hebrew, doing ulpan, and the only people we could collect together for that baptism were my Jewish family. So we were there with a Jewish family – they’d never seen a baptism before, they had no idea what this was all about. It’s also the place actually interestingly that the people of Israel – this is again by tradition – the people of Israel first entered into the Promised Land; it’s the same place.
So we sort of gathered there, and it’s an extraordinary place. So this is a place, in geographical terms, one of the lowest places on the earth. It’s a fault line, in terms of geography; it’s a fault line, in terms of politics – you know, so you’re on the border between Jordan and Israel, and it used to be a minefield – it’s only just been cleared. So the idea that there are splits that run through us, and in a way the book is about the history of the sort of divorce, the split between Jesus’ Jewish following, which became Christianity, and Judaism. And it’s a very painful one, and it runs through me and I suspect it will also run in some way through my children – and I hate the idea that I bequeath to them some split. But that’s the reality. But you can see it as a split, or you can also see it as a really important way of reclaiming – just as AJ has done so importantly in her work – reclaiming a richer, deeper sense of the reality of Jesus and his mission and ministry. So I have this division, yes. But at time, it’s not a division…
JB: Let’s talk about that work, AJ. Just give us a sense of what are some of the key missteps you think or mistakes that Christians have often made about Jesus. I mean, where do you begin I suppose?
AJL: Oh dear lord, how much time do we have!
JB: Maybe start with Jesus the rabbi. I mean, how do you conceive of Jesus, I mean, when you strip away the halo and the golden hair and the blue eyes, what sort of a rabbi was Jesus, as far as we can tell from the historical records?
AJL: Yes, well he’s not a rabbi if you think about rabbis from rabbinic literature – anymore than Paul would be a church father, as we think about the Church Fathers from the ante and post-Nicene Fathers. Rabbi is just a title honorific – it’s ‘my master’, ‘my great one’ – it’s like ‘Sir’. He is a teacher. He is a lay teacher; he tends not to cite Scripture very much, and I think when Scripture does get cited, I think that’s the gospel writer coming in and filling in the gaps. I think he has an enormous amount of lay wisdom; I think he’s influenced strongly by the prophetic tradition – he would have heard Scripture in synagogue, it’s what you hear when you grow up. And since he’s not distracted by the Internet or the local lending library – because there is none in Nazareth – Scripture is his base text.
I think personally he had an experience of God. Today we might call those a ‘born-again experience’, or a ‘religious awakening’, or ‘a bolt from the blue’. And it was probably at his baptism, that something struck him – that he was commissioned to prepare his people for the in braking of the kingdom of God. Ok, that’s fine. Where Christian’s get it wrong – oh, well they think that Jews are all struggling to follow every single jot and tittle of the law, and if they don’t, God’s going to snap them with a lightening bolt or condemn them to hell, which makes all Jews either sanctimonious or neurotic. And Jesus comes along and says, ‘don’t worry, be happy’ – when he doesn’t, he actually makes the law more rigorous. The law says don’t murder; he says don’t be angry – that’s harder. The law says don’t commit adultery; he says don’t think about it – that’s harder, that integration of the internal and the external.
A number of Christians think that Jesus came to do away with purity laws. Quite to the contrary – what he does is restore people to states of ritual purity. So that when people who are in states of impurity, like a haemorrhaging woman – it’s probably a vaginal or uterine haemorrhage. Now I know people might be listening to this over dinner and they don’t want to hear such things, but you know, it’s in the Bible. There’s no law saying, ‘you’re a lady, you have to be locked up in some back shed’. There’s no law against touching somebody with leprosy. So what he’s doing is, he’s restoring people to states of ritual purity. When he debates with fellow Jews about the law, like: can you pluck grain on the Sabbath? – Which in fact he’s not doing; his disciples were doing it. That’s a debate at the time, and Giles points this out in the book. You know, the law says, ‘honour the Sabbath and keep it holy’, and I’m just paraphrasing here, you know, one Jew looks at another and says, ‘what constitutes work?’ And now you have two synagogues, because we’re still debating that. So he debates with fellow Jews about how to follow the law, but that doesn’t take him away from the law – you don’t debate something in which you have no investment.
A number of my Christian friends think that Jesus invented feminism, and that first century Jewish women were oppressed and repressed and depressed and suppressed by this horrible patriarchal, androcentric tradition, and Jesus comes along and says, ‘oh no everybody, you see…’ No, to the contrary. If he did, then six out of the twelve apostles would have been women, right. And the mum would have gotten some higher role. He’s a first century patriarchal Jew, who has women followers, as did Pharisees, as did John the Baptist, as did others.
GF: Can I just put it this way: Jesus wasn’t a Christian. This is I think the key mistake, is that Christians think Jesus was a Christian. And Christianity is weird as a religion, in so far as the person who as it were founded it, wasn’t a member of the religion he actually founded. Now this is a very weird business about Christianity and it distorts peoples thinking. Jesus never heard the word ‘Christian’ – that wasn’t in his mind set, ok.
AJL: Giles, can I ask a question about that? Because I like your point, but I want you to develop it just a little bit more. And I think you’re right. So when you say that people think that Jesus is a Christian and he’s not, what’s the connotation of Christian that they’re uploading to what Jesus is?
