Posted by: smstrouse | July 19, 2014

Becoming Jewish Again for the First Time

jesus-in-hebrewJesus was a Jew.  “No duh,” you say.

The disciples were all Jews.  Again, “No duh.”

The earliest Christians were Jews.  No doubt you’re tired of these obvious observations.

They might seem obvious, and yet I have come to see the error of this assumption.  For the past week I’ve been listening to lectures and discussions led by Bishop John Shelby Spong. The summer session class at the Pacific School of Religion was Bishop Spong’s latest book,  The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. The title of Tuesday evening’s public lecture was Biblical Literalism: a Gentile Heresy.

The main point of it all was that we cannot read the gospels except through Jewish eyes. This isn’t a brand new idea. But in recent years, it’s been getting more attention. And I say it should get all the attention it deserves.IMG_0453

My awakening to the roots of anti-Semitism in Christian scripture, liturgy and hymnody began at a funeral I attended with a Jewish friend. The text from John, which I had read countless times at funerals and in church, hit me between the eyes with its exclusionary message: No one comes to the Father except through me.
Thus began my problems with what was once a favorite hymn, I Am the Bread of Life. Some of the lyrics are:
Unless you eat
Of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of his blood,
And drink of his blood,
You shall not have life within you.
Then there’s the “bidding prayers” in the Good Friday liturgy, which include this prayer for Jews: Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and your teaching to Moses. Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I guess I should be grateful that the language has been softened from what it used to be (and I won’t even stoop to print it here), but I’m not. The prayer has to go.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to deal with the scriptural basis for what Spong (I think rightly) calls a heresy. How can we read the references to “the Jews” in the gospels, as well as words put on Jewish lips by gospel writers, such as  “His blood be upon us and on our children” without putting them in their proper historical context of an inter-religious polemic?

Spong’s book is a good place to start. He’s done his academic homework, but it’s not an academic book. Like his other books, it’s very readable.
I will say that I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. Nor would he expect everyone to agree with everything. Except for one thing: that Jesus, the disciples and the first Christians were Jews. We should treat them as such. And we should recover our own Jewish eyes if we are to see the non-exclusionary message of the life and death of Jesus and the power of the living  Christ (in the fullness of what that means) for all people.


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