what I’m thinking

Not in general. Just recently.

Anyway, time spent reading the Gospels with a new friend this summer and attending synagogue services weekly has me thinking quite a bit. I wanted to introduce to you some of the conversation partners that I have had along side over the past few weeks.

1. Krista Tippett’s (host of Speaking of Faith) interview with Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core. Patel is concerned with religion and the world’s youth. Rejecting the Enlightenment notion that religion should be removed from public space, he brings youth of different faith traditions together by way of joint service projects. Out of those shared experiences, youth discuss how their particular religious commitments motivate them, thereby having more and better discussions about their faith commitments, not less. Patel rightly points out that what young people want is a way to impact the world. If their religious traditions give them no positive ways to do this, they will seek out negative ones (Al-Qaeda being the prime example). Listen and be amazed!

2. This article in Christian Century about “Scriptural Reasoning.” Groups around the world are coming together in common discussion and debate about their respective sacred texts. A couple of relevant passages:

This looks like a Bible study. But St. Ethelburga’s is a public space, not a church or temple, and the participants are Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Profound religious differences emerge over the course of conversation.

But the participants share one important conviction: they believe that the resolution of religiously rooted political tensions will be attained not by avoiding religion in public, but by initiating more and better religious conversations in public.

Participants in this practice, known as scriptural reasoning, are part of a movement that wants to protect religiously plural societies while simultaneously encouraging religious people to enter more deeply into public discourse. Such aims might appear paradoxical to those who were taught that the emergence in the 17th century of secular liberalism, with its privatization of faith, rescued the West from “wars of religion.” Voices on all sides of the religious and political spectrum have begun to recognize—not least because of the increased presence of Islam in Western societies—that a purely secular, liberal approach to public discourse is not sustainable in a world increasingly shaped by religions.

And again:

What is SR in practice? Jews, Christians and Muslims (roughly equal numbers of each) gather to read passages from three scriptures that are usually thematically related. Sessions are not held in a synagogue, church or mosque. Instead, SR, invoking the shared “tent of meeting” imagery of Genesis 28, seeks out a neutral space. When SR participants meet outside of a specific house of faith, studying all three scriptures together, they create “a three-way mutual hospitality,” says Christian theologian David Ford, another cofounder of the Society. When it is not clear who is the host and who is the guest, “each is host to the others and guest to the others as each welcomes the other two to their ‘home’ scripture and traditions of interpretation.”

In a typical gathering, a member of one faith will make a few introductory comments about a scripture passage, and then the entire group attempts to understand what the passage is teaching and how it ought be applied today. Slow, patient work is done to unpack how a faith tradition has interpreted the passage. The same is then done with texts from the other two scriptures. At the end the three texts are brought into dialogue with each other. Many questions ensue, not only from representatives of other faiths but also among members of one faith who may disagree over the interpretation of their scripture. A member of a different faith may bring the strongest insight into a scripture that is not his or her own. Adding to the richness of conversation is the fact that members of different faiths may, at the same time, share similar cultural or academic backgrounds. All of which means that no one can easily predict the lines of agreement in any SR session.

It’s important to note that what is being advocated here is not a “let’s join hands and sing Kumbayah” approach, but rather one that takes seriously the faiths of all participants, recognizes that real differences exist, doesn’t seek to gloss over those, and yet still insists that it is important that we engage with one another so that we can live together in a common civil society.

3. Robert Wilken and Wayne Meeks’ book, Jews and Christians in Antioch. This discusses relations between the two groups from the first to the fifth century CE and concludes with John Chrysostom’s Homilia Adversus Iudaeos, two sermons that well exemplify the marked anti-Semitic shift in 5th century Christianity.

To wit:

“I know that many have high regard for the Jews and they think that their present way of life is holy. That is why I am so anxious to uproot this deadly opinion. I said that the synagogue is no better than the theater and I submitted proof from the prophet. The Jews are not more trustworthy than the prophets. What did the prophet say? “Yours was a harlot’s brow, and you were resolved to show no shame” (Jer 3.3). A place where a prostitute offers her wares is a house of prostitution. But the synagogue is not only a house of prostitution and a theater, it is also a hideout for thieves and a den of wild animals. “Your house has become for me a hyena’s den” (Jer 7.11). But it is not simply the den of a wild animal but of an unclean one at that. Further, “I have forsaken my house, I have cast off my inheritance” (Jer 12.7). When God leaves, what hope of salvation remains? When God forsakes a place it becomes a dwelling place for demons.