GF: Well it’s so that they are projecting back onto him a sort of post-Nicene or post-Augustinian or that 2000 years of sort of what has come to be understood as Christianity. But particularly post the sort of stuff that Paul does with Christianity. Now I just don’t think that’s a part of… Jesus was a temple-going Jew who, although he had arguments with the temple – and Jews having arguments with Jews by the way is not an unknown thing – he wasn’t unique in having arguments with the temple authorities. I mean, I have to say, the Qumran lot, probably even more so in terms of their arguments with the temple authorities. But we so readily project back… I mean, we’ve got used to the idea – it’s not a controversial thing to now say obviously Jesus wasn’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed, lots of people have…
JB: We’ve got that far!
GF: Very, very good – that’s great. But now let’s actually keep on going with where that goes and say actually, Jesus didn’t have this sort of fully formed Christian philosophy. Jesus references… This is what I’ve said, and I’d like to hear what AJ says about this. We call it the New Testament – I mean, we’re used to knowing that we shouldn’t call the Old Testament the Old Testament; the sort of supersessionism… I call it the Hebrew Scripture. But the New Testament, there’s not much new in the New Testament, ok. This is the thing that… actually so much of the New Testament is drawn from the book of Isaiah or from the Hebrew Scriptures – doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense as a book, without being understood in terms of the Hebrew Scriptures. So there’s not much new in the New Testament, and that’s what Christians…
JB: So AJ, did Jesus do anything “new” then, or do you think he was just another Jewish teacher doing his thing? And was it Paul or someone else that kind of suddenly took it off in a different way? Why did the Christian revolution take place if he was in a sense so typical of other Jewish people of the time?
AJL: Well part of it is packaging. You can have Jews who were known as healers, and there were other charismatic healers or exorcists at the time, and I think Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. You can have other people who are teachers and they are charismatic. You have people who convince others to leave their mothers and fathers and spouses and children and follow him, and that becomes a sectarian movement. When you put it all together and then you have a group of his followers who are convinced that he is Lord and Saviour and therefore convinced because they experienced him as having risen from the dead, that gives you something that’s quite distinct.
He does say some things that I can’t track elsewhere; he’s the only person I know who comes out and says, ‘you have to love your enemies’. Which is really hard! Jewish law says you can’t mistreat them: if they’re hungry, you’ve got to feed them; if they’re lying in a ditch, you have to take care of them – but nothing says you have to love them. But Jesus just ups the ante a little bit – or a lot! Jesus talks about making a new covenant in his blood – I don’t know anybody else who’s doing that, that’s interesting. So he has his own distinctive parts and a great much of his teaching when it comes to things like ethics, morality – storytelling, that’s part of the culture. I also would not dismiss charisma. Certain people have it and certain people don’t and you can just see this if you watch theatre, right. You get the actor who was hired to play the part and it’s fabulous; you get the understudy and the evening was a disaster – same words, different presentation.
I want to take issue with something that Giles said, right. Because I’m an American and we’re crude and… I actually think that the term ‘Old Testament’ should be recuperated, in the same way that we recuperate words like ‘queer’ – which is perfectly normal term to use these days and can be quite complimentary. Why? Well first of all, last time I checked – which was last night when I was finishing your book – you’re still an Anglican. And in your Old Testament you have Greek stuff. So if you talk about the Hebrew Bible, you’re actually chopping off part of your canon. The Hebrew Bible is a Protestant term – you’re not a Protestant, you’re part of the Catholic community, right? Judith and Susanna, you’ve got the books of the Maccabees. We got the holiday of Hanukkah – you got the books of the Maccabees, it’s a fair trade. So I don’t like the Hebrew Bible, and I also don’t like it because it suggests that Jews and Christians are reading the same canon, and we are not. Because the story that the Old Testament tells, starting with Genesis and ending with the prophet Malachi, is a promise-model. Everything drives towards Jesus. And that’s how his early followers read the text and he may have read it the same way, if he thought he was commissioned in that sense. So it’s a promise-model. And then you get the fulfilment-model, and you get it really coolly, to go back to that baptism scene – you have by the way a lovely picture of you and your child in the river, that’s how the book ends, it was great before the back matter. So what happens, Malachi predicts right at the end of Malachi – the end of the Old Testament – the coming of Elijah to announce the Messianic Age. And then the Gospel of Mark – which is probably the first gospel that we have – begins with John the Baptist in the role of Elijah, announcing not the Messianic Age, but the Messiah Jesus. So it’s a promise-fulfilment model.
So I’m old. I turned 65 last week – I’m old. Old is fabulous – it gets you Medicare, it gets you healthcare in the United States, it gets you discounts at the liquor store…
GF: You know the problem is not about the ‘old’ bit. The problem is that the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ juxtaposition implies this form of supersessionism which in Christianity is a sort of upgrade of Judaism. And this is the problem – seeing it as a sort of like, you know, that’s how it used to be, but now it’s this, ok. And that what’s implied by that, and that is bothersome.
AJL: Yeah, I’d rather shift it… it’s not an upgrade of Judaism; it’s an upgrade of the Old Testament, and that’s correct in the same way that rabbinic literature is an upgrade of the Old Testament. Because both Judaism and Christianity are… or as an upgrade of the Tanakh, right, the Jewish Bible. Because what Christianity is, is commentary on. And nobody’s practising the type of Judaism that Jesus was practising – second temple Judaism. So you’ve got rabbinic commentary over here saying, ‘here’s how we understand Deuteronomy’, or, ‘here’s how we understand Leviticus’. And you’ve got the New Testament over here saying, ‘here’s how we understand Deuteronomy and here’s how we understand Leviticus’. It’s an older text for both of us. I just want old to be respected, and that’s why I want to recuperate that term. Because I can’t find anything in the default that works.
