Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review of Modern Jews Engage the New Testament by Rabbi Michael J. Cook, Part 2

Chapter 1—When Advice of Sages Ceases to be Sage Advice

I won’t say too much about this first chapter, since it serves basically as an introduction to the themes of the book which will be more fully elaborated later. Two of these themes stand out in importance. The first is that Jews continue to ignore the New Testament to their own detriment. Cook relates nine short vignettes—ranging from reactions to a nativity scene, to the Hebrew name of Jesus, and to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—to underscore how Jewish ignorance of the New Testament ends up being counter-productive for Jews who become “seriously disadvantaged.” Indeed, Cook says, Jews get tongue-tied when asked questions such as “Who do you think Jesus was?” or “How do you account for Jesus’ empty tomb?” Or even when asking questions of themselves, such as: if Jesus’ death conferred benefit on humanity, why aren’t Jews praised instead of blamed for that death?

What we need, Cook argues, is a revolution which can only come from the top down, not from the ground up. He gives us an instructive historical note here. In 1899, Reform Rabbi Harris Weinstock wrote a sort of survey entitled “Shall Jesus of Nazareth Be Taught in the Jewish Sabbath School?” which in fact advocated for greater Jewish knowledge about Jesus, in order that Jews might better defend themselves. Responses among the 60 respondents ranged from the negative to the cautiously positive. Yet no change ensued because “seven required conditions” (to be enumerated in chapter 23) did not yet exist.

Jumping ahead one hundred years to 1999, we find another survey taken by Roxanne Schneider-Shapiro, designed to update Weinstock’s results. The proposed learning curve would embrace not only Jesus but also the New Testament and Christianity. Of the 450 synagogues who received a survey, 225 responded—with again, both positive and negative feedback. These two surveys give us meaningful data on the attitudes of “Jewish religious professionals,” a baseline from which we can determine what is still needed.

The second main theme to be elaborated in the rest of the book concerns the New Testament itself, which does not portray the “real” Jesus. The gospels, in Cook’s view, are the real culprits in fostering anti-Semitic attitudes, as can be seen from their blaming of the Jews for Jesus’ death and from their supersessionist theology, exploited in recent times by Nazism. For historical reasons, then, the Jewish community has been discouraged, or rather discouraged itself, from engaging the New Testament. (In the Introduction Cook has already reworked the metaphor of famous sculptural figures of Synagoga and Ecclesia—which depict the blindness of the Jewish people towards the gospel—into an image of Jews’ self-imposed blindness vis-à-vis the New Testament.)

The particular way in which Jews should come to know the New Testament lies in what Cook calls its “dynamics”—and to apply this knowledge to “enhance the well-being of Jews living in a Christian environment.” What he means by “dynamics” is, as he will show, learning how the gospels developed, namely, through inventions, alterations, and creation that leaves the now-undiscoverable real Jesus behind. In the course of the book Cook will show himself to be a minimalist in terms of “recovering” the historical Jesus. In fact, his approach is standard-fare form- and tradition-criticism; he accepts, for instance, the idea that there is a sharp dichotomy between history and theology. That is, the gospels reflect the theological concerns of their writers rather than history—not as well as history or not as (true, accurate) history written from a theological viewpoint. Or, the idea that the later church created material now in the gospels in order to meet its own needs at the time.

And those needs had distinctly anti-Jewish overtones. A minimalist when it comes to the historicity of the New Testament, Cook is a maximalist in finding anti-Judaism embedded in the final gospels.

NEXT: Chapter 2—Results of Ignorance: Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution . . .

I’m part way through Rabbi Michael J. Cook’s Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment. Here’s the scoop: Cook teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Specifically, his area is Judaeo-Christian Studies, and his affiliation is Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR, Reform’s rabbinical seminary, is according to Cook the first such seminary to require training in the New Testament. It is high time, Cook believes, that Jews stop being intentionally ignorant of the New Testament and come to learn what it’s all about. In contrast to the high value Jews place on knowledge in other areas of study, we are woefully ignorant of the New Testament and therefore cannot formulate a proper response when confronted with questions from or about Christians. New Testament study will enable Jews to feel empowered rather than tongue-tied in dealing with texts that have contributed to anti-Semitism and ill feeling towards Jews.

