Rediscovering Christianity: Scholars Have Second Thoughts

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Rediscovering Christianity

Scholars Have Second Thoughts

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The centuries-long theological bias toward the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish context of the New Testament may be in the process of being dismantled-by some who previously advocated such views.

A significant number of scholars across the ecclesiastical spectrum admit that their churches for the best part of their history have been incorrect in what they have taught about the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, and His early followers.

These scholars now say that the New Testament Church was in fact far more Jewish in theology and practice than has been traditionally claimed, and that Christianity for the most part, century after century, has fallen prey to an anti-Jewish sentiment. They are coming to admit that, because of such leanings, theologians have fabricated excuses to reject practices of the early Church that are considered to be Jewish (see "Teachings and Practices of the Early Church," p. 8).

Why have the churches been so fundamentally in error?

The subject of early Christianity's Jewishness had been avoided by most scholars because of a long-standing inclination in the theological world. At best an indifference had characterized views toward Old Testament theology. Now this change is causing a major rethinking of core teachings of traditional Christianity as compared with the Christianity recorded in the Bible. If understood, the implications are profound.

Consider the following, by Robert J. Daly, professor of theology and a Jesuit priest: "Expressed bluntly from the Christian perspective, to be anti-Jewish is to be anti-Christian" (Removing Anti-Judaism From the Pulpit, edited by Howard Kee and Irvin Borowsky, Continuum Publishing, New York, 1996, p. 50, emphasis added throughout; subsequent quotations are from this work except as noted).

He bases his view on several points, one being that "historical context demonstrates how thoroughly Jewish-one might even say how essentially Jewish- were Jesus and the first Christians" (p. 53).

John T. Pawlikowski, a professor at Catholic Theological Union of Social Ethics, in Chicago, says about the Old Testament: "It is now becoming increasingly apparent to biblical scholars that the lack of a deep immersion into the spirit and content of the Hebrew Scriptures leaves the contemporary Christian with a truncated version of Jesus' message. In effect, what remains is an emasculated version of biblical spirituality" (p. 31).

What was left out

But surely, you say, biblical students learn about the entire Bible in depth, don't they?

These scholars tell us otherwise. In fact, they reveal that many are not taught much about the largest portion of the Bible, the Old Testament. Admitting to the weaknesses of his professional education, Presbyterian minister David Read says, "I remember in my early days as a preacher being forced to reconsider the assumption that the New Testament gospel of God's grace had replaced the Law as the center of a living religion and therefore presumably rendered most of the Old Testament obsolete" (p. 66).

He asks: "Have I been encouraging certain false assumptions and misrepresentations that have been part of the homiletical diet in a great many Protestant churches? There is, for instance, the simplistic picture of the Judaism of Jesus's contemporaries as a religion of harsh legalism dominated by a law whose regulations, ever expanding, were ruthlessly enforced by a kind of super-clergy known as Pharisees" (pp. 64-65).

Sadly, many such misunderstandings abound. These statements and others like them grow out of a deepening recognition that bias toward the religion of the Jews in New Testament times has plagued traditional Christianity almost from inception, one early anti-Jewish teacher being Marcion.

Marcion, prominent in influence in the second century, misinterpreted the God of the Old Testament as heartless and irreconcilable with the New Testament's God of mercy. In his misinformed zeal, he became convinced that the church was mistaken in aligning itself with the religion, literature and practices of the Jews.

Although ecclesiastical leaders subsequently denounced Marcion's teachings and affirmed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, Marcion's extreme views spread, century after century, planting poisonous seeds: first of Judeophobia and later, as we have seen in our time, anti-Semitism.

The seeds of today's change

Today's trend to openness, which according to Pawlikowski originated about 30 years ago, has borne results such as the following: "The removal from mainline Christian educational texts of the charge that Jews collectively were responsible for the death of Jesus, that the Pharisees were the arch enemies of Jesus and spiritually soulless, that Jews had been displaced by Christians in the covenantal relationship with God as a result of refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah, that the 'Old Testament' was totally inferior to the New and that Jewish faith was rooted in legalism while the Christian religion was based on grace. This phase is substantially complete as far as it goes for most of the mainline churches" (pp. 29-30).

Pawlikowski also observes, "The claimed total opposition to Torah which theologians, especially in the Protestant churches, frequently made the basis for their theological contrast between Christianity and Judaism (freedom/grace vs. Law) now appears to rest on something less than solid ground" (p. 32).