JB: We’ll come back to this in just a moment folks, we’re just going to take a quick break, fascinating stuff. And I do want to talk about the new and old split, because there is a sense in which it’s hard to avoid Jesus doing something new when he takes the Passover meal – the Seder meal – and he does something new with it, you know, in the Eucharist. So we’ll talk about these issues and we’ll talk about maybe a bit about Paul as well, and St Pauls the Cathedral as well, in the course of the rest of the conversation…
JB: Loving the conversation so far folks. You know, your insistence Giles, that the New Testament and Christianity in that sense is not an upgrade on Judaism… I mean, a lot of people will think, well isn’t that the whole point? That Jesus came to do something quite radically new, taking a tradition like the Passover feast, and saying, ‘I am now that lamb; I am the summation of all of this’. And there’s something rather new about that, so is it any surprise that people think about this as a new thing, albeit that obviously in those first years, the movement was still very much part and parcel of Judaism; it was still temple-going Jews who believed that the messiah had come. But that in itself is a novel claim, arguably, isn’t it?
GF: I mean, you’re right obviously, but one of the things that AJ said earlier is that if you go back to the first century, there isn’t a head Jew, ok, that gets to define what Jewishness is, ok. If you go back to this period, there are all sorts of different expressions of Judaism, all of which are arguing with each other, all of which are disagreeing. And Christianity is one of those. They’re all doing something new. So to that extent, quite right, there is something new. But the way in which they’re doing something new is recognisably within the sort of like parameters, the literature of – and we’ve already discussed this and disagreed with it – the Hebrew Scriptures, ok – so let’s just forgive me that AJ for now – or what people might like to say, the Old Testament, you know. There is no way of understanding the whole sort of Messianic Movement which Jesus taps into without understanding the way in which that grows out of the kings and David and then through Isaiah and all the different sort of tributary stuff – doesn’t make any sense without that.
So this is what I mean by there isn’t very much new about the New Testament, is the idea that this is some sort of sparklingly different – it isn’t. I mean, obviously there are differences, but they’re differences that are well within – put it this way – well within the bandwidth of I would say within the first century, legitimately Jewish experience, you know. People are disagreeing about a whole range of things and Christianity is one of them. Christianity begins to become very separate from… or, Jewish Jesus following becomes very separate from other Jews, when it starts to see itself almost increasingly exclusively as a mission to the Gentiles. And that becomes a sort of international phenomena, rather than a phenomena rooted in a particular sort of place. And we’ve learned in the last few years to start talking about somewheres and anywheres, and it’s a little bit like that – there is something about the Jewish experience which is rooted in place and there is something about the Christian experience which becomes as it were international. And that’s when you start getting very different sorts of things.
One of the really interesting things is you know, when Paul starts to think about the Christian experience being there for the Gentiles, he doesn’t deny that it is also there for Jews. But increasingly over the first few centuries, Jewish Jesus followers get written out of the script. They get squeezed from both sides; they get squeezed from the emerging synagogue and they get squeezed from the emerging church. And ultimately, this sort of gets written out of the story. And Christianity defines itself as not Jewish; Judaism defines itself as not Christian, in the first few centuries. And those people who still go to synagogue and think Jesus is the Messiah, they end up being entirely stranded – ideologically written out of the script.
JB: What are your thoughts on that analysis AJ?
AJL: I think that was spot on, particularly the conclusion. Paul himself was not a Christian and Paul doesn’t use the term either. So you have to figure out what’s new with Paul. Paul is a Jew who believes that the Messianic Age has broken in with the death and resurrection of Jesus, ok. So you’re a Jew and the Messianic Age is here, so you might have thought, ‘oh, everybody comes back from the dead’ – because that was on the books. Or all the exiles – all the Jews who had been dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and placed south and west and east – they would all come back to the land of Israel, called ‘the ingathering of the exiles’, including the ten lost tribes, who are far as I know are not the British and have not yet returned. There is no peace on earth; there is no final judgment – but the Messianic Age is here, so how do you know and what do you do?
Well, one of the signs of the Messianic Age – and you can see this in Isaiah or you can see it in Zachariah – is the idea that the Gentile nations will turn from their pagan gods – called idolatry – to worship the God of Israel. So Paul, who has his own experience – it’s not a conversion experience, it’s not like he went from being a Jew to being a Christian – but he has this, ‘oh I’m going from being a persecutor of this movement in the diaspora to its major PR guy’. He says, ‘oh, I am commissioned to bring this good news’ – which is what gospel means – to the Gentile world, to the pagan world. And now he’s going to explain to pagans how this Jewish Messiah who dies on a cross in the land of Israel and whose book is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, that’s what they’re supposed to follow.
And the marketing was brilliant. And what he was able to do is tell these Gentiles, you are now equal with Jews in terms of you don’t have to be like a visitor in the synagogue – you’re equal to anybody else who’s there. And you’re a part of the covenant with Israel. And because he’s a good Jew who knows morality, if you’re hungry we’ll feed you, and if you’re sick we will nurse you, and if you have no family we will be your family, and when you die we will bury you and take care of you. And Gentiles turn to this because it spoke to them in a way that the various pagan cults were not doing. Plus it was free! This was the best market offer in town; you didn’t have to pay for a sacrifice, you got dinner, they fed you – what could be better? You get all the benefits of Judaism…
JB: But you cast this as one of the problems in a sense, Giles, it’s both a blessing and a curse. The universality of Christianity also means it becomes a sort of something that begins once I suppose Rome gets involved to be imposed upon people, and is that your problem with the way that it was ultimately divorced from its Jewish roots?
