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Each month Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. answers questions regarding process thought and faith.
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How do Christians understand the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures?
For biblical literalists, the question is whether God controlled the writing of these documents. The standard answer is Yes, except that with some of the later writings, called “apocryphal,” the answer is No for most Protestants and Yes for Catholics. Obviously process thinkers join with mainstream Protestant scholarship in approaching matters in a very different way. No scriptures are inerrant. All are inspired in the broad sense that God played a role. Some are “more inspired” than others. And some relate to more important events than others.
All scriptures have “authority” in that we should take them seriously and respectfully and be prepared to learn from them. This applies to the Qur’an and other scriptures as well. And it applies to the writings of the church fathers and the decisions of councils as well as the Talmud.
To have authority is not to be above criticism. On the contrary, the more authority a text enjoys, the more important it is to critique it. Given all this, it is obvious that in both the Christian scriptures and the Hebrew ones, some texts have more authority than others, and all are to be appropriated critically. God’s inspiration has played a role in all. Human factors have played a role in all.
Every literate community gives special authority to some texts. This is recognized in the secular world. In courses in English literature some past writings are considered an essential part of the education of the elite of the next generation. Others are optional. Religious communities typically develop large bodies of literature. Within this vast literature they give special authority to some. In the Abrahamic traditions, this selection has taken on a special and official character. Some are canonized and others are not.
In the early church the only canon was the Jewish one. What we now call Christianity was a form of Judaism. There was intense dispute as to whether Jesus was the promised and expected one. Those who thought so, led by Paul, read the Jewish canon in one way. This led to a sharp break with ethnocentric Judaism. The majority of ethnic Jews read their scriptures in a way that preserved their ethnocentric emphasis. These scriptures can still be read in either way.
Christians have canonized a second body of literature. This affirms the Jesus-centered interpretation of the Jewish scriptures and develops its implications. The canonization of this body of writings transformed Christianity from a Jewish sect into a different community and tradition. For many Christians the tendency was not so much to interpret the Jewish scriptures as to critique and even reject them, implying thereby that those who had rejected this interpretation had been correct. Fortunately, the church as a whole retained the Hebrew Scriptures. Nevertheless, the church understood that the covenants between God and Israel were, through Jesus, replaced by a new covenant between God and those who accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of the divine promise to Israel.
This established as central to Christianity a view of supersession, that is, the new covenant between God and those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah superseded the old one between God and a particular people. The church was now the new, and therefore the true, Israel.
Paul already saw that this interpretation of the situation brought about by the decision of most Jews to deny that Jesus was the anticipated Messiah could lead to contempt of Jews by those who put their faith in Jesus. He wrote strongly against this tendency in his letter to the Romans. But the tendency persisted through the centuries.
During the period when Jews and Christians both suffered persecution at the hands of Rome, the practical consequences of the Christian supersessionist claim were limited. However, when Christianity became the dominant religion, the status of Jews was tragically affected by it. Christians differed with regard to how Jews should be treated in predominantly Christian countries, but the implicit, if not explicit, teaching of supersession itself was virtually universal.
The feelings engendered have been called in recent times “anti-Semitism.” This term is drastically misleading, since the opposition was not racial. Ethnic Jews who became Christian were not viewed negatively, unless there was suspicion that they were not really converted. Today, those who support Palestinians are certainly not against ethnic Semites. However, that Christian teaching has encouraged contempt or even hatred toward Jews is an historical fact of great importance.
No doubt in the modern world national feeling has played a large role in the persecution of Jews. Modern nationalism is a problem with which Christianity has not wrestled adequately. The anti-Jewish teachings of the Nazis were clearly nationalist. To Nazis religious beliefs were not important. My only point is that there is nothing in Christian teaching that supports nationalism. Sadly the anti-Jewish writings of Martin Luther could be used by Nazis in support of his racist anti-Semitism. But in this paper I am concentrating on the theological aspect of the problem.
During and after World War II, the Christian theological community was finally awakened to its responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust. Theologians realized the problem lay fundamentally in the supersessionist teaching that had for many centuries been inherent in almost all Christian theology. A number of theologians undertook to re-think Christianity in a non-supersessionist way. Their tendency was to assert that in Jesus a new covenant was established that allowed Gentiles to receive many of the blessings previously granted only to Jews but that this in no way invalidated the previous covenant between God and the Jewish people.
This was a brilliant move that actually created a new relationship between Jews and Christians. In a Christian context, Jews could accept the role of equality that this provided, especially because the formulation put them in the position of seniority and priority. By interpreting this new theology to mean that Gentile Christianity was a secondary outgrowth of Judaism, the self-understanding of Jews as the Chosen People with special promises from God was not challenged. Indeed, the Christian theologians typically worked hard to avoid any challenge to traditional Jewish claims. Although there are certainly some groups of Christians who continue to teach in ways that question any ultimate validity to Jewish self-understanding, the major Christian bodies try hard to avoid any form of supersessionism.
