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

No comments: