Legicide and the Problem of the
Christian Old Testament:
A Plea for a New Hermeneutic of the Apostolic Writings
By Lloyd Gaston
The Old Testament of the Christian church has been different from the Holy Scriptures of Judaism almost from the beginning. The theology of the Christian church has been hostile to Judaism almost from the beginning. I believe that these two statements are intimately related. It is not my task to rehearse here the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. It is the awareness of this phenomenon and the desire to do something about it which is what has brought us together in the first place. We are rather looking for fundamental causes, and I believe that one of them is the problem of the Christian Old Testament. Not only has the church been blocked by its Old Testament from the real riches of Holy Scripture, but it has also allowed that Old Testament to distort its understanding of its own Apostolic Writings.
That in fact the text and canon of the Old Testament corresponds with the Hebrew Bible only for a part of the Christian churches is not important for the present discussion. To be sure, it does make a difference if the basic text is the Septuagint or the Vulgate rather than the Massoretic text. It also makes a difference if the canon includes other writings, the so-called Apocrypha and others, in addition to Torah, Prophets, and Writings. For our purposes, however, it is the very name "Old Testament" which is problematical, together with the necessity of having to relate the authority and significance of this Old Testament to something else called the New Testament.
Anti-Judaism in our discussion can perhaps be defined as any attempt to deny to Judaism central characteristics of its own self understanding. This would include at least: 1) the oneness of God, 2) the election of Israel at Sinai, and 3) Torah as the principle of relationship between God and Israel, however that might be halachically defined. I was tempted to add a fourth, the relationship between God, Israel, and the land, but this may be subsumed under the second and besides would have rendered my impossible task even more complex. Something of the first may be reflected in the Fourth Gospel, but I do not believe this is really a central issue. The second two, election and Torah, are addressed in Paul's questions: "Has God rejected his people?" (Romans 11:1) and "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?" (Romans 3:31).I would understand a positive answer to either of these questions to represent fundamental Christianity-Judaism. Paul answers both with an indignant "No," but the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, at least in their final form, say Yes, God has rejected Israel, thus beginning the fateful displacement theory which claims that the church has displaced Israel in the purposes of God. Christian anti-Judaism is the product of early Gentile Christianity and its need to establish its own legitimate relationship to God apart from the law. All of this became solidified and exacerbated in the later struggle over Scripture, when the church's self-understanding apart from the law led it to deny Torah also to Israel and to expropriate Israel's Scriptures for itself alone under the name "Old Testament. "If I might state a thesis it would be this: from a very early period the church was guilty of legicide, which made the sharing of a common Scripture impossible and anti-Judaism inevitable. I would like to present not only a very sketchy outline of the problem but in light of the urgency of the present situation also at the end to make a few suggestions as to what can be done about it.
Finally, I would like to suggest in the most sketchy fashion certain alternative hermeneutical principles, or at least rules of thumb, which may help resolve the central Christian problem.
1. First, insofar as the historical-critical method means the radical criticism of the assumptions of the interpreter, and insofar as unconscious assumptions in this area have had bad consequences, the interpreter ought to be suspicious of all received wisdom concerning Christian views of Judaism.NOTES
2. Second, insofar as the Christian interpreter needs to speak of early Judaism, what is said must be based exclusively on Jewish sources, understood from the perspective of those sources. Any interpretation of the Apostolic Writings which is based on a distorted understanding of early Judaism is to be instantly rejected.
3. Third, wherever possible, the Apostolic Writings ought to be understood in continuity with the canonical Scriptures of Judaism and the tradition history of their post-Biblical development. Insofar as this cannot be done, then it is the Christian statement which becomes problematic and not the Biblical one.
4. Fourth, the hermeneutic principle of antithesis ought to be discarded immediately. The very word is commonly used to designate certain sayings in Matthew 5, and the concept is all pervasive in such presuppositions as old versus new, law versus gospel, Jesus versus Pharisees, Paul versus Judaism. That does not mean that one might not find quite different things in the Apostolic Writings and, say, the Mekilta, but this should be understood as a matter of comparative midrash and not as contrast.
5. Let me now suggest some very specific hermeneutical principles with respect to the interpretation first of Paul and then of Jesus.a) It is best to assume that Paul was not guilty of a "fundamental misunderstanding" in his teaching about the law, nor did he share the modern Christian "view of Rabbinic religion as one of legalistic works-righteousness." Insofar as Paul's statements are often quite different from those of the Rabbis this is to be explained not on the basis of an antithesis but because quite different situations are being addressed.6. With respect to Jesus the situation is more complex, because the synoptic gospels as we have them are addressed to Gentile Christians as the last stage of along history of transmission, the beginnings of which have first century Judaism as their context. Nevertheless, some things can be said about the historical Jesus, and that will be the subject of a few hermeneutical principles.
b) It is best to take seriously Paul's designation of himself as Apostle to the Gentiles, his solemn pledge to restrict his missionary activity to Gentiles and not to preach to Jews, and the fact that all his letters are explicitly addressed to Gentile Christian communities. This means that one would expect his letters to deal with specifically Gentile Christian concerns and problems.
