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The Continuing Christian Need for Judaism

by John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 26, 1979, p. 918. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Between every parent and child there is always a combination of emotions -- one that includes love and hate, dependence and rebellion. Judaism is Christianity’s parent; that is a fact of history. Unfortunately, it has been the negative side of the combination that has marked most of the relationship between these two faiths through the centuries. Ofttimes the hate and rebellion have reached inhuman and murderous proportions. Both Overt and covert acts of anti-Semitism have soiled the pages of history with unforgettable amounts of both blood and shame which stand forever on the Christian church’s record.

The negative emotions between the parent and child, however, never exhaust that relationship. The other side of hate is love, and the other side of rebellion is dependency. But in the parent-child relationship it frequently appears that love and dependency cannot be celebrated, and mutual appreciation, acknowledgment of indebtedness and the willingness to learn anew from the witness of the parent cannot be experienced, until children come of age.

In our generation, a new dawn may be breaking in Jewish-Christian relations. I cannot forsake or even modify my deepest convictions about the one I call Lord and Christ, but I can respect and treasure the tradition in which my Lord was born and from which he and the entire Christian movement have sprung. I can also learn from Judaism past and present and find my Christian life enlightened, enriched and deepened by Jewish insights.

It is the reality, of this conviction that creates for me the only possible basis for true dialogue between Christians and Jews. Dialogue can never be an attempt at conversion, nor can it occur if one party assumes an objective ultimacy or a superiority for his or her point of view. Dialogue must be an interaction in which each participant stands with full integrity in his or her own tradition and is open to the depths of the truth that is in the other.

In this dialogue I as a Christian want first to acknowledge, then to express my gratitude for, and finally to bear witness to the continuing insights of Judaism that challenge, stimulate and enrich Christianity. If Judaism were to cease to be, if Christianity were to lose that peculiar Jewish witness and these insights were to lose their power or have their distinctiveness blunted, then Christianity would be poorer, more open to distortion. I as a Christian need Judaism to be Judaism lest the ultimate truth of God be compromised or even lost in the shallowness of a rootless Christianity.

Three major themes are rooted in Judaism without which Christianity, especially at this moment in the life of the church, would be adversely, perhaps fatally, affected: the Jewish sense of history as God’s arena, the Jewish passion against idolatry, and the Jewish background which illumines the New Testament.

The God of History

At the very heart of Judaism is the understanding of a God who is rooted in history. God for the Hebrew is not an idea to be contemplated but rather a living force to be engaged. God’s arena for the Jewish mind is history. The mystery of God is revealed in the ongoing events of life, and any people who would know, serve or worship this God must be willing to plunge into life.

There can be no escape into otherworldly piety if one is to worship Yahweh, for this is the God who brought his people out of Egypt and for whom bondage and slavery are an abomination. This is the God who parted the waters, who led his people by cloud and fire, who covenanted with them at Mt. Sinai, who guided them in their homeless wanderings in the wilderness, who established them beyond the Jordan. who was known in victory and in defeat, in sustaining power and in vengeful judgment, who worked even through Israel’s historic enemies to purge his people. This God the Hebrews encountered even when their nation was destroyed and they were exiled. For even in Babylon -- a captive people once again -- they discovered that Yahweh was still the God of history and that they could still sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. The same God, said Jeremiah, who brought you out of Egypt will also bring you out of the north country.

When the Hebrews told the story of their God, they also told the story of their history, for the history of Israel was the history of their meeting with the holy. They looked at their history not as a museum in which God was encased but as a chronicle of their experiences that empowered and enabled them to press on into the unknown future, for the God who had met this people in the events of yesterday would also meet them in the events of tomorrow.

Holding this conviction, one will always appreciate the past but will never worship it. One will always treasure history but will not be immobilized by it. The God who constantly is doing new things in history can always be trusted to be consistent.

