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Discussion & Study Guide to Christianity's Forgotten Jews
by Dr. Alan D. Bennett

A. Overview
Judaism generated two world religions, Christianity in the 1st century and Islam in the 7th. Like the parent religion, each spawned sectarian branches, producing the multi-branched tree of monotheistic religion we know today. Each newer faith affirmed One Living God, revered a book that conveyed its teachings, laid claim to Judaism's biblical ancestors, and echoed aspects of Jewish practice. Islam's split from Judaism came shortly after Mohammed fled to Medina in 622 CE and discovered that Medina's Jews would not accept Islam as an Arabic version of Judaism. Christianity's separation from Judaism, on the other hand, followed a centuries-long evolution that began when the earliest "Jewish Christians" began to look upon Jesus in ways that were incompatible with mainstream Judaism. That 1st–2nd century story, much complicated by the appearance of many competing Jewish sects (see also Simon), is compellingly narrated in Reform Judaism’s Fall 2006 feature article.

This guide summarizes aspects of the historical split in that troubled era and discusses them under two "Big Ideas."

1. 1st century Roman Palestine events, including the rise of Christianity, helped shape Jewish history.
2. Familiar symbols enable Jews and Christians to explore their historical connection.

B. Summaries
I. Christianity emerged from Judaism.

A. The Death of Jesus
Jesus' crucifixion was not an exceptional event in 1st-century Roman Palestine, but the aftermath was "unprecedented." Believing him to be a messiah, his followers sought ways to prove it, even though Jesus had failed the ultimate test –-to fulfill God's plan by defeating evil. They asserted that Jesus, far from failing in his mission, had surmounted the greatest evil—death—through his own resurrection, which marked the beginning of God's plan for salvation through Jesus, God's Chosen One. The sect of his Jewish followers, who followed all Jewish laws, recast messianic expectation and taught that the reward of resurrection awaited the faithful, and soon. (See also Gillman.)

B. The Parting of the Ways
The Jewish Jesus sect, one of many early 1st-century Judean sects promising an end-of-time release from turmoil and grinding repression, i.e. imminent fulfillment of messianic expectation, initially directed its message to other Jews. They could not reach consensus when a gentile group in Asia Minor sought admission to the Jewish Jesus group; some demanded male circumcision as a requirement for conversion, while others wanted to accept both gentiles and Jews who sought to follow Jesus. The "non-circumcisers" premised their stand on apocalyptic, prophetic preaching which held that all people would join Israel and its God in the final days, which had arrived. In time, those who held for traditional conversion became a minority.

C. Appealing to Pagans
The more inclusive Jesus sect appealed to non-Jews whose attachment lay with the gods of the Greeks and Romans. These gentiles found comfort in a group whose savior, having attained spirituality and immortality—thereby fulfilling the Jewish expectation of resurrection and judgment to everlasting life—could be their means to their own salvation without paying the high price of circumcision. Galambush notes that other, exotic, religions also provided "personal immortality, spiritual transformation, and a heavenly patron to assist in both." Only the Jesus group provided an added dimension: acceptance into a high-status tradition.

D. A New Controversy
By the latter part of the 1st century, the Jesus sect had been transformed from an almost exclusively Jewish to a primarily gentile body. Its leaders failed to comprehend why Jews did not join them in droves and why, in fact, so many Jews and the Jewish community remained hostile to them. During this period, letters and other writings by Paul and others—works that later formed the core of Christian scripture—encouraged far-flung Jewish congregations to join the Jesus movement so as to reap the benefits Jesus offered. For Paul and Luke, Jews who joined were faithful Jews; those who did not were failed Jews, hostile to God's purpose. This effectively divided Roman Jewry into good Jews and bad Jews.

In addition, the circumcision disagreement continued within the Jesus sect. Paul equated the requirement with persecution against the gentile congregations. He also sought reconciliation between those who observed kashrut and those who did not.

Leaders in the Jesus movement recorded their views about the Jesus sect's Jew vs. Jew controversies regarding circumcision, kashrut, and Jesus' Messiah status. Those who denied Jesus as Messiah received particularly venomous verbal abuse and vilification. While these anti-Jewish polemics were initially disputes within a Jewish sect, they evolved into the Christian scriptures which, in time, vilified all Jews.

E. The New Testament Reframed
The Jewish sects that followed Jesus became predominantly non-Jewish in composition by the 2nd century, transforming gradually from simply groups of Messiah-believers to a new, non-Jewish religion. "Christian" came to designate church leaders and role models like Paul and Mary, not the observant Jews who had been the first followers of Jesus—now identified as those who opposed him. This emerges in sharp contrast to the efforts of the Christian scriptures' authors to acknowledge and defend their Jewish identity, often against the charges of other Jews—defenses which often vigorously castigated those other Jews in language that became the basis of anti-Semitism in Christian scripture.

Christianity shares roots with Judaism and the parting of the ways was reluctant. It is important for Jews and Christians to understand the Jewishness of the early Christians and the authors of Christian scripture.

