Thursday, April 02, 2015

'Tis the season when Christian supersessionism runs wild

Today is what Christians call Holy Thursday, the day on which we commemorate Jesus' Last Supper at which he commanded his little band to "love one another" and washed the feet of his friends. Tomorrow is what Christians call Good Friday, the day on which we remember that the powers of Jesus' day tortured Jesus to death. Saturday he's in the tomb, until, at evening, we -- along with his women followers -- discover he is not; that Jesus somehow lives on: that's Easter, also celebrated on Sunday morning.

This year, the first night of the Jewish Passover is Friday. The dates of both Easter and Passover are set by the phases of the moon; usually they coincide, but not always.

And this charged week is the season when careless Christian supersessionism hits its apex. According to the Theopedia, supersessionism is

the traditional Christian belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism, and therefore that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah fall short of their calling as God's Chosen people.

This smug attitude of superiority underlies Christian anti-Semitism; a European culture bathed in this enabled the Holocaust. And this gets its license from the way the story of Jesus is told in the Gospels, the Christian scriptures. Simply put, the Christian scripture make it far too easy for readers long removed from the events depicted to take in that Jesus lived and died a Jew.

James Carroll's Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age is an anguished, passionate, and persuasive call to Christians to rethink the circumstances in which our foundational texts were written. In the light of the Holocaust, aided by numerous archeological and textual discoveries of the last 70 years, Jewish and Christian scholars have framed what is certainly a more sophisticated understanding of the milieu in which Jesus taught and died. And they argue that we've forgotten, or never knew, that the period which called forth these writings was for the Jewish people (including the early Christian sub-sect) a First Holocaust.

What the Romans called Bellum Judaicum, "the Jewish War," unfolded in three phases: first between the years 66 and 73, then between 115 and 117, and, finally, between 132 and 136. The scale of destruction -- with perhaps millions of Jews killed, with Judea and Galilee laid to waste, with Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean attacked -- is alone enough to bear comparison to the twentieth-century barbarity. The pre-industrial Romans accomplished the killing man by man, woman by woman, child by child, not in mechanized mass-destruction factories. The mayhem, therefore, was, if anything, even more cold-blooded than what the bureaucratically minded Germans did.

Yet it is true that the Romans were not motivated, as the Nazis were, by what moderns would regard as racial anti-Semitism. Romans were not operating out of an ontological or theological enmity, as twentieth-century Europe was in abetting -- or ignoring -- the "transport" of Jews. For Rome, the matter was one of simple imperial control, and that required submission on the part of subject peoples. Total submission, not elimination, was the purpose of total violence. A broad and consistent Jewish refusal to yield prompted levels of killing that were genocidal in effect, whatever the intent. Yet viewed from below, the carnage would surely have looked the same -- from the point of view of the many thousands of men hung on crosses, the untold numbers of women raped and forced into slavery, the multitude of infants whose bodies were torn apart, the experience was no doubt comparable. On the ground, annihilation is annihilation.

... Hitler killed one in three of all living Jews, a ratio the Caesars may well have matched.

In the war's first phase, the Temple in Jerusalem which was the touchstone of Jewish identity, was destroyed, an unthinkable catastrophe. The first telling of the Jesus story, the Gospel of Mark, was written in 70 C.E., the year of the destruction of the Temple.

The point deserves emphasis: the Gospels first purpose was to respond to the present crisis of those who wrote the texts and to whom the texts were addressed. The Temple dominates the story of Jesus in 30 because the Temple -- in its destruction by Rome -- dominated the story in 70 of those who wrote the Gospel, read the Gospel, and heard the Gospel.

The survivors had seen what they had believed to be the solid foundations of existence torn up by imperial power. It's not surprising that they took several hundred years to gradually reconstitute their understandings of God's presence in their world -- and that fissures developed.

All Jews were forced to ask the great questions: how could the chosen people undergo such near eradication? And, in particular -- now! -- what is it to be a Jew without the Temple?

