With great interest and also with some bewilderment, I read not only your interview with John Strugnell (“Ousted Chief Scroll Editor Makes His Case,” BAR 20:04), but also the letters to the editor in the November/December issue by James W. Deardorf, Michael S. Burrier, Jerry C. Meng and Leroy Spinks (Queries & Comments, BAR 20:06).
It is regrettable that John Strugnell, certainly one of the most outstanding Semitists of our time, can now play only a marginal role in the continuing efforts to publish the remaining Dead Sea Scrolls. On the other hand, I also reject the view that scholars have a “right” to publication that excludes access to other scholars. One responsibility of a scholar is to make ancient materials accessible to the scholarly world and to the public as soon as possible. The publication of the Nag Hammadi library under the leadership of James M. Robinson stands as a model. A facsimile edition of the Coptic manuscripts was published first, next a preliminary English translation of all texts and, finally, the detailed multi-volume scholarly editions with all the appropriate scientific apparatus. Moreover, a large number of scholars participated from the beginning: No fewer than 40 scholars collaborated in the production of the The Nag Hammadi Library in English (ed. by James M. Robinson; Leiden: Brill, and San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977; rev. ed., 1988). It is good to know that now John Strugnell also wishes that a larger team would have been engaged for the Dead Sea Scrolls long ago. But the model of James Robinson’s team was well known to him as well as to other scholars for more than two decades.
The primary purpose of my writing, however, concerns the issue of the alleged anti-Semitism of John Strugnell’s theological position. To be sure, he can claim that he defends a traditional Christian position, whether or not he wants to call it supersessionism. However, it is also evident that the return to a “high” christology, however present it may be in ancient Christian texts, is a very problematic basis for a Jewish-Christian dialogue. It is worth noting that the Jewish Christians in antiquity did not subscribe to such a christology.
Almost 30 years ago, a conference about Judaism and Christianity was held at Harvard University, with very high-powered participation from theologians and scholars from the USA and from abroad. But one of the key addresses was a complete disaster and caused great embarrassment. It was a lecture by the well-known German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, who insisted that the Hebrew Bible (which he called the Old Testament) can be understood properly by both Jews and Christians only if it is acknowledged that its ultimate meaning is seen as a prophecy for the fulfillment in Jesus the Christ. I still remember that my hands froze when I wanted to join in the polite applause at the end of the lecture. On this basis, Christians can no longer claim that they are interested in a dialogue. Of course, from a perspective of traditional Christian theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg did nothing wrong. From that perspective it is also difficult to criticize those readers’ responses, which you printed, who wondered why there was anything wrong with agreeing with John Strugnell’s wish that all Jews should be converted to Christianity. However, there is neither a historical nor a theological justification for such claims.
Let me begin my reflections by quoting a statement, made in a discussion some years ago by my (and John Strugnell’s) former Harvard colleague Dieter Georgi: “Both the canon of the New Testament and the Mishnah are a tragic historical mistake.” I can only discuss here why I think that this statement is important with respect to the New Testament canon; it is up to my Jewish colleagues to discuss the question of the Mishnah.
It is a simple historical fact that Jesus was an Israelite from Galilee, and that he understood himself to be nothing else but a prophet in Israel and for Israel—a venerable tradition, and he was not the first of these prophets of Israel who was rejected and persecuted—though he was tried and executed by the Romans, not by the Jewish authorities.
The Pharisee Paul, called to proclaim Jesus’ death and resurrection as the turning point of the ages, never wanted to establish anything else than the “New Israel.” The agony with which he wrote Romans 9–11 about the unbelief of his fellow Israelites—Israel according to the flesh—is still painfully evident for an open-minded reader of those chapters. Paul tried to accomplish the impossible, 027namely, to establish a new Israel on a foundation that could include both Jews and Gentiles. This implied also that the central ritual of the community was no longer the Day of Atonement and the Passover but a meal commemorating Jesus’ death, and that the story of the community-founding ritual was not the narrative of the Exodus but the passion narrative of Jesus. To be sure, the symbolism of Israel’s ancient ritual persisted: Jesus as the sacrifice for the new covenant (1 Corinthians 11:25), Jesus as the Passover lamb sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7). One of Paul’s students wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians in order to argue that in Christ the two, Jews and Gentiles, had been united into one people. Even in the “high” christology, developed in hymns as those of Philippians 2, Colossians 1, and the prologue of the Gospel of John, these followers of Jesus employed models inherited from the wisdom theology of Judaism (Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon). It is also evident that neither Paul nor such documents from the next generation as 1 Clement, 1 Peter, the Revelation of John and others thought of their new communities as a new religion.
