Monday, 12 October 2009

Sister faiths

Contemporary Judaism and contemporary Christianity should not be seen as ‘mother and daughter’ but rather as ‘sisters’. In other words, although they both have their origins in first century Judaism, they are both quite unlike the first century Judaism from which they both developed.

For Christianity, the decision of the Council of Jerusalem as early as about 50 AD that Gentile Christians did not have to become Jews in order to become Christians was the first crucial development. For Judaism, the destruction of the Temple and its sacrifices in 70 AD and the subsequent development of rabbinical leadership and synagogue worship were equally crucial developments. Both were then shaped within a Hellenistic world view unknown to earlier Judaism. In the immediate following centuries, the development of the Jewish Talmud and Mishnah quiet as much as the development of Christian patristic thought provided the ground work for these distinctively new forms of faith.

It is thirty years this month since I began to study Theology at University, and this perspective is one which was impressed on me then and has been consistently since. A form of it was rehearsed again when Rabbi Danny Rich, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, lectured in Lincoln Cathedral’s Chapter House after the dedication of the Little Hugh plaque there on Thursday. He placed the first stage of the separate parallel development of both the new forms of faith in the trauma of the destruction of the Temple, but actually the separate Christian development does seem to have begun as much as a generation earlier.

In the 1970s, Geza Vermes’ Jesus the Jew was a startling new reminder of the implications of Jesus’ rootedness in first century Judaism. Thirty years on, a questioner at the lecture again noted how like internal Pharisaic discussions and disputes some of the teaching of Jesus seemed to be, however much it is represented as Jesus attacking the Pharisees; ‘they seemed to get along close enough to be debating and walking in the corn fields’, was his tack.

As the latest gesture towards persuading myself that I haven’t totally stopped study, I’ve bought more than 4lbs of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new A History of Christianity, and I notice that he devotes the first fifty pages (the whole of Part One) to a survey of the Hellenistic and Jewish background to the first century before arriving at the birth of Jesus at the beginning of Part Two.

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