... Two surviving parties of Jews offered their answers -- surviving parties, by the way, that were alike in having sought and found distance from the violent rebellion of the Zealots and from those who rallied to their revolution, which had brought down the wrath of Rome. Only such distance from Zealotry, which the Jews in the thick of combat had to experience as betrayal, enabled their survival as Jews. Thus, in 68 or 69, as the Romans were closing in on Jerusalem and the Temple, a Pharisaic party led by Rabbi Johanan ben Zaikai petitioned the Romans to be allowed to leave the city. They were permitted to go -- establishing themselves in Yavne, on the Mediterranean coast. This core would flourish as the center of a post-Temple Rabbinic Judaism.

In similar way, speaking generally, followers of Jesus decamped Jerusalem for Pella, across the Jordan, and for places in Syria, Asia Minor, and North Africa. In Palestine, the Jesus movement remained centered in Galilee, where Roman legions raised havoc, but not with the brute totality of their assault against Jerusalem. ... [These "Jesus people" had a] succinct answer to the question "What is it to be a Jew without the Temple?" Now, they said, Jesus is the Temple -- "the new Temple." Here, too, cult sacrifice has entered the realm of metaphor, with Jesus having accomplished the last sacrificial offering "once and for all when he offered up himself." In this the Church was born.

This was the milieu out of which the accounts of Jesus' death on the cross were written. These stories don't look the same when their context is remembered.

When Mark portrays the Pharisees as Jesus' great antagonist in Galilee, we should understand the main antagonism as existing not in the year 30 or so but in about 70, when the Pharisees and Jesus people were just beginning their war-induced argument over the new meaning of Jewish identity.

Similarly, when Jesus' lethal antagonists in Jerusalem are identified by Mark as the priests of the Temple, the main point is that the priestly caste, at the time the author of Mark is writing, was held responsible by many surviving Jews for the catastrophe that had just befallen the Temple. It was not hard to see the priests as having been collusive with the Roman petty tyrant Pontius Pilate in 30 when, as Jews away from Jerusalem could see it, the Temple establishment had just foolishly, in 70, invited the Roman legions to do their worst.

Because of the way the Christian scriptures are organized, with the four accounts of Jesus' life coming first and various letters and other material following, it is natural to assume the letters of Paul of Tarsus postdate the other material. But all scholars agree that this is wrong. Paul's genuine letters are the earliest material in the canon and the only part of it written before the Roman's destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. And so, we easily misread Paul.

Paul's traumatic vision of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus... is celebrated as his "conversion" from Judaism to Christianity. He famously brought the faith to nonJews, and his argument that they need not undergo the ritual circumcision that initiated male converts into Judaism is taken to mark the radical break between Church and Synagogue. Hence Paul's image as "Apostle to the Gentiles," leading the way in leaving the rejected Jews behind.

Nothing of that is true. Paul never "converted" to Christianity for the simple reason that, during his lifetime, there was no such thing as Christianity. When Paul appeals, as he often does, to the "Scriptures," he is referring only to the Jewish Scriptures, with which his readers would have been familiar only because their religious reflections, even as Jesus people, occurred wholly in the context of synagogue study. Indeed, the house assemblies of those [who] Paul addressed would have taken place under synagogue authority. There are tensions galore in Paul, but they reflect not the bifurcations of a Church versus Synagogue oppositionalism, but the complexities, and even paradoxes, that adhere in every human heart -- and every human community.

... As Acts makes clear, Paul (like other Jewish people of the time) never stopped worshiping at the Temple. They never stopped thinking of themselves as Jews.

In the last phase of the Jewish War, the entire city of Jerusalem was razed to the ground and Jews were under attack from the authorities throughout the empire. This had the practical effect of deepening the divide between the Jesus people, especially their Gentile converts, and other Jews.

Reading texts organized around Jesus' conflict with "the Jews," it's no wonder the Gentile Christians readily imagined him as a non-Jew like themselves. ... the Gospels began to be read as if they had been written shortly after the events reported -- eyewitness accounts, instead of a literature of reinterpretation composed a full generation later. The real impact of the Roman War on countless Jews, including Jesus people, was deleted from memory. ...Once the Church, ever seeking a safe place within the empire, had formed the habit, in remembering the fate of Jesus, of emphasizing Roman virtue over Jewish venality, such misremembering was compounded.

Carroll makes a convincing case for his reading of the history. There's much more in this dense book. It should not be hard for us to imagine that total imperial war might unmoor the survivors' hold on what had happened and what was metaphorical. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust and the Bomb, facing climate catastrophe. We ought to be able to empathize and even learn.

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