GF: Well I’ve got a lot of problems, but this is one of them. So one of the things that the Stalinists accused Jews of being was rootless cosmopolitans. That’s a thing that’s regularly accused – that’s not Jews, that’s Christians who are rootless cosmopolitans. Fundamentally, Christianity… Judaism is a religion that has a rootedness in place. Christianity is rootless; it has no ultimate loyalty to place. Now there are good things and bad things about rootedness in place, and there are good things and bad things about, as it were, your internationalism. The bad thing about Christian internationalism is it can very easily sit alongside the desire for empire. So the idea of converting the world and empire and, say the British Empire, those two things were… they cooperated with each other. So that’s part of the problem, ‘I love you, I love everybody – you will all think exactly as I do’. Now that’s a dangerous part of Christianity. You know, ‘I embrace you all, but what I’m really asking you to do is to think like me. I take you seriously, I want you to believe what I do’, but there is a sort of like a dangerous quality to that.
On the flip side, there is a different sort of dangerous quality… it’s not as dangerous actually as Christianity, but there’s a sort of like you can get with Judaism, you can get a sort of like, ‘this is us, this is what we think; we don’t want to convert you, we’re not that bothered about what you think’. That’s not totally true, because it shouldn’t be true – because one of the things that’s there from Abraham through Isaiah and so forth is that the Jewish people who are chosen by God are also a blessing to the Gentiles, to the nations, to all of us. And so you know, there is an obligation on Jews to explain and to model how they are also a blessing to the world. But nonetheless, there is a very, very different sort of experience. And I think there’s good and bad in both actually. And I think it’s a complicated thing, but that’s where I think that for me that’s one of the big tensions.
AJL: This goes back to another era, that some of my friends make… so I’m presuming that most of your listeners have heard of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer says, ‘who is my neighbour?’, and my Christian friends go, ‘oh that’s a terrible question, because everybody’s your neighbour’. But no! Your neighbour is your fellow Jew. And if you read Leviticus, where is says love your neighbour as yourself, in Leviticus 19, that really does mean fellow Jew. The problem is if you read on in Leviticus, which Christians tend not to do, because Leviticus doesn’t come into the church the same way that Isaiah or the Psalms do, is the same chapter in Leviticus goes on to say, ‘you have to love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt’. In other words, Jews have two categories: you have the neighbour and you have strangers, and you have to love them both.
And you can see that in Jesus’ parable of the Final Judgment – the sheep and the goats; ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’. What happens in Christianity is the category of stranger drops out; you’re either the neighbour – which means you’re a fellow Christian, you’re a potential neighbour – or you were a heretic or an apostate or an infidel, and therefore we’re going to kill you. So it’s a question of how do you deal with the other, without trying to make the other you. And that’s the dangerous side of a universalistic rather than as Giles correctly noted, an ethnically based religion. You can convert to Judaism if you want, which makes you a member of the Jewish people, but you don’t have to, and Jews aren’t banging on your door saying, ‘have you met Moses?’
JB: No, they’re not. And what’s your feeling though, I mean, it is obviously an evangelistic religion, AJ. Do you have a problem with that? I mean, is that a downside of Christianity or is it just part and parcel of what the religion is in a sense, you know: ‘go and make disciples of all nations’?
AJL: I’ve had an evangelist come to my door; I just love it! Do you want to start with the Greek or the Hebrew? No, I think Christians ought to evangelise, because Christians are commanded to do so – the Great Commission in Matthew is go make disciples… well, you can translate it ‘all the Gentiles’ and let the Jews off the hook, but that original mission to the Jews never got aggregated – that’s still there. And while Paul is out dealing with his Gentile lot, Peter takes his role as the Apostle to the Jews. So that’s still out there, but it’s a matter of not should you evangelise – if you want to, by all means do so – but how do you do it? And how do you do it with the respect for your fellow Jew or your fellow Hindu or Muslim or whoever? And you do it not by telling the other person what’s wrong with that persons’ religion; you do it by telling the person what’s right with your religion. So I say to my students, if you want to evangelise, you first have to know why you are a Christian and why that means something to you. And if the answer is simply because this is how I was raised or because I got social justice, that’s not going to carry – got that anyway.
JB: What do you say though to a Jewish person who does convert, say, to Christianity, and then goes on to say, ‘now I feel like I’m a fulfilled Jew, that I do know the Messiah has come’. Do you find that patronising, arrogant? Or do you say, well, hey, that’s your way of looking at it?
AJL: I find it an unfortunate term, because it’s going to come negatively to most Jews who hear it. And anything that demeans one particular group or sounds like it demeans a particular group, I don’t think is a helpful way of expressing somebody else’s religion. So if you say, “I had an emptiness and now I feel fulfilled” – which is a personal experience, which rings true to that individual, that’s terrific. That’s different from making a universalising claim that this is the fulfilment of Judaism – this is the fulfilment of me…
JB: Yeah. And what’s your… because I don’t get the sense that you’re a great fan for instance Giles of the Messianic Jewish movement, as such. You don’t particularly have a burden to see Jewish people accept Jesus as the Messiah, would that be fair to say Giles?
