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The Jewish-Christian Dialogue

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  • Brian McCarthy
    The Jewish-Christian Dialogue I was pleased to see the recent discussion of the Toledot Yeshu , even if some contemporary Jewish scholars find it pretty
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 19 8:43 PM

      The Jewish-Christian Dialogue

      I was pleased to see the recent discussion of the “Toledot Yeshu”, even if some contemporary Jewish scholars find it pretty low-class and are embarrassed by it. It is important because it has been widely read by ordinary Jews for centuries, apparently even until quite recently--and perhaps still is by some non-modern Orthodox. And this should be an other reminder to us of the sorry history of Jewish-Christian relations, in both directions. Something that has begun to change in recent times at least in some circles, particularly scholarly ones.

      My personal conviction of many years is that the Quest and the study of the emerging Christian movement should always be done with an acute consciousness of this history, and that, when they are, they are enriched and take on a new seriousness.

      I want therefore to open the question of Jewish-Christian controversy more widely, with the conviction that , with the more intense hostilities removed, it will have a place--not just as an historical memory, but as an active component--in the wider scholarly exchange that is presently--I hope--gathering momentum.

      1) Mention was made of S(amuel) Krauss, author of the 1902 “Das Leben Jesu nach judischen Quellen”

      Shortly after Hitler took over Austria in 1938, friends were able to get Krauss to Cambridge, England and he lived there until his death in 1948. Before he died he had done much work on a ms., which fifty years later (!) was edited and supplemented by Prof. Wm. Horbury, and published in 1995 by Mohr (Tubingen). It is entitled:

      “The Jewish-Christian Controversy from earliest times to 1789”

      Krauss’ mature views on the Toledot and its place in the history of Jewish anti-Christian polemic, can be found in a series of brief references (see Toldoth Jeshu in the Index of Subjects, p. 309.)

      2) A later, and much more substantial book of polemic mentioned by Krauss/Horbury (see notice p.246) is now easily available in a critical edition done by David Berger in 1979, and re-published by Jacob Aronson in 1996, under the title:

      “The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages: A Critical Edition of the Nizzahon Vetus.” [‘Nizzahon’ apparently means victory/confutation/polemic. This anonymous N. French or German writing is called ‘Vetus’ to distinguish it from a later one written in Prague about 1400, see notice p. 223 under Lipmann.]

      This extremely aggressive polemic is based on firsthand knowledge of both Testaments; argues against far-fetched Christian/Christological readings of the OT [for me, Original Testimonies!); and, as regards the NT, makes arguments that could still be made in scholarly circles today. For ex., pointing out apparent contradictions in statements attributed to Jesus in John: “The Father and I are one“ & “The Father is greater that I“ etc.

      3) Krauss/Horbury--given the dtae this of course is Horbury--also makes frequent use of “The Friars and the Jews” by Jeremy Cohen (Cornell 1982), who, among other things gives an account of the great burning of copies of the Talmud in Paris in 1240; of subsequent precautionary bowdlerizing; and of some of the things calculated to provoke Christians--now that some of them could read Hebrew!--that were removed.

      4) Another quite remarkable piece of Jewish scholarship is Rabbi Marc Saperstein‘s “Jewish Images of Jesus Through the Ages“. Remarkable because it was originally presented as a lecture to a (cultivated) general audience of Jews and Christians and not ‘buried‘ in some scholarly tome.

      Remarkable also because he begins by saying that just as “we Jews expect Christians to be honest and forthright about the elements of anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition; [so] we have an obligation to be no less honest about the anti-Christian elements in our own.” Too often the recent Jewish-Christian argument has been totally one-sided, with the Holocaust hovering in the background, and the suggestion that it was, if not the logical, then at least the inevitable consequence of traditional Christian anti-Judaism.

      (The argument can be made that the Holocaust was an historical singularity, resulting from a unique convergence of factors.)

      Another idea that floats in the background is that of collective guilt, a type of mythical thinking that is no more valid in the case of Christians and the Holocaust than it is in the case of Jews and the death of Jesus--the day Jesus died most Jews of the time probably had never even heard of him.

      A good principle here is that the historic reality has been bad enough without gratuitous exaggerations.

      Saperstein mentions a tradition concerning Jesus that is referred to in Cohen, and asserted in the Nizzahon, which he finds in the Talmud: the tradition that the Jewish authorities were responsible for the death of Jesus--with no mention of any Roman role!--and were fully justified in their action! He refers (note 15) to the uncensored Munich Manuscript of B. Sanh. 43a, which in turn refers to Deut. 13:13-16.* A version of the same tradition is to be found in a particularly relentless form in Maimonides, who also makes no mention of a Roman role, and makes Jesus sound like Paul vis-a-vis the Law. (See his Letter to Yemen, easily available in Twerski’s “A Maimonides Reader”, p. 441.)