Faith (emunah in Hebrew) was not understood to be intellectual assent to propositional statements. “The Faith,” that handy phrase which dogmatic religious folk use to designate a body of organized creedal convictions fully worked out with footnotes by C. B. Moss and implying that all revelation has been concluded, was not a concept that the Hebrew mind could embrace. Rather, faith meant an attitude of expectancy in history. Faith was the call to step boldly into tomorrow, to embrace the new -- with confidence that every new day would prove to be a meeting place with the holy and eternal God. The opposite of faith was to cling desperately to yesterday, fearing that if one ever left it, one would leave God.

It was because of this conviction about the meaning of faith and history that the Hebrew tradition could produce prophets. Prophets were not predictors of future events. They were those who had the eyes to discern the presence of the holy God in the living moments of history, and they spoke to that insight, opening the eyes of the people of their generation to the realization that God was active in their lives. Security for the Hebrews did not reside in an unchanging tradition. It resided only in the holy God who was always in front of his people calling them to step boldly into the future.

No insight into the nature of God is more vitally needed by our generation of Christians. In this century, change has come more rapidly than the average person’s emotional system is able to absorb. We have moved from a horse-and-buggy mentality to space travel; from a pony-express communication system to instant satellite communication; from thousands of separated, independent, local communities to one deeply interdependent society; from enormous distances and the resulting security-fostering provincial prejudices to a globe so small that I have had breakfast in Tel Aviv, lunch in Paris and dinner in New York all in the same day.

The result of this rapid rate of change has been to frighten many persons into seeking some unchanging “security blanket” which they can wear or under which they can hide. For many, yesterday’s religious certainty provides that blanket. So they artificially respirate the corpse of yesterday’s insights, yesterday’s convictions, yesterday’s religious experience; they feel secure and they defend their security system with the vehemence of the Inquisition. This attitude, so prevalent in the Christian church today, is not to be attacked or condemned; rather, it desperately needs to be understood. These people are looking for God, but faith, as the Hebrew mind understood it, has died.

The living God of history is our true security, not some reflection of this God or some unchanging tradition. This biblical God was and is and is to come. This God of history enables us to lay down our false religious security blankets and plunge into life. We engage history, we risk, we venture, we live. By faith, Abraham could leave the security of Ur of the Chaldees. He left home, kinspeople, security -- and went into the unknown in the confidence that God had promised to meet him there.

It is the Jewish tradition that has kept this insight alive -- an insight which today contradicts and challenges all of those Christian fears that, in fact, deny belief in the living God of history. These fears manifest themselves in the revival of an anti-intellectual oldtime religion that was not adequate yesterday, and gives no promise of being adequate for today or tomorrow. Judaism teaches Christians the value of being theological and religious wanderers and pilgrims. In an age of intense anxiety and rapid change, it counters the yearning to locate our security in anything less than the holy God of history.

A Welcome, Frightening Challenge

The second major conviction of Judaism so clearly needed by the Christian church today is a passion against idolatry. I do not mean what most people mean by idolatry. I am not concerned either with graven images or the kind of idolatry against which so many of my profession rail: the substitution of something like wealth or success for God. I mean rather the idolatry of religious folk who seem to believe that they can speak, act and judge for God himself. I mean the idolatry that successfully tempts so many religious people into thinking that they possess the ultimate truth of God -- the idolatry of the evangelical tradition that equates the words of Holy Scripture (usually the King James Version) with the eternal, life-giving Word of God. This is the idolatry of the Roman tradition that believes

the truth of God can be or has been captured in the ex-cathedra utterances of the bishop of Rome  -- the idolatry of many who like to pretend that ultimate truth has been captured in the ecumenical councils of the early church, in the historic creeds, or in the “unbroken tradition of the catholic faith,” which usually is the same thing as the speaker’s special prejudice.