GF: Correct. I’m very nervous of – and wouldn’t myself be any part of – a sort of mission to the Jews, you know. By the way, I think Jewish people have a particular relationship with God, which is there in the Bible, and I think God knows what he’s doing with his relationship with the Jewish people, and he doesn’t need my help, ok. And there is a distinction between the distinction running throughout the Bible between the relationship of God and the Jews and the relationship of God and the Gentiles. I’m a Gentile, but I am very nervous… But not least, let’s just name it – I’m very nervous of the Christian mission to the Jews because of the history of anti-Semitism with which Christianity has been bound up. I mean, just so phenomenally – forced conversions, violence – for centuries, ok. And conversion has been a part of this story of anti-Semitism. So I’m sorry that that won’t… I mean, I know, of course I know Jewish people who have converted to Christianity, and they bring a rich experience of God with them, and I celebrate that. But I will be no part of trying to convert Jews to Christianity.
AJL: But there’s nothing stopping you from bearing witness, right? So it’s not a conversionary effort, so I tell my students, listen, don’t set up a separate mission to Jews – just in terms of cost-benefit analysis, you can invest your time better elsewhere, most Jews aren’t going to pay attention. But if you want to witness to Jews, do so by how you act, right. And if that works, that’s terrific. But if you follow your Old Testament or even your New Testament, Jews are still under covenant – that covenant was never abrogated. And if you want to make Jesus the final judge, which is kind of how he functions in the New Testament in certain passages, then that’s up to him. And he gets to determine who’s saved and who’s damned – that’s not your job.
GF: AJ, I have enough problems witnessing to the people of south London, ok. So this is… I’ll just chew off as much as I can manage, you know. So I’m not going to go into the whole idea of the conversion of the Jewish people – there’s so much rubbish been talked about, about you know when there are those people who believe that only if you convert the Jews to Christianity, only then the Messiah will come again and all of that sort of stuff. I just don’t go there; I have enough here in south London to sort out without worrying about that.
JB: Well it sounds almost AJ in this big conversation that you’re more keen for Giles to wear his faith on his sleeve when it comes to Christianity than almost he is, which is…
AJ: No I’m not keen about conversionary issues, but I am also not keen on telling Christians that they should not bear witness to their faith. Because I don’t think you sacrifice the particulars of your own religion on the altar of interfaith sensitivity. Which is one of the things I appreciated about Giles’ book – he is a Christian, you can tell.
GF: I am, yeah.
AJL: He doesn’t hide it.
JB: Absolutely. But in a sense though Giles, as a Christian, presumably you do believe that Jesus is the Messiah – the long awaited one, the one who fulfils all the hopes and fears of all the years, you know.
GF: I do.
And in that sense, there is presumably a distinctive here, between you and AJ, as much as you agree on a great deal. AJ, how do you respond to that central claim of Christianity, that Jesus was the fulfilment of all of that long awaited Messiah, and indeed his death and resurrection, you know, which obviously as you say, launched this movement in a very different way to any other messiah-led movement of the first century.
AJL: Right. So my question to my students – and my primary job at Vanderbilt is to teach people who want to be Christian ministers how to read the New Testament, which is a weird job for a Jew in Tennessee, you know, I grant that – is to say to them, ‘if you believe all this, what difference does it make in your own life? And if it makes no difference, go believe in the giant spaghetti monster or believe in some other god from some other religion – because it doesn’t matter’. So they’ve got to figure out… If Jesus comes back in the body, what does that tell you about your own body? Because he could have come back as Jesus the friendly ghost. He’s in a body; he eats – what does that say about your body? If he comes back and there’s a sense of something beyond death, well what does that do when you’re counselling somebody who’s dying, and what do you say? And how does this impact your belief system? I don’t have that belief system. But I know that Paul did and I know that Matthew did. And I know what I teach in a nondenominational school, so I know what Episcopalians think and I know what Lutherans think – at least what they’re supposed to think. And so how does this particular worldview then function in your own life and how does this help you read the text? So I don’t have to believe it in order to be sympathetic to it. I’m a teacher; I’m not a practitioner.
JB: And what do you make of that Giles? I mean, to what extent does the radical claim there of Christianity make a difference? I mean, is this a serious disjunct, you know. I suppose I’m trying to find if there is a kind of point at which… I mean, can you just say it’s all…
GF: I believe Jesus is the Son of God. So this is the point at which the creator of heaven and earth enters into our lived reality in time and space and makes a difference. Now, Jews aren’t going to accept that – clearly not. But that’s the basis of my faith. I just don’t think you can understand what that really means in religious terms without understanding the biblical context for that and the biblical context that is also fundamentally, as it were, Jewish. So that’s what’s going on here. Yes, absolutely. I’m quite a straightforward, boring, orthodox Christian in so far as I think that there is something extraordinary about what happens with the incarnation and that God enters time and space in a unique way to bring a completely different sort of relationship between humanity and God.
