When I am teaching Christology or other courses focusing on the nature and person of Jesus Christ, I always get a mild look of surprise when I observe that Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew. He never repudiated his religious identity. In fact, he wept over the holy city of Jerusalem as he projected its future destruction at the hands of the Romans. Jesus is so Jewish, in fact, that his Good Friday burial was rushed so that even his closest mourning followers could observe the Sabbath and wait the required 36 hours before returning to dress his body for permanent interment on what would become Easter Sunday. Possibly one of the earliest Christian sermons to survive, Acts 2:14-36, depicts Peter proclaiming Jesus as the fulfillment of all of Hebrew history through the set plan of God. The author of Acts noted that 3000 listeners were baptized that day; however, the baptism here is of the Baptist’s model, forgiveness of sin, specifically the sin of complicity in the killing of Jesus, and not an “incorporating” baptism (to cite St. Paul’s theology of baptism) into a new religious cult.
To speak of a freestanding Christianity in the first several generations after the crucifixion is anachronistic. The followers of the resurrected Jesus remained Jews and worshipped in the Temple. The Eucharistic meal was celebrated separately on a Sunday morning (our Monday, actually). Stresses between Jews who believed Jesus was the promised savior and the larger body of Jewish observant may have been dramatic, but they were also sporadic. We know of St. Stephen’s stoning for his forceful preaching in the Temple; he is accused by his enemies in Acts 6:14 of preaching that Jesus had come “to destroy this place and change the customs.” On the other hand, the early followers of Jesus defended these customs so carefully that Peter and Paul nearly came to blows over the issue of circumcision as part of the membership process into the Eucharistic table fellowship.
So what, really, was the great sin of Israel that has driven the two millennia of Christian polemic and mistreatment against the Jews? Is it Matthew’s Good Friday line, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children?” (Matthew 27:25) This was a favorite source for Christian antagonists, but modern day popes and scholars have put this line in its proper context as a uniquely Matthean construction that is not included in the other Gospels and thus historically unlikely.
St. Paul probably has it right in 1 Corinthians 1:23 where he describes Jesus’ death and suffering on the cross as “folly to the Greeks and blasphemous to the Jews.” For large numbers of faithful Jews, the idea that Yahweh, whose name was so holy as to be unmentionable, would become a man, and worse, undergo the kind of death that can only be imagined today, was psychologically impossible to embrace. The “crime” that would launch a thousand persecutions and ultimately the Holocaust was a “crime” of devotion to the dignity of God as they understood Him. What a strange thing. How do we explain it?
Better men than I have tried. One of the best is Paul Johnson, whose masterful study of the Jewish people I will highlight tomorrow. When I reviewed Johnson’s study a few years back, I wrote that in my own mind “the Jews have lived what Christianity has professed.” With the final destruction of Jerusalem in 130, the Jews, like Christ, had nowhere to rest their heads, and have lived much of the Christian era at the mercy of hosts. Under these circumstances Jewish communities have maintained identity by a strict loyalty to the Scriptures, Law, rubric of worship, and strong family ties, even those over long distances, and with a determined piety that has put Christians to shame
But the most remarkable achievement of Christian era Jews has been the profound ability to carry forward a vision of hope with a sense of purposeful suffering in this world. Paul Johnson writes with great respect and awe of a collective spirituality among Jews in the death camps, that even this terrible extermination, in some way, would serve its purpose in the design of God. (Thus, the “holocaust-deniers” are more diabolic than even they know.)
The Jews may have found the cross blasphemy, but the world seems to find the Jews intolerable, faithful adherents to a piety that most of us do not understand and many of us fear.
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