Monday, February 18, 2008

More than mere Satchel Bearers

That's the title of a piece in the latest Tablet, by a Jewish writer, responding to the changes in the Good Friday prayer of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass that were recently promulgated by the Vatican.

As expected, many Jewish groups aren't happy. The main reason the article suggest is that in the Jewish mind, any Christian talk of conversion automatically raises the specter of the past, of persecution, pogroms and the "teaching of contempt" which the Church has, supposedly, moved away from. [It has, and rightly so!] But more than this, the Church needs to confront the whole question of Christian mission which, the author acknowledges, is central to Christianity, and its relations to the Jews, something the Church hasn't really done to date. The author then talks a bit about the experience and witness of the Church Fathers (the phrase "satchel bearers" as applied to the Jewish people is from St. Augustine. They were "satchel bearers of revelation" until the coming of Christ), which is less than exemplary, as a caution, and suggests that the Father's anti-Jewish polemic stems from the fact that the majority of Jews failed to convert.

In my reading at least, the article ends a bit abruptly without a clear conclusion, so I'm not entirely sure "where this was going," as one tends to say.

I emailed patristiblogger, noted author and blog-friend Mike Aquilina mainly to get some clarification on the rhetoric of the Fathers. He sent back some links to posts where he's dealt with this topic (here and here), and wrote this:
No one in antiquity behaved according to modern rules of civility, especially in religious matters. If the Fathers were sometimes nasty to Jews, they were nastier to their "separated brethren" among the Christian heresies.

Have you read Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity? If you haven't, please do. It's a very important book — a sociological study of Church growth in the first three centuries. In it he makes several important arguments — one is that the mission to the Jews succeeded. Stark, who was at the time an agnostic, believes that enormous numbers of Jews converted.

Another excellent read is Jacob Neusner's Aphrahat and the Jews. He argues that Aphrahat understood Judaism better than most Jews have understood Judaism, and that his apologies (Demonstrations) are a model for Jewish-Christian dialogue.

I wish I had more time to concentrate on this matter right now. It's very important that we get it right. I don't advocate returning to fourth-century modes of discourse, but neither should we be judging the fourth century by our rules of political correctness. If we do, then the Talmud fails, the Fathers fail. Heck, the Bible fails.
Rabbi Neusner is, of course, the one Pope Benedict engages as an interlocutor in a memorable section of Jesus of Nazareth. He has also written, (see this profile on him in Time. H/t Mike]
"I'm not offended when Christians eat pork," says Jacob Neusner. At least not usually. The brilliant--and none too patient--Jewish scholar does recall a religion conference where so much of the other white meat was served that he was reduced to a diet of hard-boiled eggs. One day on the food line something snapped, and he rhymed aloud, "I hope you all get trichinosis/And come to believe in the God of Moses." A fellow conferee instantly replied, "And if we don't get such diseases/Will you believe in the God of Jesus?" Neusner cackles. "That's an example of the right way to do Judeo-Christian dialogue," he says. "If religion matters, and it does, then it's not honest to be indifferent to the convictions of others."
Amen to that. The liberal way of dealing with religious difference and inter-religious dialogue is to relativize everything, ignore questions of truth, trivialize differences: this stems from a deeply rooted, though I suspect essentially incorrect, modern belief that religious differences inevitably lead to violence, and the way to avoid violence is to remove/reduce/trivialize/relativize religious differences.

True dialogue, of course, involves being firmly rooted in one's own convictions, as one reaches out to, talks with, and is open to, the other.

[It's also incorrect that the Church hasn't examined the question of the mission to the Jews. It has. Cardinal Avery Dulles explains in this 2002 America article on Covenant and Mission. Bottom line, again quoting Mike Aquilina, "If the mission to the Jews isn't valid, then the New Testament makes no sense."]

[It needs to be pointed out that suggesting that the Jesus is as much the Messiah of Jews as he is of Gentiles, while hardly an acceptable theological proposition to a devout and orthodox Jew, is not an expression of anti-Semitism, i.e. of hatred towards the Jews as a culture or people or race!]


Zadok the Roman said...

I've not read the article - not a Tablet subscriber - but it would be extremely reductive of anyone to take the term 'satchel bearers' as being indicative of Augustine's understanding of the Jews.

Now, Augustine did affirm that faith in Jesus was absolutely necessary for salvation, but notes the salvation of those Jews (the Old Testament saints in particular) who believed in the promise made the Abraham and who understood the Law spiritually.

Indeed, because of the Augustinian insistence on salvation in Christ, of necessity, those who were saved under the old dispensation are the equal of those saved following the coming of Christ. Thus, Judaism, the Law, the Prophets and the sacred history of the people of Israel were very highly esteemed by Augustine. He was also insistent that although the time for the practice of the Law as understood by Judaism had passed, it was not to be dismissed as worthless. He was no Marcionist. Now, one can understand Jews not liking the fact that he esteemed them precisely as a preparation for Christ, but every positive evaluation of a non-Christian religion must take Christ as the measuring stick.

It should be noted also that whilst he had a negative view of those Jews who lived 'according to the letter', he would similarly criticise Christians who failed to live according to the Spirit.

With reference to the saints of the Old Dispensation he wrote:

These pertain to the new testament, are the children of promise, and are regenerated by God the Father and a free mother. Of this kind were all the righteous men of old, and Moses himself, the minister of the old testament, the heir of the new,—because of the faith whereby we live, of one and the same they lived, believing the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ as future, which we believe as already accomplished,—even until John the Baptist himself, as it were a certain limit of the old dispensation, who, signifying that the Mediator Himself would come, not with any shadow of the future or allegorical intimation, or with any prophetical announcement, but pointing Him out with his finger, said:"Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sin of the world." As if saying, Whom many righteous men have desired to see, on whom, as about to come, they have believed from the beginning of the human race itself, concerning whom the promises were spoken to Abraham, of whom Moses wrote, of whom the law and the prophets are witnesses: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." From this John and afterwards, all those things concerning Christ began to become past or present, which by all the righteous men of the previous time were believed, hoped for, desired, as future. Therefore the faith is the same as well in those who, although not yet in name, were in fact previously Christians, as in those who not only are so but are also called so; and in both there is the same grace by the Holy Spirit. Whence says the apostle: "We having the same Spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak."

Gashwin said...

Thanks Zadok! The article is, I believe, available free of charge to those who register at the Tablet website. I've emailed you a copy.