JB: I wouldn’t describe you as boring, though you may be orthodox, Giles. But one of the bits I enjoyed most in the book actually was when you talked about St Pauls. And again, set the scene for those who may not be familiar with this, especially listeners overseas who watch and listen to Unbelievable – the occupy movement that took over the area around St Pauls and ultimately led to you feeling as canon of St Pauls you had to resign, in terms of what happened. And then you make this fascinating connection with the temple in Jerusalem and the way that there was a sort of purity code if you like, and that in some ways what happened at St Pauls was reaching back to that sort of sense of something pure was being defiled by these dirty, smelly protestors…
GF: There’s so much to say here Justin, so much to say about this, and I’ll try and keep this… So let’s just do the history bit about me. So for those who doesn’t know, I used to be Canon Chancellor of St Pauls Cathedral – that’s the sort of like the canon theologian, I guess, there. St Pauls Cathedral – the mother Church of England – you know it was my dream job, fantastic place to be. Occupy comes ten years ago – that’s the complaint against global capitalism. They parked themselves right outside the cathedral. The cathedral ums and ahs about what they want to do for several weeks, and in the end decide they want to evict them. I don’t go along with the idea that you should evict peaceful protesters, potentially with violence, in the name of the church. And when the cathedral decided to go ahead with this, I resigned. So that’s what happens to me.
Now, there are lots of very interesting theological things that happen in the course of this. One of the interesting things… St Pauls itself was… Christopher Wren was fascinated by the Jerusalem temple. There was a model of the Jerusalem temple that had done the rounds a few years before… it was a sort of European… it was almost a travelling circus really of the temple – great big model. Wren may or may not have been a mason, which were obviously obsessed with the temple and how the temple works. So Wren himself was really sort of like a student of the Jerusalem temple, or certainly what they thought the temple was them. And St Pauls is a homage to the Jerusalem temple, put it that way.
In the course of… one of the things that happens in the course of the occupy protests is an unfortunate situation where it’s a woman – an elderly woman – goes into the cathedral and is taken short, and I think she had… personally I think she had mental health issues, and there was a problem, and she evacuated her bowels in the cathedral. Now, this is the very interesting… theologically this becomes, for me, a very interesting thing. So the question is, is this a social justice issue, which you as it were, clean it up – it’s not very nice to clean it up, but you clean it up, you look after the woman and you see this in social justice terms. Or is this some sense of ritual defilement, ok, that’s going on here.
Now this is very… I mean, it may not be all that much of an interest to you all listeners, but actually it would have been of real interest – this sort of thing – to people in the first century. This is really the sort of thing that they would have been exercised by. The question about the relationship between, as it were, moral defilement and ritual defilement. And there’s quite a bit of detailed stuff in the book, where I try actually in a sense against my instincts – and my instincts are sort of the moral side – to try and reclaim what a sort of ritual purity might be and why it’s important. And for me that was a part of the book that required quite a lot of the gears to go round, as a sort of lefty liberal priest, to try and reclaim something of this purity stuff. Which you know, part of me is suspicious of, you know, to actually say, come on, let’s try and really think through why this is important. And you know, I think that’s probably some of the theology there is quite, I don’t know, it’s quite detailed, and quite difficult to go through, but that was some of the most important stuff for the book.
JB: Any thoughts on that particular chapter yourself AJ?
AJL: There are certain parts of the Jewish tradition in the second temple period that Christianity takes and runs with, one of which is the sacrificial system in the temple system. And Judaism, following the destruction of the temple in AD70, reboots and says, ‘ok, we lost the temple to the Babylonians back in the sixth century, we’ve now lost another temple, we’ve been there, done that, we know how to do this’. How do we locate that divine presence in the absence of the temple? And the church went with what eventually became the sacrifice of the mass, or the idea of the crosses as a sacrifice, and then you get… I mean, the New Testament is a very, very bloody book. So you get the blood of Jesus all over the place, which when you think of it is kind of weird because crucifixion is not exsanguination, but nevertheless. And what Judaism did is it shifted from place to text, so that for Judaism the incarnation of God – the word of God taking on flesh – is the Torah scroll. And it’s also the tree of life and it is the presence of the divine brought to the congregation during the worship service, and in effect undressed and read and then redressed and then put back in this nice little house as you would do with the Eucharist.
So the church takes some of that temple architecture as we’ve seen and some of the temple idea of sacrifice – you can really see this in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which I have to explain to my students, Jews don’t read because it’s in the New Testament. And Jews say: ok well we still know that blood sacrifices are vexatious, but you know, even in parts of Leviticus, you can have forgiveness of sins with just basically it’s a vegetarian option. So we no longer have blood sacrifice, but we do… well we have options, we’ve always had options, so let’s run with the options. And what we’ll do is we’ll marginalise the role of the priest and replace the role of the priest – and this was already happening with the Pharisees – we’ll replace the role of the priest as the teacher and liturgical leader, with the role of the synagogue ruler and then eventually with the role of the rabbi.
GF: I do want to say this is a very interesting business, because this is one of the areas, as a sort of like on the more Catholic spectrum of Christianity, and so the sacrifice of the mass is something that… I just celebrated mass like an hour ago. And you know, what happens with Christianity and Judaism and with the destruction of the temple is you could say that Christianity maintains more of the sacrificial imagery than Judaism does. Judaism becomes, as it were, a religion of studying the book and all of that sort of stuff, and the text. But Christianity through the Eucharist, through the person of Jesus, retains this sacrificial element.
Now of course, you know, you could say that the temple will one day be rebuilt and sacrifices will return and Jewish priests will return and so forth, which is obviously a highly political statement as well. But Christianity retains a great deal of that sort of sacrificial imagery that’s there within the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures, in a way that the developing rabbinic Judaism doesn’t really. Now that’s a very interesting complexity about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures.
AJL: I think that’s spot on.
