Gospel of John. Credit: Creative Commons
We all read texts, ancient and contemporary, from where we stand. I’ve been reading the Gospel of John for the past quarter century as someone raised Jewish who loves Jesus and his Way of peace. When I first encountered the Gospel’s apparent hostility to “the Jews,” I was shaken. As someone born within a decade of the Holocaust, I am and have always been deeply aware of how Christian hostility to “the Jews” has been exclusionary and murderous. I was taught by my mother from as long as I can remember to be proud of my Jewish heritage and not to betray it by “selling out” or trying “to pass” as my father did, changing the family name from “Horowitz” to “Howard” and having a nose job (as was the fashion at the time) to “look less Jewish.” I believe that my four decades following Jesus have made me more, not less, grateful for my heritage and the gifts of the Jews to the world.
So, this encounter with “the Jews” in John’s gospel has always been at the heart of my work, as a New Testament scholar and disciple. In my 1994 book, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis), I argued that the Greek Ioudaioi in John’s gospel referred not to “Jews” but to “Judeans.” This usage reflects first geography (“Judeans” are people from “Judea,” just as “Galileans” are people from “Galilee”), but more importantly, ideology. Throughout John’s gospel, the Judeans are those, both among the elite and the ordinary people, who defended Jerusalem’s relationship with the Roman Empire, including the temple and its authority. The Johannine Jesus, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel before him, condemns not his kindred in general, but those who betray Abraham, Moses and the prophets by, in the words of the Gospel’s chief priests, proclaiming “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19.15). Jesus, in the prophetic tradition that persists to this day, sharply critiques his own people for collaborating with the oppressor.
Photo Courtesy of Nun Justice
Much has been written about the ongoing assault by the male Catholic hierarchy on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, as well as individual women religious whose writings have been deemed “erroneous.” Non-Catholics might be inclined to dismiss this as merely an internal church issue. However, there are important implications for interfaith conversation between Jews and Christians that have not been as widely considered.
In its most stark terms, the women religious have largely embodied what I call the “religion of creation” while the bishops speak from within the “religion of empire.” These labels point to what I’ve shown in my recent book, Come Out, My People!: God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond, to be the two, competing religions in the Hebrew Bible. The “religion of empire” seeks to claim divine authority for systems of domination and hierarchy, where violence is used to establish “peace” and to quell resistance. The “religion of creation,” on the other hand, claims God’s support for egalitarian social relationships of mutual respect and participation. Jesus took up the religion of creation as the authentic expression of God’s purposes for humanity and creation, rejecting the religion of empire as a demonic counterfeit. Because of this, the upholders of the religion of empire – both within the Jerusalem temple establishment and the Roman Empire – found him intolerable and conspired to put him to death.
Courtesy of Viking Adult
A perhaps surprising bestseller right now is a biblical scholar’s take on the Christian Bible’s final book: the “Apocalypse,” aka, “Revelation.” As someone who has done my own writing on this dramatic text (see Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now ), it is exciting to see this fascinating book put into popular, intelligent discussion. However, a recent interview with the author, Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, made the hair on my neck stand up and my heart pound.
Pagels’ argument seems to be that the book of Revelation is not “Christian” because it is “too Jewish.” She positions the author, John of Patmos, as someone seeking to preserve a “Jewish” way of life over against the supposedly less Jewish approach of the apostle Paul. And given this premise, she concludes that Revelation became part of the canonical New Testament by “mistake.”
I’ll put aside the fact that Pagels has spent much of her scholarly career seeking to raise the status of the so-called “gnostic gospels” over that of the canonical ones. What I’m concerned with here is her juxtaposition of “too Jewish” with “not Christian.”
One of the most hostility-producing actions I’ve taken in recent years was to raise questions among my fellow faculty about the primacy of voting for federal offices. One colleague had proposed a “get out the vote” drive among students, to which I replied, “Maybe we should be inviting them to ask, ‘is voting a civic duty or a corporate scam?’” The rolling eyes, shaking heads, and downright anger took even a seasoned veteran such as myself by surprise.
We can question the reality of God, the importance of Jesus, and the integrity of religious institutions, but dare at your own risk to challenge the civic sacrament! But I do dare to challenge it, both in the classroom and here. Would Moses have us vote for a “kinder, gentler” pharaoh, or Jesus for a better emperor?
We all know that our federal system has been taken captive by corporations and the 1%. I need not lay out examples of the systemic control that the wealthy exercise over our national politicians and regulatory agencies. As a young Senate counsel 30 years ago, I saw up close the reality of the single, over-arching rule of national government: whoever has the most money wins.
“Go from your land, and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12.1-2)
That Jesus was not a “Christian” startles many, although it is simply a fact. However, it is equally true that Abraham was neither an “Israelite” nor a “Jew.” The Genesis narrative returns to a time before such categories to tell the story of a person responding to the Voice that calls him to leave all traces of “empire” behind. The “religion” Abraham is invited to embody counters the urban, imperial mode ex-pressed by the reign of David and Solomon as well as the Babylonian empire of its author’s time during Exile. It also transcends human labels for the divine and the divine’s ways.
“When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying:…do not hold [Shimei] guiltless, for you are a wise man; you will know what you ought to do to him, and you must bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” (1 Kg 2.1, 9)
There is a deep pattern that runs through parts of the Bible and all of history, including our own as Americans. A brutal tyrant terrorizes a people, and a champion arises to challenge and violently defeat the tyrant. The champion is lauded as a hero. People flock to him seeking “justice” for their own causes. Power, wealth and fame gather to the hero. The hero dies and the mantel is passed to the next generation. But inherited power becomes in the younger generation a thing in itself, to be preserved and expanded by any means necessary, until the “heroic” lineage is indistinguishable from the original tyranny. And throughout the cycle, it is claimed that God is on “our” side.
Both ancient Judah’s King David and the Sicilian-American godfather, Vito Corleone, began as such “righteous” heroes. Over time, though, each became the very tyrants they had been celebrated for defeating.
Credit: Creative Commons/Svadlifari.
From before I started my bar mitzvah training, I was terrified of Christians. I was born in the shadow of the Holocaust and grew up with the specter of anti-Semitism in the air. For better or worse, I didn’t actually get to know any “live” Christians throughout my childhood in an overwhelmingly Jewish part of Los Angeles, so my stereotypes of Christians as Jew-haters was left largely intact until I moved to Berkeley for college in the early 70s.
It was as much a shock to me as to my kosher-keeping grandma, then, when at the end of my college years, I was baptized Roman Catholic. I had been taught to be proud of my Jewish heritage, and I was, but the “religious” part had seemed to my youthful, arrogant mind largely obsolete and rather ridiculous. Here it was, the late 20th century: how could one actually take seriously ancient stories of miraculous manna and mountaintop encounters with God? I was not looking for God or religion. Yet, after a pair of powerful experiences of an inbreaking Presence, I found myself on a quest to discover if and who God might be.
Christianity was about the last place I expected to end up. I grew up knowing nothing at all about Jesus or the New Testament. All I “knew” were rumors and suggestions. Discovering Jesus was an exciting surprise. And, of course, he was Jewish, from the day of his birth until the day of his death.