At the same time in history, the heirs of the Pharisaic tradition in Palestine were desperately trying to salvage whatever was left in their tradition after the disaster of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, which ended in 70 C.E. with the destruction of the Temple. Their answer to the catastrophe was clear, and revived the theology of Deuteronomy: Israel did not obey the law of Moses. Thus the renewal of obedience to this law had to become the basis for a renewal. They were not alone in this effort to renew the validity of the law. Jesus’ brother James had already insisted that the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem were obliged to abide by the commandments of the law, and the author of the Sermon on the Mount ascribed to Jesus a saying that demanded the absolute fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5:17–20). Even in those circles of Christianity that rejected the literal fulfillment of the ritual law, the moral law of Moses was instituted as the rule of life for all Christians: the teaching of the Two Ways, an elaboration of the Ten Commandments developed in the diaspora of Israel, became the basis for all Christian ethical instruction.
In the first half of the second century C.E., Marcion’s program to replace the Scriptures of Israel by a new canon of Holy Scriptures, consisting of a purified edition of the letters of Paul and of the Gospel of Luke, came as a shock. Marcion’s thesis that the God of Israel was only a just but not a merciful God, a foreign God from whose rule and law Jesus had rescued the believers, caused consternation among the Christians. The theologians of the church eventually succeeded in defending the scriptures of Israel as their legitimate possession. But this came at a price. These scriptures could be accepted only insofar as they were understood as prophecy and as a moral code—to which, as Justin Martyr asserts, the moral code established by the teachings of Jesus was superior. Although Marcion was rejected, Irenaeus (at the end of the second century C.E.)—in his attempt to refute Marcion—still accepts Marcion’s proposal of an additional canon of sacred scriptures, to wit, the four Gospels and the Apostle (i.e., the letters of Paul). Thus an authoritative instrument was designed that would establish Christianity as a separate religion.
A historical opportunity was missed. At the same time that Irenaeus argued for adding the New Testament to the Old Testament, the rabbis in Galilee codified the tradition that had empowered the reconstitution of Palestinian Judaism, the Mishnah. Justin Martyr’s dialogue with the Jewish rabbi Trypho, written about 160 C.E., demonstrates that reconciliation of the two heirs of the tradition of Israel was no longer possible. They had by now assumed different names, no longer the inclusive “Israel” but the separatist designations “Jews” and “Christians.” The Jewish Christians, who had tried to create a position of compromise, had become a sectarian movement and were rejected by both parties. But for both, Jews as well as Christians, the vision of the prophets of Israel of a united new people remained unfulfilled.
This tragedy is a painful reality. It is not true that only the Holocaust has made it illegitimate for Christians to criticize the Jews. There is a long history. Christians managed to be in a position of power, beginning with the decrees of Theodosius at the end of the fourth century and all through the Middle Ages and the Reformation; and they yielded this power even to the anti-Christian German government of the National Socialist Party, extending the rejection of another religion to the annihilation of an ethnic group (even Jews who had become Christians were persecuted). There is no way that allows Christians to reaffirm the superiority of their religion—no matter how high one’s christology is. It is for us Christians to take the first step. If both he New Testament and the Mishnah were a tragic mistake, the Christians should be the first to acknowledge that the prophecy of Jesus and the vision of Paul of a renewal of Israel has not been fulfilled.
If Paul’s acceptance of Jesus implied that God had declared himself to be on the side of the victims of violence, on which side is God now? This question is no longer open for debate.
BAR and Bible Review have taken an important step by giving free access to its columns to everyone in this debate. There are many other avenues in which reconciliation can be practiced. The apostle Paul insisted that the unity of the Jerusalem adherents of Jesus and the gentile churches should be documented by the collection of money among the gentiles for the poor in Jerusalem rather than by any theological formulation. Our Lutheran church in Cambridge, Massachusetts runs a shelter for homeless people; at Christmas time, when neither students nor resident members of the church, desiring to observe Christmas, were available to run the shelter, a Jewish organization staffed the shelter, and some of us met with these Jewish brothers and sisters for breakfast on Christmas Day. That seems to me a better basis for discussing anti-Semitism than any suggestion of a high christology.
I am a Lutheran pastor, committed to my church and to a high christology that I confirm every Sunday in my participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. But I am also committed to the discussion of the historic mistakes that haunt the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. The canonization of the New Testament as holy scripture has not been able to realize the unifying vision of the tradition of Israel. I can only appeal to my Christian sisters and brothers to consider the historic developments that divide us, not as glorious achievements, but as burdens that demand a critical re-evaluation. This problem will never be solved by a retrenchment into traditional theological assertions, which have caused so much misery and so many deaths over the centuries.