Analytic Theology

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Is There a Judeo-Christian Tradition?

September 5th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: I am growing increasingly skeptical about the idea of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Everybody from historians to anthropologists frequently appeals to this concept, as a way of explaining or emphasizing certain allegedly desirable features of Western civilization, particularly in its current form. The fact of the matter, though, is that it is difficult to think of two cultures that are more polar opposites.

In particular, it is not at all clear why the Pauline founders of “Christianity-as-we-know-it” felt it necessary to embrace the Old Testament. As the recent discovery of the Book of Judas makes clear, they were having enough difficulty deciding what should comprise the canonical Gospels, to begin with. See, e.g., Wilford, J. & Goodstein, L., “‘Gospel of Judas’ Surfaces After 1,700 Years,” New York Times (Apr. 6, 2006).

The Old Testament is the historical record of the Hebrews during their multiple travails throughout the Levant, commencing at the beginning of time. “[W]ithin that varied Hebrew literature spanning a millennium which we laconically call ‘the Bible,’ a succession of anonymous authors created the most distinguished corpus of historical writing in the ancient Near East,” Yerushalmi, Y. H., Zakor – Jewish History and Jewish Memory 12 (1982). It is entirely fitting and appropriate for the descendants of those people to revere it, as an inspired and holy work.

But, aside from the fact that Christ himself was an observant, and then not-so-observant, Jew, there is little in the Old Testament to commend it to his followers. Indeed, some of the friction points of the new Christianity were issues such as the extent to which non-Jews could become Christians, and the extent to which the newly-minted Christians had to follow Jewish laws.

Undoubtedly it was convenient for the writers of the New Testament to truffle up various passages in the Old Testament, that are said to foretell the coming of Christ; but appeal to anything else would have been equally as effective. I.e., it is not clear how an appeal to prophecies of the Old Testament, as presaging events in the New Testament, somehow bolsters or fortifies the former vis-à-vis the latter, particularly since the evolving Christian community quickly differentiated itself from its Jewish forebearers. Wouldn’t it have been equally efficacious, if not more so, for the New Testament writers simply to come up with their own version of events – a kind of “pre”-New Testament, if you will? This would not necessarily mean rejecting everything the Old Testament says – as the Old Testament itself borrows from numerous sources, so could this book that I envision, borrow from the Old Testament.

It is not hard to discern why Christianity’s adoption of the Old Testament happened, and the main reason is because it was convenient. The Jews believed in a monotheistic God. This collided with the influx of Platonism into Christianity, as evidenced in the writings of Aquinas and Augustine. They looked good enough together, so, voila.

One of the main – and, I believe, potentially irreconcilable – pivot points between the Hebrew faith and Christianity, is the issue of rules. This becomes particularly evident in the juxtaposition of pertinent Old Testament and New Testament texts. For example, Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 5-8 says:

1. Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you.

2. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

* * *

5. Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.

6. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.

7. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for?

8. And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?

The theme seems to be, “you guys really should be happy and grateful, because look at what great laws I came up with for you!” Whereas, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 says something completely different:

1. Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.

2. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen hands, they found fault.

3. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.

4. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables.

5. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?

6. He answered and said unto them, Well hath Isaiah prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

7. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

8. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.

* * *

14. And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand:

15. there is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.

* * *

21. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,

22. thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:

23. all these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

I particularly like the part about the “evil eye.” Another one of my favorite examples – and, evidently, one of our former President Jimmy Carter’s, too – is the sermon on the mount, where Jesus states at Matthew 5:27-28: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

The theme of these contrasting passages is, what matters to the Jews, is following the law, which is the key to a devout life. Whereas, what matters to the Christians, is that one actually must believe in what one does. In principle, it would be possible for the devout Jew simply to engage in a ritualistic form of behavior, by following the law, yet not believe any of it; this alternative, however, is not open to the Christian. [Setting aside for a moment the issue of why the Catholic Mass was said in Latin until Vatican II, to the mute incomprehension of many illiterate middle-Agers, and their progeny!]

In his book Jesus and Yahweh – The Names Divine (2005), Harold Bloom put it this way: “Jews are not asked to believe but rather to trust in the Covenant cut between Yahweh and the Patriarchs and Prophets, from Noah and Abraham through Moses on to Jeremiah and finally the rabbi-of-rabbis, Akiba ben Joseph. Christians believe that Joshua ben Joseph was the Messiah, the God Jesus Christ, who was incarnated miraculously in the womb of Miriam, his virgin mother, and who now reigns in eternity as the viceroy of God his Father, in the company also of the Holy Sipirit, hosts of angels, and the multitudes he has redeemed and saved,” emphasis in original. Bloom concludes by observing that the Christian “God the Father” has only the slightest resemblance to the Hebrew Yahweh, blaming the gulf that separates them primarily on “Greek theological formulations and Hebraic experiential memories,” which “simply are antithetical to each other.” Rather, “The human being Jesus and the all-too-human God Yahweh are more compatible (to me) than either is with Jesus the Christ and God the Father.”

Another commentator, Karl Lowith, says: “Christians are not an historical people. Their solidarity all over the world is merely one of faith. In the Christian view the history of salvation is no longer bound up with a particular nation, but is internationalized because it is individualized. … From this it follows that the historical destiny of Christian peoples is no possible subject for a specifically Christian interpretation of political history, while the destiny of the Jews is a possible subject of a specifically Jewish interpretation,” emphasis in original; Lowith, K., Meaning in History 194 (1949).

This emphasis on what we broadly might characterize as the “subjective validity” of Christianity, leads to a host of problems. For example, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, this is what makes it possible for God to be dead. Because if (1) all that matters is what you believe; and, (2) you decide not to believe in God; then, (3) for you, for all practical purposes, God no longer exists. If enough members of a covalent community do this, either independently or reciprocally interacting, then this result propagates, and spreads throughout every element of that community’s belief system.

The consequences continue. Because if there is no God, then certainly there is no point to worrying about higher-order concepts such as morality, ethics, or values. While they do not depend for their sufficiency or vitality upon the existence of God, they are amenable to the same form of logical analysis, with the same resulting conclusion.

For Nietzsche, the only way these ideas can be properly grounded is when the individual recognizes his (or her) role and responsibility to devise, implement and maintain his (or her) own value system – one that is firmly, insightfully and authentically grounded in the practical project of life on earth. This pretty much is the exact opposite of relying upon the commands and precepts of a God-figure (really, anybody or anything other than oneself), even though they might have social utility.

In this way, Christianity contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, because it untethered itself from the system of rules, laws, conventions, and precedents that are one of the central features of the earlier faith that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. Christians certainly are not required to obey the law of Moses; for example, much of Numbers and Deuteronomy comprises complex descriptions and proscriptions as to those laws, and I would be willing to venture that most evangelical Christians, would not even know what Moses was talking about.

So, even though it appears to be complicated, with all of its rules and laws and such, the Jewish faith actually may be far simpler than Christianity, because it does not require so much mental effort to keep doubt (as to the existence of God, belief in the Trinity, etc.) in its corral. Maybe this is one of the factors that accounts for its cultural persistence, despite incredible adversity.