JB: I think you have a question for Giles, AJ, around… on a practical level, where all this talk of how we understand…
AJL: And not just for Giles – for any Anglican who happens to be listening in, and I hope that your survey is not like, ‘team Giles’ and ‘team AJ’ and then like, the American… I worry about that, it’s like, vote for the Jew! What I would really like to see – and I actually gave a sermon on this at the national cathedral, which is an episcopal cathedral here in the United States, in March during Lent, because they put me in the pulpit virtually. I would like to see changes in lectionary readings. I think there are too many appearings of Old Testament readings with New Testament readings that have exactly that supersessionist approach, and there’s no reason for that. The Anglican Church last year came out with a text called ‘God’s Unfailing Word’, and it’s about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. It’s very long, it’s very British – it goes on and on and on. But you can find some really good gems in there. And I think it would be great if that could serve – or at least a shortened version could serve for a study base for Jews and Christians to start talking to each other.
I want Anglican clergy to learn about second temple Judaism, so that they do not have to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. And to do that you don’t learn from rabbis, because most rabbis know nothing about second temple Judaism, because there’s no second temple Jewish text that has relevance to contemporary Judaism – like the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example. So you need an academic who knows what’s being preached on Sunday morning to come in and do that. And I want Jews and Christians to be able to attend each others worship as guests, without being pressured and knowing what they can and cannot do or should and should not do, so that we can better know each other. And one way better to know each other is to know how we worship and what we say.
I find it is as a Jew going to Christian worship, whether it’s an Episcopal church or a Lutheran church or a Methodist church or a Catholic church – or whatever it is – I find it rings true in so many ways to my own tradition, and I can appreciate it as a guest. But so often what happens is somebody will make a gratuitous, anti-Jewish comment, and it ruins the entire service for me. So I want to be safe in Christian worship because I like it, and I learn from it and I’m often inspired by it, and I don’t want to be disrespected at the same time. And I want the same thing to happen in synagogues, because I have heard a number of rabbis gratuitously make anti-Christian comments, when they don’t have to – because rabbis know even less about Christianity, particularly the orthodox rabbis, than Christian ministers know about Judaism.
JB: Giles, your thoughts on all of those suggestions?
GF: I did some teaching about Christianity the other day at Bar-llan University, and I was very surprised at how little they knew about Christianity, I mean, really how little they knew about Christianity. AJ… I’m sorry this is boring if you want us to disagree with each other, you’re not going to find that Justin, because AJ is absolutely right, I mean, she’s just a font of wisdom about all of this and I just second everything. My wife is Israeli; my wife is Jewish – but she’s the vicars wife, so she comes… she doesn’t come to church, but occasionally she does, she comes to support me. She usually makes the cakes; she makes a damn good cake for after church. But occasionally she’ll come to church. She came to church around Easter time, and I get there to read the Gospel – I go to the centre of church, and I read the Gospel, and I go, ‘they were hiding in the upper room for fear of the Jews’, ok. Now I’m saying this, and my wife and my two Jewish boys are in there, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘what on earth is going on here? What am I saying?’ Now, there are modern translations of the New Testament – Bentley Hart’s one is an obvious one – where actually they’re not described as Jews in this passage, they’re described as Judeans – an interesting academic argument, which I’d be very interested to know what AJ thinks about.
But nonetheless, there are a whole range of subjects… I spent my day today Justin, listening to a pontifical conference that happened a couple of years ago in the Vatican on the subject of the Pharisees, for instance. Now, if you ask Christians to do a word association on the Pharisees, they’d give you ‘hypocrites’ – they’d give you all this sort of stuff. Now this is extraordinary stuff that we have here, you know, that we have a particular sort of religious experience and a group of religious people who are… I don’t think it’s too much to say demonised, in the way we understand things. And we really have to sort of like work out what’s going on here. And you know, is it safe to go… If my wife or AJ comes to church, what do we do with those texts which talk about Jews as being hypocrites, which talks about the fear of Jews – which indeed in Matthew’s Gospel, you have, ‘blood is upon you and upon your children’, and all that sort of stuff. By the way, let’s just have this nailed in this conversation – the Jews did not crucify Jesus, ok. That was a Roman instrument of torture, and only Romans could put someone up upon it, ok. This is what Romans did to keep people in their place. And there is something utterly disgraceful about the way in which this Roman instrument of torture and the death of Jesus has been linked to Jews for centuries. So we have a lot of work to do.
And I’m going to say one more thing Justin, and I know you want to come in. One of the problems about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is about the relationship of Christianity and empire and power. And what’s happening in the last 1500 years is Christianity is getting stripped of its power; Christianity is getting stripped of empire. We’re beginning to lose that association with secularisation. And I think we have an opportunity for Christian’s and Jews to talk to each other, that only recently begun, because of the way in which Christianity is being stripped of its power. Sorry that was a little rant, I apologise.
JB: No, a great rant; a really interesting rant. I mean, if I may be the one to try and introduce at least a note of division then, again, what about those – and I fully accept that there are many things that Christians could do better to not alienate and frankly insult their Jewish friends, when it comes to their churches or worship services. But in the end, isn’t ultimately there a natural sense in which a Christian will inevitably think of their faith as a fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. Just in terms of that you Eucharist you only recently celebrated Giles as I mentioned, it is in a sense Jesus saying, ‘I am now the true temple, the lamb… all of those things were just pointers ultimately to me coming and fulfilling them all’. So there’s a degree to which if a Jewish person finds that offensive, that’s going to be difficult to avoid ultimately, isn’t it Giles?