Primarily responsible for that supposedly solid ground of opposition to the Torah-a term meaning literally "teaching" or "instruction" and usually applied to the five books of Moses-was theologian Robert Bultmann. For much of this century his and his followers' ideas-among them removing Jesus from His Jewish background-held sway. Now, says Pawlikowsky, Bultmann and "the virtual stranglehold" that he "and his disciples held over New Testament interpretation for several decades" (p. 31) is being challenged.

What are the consequences of all this for Christian belief, understanding and practice? What might these new perspectives lead to in terms of the day-to-day practice of Christians who really want to know how Christ and members of the early Church lived?

The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles reveal Jesus and a group of men and women set firmly within the practices of an ancient religious tradition. In presenting the case for practicing Christianity as the early Church did, it would seem reasonable, therefore, to begin with this straightforward premise: The earliest followers of Jesus did what He did (see "Jesus Christ Enhances the Law").

He was, after all, their divine Master and Leader. Their practice would not deviate from His own without direct revelation from Him. Frederick Holmgren, research professor of Old Testament at a Chicago seminary, writes: "Jesus embraced the Torah of Moses; he came not to end it but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17)-to carry its teachings forward. Further, to those who came to him seeking eternal life, he held it up as the essential teaching to be observed (Luke 10:25-28).

"Despite Jesus' conflict with some interpreters of his day, both Jewish and Christian scholars see him as one who honored and followed the Law. When Jesus proclaims the coming rule of God, he speaks nowhere in detail about the inner character of this rule. He does not need to because that has already been described in the Old Testament . . ." (p. 72).

We should also look at the apostle Paul and whether his teaching and example were in competition with Christ's, as Bultmann and others have insisted.

The law's spiritual intent

When members of the early Church observed the law of God, they did so with deepened understanding. That was because they were intimately familiar with the teachings of both Jesus and Paul-that it is possible to fulfill the law in the Spirit, according to its spiritual intent. Their teaching was not that God's law was done away. For example, Paul says that "the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-4).

The International Critical Commentary more clearly explains the relevance of Romans 8:4, as well as showing its connections with the Hebrew Scriptures: "God's purpose in 'condemning' sin was that His law's requirement might be fulfilled in us, that is, that his law might be established in the sense of at last being truly and sincerely obeyed-the fulfillment of the promises of Jer 31:33 and Ezek 36:26."

The commentary has a footnote to Jeremiah 31:33 that clarifies an important misunderstanding many have about this passage. It first references the following: "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah-not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The footnote then explains that this passage "is often misunderstood as a promise of a new law to take the place of the old or else as a promise of a religion without law at all. But the new thing promised in v. 33 is, in fact, neither a new law nor freedom from law, but a sincere inward desire and determination on the part of God's people to obey the law already given to them ('my law')."

Telling words

Those scholars who are rectifying their misconceptions perpetuated by their churches should be applauded. As they sort through their misunderstandings of Judaism, Jewishness and the Old Testament religion, they are beginning to see the entire Bible in a new light. Through these scholars' efforts, some may arrive at a significant turning point in theological understanding: that the scriptures of the Old Testament and the apostolic writings of the New, rather than contradicting each other in reality complement the other.

If the evidence of and reasons for anti-Jewish leanings are accepted, and the logical conclusions and practical lessons drawn, then popular Christianity's understanding of the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, could be dramatically altered. Would it, however, become "the faith once delivered," for which Jude instructs us to "earnestly contend"?

Realistically, we still have a long way to go before a correct view of the essential Jewishness of Jesus and the early Church can be achieved. Some recent ecclesiastical writings still have the earlier misguided assumptions in place, and they reappear in certain denominations' texts.

It seems that the scholars who have exhibited the courage to turn away from the theological faults of the past have not yet taken their thinking to its logical conclusion. For that reason their writings sometimes reveal a willingness to cling to aspects of their former teaching.

Meanwhile, teachers who understand the truth and who are unhampered by bias and misconception need to speak that truth: the truth that Christ kept the law and that Paul taught Jew and gentile alike to imitate his actions and practices as he imitated those of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). This is the Christianity that Jesus Christ and the early Church practiced, the Christianity plainly laid out in the Bible. This is the Christianity that has God's blessing!

Over the centuries the Church of God has consistently held to an unerring belief in the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice solidly expressed in the true Christian's obedient way of life. You can know from the Bible itself what the faith once delivered is, regardless of the direction in which particular scholars and denominations go. Look at our free booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom and find out. GN