Friday, January 22, 2010

Jews, Christians, and everything in between

I've begun playing with phrases that might help me get at my problem with the way Jews and Christians (and the relation between them) have been conceived in biblical scholarship (broadly understood). A particularly interesting example of this conception, in a mildly polemical context, comes from Lawrence Schiffman's recontextualization of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their True Meaning for Judaism and Christianity [New York and London: Doubleday, 1994]). The very first paragraph of the Preface reads,
This book aims to correct a fundamental misreading of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For some forty-five years, the scholars publishing and interpreting the scrolls have focused almost singlemindedly on the scrolls' significance for our understanding of early Christianity. This is the first work ever written to explain their significance in understanding the history of Judaism. (xiii)

I'm not interested in assessing the truth of Schiffman's claim (although I don't really doubt him here). Instead, I can't help but feel that Schiffman conceives the shift from "early Christianity" to "the history of Judaism" as a change of categories rather than as a broadening of categories. In my way of thinking, understanding the DSS and their significance for ancient Judaism is a larger question—not a different question—than the DSS and Christian origins.

Why does this matter? Well, consider Schiffman's description of "the messianic idea," by which he means the Jewish messianic idea. Again, I can't help but feel that Schiffman is excluding, or at least neglecting, Christian messianic ideas.
The messianic idea has been central tot he development of postbiblical Judaism in all its various forms. Generally speaking, the concept envisions the eventual coming of a redeemer, a descendant of David, who will bring about major changes in the world, leading to world peace, prosperity, and the end of evil and misfortune. Essential to the messianic idea in Judaism is the expectation that when the time comes, the ancient glories of the Davidic kingdom will be reestablished in the Land of Israel. Unquestionably this-worldly, Jewish messianism expresses its ideas in concrete terms. it looks forward to the messianic era, when the spiritual level of humanity will rise, resulting in and from the ingathering of Israel and the universal recognition of Israel's God. Of course, that definition is a sweeping generalization. in reality, the messianic idea in Judaism has a complex history, further complicated by the simultaneous existence, even within the same strain of Judaism, of various views of messianism. Within this history, we can distinguish certain patterns or trends of messianic thought. (317)

Despite a couple ideas in that paragraph that I think don't befit traditional Christian messianic ideas (though in the history of Christian ideas we could probably find an analogy to all of Schiffman's elements of the messianic idea), very much of this description describes Christianity very well. Some even, represent an important shift in perspective that helps us appreciate anew numbingly familiar aspects of Christianity (e.g., if Christianity identifies Jesus as Israel's messiah, how, if at all, does he bring "world peace, prosperity, and the end of evil and misfortune"? Or do we think these are things about which Jesus couldn't be bothered?).

Inasmuch as Schiffman has transferred his focus from Christianity to Judaism, I think his focus is still too narrow (though he would probably say his focus is what he wanted it to be). I think our understanding of Christianity and Schiffman's understanding of Judaism would only be enhanced if we broadened the interpretive field that gives our questions meaning rather than moving from one field to another.

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