Sunday, December 18, 2005


It is an exceptionally rare event when a good book about the Gospels comes out (and it will be an even rarer event if such a book ever has an impact on the scholarly world), but Julie Galambush's "The Reluctant Parting" (2005) gets just about everything right. While it is not about the historical Jesus (which is what I am always looking for), it does cover very well the origins of the split between Christians and Jews.

Where most scholars read the Gospels through the lens of Christian theology and a few claim to read them through Jewish eyes, Galambush really does read them from a Jewish point of view. There's so much to like about this book, I will have to keep it short by mentioning only a few things.

She is the only scholar to frequently mention the God-fearers (over a dozen references). These were gentiles (pagans) who were attracted to Judaism. They did not fully convert but lived as kind of half-way Jews. John Gager realizes their importance in "Reinventing Paul" (2000), but Galambush goes further by actually bringing them up so often (after all, they are referred to quite often in Acts). They were Paul's first gentile audience, as they attended synagogues, and they became the first gentile converts to the new Jesus movement in Judaism. Without Judaism's attractiveness to gentiles, Christianity could not have come into existence. You will feel that in Galambush's book more than any other (with the exception of Marcel Simon's "Verus Israel" which also stressed this point).

There is also a more positive view of the Pharisees in her book than in most others, especially in the chapter on Matthew. She understands at least as well as anyone else that the original conflict here was not between Jews outside the Jesus movement and Jesus' followers, rather it was within the Jesus movement (Gager also deserves credit for emphasizing this). It was between competing groups among Jesus' followers that bitterness first arose.

These are some of the things Galambush explains well. The book also has many brief sidebars, focusing on a particular issue. My favorite (on p. 85) is about the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). Traditional Christianity interpreted the Pharisee as a Jew and the tax collector as a good, repentant Christian. Galambush reminds us that this parable says no such thing. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are Jews. This is a story about two different ways of being Jewish, not a Jewish way and a Christian way of religiosity. The "good" tax collector is a Jew and prays as a Jew.

The history of Gospel scholarship is that really good books get ignored because they upset the prevailing misconceptions that scholars cling to so dearly. I hope this won't be the fate of "The Reluctant Parting", but just think about the implication of one issue here.

The traditional view is that Judaism was (and is) a narrow, ethnic, tribal religion whereas Christianity created a universal religion. In truth, if you pay attention to the phenomenon of the God-fearers and Judaism's teaching that righteous gentiles get into heaven, the inevitable conclusion is that Judaism was never an ethnically confined religion. It was open to the world, pagans were attracted to it, and Christianity took full advantage of Judaism's openness (or vitality, as Marcel Simon called it) and appeal to gentiles. Christianity made entrance into heaven more exclusive, yet it would be Judaism that was denigrated as being too narrow. (Galambush addresses this in a sidebar on p. 108.)

It is difficult for scholars to accept what Judaism was really like and incorporate it into their thinking. Galambush does it and does it well. Whether the scholarly world will pay attention remains to be seen, but I am doubtful.

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