II. The Last Supper
Hundreds of Last Supper portraits are known, Da Vinci's (1498) having been preceded by at least: 12th-century Italy, painter unknown; 13th-century Syria, painter unknown; 1308-11 Italy, Duccio Di Buoninsegna; c. 1423 Italy, Stefano di Giovani; 1480 Italy, Domenico Chirlanaio. Versions originated in European and African countries, in Israel, Japan, Azerbaijan, and America—to list a few—and new representations appear yearly. They depict, variously, bare tables, chalice and bread only, virtual groaning boards of fish and suckling pig(!), period dress, modern clothing, lively figures, near-lifeless participants. Type Last Supper in your search engine to view 200+ versions. How closely do any of the portraits depict the seder as we know it?

Christian scripture associates The Last Supper with Passover in several Gospel passages: Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 21:1-13, John 12:1, Corinthians 11:17-22. The accounts are not in harmony. Is the seder we know really what took place at Jesus' last meal? What if The Last Supper="seder" equation resulted from later textual emendations designed to redefine the seder in Christological terms? Note Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Professor Michael J. Cook, who writes in the context of seder observances that take place in many churches today, either for ecumenical purposes or to celebrate Jesus:

"Christians who truly want to learn about Judaism should know that Jesus had no familiarity with the likes of seders staged by churches today. The seder is a post-70 response to turmoil posed by the fall of the Temple and the resulting cessation of the sacrificial cult. At that time, the question arose: how are we to celebrate Passover now that paschal lambs can no longer be sacrificed? The seder and attendant customs were an eventual solution. Since Jesus was a Jew, it is of course possible that, in the years before his execution, he himself had customarily celebrated Passover. If so, he would have observed it as did other Jews of his day: by bringing a lamb to be sacrificed in the Temple, and then, after it was roasted, eating it, together with unleavened bread, in the environs of Jerusalem, and recounting in connection with eating this meal his ancestors’ escape from bondage to Pharaoh. Such a rite, however structured, would not resemble the full-blown church "re-enactment" of the Last Supper today.…"

Reform Judaism commissioned an artist to depict The Last Supper as a seder to emphasize the fact that Jesus and his followers were observant Jews; it was not meant to be a historically accurate portrayal of the people, clothing, ceremonial objects, foods, etc.

"Big Ideas" discusses a comparison of this version with the famous Da Vinci painting.

C. "Big Ideas” to Explore

1. 1st century Roman Palestine events, including the rise of Christianity, helped shape Jewish history.
Even our ideas about God have evolved since biblical days. (see "Drawing Near to God: A Discussion Guide" http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1157), so it comes as no surprise that beliefs and practices we assume have been fixed forever are really points in time in an exciting, unfolding story. Formative periods and events that elicited responses to new challenges punctuate Judaism's long history. Think of the post-Solomonic division of the Israelite kingdom, the Babylonian exile and the return, the Maccabean revolt, the destruction of the Second Temple, the rise of Islam, Christian Europe, the Holocaust, Israel's rebirth. Each national experience shaped who we are; and its consequences found their way into our prayer books, haggadot, Talmud, responsa, and other sacred literature. The events of 1st-century Roman Palestine rank high among these seminal moments in the Jewish journey. As Leo Baeck points out, they “must be understood…in terms of the tradition out of which they originated….A life of Jesus can be written, if at all, only after one has determined what the first generation after Jesus related and handed down." –p. 42

Explore two themes from this point of view.
a. The circumcision controversy. Note Abusch:
"Although Jews represented a distinct ethnic and religious group within the social world of the Roman empire, the boundaries between Jew and non-Jew were permeable and often invisible.…The Jews' dietary code, their observance of the Sabbath and the seven-day week, and their singular and aniconic God were enshrined in the ethnographic discourse…(but) in the social and economic domains…neither their names, nor their accents, nor their professions, nor their clothing, nor many other aspects of their daily lives served as reliable signs of ethnic or religious difference….In most respects, Jews were just one group in a vast and diverse imperial system.

"There is, of course, an important exception. While not unique to the Jews, circumcision of the male genitals not only constituted one of their most distinctive practices, but also served as a particularly visible mark of difference. This physical demarcation was especially acute in a society in which public nudity…was prevalent and in which the perfection of the unaltered male physique was prized.

"Paul…is sorely vexed by the question of gentile adult circumcision within the early Jesus movement. He writes…in rejection of the teaching being promulgated by other traveling Jewish Christian missionaries that circumcision is necessary for full inclusion in the salvation offered by Jesus…Paul creates a deliberate variant, calling circumcision katatome (in Greek), or 'mutilation.'" –pp.75-79

And Cohen: "Soleveitchik explained…'It is an eternal covenant which can never be cancelled. The Jewish people and God belong to one existential experience.' 'The brith [circumcision] is the community living in history.'

