Christians and Jews: Redefining the Relationship

For two centuries, Christians have represented Judaism as a failed religion. The tendency is to think of it as an Old Testament religion, and to lose sight of it as a continually evolving religion with an on-going covenant with God that has enduring validity. The impression often given in Christian representation is: God chose the Jews; the Jews gave the world Jesus; and thereafter Judaism, having fulfilled its historic purpose, drops off the screen.

But historians of the Second Vatican Council observe that the most radical shift emanating from the Council pertains to the church's relationship to Judaism. Jewish scholars have concurred that there is a sea change. 200 rabbis and Jewish academics from around the world published on September 10, 2000, a full page ad in the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun acknowledging the significant changes in the Christian world in the years since the Shoah and suggesting that a climate now exists in which Jews, too, can begin to think about Christianity in new ways. The statement is titled Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity.

In 2002 a Christian scholars group gave further momentum to this development with ten statements for the consideration of Christians entitled A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People. Observers on all sides recognize that the historical models have broken down and that we are in a moment of relational reinterpretation.

On March 17, at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, a panel of academics and theologians met to examine the relationship between Christianity and Judaism .The discussion, titled "Understanding the Divide Between Judaism and Christianity: What Happened Centuries Ago? Why Does it Matter Now?" explored the conflict that has existed between the two religions since the first century.

The panelists were Bruce Chilton, Ph.D., Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College; Jacob Neusner, Ph.D., professor of theology at Bard College; and Rev. Donald Senior, Ph.D., president of the Chicago Catholic Theological Union. Susannah Heschel, Ph.D., chair of the Jewish studies program of Dartmouth College, moderated the discussion.

Dr. Neusner, a Jewish scholar, said that the "no-fault" model of divorce current in our time does not apply to Jewish-Christian relations, because we have and do find fault with each other. The metaphor of "irreconciliable differences" might be better. But the best image, he felt, was that of family members sharing a common inheritance and competing in a disputed legacy for its benefits.

Prof. Chilton, an Episcopalian representing a Protestant Christian voice, spoke about how for Paul, Christianity's preeminent teacher, both baptized Jews and Greeks made up the Israel of God. Paul did not ask Jews to stop keeping the Torah, he said, recalling that Paul was arrested while in Jerusalem offering sacrifice in the Temple to fulfill the law. But he did emphasize that the Torah is not necessary to the new Israel. And that was the scandal-for the Jews--of his preaching.

The entire center of Paul's religious system shifted to the presence of God's son in the believer. Both Judaism and Christianity understand themselves as covenantal religions, but in different ways. For Judaism, it is the Torah that offers access to eternal joy. For Christians, Jesus offers a new template by opening up his relationship with the Father and inviting others to share in it.

Rev. Donald Senior reflected on the 200 page study issued by the Vatican's Pontifical Biblical Commission in 2001entitled The Jewish People and Their Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible. It affirmed the "extreme importance" of the Old Testament and stated that "without the Old Testament, the New Testament would be an indecipherable book, a plant deprived of its roots and destined to dry up." The Christian bible, said Senior, owes an extraordinary debt to Jewish Scriptures: motifs, symbols, piety, moral life, ritual, notions of covenant.

What has already been accomplished in Christ, must still be accomplished in us. In the words of the Biblical Commission's Study, "The Jewish messianic wait is not in vain. We, like them, live in expectation. The difference is in the fact that for us, he who will come will have the traits of that Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us."

The irritant is disagreement on the identity of Jesus, but this does not nullify the surprising force of the spiritual ties that unite the Church of Christ and the Jewish people. In light of these vigorous spiritual ties, the only appropriate attitude for Christians is one of esteem, love and respect for the Jewish people, said Senior, adding: "We share a common spiritual DNA. Christianity emerged from Biblical Judaism. We are siblings."

In the discussion period, someone in the audience asked Prof. Chilton: "In your book Rabbi Jesus you write about how Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died as a Jew. Why, then, are you a Christian?" Chilton responded that Jesus' experience of sonship was not a relation that excluded others, but one that others could share. When Paul lists the gifts that come from Judaism, the privilege of being adopted "sons of God" is at the top, followed by the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship and the promises (Rom. 9:4).

Christians' apprehension of their faith, said Chilton, does not rest on ideology, but on this grounding in the religious experience of sonship and daughtership. "For the Jews," he said, "the question: 'How do you know God?' is answered by 'Through the Torah.' Christians approach God through Jesus. He is the pivot of one's relationship with God."

April 2005