A major theme of Judaism is the “otherness of God” -- the God who can say, “My ways are not your ways, nor are my thoughts your thoughts.” This God of Judaism can never be fully symbolized; he can only be pointed to. This is a God whose being is beyond the human capacity fully to comprehend, whose name is beyond the human capacity even to utter. This God is ultimate. His ultimacy cannot be captured by things made by human hands or with words shaped by human lips or with concepts designed by human minds. God is ultimate; the church’s understanding of God is not ultimate. When the church substitutes its understanding of God for ‘the reality of God, we have become idolatrous. Nothing besides God is ultimate, no matter how sacred. The Bible and the creeds point to God but do not capture him. The

tradition of the church may point to the ultimacy of God, but it will never capture him either -- and sometimes it may amount to nothing more than sanctified prejudice or pompous ignorance.

Something dreadful happens to religious people when they mistake their understanding of God for God himself. Inevitably, those who believe that they possess the absolute truth of God find it quite easy to persecute those who do not share their point of view. When God’s truth is “possessed,” wagons are inevitably placed in a circle, for that ultimate truth must be defended. Nothing is quite so evil as fanatical religious people who in the name of God carry out inquisitions, pogroms, heresy trials, witch-hunts holy wars and crusades. We have ample evidence of this perversion in Christian history, and today Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran is absolutely true to his historic prototypes.

The Jewish condemnation of idolatry stands as constant guard against this mentality. It serves forever to remind us that God, blessed be his name, cannot be captured in symbols, words, creeds, Bibles, traditions. Certainly we cannot live without these symbols and traditions; they are enormously important, but their task is always to point beyond themselves to that which is ultimate. If they are ever invested with infallibility or ultimacy, they will become idolatrous -- a fact for which Christian history provides ample evidence.

If God alone is ultimate, if he cannot be captured in either words or symbols, then one can never be secure or at peace with faith. But the absence of religious security or religious certainty is a virtue, not a vice. I agree with the wag who said, “If you can keep your head while people all around are losing theirs, you probably don’t understand the issues.” For me, any religious system that gives or promises to give peace of mind is idolatrous; the price we pay for “peace of mind” will be nothing less than the sacrifice of something basic to our own humanity. We would have to stop questioning or growing.

A major task of the Christian church today is to call people out of religious idolatry into an exciting and fearful religious insecurity. We should shake at the wonder of the vision of God that is always beyond us; we should welcome a future filled with frightening challenges. With its passion against idolatry, Judaism serves as a guide toward this goal.

A Loss of Perspective

Christians have paid a fearful price for their anti-Semitism -- a price quite different from the much greater one that Jews have paid. It has not come in physical persecution, in the creation of a ghetto mentality, in insults to personal dignity. Rather, when Christianity severed itself from its Jewish roots, the Christian faith itself became distorted, for it removed itself from the prophetic correction of Judaism. This development produced a Christian inability to interpret our own Scriptures because we failed to see them in their original Jewish context. Such distortion can be observed in the Christian art that portrays our Jewish Jesus as a northern European complete with blond hair and blue eyes. Every New Testament writer save Luke was Jewish, and Luke was a gentile proselyte; surely their Jewishness would have shaped their stories. 

Much of the misuse of Holy Scripture, much of the creedal literalism that has caused bloody inter-Christian warfare, is part of the price Christians have paid for the loss of a Jewish perspective in Scripture and doctrine. We severed our roots from Judaism and victimized our own understanding of Christ. This could be illustrated, in many ways; one example involves both biblical exegesis and traditional doctrine. It appears in the creedal phrase, “He ascended into heaven.” 

No story in the New Testament gives literalistic people more difficulty than this one. The first point to note is that the content of the ascension story comes from Luke, and Luke alone. Matthew and Mark have no ascension content unless one counts the last verse of the Markan appendix, which biblical scholars are unanimous in declaring to be a later addition. The fourth Gospel speaks of Jesus’ ascension only in the strange Easter morning confrontation between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene in the garden of Gethsemane. “Touch me not,” says Jesus, “for I have not yet ascended to my father. But go tell my brethren,” he continues, “that I am ascending to your Father and my Father, to your God and my God.” When the risen Christ appears to the disciples on Easter Sunday afternoon, he breathes on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit. The clear Johannine understanding is that the already ascended Lord is appearing; Luke, in contrast, carefully places the ascension at the end of the resurrection appearances.