"(Aryeh Kaplan)…'It was because they were circumcised that Abraham's descendants were able to be the recipients of the Torah. Thus, it was through the commandment of circumcision that the purpose of creation could be fulfilled.'" –pp. 5-6

See also Genesis 17:9-14, 21:4, 34:13-17; Exodus 4:24-26; Leviticus 12:3.

Questions for Discussion
1. Explain why circumcision became a "deal-breaker" to reconciling the Jesus sects with other Jews.
2. Do you believe that ritual circumcision is important to Jews today? Explain.
3. Explain each section of Soleveitchik's statement.
4. Explain the significance/meaning of each Torah selection.

b. The Messianism Controversy
Scholem says that the savior idea "represents the intrusion of a new dimension of the present—redemption—into history, which enters into a problematic relation with tradition" -p. 50. The distinction between an anointed leader who will work through the tradition in order to make things better for the nation and the people, and a personal spiritual savior whose special powers transcend, even transform, history is critical to understanding the split between mainstream Judaism and emergent Christianity. Savior messianism as distinguished from prophetic teaching about "the end of days" contributed to the final schism. Again, Scholem:

"Two elements are combined in the Messianic idea…the restorative and the utopian.…Messianism could be, in the first place, the return…to a state of things which…became decadent and corrupt and which needs restoration.…The second element…represents the conception of redemption as a phenomenon in which something emerges which has never before existed.…These restorative and utopian elements in the Messianic idea could exist side by side as long as it was simply a hope that was projected into the distant future.…

"The Messianic idea, even if it was not developed logically from the idea of tradition, was regarded as compatible with it. Only where historical experience stirred people's hearts could such experience also find a quasi-theological expression in which the crisis of tradition then very quickly erupted within Messianism." -pp. 51-52

Questions for Discussion
1. Explain how the conflicting views of messianism contributed to the split between the Jesus followers and other Jews.
2. What title, function, and/or purpose do you assign to Jesus? Why? (See also Bruteau.)
3. Explain how "prophetic utopian teaching about the end of days" challenges us today. See "Healing the World: A Discussion Guide” at http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1092
4. In what ways did the new messianism (utopian) depart from Jewish tradition (restorative)? Why did most Jews reject the new teaching?

2. Familiar symbols enable Jews and Christians to explore their historical connection.
To appreciate the rich symbolism of the Reform Judaism magazine version of The Last Supper, compare it to the famous Da Vinci painting. A lovely picture of the restored painting is viewable at
http://1st-art-gallery.com/artists/leonardo_da_vinci/last_supper.jpg Six men, in animated conversation, appear on either side of Jesus, who appears aloof in the midst of the activity around him. Faces and gestures preserve Renaissance Jewish stereotypes. The bareheaded men wear loose-fitting robes and capes in various colors. One disciple, presumably Judas, his Semitic features accented, raises clean hands as if to distance himself from Jesus. The table is bare save for some goblets and a few large empty plates, loaves, and eggs scattered about, suggesting, perhaps, but not illustrating a seder table. The planes of the beams and lines of the room carry the eye to the central figure framed in a halo-like window. Jesus' hands rest on the table; the left is palm up, suggesting the coming crucifixion, while the right suggests a gesture of blessing. The painting is a rendition of the Gospel's intent, not a validation of the Gospel's version of history. Nor did Da Vinci set out to render the seder table completely or accurately—not even as it might have appeared in 1498.

Reform Judaism's The Last Supper painting bridges centuries of Jewish tradition and recaptures a contemporaneous Jewish event of the 1st century. The clothing suggests the attire of the time. Pesach food and symbols adorn the table. The central figure is an engaged participant. The image provides a metaphor for those few, ominous days and nights in Jerusalem that opened the door to the parting of the ways.

Questions for Discussion
1. Had Da Vinci intended a seder table, what items did he omit?
2. Find the seder elements in RJ's version. Why are they included?
3. What ideas about Jesus did the Gospels and Da Vinci intend to convey?
4. What message does the RJ version contain that's absent from Da Vinci?
5. Is it important for Christian belief and Da Vinci to suggest that Jesus' last meal was, in fact, the Passover meal? Explain.
6. What strikes you about the Reform Judaism rendering of the Jesus figure? What message does it convey?

D. Resources
Ra'anan Aubusch. "Circumcision and Castration Under the Roman Law in the Early Empire." In Elizabeth Wyner Mark, Ed. The Covenant of Circumcision (Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, 2003).

Leo Baeck. Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1960).

Beatrice Bruteau, Ed. Jesus Through Jewish Eyes. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001).

Eugene J. Cohen. Guide to Ritual Circumcision and the Redemption of the First-Born Son. (New York: Ktav, 1984).

Michael J. Cook. “Righting What’s Wrong with Church ‘Seders.’“ In Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal (Spring 2001).

Neil Gillman. The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought. (Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).

Joseph Klausner. The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Macmillan, 1955).

Carl E. Purinton. Christianity and Its Jewish Heritage (New York: Ronald Press, 1961).

Gershom Scholem. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1951).

Marcel Simon. Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967).




 


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