So in Modern Jews Cook becomes, you should pardon the expression, an evangelist who wants to see a revolution in the curricula of each and every Jewish seminary, synagogue and religious school. It’s radical, unheard of, extraordinary, out of the mainstream. But it needs to happen.

I’ll look at each of his chapters in coming posts, hopefully one every week or so. This week here are a few of my first thoughts.

What Cook attempts to teach is not so much the content of the New Testament as what he calls “Gospel Dynamics.” (The constant repetition of that phrase in the book begins to sound like a registered trademark after a while, and it strangely reminded me of Charles Atlas’ “Dynamic Tension” exercise method!) What are Gospel Dynamics? It’s Cook’s phrase to explain how the New Testament gospels work. And specifically, to explain why the New Testament is (allegedly – more on that later) anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish.

In a nutshell, here’s how it goes. The gospels are not really interested in history. They are interested in theology. In fact, what the gospel writers did was to take the real, historical, Jewish Jesus and to rework the story of his life to meet the needs of a community several decades, even generations, removed from the original. So for example, by the time the gospel writers wrote, Christians were afraid of Rome and afraid of being associated with the Jewish people – Christianity had been considered a Jewish sect early on - who had just unsuccessfully waged a failed rebellion against Rome, which ended in the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. So what did the gospel writers do? They switched the blame for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jews, thereby in effect pacifying any Romans who would hear or read the Christian message.

Think of it this way. Supposing that in real history John F. Kennedy had been assassinated by a coterie of Republicans. For the next forty years the Democrats hold sway in the government, only to be finally replaced by Republicans. And the life of Kennedy has not been written down until the Republicans come to power, though early on everyone knew whodunnit. Now comes the time to write that story, but for fear of Republican reprisals the chroniclers rewrite history and make Democrats to be the real assassins.

That’s not a full analogy to what Cook is doing, because even more than being motivated by politics and fear, the gospel writers are motivated by theology. But it’s enough to give you an idea.

And such ideas are by no means Cook’s own, just the rather patentable phrase “Gospel Dynamics.” For a long, long time, some scholars have done two things when approaching the gospels (they’ve done a lot more, but let’s start here):

1. Assume that the content of the gospels was first circulated orally, then later on massaged, shaped, and reworked in written form not to tell what actually happened, but to meet the needs of a later generation, in the process often inventing things wholesale.

2. Assume a false alternative. Either the writers were interested in history, or they were interested in theology, but not both. Either the writers were interested in their own generation, or they were interested in what really happened in a previous generation, but not both.

Imagine a malleable, clay sculpture of a man in a standing posture, hands at his side. Decades after the statue was first created in peaceable times, life takes a dramatic turn for the worse and the hapless people are in need of self-defense. They take classes in karate, they carry weapons, they keep their lights turned on all the time. They look to heroes who can defend them against others. In this social climate, someone takes the original clay sculpture and reworks it so that the man is now shown to be carrying a machine gun, and the statue is put on public display. This is the kind of person we need these days! This is what speaks to our community. And that is what we are interested in — what works for us today, not what the original may have been.

I am oversimplifying a huge area of scholarly study, but I am doing so in a calculated way in order to make vivid some of what is going on in the field of gospel studies. Actually, what Cook calls “Gospel Dynamics” includes what scholars otherwise call “tradition-history” — the idea that the gospel content (“traditions”) circulated orally for decades before being shaped in light of community concerns and finally written down, with minimal concern for history. And so the historical Jesus, his actions, his words, and those of his immediate followers, are lost to us, the only Jesus we have being in large part the creation of a later time.

I’ve said so much on this in order to point out that Cook is not doing anything especially new, and in fact he takes his ideas even further than many others would. But is it “good for the Jews”? Cook thinks so. In succeeding posts I’ll examine his chapters individually and see if he presents an accurate picture of the New Testament as well as how he hopes his understandings will benefit the Jewish people. And we'll explore if this is a Twitter-worthy revolution.