The second noteworthy feature of Luke’s ascension story is its pre-Copernican world view; Luke expresses clear commitment to the truth of a literal three-tier universe. The earth is flat; hell is under the earth, so to get there one must descend. Heaven is above the earth, and to get there one must ascend.

Doctrinal development has tended to ignore the Johannine order, to concentrate on Luke and to literalize the account. In medieval art forms the Christ is portrayed as rising from the earth and disappearing behind the clouds. From our 20th century scientific perspective in which we have seen space vehicles that rise into the atmosphere, we might suppose that the ascension placed our Lord into orbit rather than into heaven.

Had we been in touch with our Jewish roots, however, we might have understood Luke’s account in a nonliteralistic manner. We would recognize first that literal human words can never capture the reality of God. If one cannot even speak the name of God, one can hardly assume that human words have the power to capture God’s truth.

We would also see this account in terms of the biblical antecedents. Luke looked to the Old Testament tradition for images that he could heighten in his attempt to describe the divine life and power he perceived in Jesus of Nazareth. One image he used was that of Elijah, conceived of by Israel as the father of the prophetic movement, and whose life in the biblical accounts was surrounded by enormous miraculous power. It was Elijah who had been “received up” into heaven, and it was Elijah who after his ascension poured a double portion of his human spirit on his disciple, Elisha. So Luke, drawing on this Old Testament material, tries to heighten the Elijah story to stretch his language sufficiently to speak about Jesus.

The Gospel writer portrays Jesus as setting his face to Jerusalem where he too will be “received up” into glory. The followers of Jesus assumed that this meant the glory of a re-established Israel, and so they hailed their hero with hosannahs and palm branches. But for Luke, this Jesus was a new and greater Elijah, who like the Old Testament prototype would be “received up” literally into heaven; then, in stark contrast to the Elijah prototype, who bestowed his enormous but still human spirit on Elisha, this Jesus would bestow his infinite spirit upon the church, giving it life for all ages. For that infinite spirit of Jesus would be nothing less than the Holy Spirit of God, which, says Luke, conceived Jesus in the first place.

So the ascension becomes for Luke not a literal event that baffles scientists and historians, but a symbolic event lifted out of the Old Testament and told to open the eyes of faith, to behold this Jesus as he really is -- God of God, light of light, begotten not made.

A Fruitful Dialogue

Like the ascension story, many other sections of the New Testament are clarified through examination of Hebrew counterparts. The confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel illumines the story of the overcoming of all language barriers at Pentecost. The feeding of the 5,000 is elucidated by the Old Testament story of manna in the wilderness. The flight to Egypt by the holy family to avoid death leans on the story of the flight to Egypt by the people of Israel to avoid death by famine. The dreaming character of Joseph in Matthew is clearly shaped by the dreaming character of Joseph in Genesis. The murder of the Hebrew children by Pharaoh, from which Moses was spared, is retold by Matthew as the murder of the Hebrew children at Bethlehem by Herod, from which Jesus was spared. Jesus’ baptism parallels the Red Sea experience. Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the wilderness parallels the 40-year wilderness wanderings of Israel. Moses delivering the law from Mt. Sinai illumines Matthew’s Jesus dispensing the new law from the mountain. These and many other parallels could deeply enrich New Testament study and preaching.

To recapture the Jewish sense of a God who is made known in history, a God who calls us to lay down our fears and step boldly into tomorrow, to reclaim that Jewish sense of God’s ultimacy so that we can see all other religious symbols as less than ultimate and therefore subject to change, to rediscover our Jewish roots which time after time unlock the doors of Holy Scripture -- all of these can become the fruits of the dialogue between Christian and Jew.


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