Until recently, we have simply rejoiced in the changed relationship to Jews. We have treated the achievements of our theological colleagues as pure advance. It has not been hard for us to become more modest in our claims for Christianity, since there is so much in our history for which we need to repent.
Nevertheless, we now find that the new historical situation brings to light the limitations of the solution with which we have rested content. Through the centuries, among those who denied that Jesus was the expected one, there were diverse views of what in fact was expected. Some Jews minimized expectation altogether identifying their faithfulness with obedience to Jewish law and leaving the historical outcome to God. Others had visions of a Messianic age that would bring peace and good will to the whole world. Some put emphasis on an eventual return of Jews to the Holy Land, but still in varied ways. It seemed appropriate for Christians, comparably confused about the “Second Coming,” to leave these matters to Jews.
However, one particular strand of Judaism, with one particular interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, has risen to dominance in the Jewish community. This is Zionism, a particularly ethnocentric and militant doctrine. Its rise to power was strongly opposed by many Jews. Its dominance is challenged by many today. But the historical reality of its present dominance and the tragic consequences cannot be denied.
Even within Zionism there is variety. For some it meant only that Jews should have a home, a safe haven, in their ancient homeland. Many Christians felt that this was indeed desirable and supported the first stages of its practical realization despite the profound suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people. But clearly the dominant group of Zionists is not satisfied with that. They wish to reestablish boundaries achieved occasionally by ancient Hebrews and to dominate, if not eliminate, all other inhabitants or the region. This can be supported as a legitimate Jewish goal only by an interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures profoundly antithetical to the Christian reading.
There is also the historic fact that many Christians have woven an apocalyptic vision from a combination of Old and New Testament sources that provides strong political support for Zionism. In order to cease teaching supersessionism, the old-line churches relativized the claim that the original Christian interpretation of the Jewish scriptures was correct. We affirmed that other interpretations, namely those chosen by our Jewish friends, have equal claim to be valid. We have thus disempowered ourselves from criticizing Zionism.
We could, of course, say that although Jews have every right to be Zionist and to act on its teachings, we can still point to the errors of the teachings of its Christian supporters. But it is hard to assert that historical ideas and acts that are morally and religiously right for one group are wrong for another. The time has come to re-engage in the interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures.
We may retain the judgment that as long as the alternative interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures chosen by Jews have their primary effect only on how Jews choose to live, their choices as valid, and we ask them to accept our choices as equally valid. But when either their choices or ours massively affect the wellbeing of others, we must engage these choices in the context of our own deepest convictions. We believe that to justify brutal treatment of others from the Hebrew Scriptures is to misread those scriptures. We can no longer be silent about this.
We will speak out with deep regret for the rift it may cause with many of our Jewish friends. On the other hand, there are Jews who share with us the sense that contemporary forms of Zionism violate the Jewish faith at a deep level. We can support them and ally ourselves with them. To oppose contemporary Zionism is not to be anti-Jewish. It is to express our conviction that this is not the true expression of the Jewish spirit. We will resist the efforts of some Jews to exploit our desire for personal friendship by trying to silence us. The prophetic tradition which is Israel’s greatest gift to the world, and which is still wonderfully alive among Jews, calls on us to speak.
Is this a return to supersessionism? In one sense, yes. Long before Jesus, there was within Israel, through developments in both the prophetic and the legal traditions, a supersession of a narrow ethnocentric tribalism by monotheism. There was also a move from thinking that the one God was interested only in the historic destiny of the Jewish people to the belief that this God was the creator of all and cared for all. There was a move from thinking that Israel’s election was simply for the benefit of Israel to the belief that Israel should be a light to the nations.
This is, of course, a Christian view; so I could be accused of renewing Christian supersessionism. I will take that risk. But I believe that most Jews would deny that these beliefs are exclusively or primarily Christian. They are part of what Judaism and Christianity have in common. They do supersede ideas, also found in Hebrew Scriptures, that depend on the ancient henotheism that preceded Israel’s great gift of monotheism to the world.
Certainly the appeal to such teachings does not mean that Christianity as a whole supersedes Judaism as a whole. If one makes a sweeping judgment of the two communities over the course of history, I would guess that Judaism has done better than Christianity. But when confronted with exploitation, persecution, and genocide, whether by Christians, Jews, imperialists, nationalists, or anyone else, Christians and Jews are equally called to say No. If we must compete, let us compete in the pursuit of peace and justice.