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.

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