GF: Correct; that’s true. The thing is about seeing Jesus as the messiah – as the fulfilment of God’s promise – is, as it happens, there are enormous amounts of people, dozens of people in Jewish history, who Jews have thought of as being the messiah. I spend quite a bit of time in my book looking at the very recent one, which is the Lubavitch. And the recent Lubavitchan rabbi, Rabbi Schneerson, was seen by a number of his followers to be the messiah. And this offends many Jews, but it doesn’t stop people from thinking that the followers of Rabbi Schneerson were Jews. No one actually goes, ‘they weren’t Jews’ – they just think they’re a bit weird, they think they’re wrong; they get offended by them. You go to Israel, and my father-in-law has a farm in the Jerusalem forest, and there’s a massive great big picture of Rabbi Schneerson on the wall of the farm there. But I mean, a lot of Jews would think, ‘this is ridiculous’, and some think he was the messiah. But that relationship does not break down in the same way that Christianity and Judaism has broken down.
Now why has it broken down? It’s not broken down because of the questions you asked Justin. It’s broken down because of power. It’s broken down because of the way in which Christianity related itself to power. It’s not a theological… I mean, there are theologically differences, but we can all manage differences. We can all manage differences of view. But when historically Christianity has great power and has persecuted Jews for centuries, this is the problem. And this is what creates a double-sensitivity, triple-sensitivity about what we’re doing. So it’s not about, you know, when I celebrate the Eucharist I think – of course I do, I absolutely do. I’m an orthodox, Catholic Christian. So I do think those. But I don’t think Jews get terribly offended by that at all. I think what they get offended by, is the fact that for centuries this language has been the language of persecution, and that’s what has to be addressed.
JB: Yes. AJ, anything to add to that?
AJL: Yes, and I think I could do this quickly. You see your original question: is it a problem, the Christian claims – and I’m using these terms forcefully – that the Old Testament points to Jesus? Well, because it does. The Old Testament directly points to Jesus, because the New Testament tells you that it does, you know. Matthew’s, ‘this was done to fulfil what was said by the prophets’ – he is continually referring back. Does the Tanakh point to Jesus? The answer is no it doesn’t. So at the risk of self-promotion, my friend Marc Brettler – who’s my co-editor for the Jewish annotated New Testament – and I published a book…
GF: Which is by the way brilliant and everybody must get that, it’s absolutely fabulous by the way.
AJL: Why thank you! I didn’t know you read me… called, ‘The Bible without Jesus’. So if you’re a Christian and you say, ‘well, Jesus fulfils all this stuff’, the answer is, ‘of course he does – and I can show you how it works’. But if you say to a Jew, ‘Jesus fulfils all this stuff’, the Jew can say, ‘no he doesn’t – and I can take exactly those same passages and show you what else they mean’. So our problem is the sense of a zero sum game, which from a theological perspective suggests that God only plays in one lane, and God has no sense for diverse cultures or human imagination. And it also suggests that God’s covenant with Israel has been abrogated, which as far as I can tell from the Bible, didn’t happen. And from Christian preaching, didn’t happen. So if we could figure out how to stop wrestling over this text that would be great.
And finally, on the tapes of the Pharisees Conference, which was May of 2019, the book of all those papers plus others is coming out – I’m one of the co-editors – is coming out in December. And we got a very nice audience from the pope, because when you have this big conference in Rome, you can get an audience with the pope. And the pope doesn’t write the pope’s talks, because he’s busy being pope. So you have the conveners of the groups who write the talk, so I get to be one of the writers of the pope’s talk, which according to my husband made me like a Holy Ghost writer. And in this statement that the pope read, which is now on the Vatican website, the pope says, ‘stop using Pharisees as negative examples, because it’s bad history and the history of using that image is bad for Jewish-Catholic relations – don’t do it’. How nice if that message got across. There were other things to say, when you hit those passages in lection.
GF: Justin I’ve forgotten the person who said this, and AJ will know, but there’s a very interesting story that someone once told about this difference. And so the story is that the Messiah comes, and there’s a group of Christians and a group of Jews sat round. And the Jews go, ‘this is the first time you’ve come isn’t it; this is the first time you’ve come’. And the Christians go, ‘this is the second time you’ve come; this is the second time you’ve come’. And there’s a pause and the Messiah goes, ‘actually I’ve come many times before, but you’ve been too busy arguing with each other to notice’.
AJL: That’s lovely.
GF: Now, I sort of love that, that text – it’s like actually there’s more than unites us than divides us. And that’s what it says to me, and that’s where I stand.
JB: Yeah. Such an interesting conversation. Look, let me mention some of AJ’s fabulous books, as well, before we finish up our time, because… ‘The Misunderstood Jew’, ‘The Church in the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus’, ‘Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi’ and indeed, ‘The Jewish Annotated New Testament’, are all available and I’m sure a part of the library behind you somewhere Giles as well. These are all… if you want to dig further into some of the fascinating stuff AJ’s only scratched the surface of when it comes to the Jewishness of Jesus, that would be a great place to start.
I mean, very personal question just to end here, AJ, for you. Are you waiting for the Messiah as a Jew yourself, or do you approach that in a different kind of way yourself personally?
AJ: When I’m in the synagogue and I’m praying a full Hebrew liturgy in a modern orthodox synagogue, of course I am. And when I’m outside the building it’s not what most occupies my concern. There’s an old medieval commentary that says, ‘if you’re about to plant a tree and you hear the Messiah is coming, finish planting the tree’. And I’m going to go with that.