Sunday, February 11, 2007

Weeding through the Roots

Recently a push has been made in Christian circles to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity. In large part I find this movement helpful and at times spectacularly profound. When I came into college as a freshman I was enthralled with the movement and was dissapointed that there were no courses available to feed my appetite. There were certain times in some classes when we would touch upon issues related to the Jewish roots movement, but by in large it seemed as if we paid little attention to what I thought was so crucial. However, during my theological development at IWU I have come to realize one of the reasons, perhaps, that this movement seems to have only minimal attention given to it: the Jewish roots movement is incredibly limited.

One of the most obvious limitations arises when one begins to do even a cursory study in the historical context of the New Testament texts. Scholars almost unanimously agree that it is difficult to bifurcate the Jewish context and the Hellenistic context. By the first century the Hebrews had been so Hellenized that there was no distinct Hebraic culture versus Hellenic culture. Thus, attempts to better understand Jesus through means of the uniqueness of Jewish culture are open to erroneous conclusions that have failed to take into consideration the Hellenistic influences on the Jewish culture of Jesus.

Secondly, by being consumed with the "Jewish context" one may myopically dismiss Christian history and subsequent theological development. The interpretation of Jesus stops with this Jewish culture. This may manifest itself in a number of ways. I've frequently heard the argument from Jewish roots movement folk that communion should only be celebrated once a year, as the "Christian Passover." What Jesus does at the Last Supper, primarily, is give new meaning to this sacred meal. Thus, we ought to celebrate within the context of this new narrative, but nonetheless the meal should retain its very Jewish flavor.

I find it ironic that the Jewish roots folk ascertain this conclusion based upon their idea of the Jewish context. It is the early Church theologians who insisted on a very different interpretation based upon their familiarity with the Jewish culture and Old Testament texts on the Passover. The Early Fathers understood the Passover meal as key to understanding John's portrayal of Jesus as the Passover Lamb. If we insist upon the Last Supper as being a mere infusion of new meaning into the Passover, we are able to interpret the Last Supper distinct and separate from Calvary. What the Early Fathers recognized was that if Jesus truly is the perfect Passover Lamb then the cross and the meal in the upper room cannot be separated. The sacrifice and the meal are intricately connected. The Passover is incomplete without both.

This was also one of the reaons for a very literal understanding of John 6. When Jesus said we had to "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood", he meant it. But the Fathers connected this interpretation with the Passover requirements. In the Passover meal it was not enough to sacrifice the lamb. The Mosaic requirements clearly require the eating of the lamb as well. Hence, if Christ truly is the Passover Lamb then he must have meant what he said.

As far as we can tell, the practice of partaking of the Eucharist in Christian worship begins mere years after the death and resurrection of Christ. If we interpret the Eucharist through Christian history there is no room for partaking sparingly of Holy Communion or relegating it to once a year. The Jewish context simply does not provide us with all the answers we need when articulating the Eucharist.

Finally, perhaps one of the greatest dangers of taking the Jewish roots movement too far is that by obsessing with the Jewish context of Jesus, we miss his radical departure, at times, from that context. Jesus was not just a Jew in Jewish surroundings; he was a Jew declaring a very different idea of what it meant to be truly Jewish. David Bivin, for example, in his book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus draws the conclusion that Christ could not have been a pacifist because the idea of pacifism was foreign to his Jewish contemporaries (especially the prophets). I agree that the idea was largely foreign within the Jewish context but that's what makes it so radical and purely Christological! What should keep us from saying that the deity of Christ must therefore be false since it finds no contemporary proponents in Jewish culture?

Examples aside, I believe there is a significant place for the Jewish roots movement. But we must be careful to have it dominate our interpretation of the biblical texts, especially in light of the declarations of Church history and ecumenical councils. May we be truly Christ-ian while recognize the cultural influences upon the Christ we worship as God.


Bill Barnwell said...

This sort of reminds me of some non-Messianic Jewish type Christians who think they are morally and theologically superior because they celebrate certain OT religious festivals and holidays. And of course dispensationalism has an over-preoccupation with our Jewish roots because of their beliefs of modern Israel and what that holds for the future. If you look at John Hagee's "Night to Honor Israel" you'll see lots of flag waving of Israeli flags. These types tend to dillute the NT fulfillment or application of a number of items we find in the OT and I find it troubling on a number of fronts.

Kevin K. Wright said...

Ben, good post. You've done a good job articulating why the Jewishness of Jesus is invaluble to our faith, while at the same time being the final words in all matters. One of the problems with using Jesus' Jewishness as the final and most important hermenutical lens is that we have no way of knowing for sure what Jewish practices Jesus and his fellow Jews kepth. For every Levitical law you find, you can cite a Rabbinical code or passage of Midrash that contradicts or ameliorates that law. I'm always skeptical of people who want to construct a pristine model of the ancient world and then base an entire sermon on speculation. Responsible theological reflection and preaching must be better than that.

Robin Sampson said...

To fully comprehend our Christian faith, we should know about this fascinating heritage. We study a Hebrew book-written by Hebrews; we serve a Hebrew Lord-who had Hebrew disciples; we desire to follow the first century church-which was first predominately Hebrew; and through Christ, we are grafted into a Hebrew family! It makes sense to study the Hebrew culture.

Much of the Bible is mysterious to most Americans. The perplexing phrases, puzzling actions, the sometimes difficult-to-understand words of Jesus, unconventional holidays, and parables are only understood with an awareness of the Hebrew culture. A Christian's roots are deep in Judaism through Christ, all the way back to Abraham! And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:29).

Studying Scripture from our Western/ American/ Greek view is like looking for gold in a dark mine with a dim pen light--you can see enough to stumble around but you need more light to see clearly. A good grasp of the ancient Hebraic customs and terminology would allow you to reexamine Scripture in this powerful flood light, exposing intricate details and treasures.