Christians, Jews, Israel and the the Church

ccjIt was a great pleasure this Monday to welcome the annual reunion for those who have been on the Council of Christians and Jews study trip to the International Centre for Holocaust Studies. I went last year and was delighted to host the reunion at Potters Bar. It was a chance to catch up with a number of those with whom I went to Jerusalem, to meet others from others years, to reflect again on what the experience meant to me and to meet Daniel Taub, the Israeli Ambassador, who dropped in for an hour in the afternoon and who was very impressive and engaging (and who was virtually a local boy, having attended Haberdashers, a school not far away which runs a bus from Potters Bar).

In the year since I was there I have thought a lot about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and a little about that between both, Zionism and the modern state of Israel. The following conclusions seem fairly secure to me:

  • Jesus himself was and remained a faithful Jew – during his lifetime and the time of his resurrection appearances the Jesus movement was a movement within early Judaism and did not entail any kind of break with it, he did not reject the law nor the unique election of Israel
  • During the period of the Apostolic Church (say to 65 AD) Christianity did not break from Judaism but began to create a separate identity, in particular it became possible to be a full member of the Church without being a Jew and without conforming to the Law (it also remained possible to be a full member while being a Jew and conforming to the Law)
  • the definitive separation of Christianity from Judaism and hence the rejection of (at least some of) the Law was a post-Apostolic development

There has been a fairly widespread scholarly acceptance of this general picture since it emerged as a serious position in the later 1970s and my impression is that among scholars of the New Testament and the early Church it would now be the consensus view. In particular the idea that Jesus himself initiated a radical break with the Law would now be a minority view, I think. The arguments and positions attributed to him in the gospels with regard to legal matters are now generally seen as being within the range of ideas held by Jewish thinkers of the time (although some of them would make him fairly extreme, especially on divorce).

This picture of the development sits rather uncomfortably with a traditional Reformation view of a radical opposition between a legalistic Judaism and a grace-filled Christianity, drawn from a particular reading of Paul’s letters. We have been taught that Jesus was a radical who broke with a dead and sinful Jewish practice and opened a whole new relationship with God. The New Perspective on Paul, identified with thinkers like E.P. Sanders, J.D.G Dunn and N.T. Wright, has undermined this by insisting that the Judaism of the time was not as Christian thinkers have caricatured it. It was very familiar, these thinkers argue, with the idea that salvation was a matter of God’s gracious action and regarded  obedience to the Law as a response to grace not as an attempt to win favour.

They tend to read Paul’s real innovation as his insistence that it was now possible to enter into the covenantal people by another route, by baptism into Christ which does not require, as membership of the people of Israel does, acceptance of the Law. To old Israel is now added a new dimension, those from the nations who are received in Christ. This does not abolish the Law for Israel but, in the new age inaugurated by Jesus, enables an extension of the people to those outside Israel.

This new emphasis on continuity between old Israel and the new Church fits well with a more general reassessment of Judaism in the period since the Holocaust. It might imply that we have been wrong, in the Church, whenever we have thought or said that the covenant with Israel was ended with the coming of Christ. We might rather need to accept that the Jewish people are still elect, still the chosen people alongside the Church. We and they each have our place in God’s mission to save the world.

This is, in fact, my own view. It fits well with my attitude to the question of ecumenism, which is that the Church is in fragments and that none of these can claim to be “The Church” as long as any other exists. The Church resides in them all but cannot come to full being until it is united. In the meantime each of the fragments exists, by God’s grace and providence, to embody some part of the mission of the whole Church, which cannot, in the current transitional age, between that which is passing away and that which it come, be fully itself.

Thus the established churches, for example, express the reality that Christ is sovereign over all the peoples, that he exercises worldly rule. Separation of Church and State is an expression of sin and failure rather than something to be celebrated. In the age to come there will be no such separation. At the same time the Roman Catholic church expresses the reality that Jesus knows no boundaries of nation and people. His rule is universal and integral. In being a fully international worldwide ecclesial body with a single head the Roman Church speaks of this rejection of national division. Dissenting “free churches”, like my own United Reformed Church, speak to the rejection of entanglement with the sinful power structures of this age, of separation from civil authorities the central reality of which is the use of violence.

The above paragraph attempts to exemplify, from one narrow but very important view, the ways in which the full witness to the age to come is difficult for the Church in the current age and demands “specialisation” or fragmentation from the parts of the Church. Our involvement in a sinful world prevents us from fully expressing Christ’s news about the coming of Kingdom. Indeed “sectarian” withdrawal from such involvement, as seen in aspects of Anabaptism, is itself an indispensable witness for the Church catholic.

I would see the relationship between the Church and Israel as being part of this overall problem of how God’s coming rule can be represented in this passing age. The election of a “people” or “nation” expresses something important about the embodiment of God’s image. To be a Jew is a matter of birth. To be a Jew is a “natural” identity as well as one expressing God’s choosing of a particular person. To be a Christian does not have this character (and loses something essential when it tends in this direction).

Finally, it seems to me, that we in the Church would do well to remember Israel’s priority. We have been grafted on to Israel and depend on it for our roots. This is vital and should never be lost sight of.

How any of this relates to the modern state of Israel I do not know. That’s an issue I find very difficult to address. However it seems to me that the recognition of the continuing reality of God’s covenant with the Jewish people is an essential starting point.

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