c) It is best to be very cautious in reconstructing the position of Paul's opponents, lest they be made always to affirm what Paul denies and deny what Paul affirms and the whole procedure become circular. We ought to say no more about them than the text itself explicitly says and we ought not to combine references in different letters to posit a uniform antithetical opposition to Paul. The fact that in the one place where the opponents can most surely be identified as Christian Jews, 2 Corinthians, the law is never mentioned and it is not Judaism which is an issue, ought to give us pause. In any case we should remember that Paul does not argue with opponents but with the understandings of the congregations addressed.a) It is best not to follow Käsemann's criterion of dissimilarity which he uses to say in effect that only those sayings of Jesus are most assuredly authentic which have nothing in common with the Judaism of his day. I could think of no more effective way to create an artificially Aryan Jesus. On the contrary, we must say that any saying of Jesus which lets him speak as a typical first century Jew is apt to be more authentic than any which make him sound like a Christian.
b) It is best not to follow Jeremias in his approach to many of the parables that they are to be understood not as proclamations of the gospel of the grace of God but as weapons defending that gospel against the Pharisees. This not only introduces antithesis where none is indicated but grossly distorts the Pharisees by making their views the opposite of Jesus.
c) It is best to understand Jesus as sympathetic to Israel as a whole and the Pharisees in particular, and they to him. The further back one goes in the Synoptic tradition the easier this is to do.
d) It is best to understand Jesus' relationship to both written and oral Torah in a positive sense. For this to happen, sympathetic study of later Jewish tradition is apt to be much more helpful than the tradition of interpretation in the church. If it is true, at least for the way the Mishnah deals with laws concerning sacrifice, that map is not territory, then there is no reason why the Gentile church cannot read Torah, including Mishnah, as a very important map.
e) Insofar as Jesus sometimes spoke as a prophet to the national situation of a people subject to Roman occupation and like many others had to issue a prophetic threat of national disaster, it is best to remember that a prophet who does not weep and pray with his whole being that such threats will not be realized is a false prophet. The church misuses such statements when they are understood as fulfilled predictions and when judgment and promise are separated, judgment for Jews and promises for the church.
f) Insofar as Christian theologians feel the need to theologize about the circumstances of Jesus' death, it is best to do so on the basis of a critically reconstructed history of those events and not a theology which opposes law and gospel. They could then speak for a change of Jesus dying in solidarity with the national hopes of Israel, or more generally of his dying in solidarity with all martyrs of repressive regimes of all times.
g) Finally, in the light of the canon of Holy Scripture and the comparative midrash of Jesus and Paul, some aspects of the Apostolic Writings become problematic and relativized. That is the price that must be paid if the church is to abandon its anti-Jewish hermeneutics, but the reward is indeed a Scripture which can be affirmed by Christians and Jews as equally sacred to both, as heard in their different situations. In addition to access to an unencumbered canon of Scripture, Christians are also thereby enabled to read the Apostolic Writings more in accordance with their original intention, freed from an inappropriate antithetical schema imposed on them from outside. At the present time, however, this can only be called an affirmation of a hope and not a description of a reality. Hermeneutical principles such as those briefly suggested can only be tested in detailed exegesis, and Christian scholars of the Apostolic Writings convinced of their importance are not really qualified to participate in dialogue with Jews about our common Scripture until we go home and sit down to this monumental task.
1. Especially in the light of the
way Christian anti-Judaism tends to express itself in the present time,
this would be a very important topic. Cf. Most recent W. D. Davies, The
Territorial Dimension of Judaism (Berkeley: University of California
2. Cf. Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven (Leiden: Brill, 1977) and "Ruler of This World," in Sanders, Baumgarten, Mendelson, eds., Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, Volume II, Aspects of Judaism in the Graeco-Roman Period (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 245-268.
3. It should then be noted that while I am in sympathy with almost everything she says, I cannot agree with R. Ruether that it is "Christology" which is "at the heart of every Christian dualizing of the dialectic of human existence into Christian and anti-Judaic antitheses" (Faith and Fratricide (New York: Seabury, 1974), 246). I find it rather to be the "law."
40. Perhaps it should be stated explicitly that none of these principles is intended to diminish in any way the significance of Jesus for Christians nor the authority for the church of the Christian midrash in the Apostolic Writings. The revision called for has to do with an inappropriate Christian theology of Judaism not an appropriate Christian theology of Christianity. The intention is not to attack but to strive for a truer and therefore more faithful understanding of the Apostolic Writings.
41. The naive attempt of the Christian to identify one's own cause with Paul or Jesus and thus to use them as weapons against current opponents of that cause almost always results in an antisemitic Paul or Jesus.
42. H. J. Schoeps, Paul; The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 213-218.
43. E. P. Sanders. Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 33-59.
44. It then goes without saying that 2 Cor 3 should not be used as a principle for Christian reading of Scripture nor as a denial of the legitimacy of Jewish reading of Scripture. But that is the subject of another paper.
45. "The Problem of the Historical Jesus," Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1964), 15-47. Cf. earlier R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968), 205. The other side of this criterion, on the other hand, that only those sayings which are dissimilar to the emphases of the early church are to be considered authentic, makes great sense.
46. "We come now to a second group of parables They are those which contain the Good News itself... (They are), apparently without exception, addressed, not to the poor, but to opponents... Their main object is not the presentation of the gospel; they are controversial weapons against the critics and foes of the gospel who are indignant that Jesus should declare that God cares about sinners," J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners, 1972),124.
47. Cf. J. Neusner, "Map without Territory: Mishnah's System of Sacrifice and Sanctuary," History of Religions 19 (1979), 103-127.
© 1996 Lloyd Gaston. Published with kind permission of the author.
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