Friday, April 29, 2005


As I thought, I'm pretty busy rewriting my book for publication, so I hardly have any time for even an occasional blog. But I thought that, perhaps once a month, I'd post something, maybe a book recommendation.

This month: John Howard Yoder's "The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited" (2003). It's a collection of essays (most of which seem to be based on lectures or speeches he delivered at various places around the world), edited by Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs, and with commentary by Ochs at the end of each essay. I owe the discovery of this book to my friend Sean.

Yoder, who died in 1997, was an Anabaptist and a pacifist. He writes about history from this point of view and sees pacifism as a dominant strain throughout the history of Judaism. His take is always refreshing because he sees things others have missed. He never assumes traditional ideas are true. He tries to let the facts tell him what is true.

The main theme of the book is just this (Yoder here refers to the split between Judaism and Christianity as the Fall): "[T]he 'Fall' was not inevitable, nor was it immediate" (122). I agree with both points. Now as to the first, we could all argue until we are blue in the face about whether certain events or developments had to have happened or not. There is admittedly a lot of speculation involved. But as to his second point -- that the divergence between Judaism and Christianity took a long time -- a lot of facts back him up (which I will mention further below), though Yoder does not discuss most of these.

The traditional idea is that Jesus started the split and then his followers deepened it. My own work is about how Jewish Jesus was and Yoder touches on this too. But another aspect of traditional teaching, even asserted by those who proclaim that Jesus was a Jew who did not intend to start a new religion, is that Christianity radically distinguished itself from Judaism very early on, almost as soon as Jesus died. Yoder rightly challenges this.

He recognizes that, for a long time, the Jesus movement was a Jewish sect and that, even when Christianity did become distinct from Judaism, it still remained very close to Judaism and borrowed a lot from it. "The Jewish roots of the Church, its use of the Hebrew Canon and the synagogue forms of worship and lifestyle kept the door open between church and synagogue for a century" (122). As he says in another essay, "... the ethos of the early Christians was a direct prolongation and fulfilment of the ethos of Jewry" (191; cf. 171).

He calls the pacifism of the early Christians "a part of the common Jewish legacy which Jesus and the apostles shared with their non-messianic contemporaries like Jochanan ben Zakkai" (170) and "... Christian moral standards may have been largely derived from, and therefore could be fruitfully illuminated by, older Jewish models of how to relate to the world's powers" (190).

There is more information to bear Yoder's points out. The Apostolic Constitutions (4th century, I believe) incorporated wholesale a number of Jewish prayers. Christians idolized the Maccabees as martyrs, even going so far (again the 4th century) as to take over a synagogue that was believed to house the remains of the Maccabees and declare them to be Christian martyrs. Jerome consulted rabbis on interpretations of difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible. And he learned Hebrew from rabbis. He may have been criticized for this, but he did it.

The fact that the Church passed so many laws in the 4th century to separate Christian and Jew may show that Church leaders were bent on making Christianity into a totally distinct religion but it also shows that the two were very close for many centuries, or else the Church would not have had to fight so hard for separation. For example, the Church had to enforce Sunday worship over Saturday worship and Easter as a distinct holiday from Passover because the original practices were keeping Jew and Christian too close together.

These arguments do not appear in Yoder's book, except for Christian veneration of the Maccabees which he does mention (191). Yoder's case can be made stronger.

That's about it for now.

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