Reaching Across One Great Cultural Divide
Regular readers of this column know by now that I have a particular set of issues I constantly gnaw on, like a dog with his bone. I may bury one bone for a while and turn to other bones, but the collection remains in the yard. I gathered this collection of bones early in life. I’m rather sure I’m not alone. You come up with a set of issues that tug at your mind because they are worth ongoing exploration. They are never “over,” but always yield new insights.
The relationship between Jews and Christians is one of my special bones. I gnaw on it because I am convinced that the relationship is closer than appears in the wake of the tragedy of separation that overtook us by the fifth century of the Common Era. The two centuries before Jesus of Nazareth also fascinate me. This five or six-century span is enough to occupy a lifetime of inquiry.
The longer I study this period the more I am convinced that the lines of demarcation between Jews and Christians are blurred and only the human need for closure made them walls. We are much closer than we think. Our concepts of what it means to be human and what and how we know God unite us more than they separate us.
In the early period of formation, you can only talk about Christian Jews or Jewish Christians, some combination like that. Even the terms are anachronistic; a fixed definition did not yet exist. Nobody in those early centuries thought of herself as anything other than a faithful Jew who believed in Jesus as Messiah, or not – and that goes for Greeks and Romans who entered the movement that was becoming Judaism, of which the Jesus movement was a part. The mix is further compounded because the followers of Jesus had various views of who he was. To some Jesus was a prophet, to others a rabbi, and to yet others a wisdom teacher. It is also not totally clear what it meant to call Jesus Messiah. Church and synagogue took hundreds of years to sort this out and the debate continues down to our present day.
Had it not been for the constant drive to define and to invent rules to make Christianity into a religion totally other than Judaism, centuries of grief, violence, and oppression might have been avoided. The Romans did not help by pushing the Jews out of their own country after the First and Second Revolts in 67-70 and 132-135 CE; but the Diaspora – the scattering of Jews into the nations – was not the only separation and perhaps not the most important one in the long centuries that followed.
History teaches that you need political power to make firm separations between groups stick. When the Christian movement gained political power in the 4th century, the game was on. Jews had been granted privilege in the Roman Empire, despite the anger the Romans displayed against them after the revolts. Emperor Constantine was interested in order, like all emperors, and part of order is to divide and categorize your subjects; it helps to control them. It’s not just emperors, however; we all seem to need to categorize stuff to make it more manageable. It’s only a short step – with folding in political power – to the tragic history of Jewish-Christian relationships. With the benefit of more years of gnawing on the bone, we now have new opportunities to reach across the divide, to make steps toward healing and unity rather than disease and division. If we have the will we can make the moves.
published 01 March 2013