      * Deuteronomy 13 goes well beyond 20:16 and includes the general law that in the service of true religion killing is not merely legitimate, but required. When we add to this canonical text the fact that vituperative polemics were not invented by Mt and John (chap 8 etc), but were common in 1st century Jewish religious disputes--and since!--it looks as if it can be argued that in its worst excesses against the Jews, the Church was following Jewish traditions. (Is this the earliest known example of hard ideological politics? It has a disturbingly modern, 20th century ring about it.)

      Which justifies nothing, but helps put thing in context. Another part of the context is the fact that the hostilities were two-way from the start, and thus began in a situation where it was not the Christians, but (other) Jewish groups that were in a position to persecute. And, of course, Paul tells us i) that he persecuted the early followers of Jesus and ii)--in II Cor.--that he himself was persecuted for preaching (his version of) the Gospel.

      What other contribution some Jews made to the persecution of Christians in those centuries before Constantine is a open question requiring good historical answers. Bar Kochba’s savagery seems certain and left bitter memories. Other cases may have been few and far between. (But for a new movement early horrible memories, even if few in number, can leave lasting scars. For example if Jews--some Jews, that is, not THE Jews of mythical thinking--cheered as the venerable old man Polycarp--one of the leaders of the emerging ’Great Church’--was burned alive.

      Saperstein also mentions that the medieval Kabbalists agreed with Mt and Lk that Jesus did not have a human father. Instead his father was “Samael, the demonic embodiment of evil.”

      {If I am reading him right he sees this position as congruent with the more general Kabbalist “claim that the souls of Jews derived from the realm of the Godhead, while those of the Gentiles came from a parallel demonic realm of impurity.” An idea that is probably not getting much airing in currently fashionable pop versions of Kabbalah.

      (Wasn’t a similar idea current among some ‘Gnostics’?)}

      ‘Modern’ Jews have long abandoned these ancient slanders, invariably marked by sloppy thinking, where Jesus is ‘guilty by association’. But Vermes talks of an enduring taboo, and Susannah Heschel seems to suggest at the end of her fascinating study “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus” (U. of Chicago, 1998) that many contemporary Jews more or less share Geiger’s view. Exasperated by what he saw as the persistent closed-mindedness of his neo-Lutheran fellow scholars, he finally produced the ultimate ’put-down’: Jesus was a run-of-the-mill follower of Pharisee ideas--for G. they were the enlightened Reform people of their time--who did nothing new and said nothing new. Vermes and, even more, David Flusser would not agree.

      Saperstein’s paper is published, with useful notes, by the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at the U. of St Thomas, the Twin Cities, where he first read it in April 1994. Their website is http://department.stthomas.edu/jclc. No one is presently answering the phone there.

      I hope these rather unsystematic ‘probes’ will bring useful responses.

      Brian McCarthy

      Madison WI

    • Brian McCarthy
      Dexter, Thank you for your response to my original post of 7/19 on this subject. I was particularly glad to receive it because, as you have no doubt noticed,
      Message 2 of 2 , Aug 3, 2000
        Thank you for your response to my original post of 7/19 on this subject. I was particularly glad to receive it because, as you have no doubt noticed, it otherwise stirred no interest at all, so that my trial balloon came back to earth with a dull thud! I am convinced that scholars are not just specialized technicians, but bring to their scholarly work their whole intellectual and moral being, and I find it difficult to understand how people can do NT or Jesus studies as if the Holocaust had never happened.
        And in recent times major scholars such as David Flusser and Geza Vermes have overcome the taboo mentioned by the latter that has existed in Jewish quarters against any attempt to do objective, scholarly interpretations/evaluations of Jesus. So why cannot Gentile scholars overcome their reluctance to explicitly bring in later history, upto and including the Holocaust, when they study the NT? Especially in view of the ways in which the gospels have been used historically to feed anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.
        I am very happy to hear that you have entered this field of scholarship and feel that, perhaps quite soon, it will open up, with much greater participation by scholars from both the Jewish and gentile worlds.
        One reason for my delay in answering you is that I was trying to find some answer to your question as to how one might obtain  Wm Horbury' "A Critical Examination of the Toledoth Jeshu". Unfortunately I did not find one. (I notice that, for some reason, H. did not include it in the biblio. of his edited and revised version of S. Krauss' THE JEWISH CHRISTIAN CONTROVERSY,  even though he does mention quite a number of other studies that he authored.
        Perhaps there is some way of obtaining microfilm versions of Cambridge dissertations?
        Meanwhile I have stumbled on another book that looks interesting. It is a collection of essays in English edited by Ora Limor and Guy G. Stroumsa, and published by Mohr, Tubingen Germany (1996), entitled CONTRA JUDAEOS: ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL POLEMICS BETWEEN CHRISTIANS AND JEWS.
        Stroumsa teaches at Hebrew University and has a webpage which you can find by searching--I used Google--for Dinur Research Center Hebrew Univeristy; and then looking in the list of profs at Hebrew Un.
        Best wishes for your work,
        Brian McCarthy
        Madison WI
        Brian McCarthy
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