Surely they say that they worship God. Away with such talk! No Jew worships God. Who says these things? The son of God. “If you knew me you would know my father as well. You know neither me nor my father” (John 8.19). What testimony can I offer that is more trustworthy than this one?” — Homilia Adversus Iudaeos 1.3

None of this is meant to single out Chrysostom for whom I have great respect; this kind of language is typical of the 5th century Church, East and West (and has continued to be so in many quarters). The question is: how do we as Christians in the 21st century deal with the legacy of supercessionist theology and the damage done in its name?


UPDATE: For more on Chrysostom in particular go here and here.  The first site is apologetic in nature, attempting to account for statements such as those quoted above (i.e. even though he said that stuff, John wasn’t really “anti-Semitic”).  The second is an in depth dialogue on the nature of the Homilia adversus Iudaeos.  Paul Halsall, IMO, does a good job there of pointing out the logical inconsistencies of the arguments given in the first site.  In sum, make up your own minds.


2 responses to “what I’m thinking

  1. Chris,

    One might argue, though, that the shift began to occur much earlier than the fifth century. Not a few have pointed out “anti-semitic” language in St. Paul (Galatians). One could also look at the “Epistle (or it may be called Gospel, can’t remember) of Barnabas” for marked anti-semitic language in the second century or so.

    I wonder this, too: What elicited this type of approach? Do we have examples of sermons by Jews from the first 5 centuries that were “Against Christians”? I suspect there probably were plenty of homilies preached by Jewish Rabbis against the Christian sect, but I don’t know how available they are.

    I suspect that due to the rise of Christianity by the 5th century, Christians were much more able to say these things without fear of imperial consequence than were the Jews, by now outnumbered and not favored by the emperor.

  2. I think you could find it earlier than the 5th century, certainly. Melito of Sardis’ Paschal Homily comes to mind. But the confluence of several factors really seems to cause it to take off during the late 4th/early fifth centuries. Margaret Miles, in a 1993 article in the Harvard Theological Review, refers to this as the period of “triumphal Christianity.” On the one hand, Christians are appropriating Jewish imagery and stories from the Hebrew Bible, wholesale. On the other, they begin a process of marginalization. Judaism goes from being officially recognized as an ancient and honorable religion to being severely proscribed.

    Miles cites, for instance, Ambrose’s approval of the synagogue burning at Callinicum (388) and several laws preserved in the Theodosian Code from this period which show a steady decrease in the rights and privileges that Jews were afforded. Evidence from the 4th century is somewhat contradictory, but early in the century, Constantine seems to have hesitated to divest the Jews of their rights. But, by the time of Theodosius, there is an official attitude of intolerance to any but Catholic Christians. (You probably remember that it was Theodosius who outlawed pagan sacrifice.) But even with Theodosius, things weren’t so clear cut. He, after all, did order the bishop at Calllinicum to pay for the rebuilding of the burnt synagogue (and also for the reconstruction of a burned meetinghouse of Valentinian Gnostics).

    Miles states: “Contradictory laws continued to be promulgated between 398 and 404, but anti-Jewish policy began to dominate in 404 when Honorius declared ‘Jews and Samaritans’ unfit for military service. In 415, Theodosius II issued the first edict that forbade the construction of new synagogues and even suggested that synagogues ‘in desert places’ could be destroyed, ‘if it can be accomplished without riots.’…Furthermore, by August 425, all Jews and pagans were expelled from Imperial service. This meant that henceforth Jews could not practice law in imperial courts and thus marks another significant increment in Jewish marginalization from positions of public authority. In sum, by the early fifth century, it was clear that Jews were rapidly losing many of their traditional privileges as they were marginalized from public life, their growth circumscribed, and their authorities disempowered.”

    Miles continues by mentioning attacks on synagogues led by Cyril of Alexandria (of Council of Ephesus fame) and other attacks in Edessa, Constantinople, et al. A law of 420 (Cod. Theod. 16.8.21) admonishes Jews against provoking Christian attacks, revealing, in Miles’ words, “an official attitude of blaming the victim.”


    From the Jewish side, I know that there are a few mentions of Christians in the Talmud (and the Midrash?), but I don’t know of any extended discourses like John’s. Is there anyone out there who has access to the evidence?

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