Christianity in Jewish Terms: A Project to Redefine the Relationship

By Ochs, Peter; Sandmel, David | Cross Currents, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Christianity in Jewish Terms: A Project to Redefine the Relationship


Ochs, Peter, Sandmel, David, Cross Currents


The time has come for Jews to learn about Christianity in Jewish terms.

In September of this year 2000, an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars and rabbis made public the fruits of several years of work and two millennia of memories. They published a public statement and an academic book, "Christianity in Jewish Terms, possibly the first effort ever by a formal gathering of Jews to initiate a Jewish theology of Christianity. [1] In this essay, two of the project's editors introduce Cross Currents readers to the purposes, hopes, and struggles that lie behind this initiative.

Christianity in Jewish Terms is a theology offered both about and in response to Christian theologies that themselves arose from within, about, and in response to Judaism. It also recognizes that, since the dawn of Christianity, Jewish theologies have often been a response to Christianity. In the past, these mutual influences have been obscured by a rhetoric of rejection. It is only recently that scholars and theologians have become aware of the almost symbiotic relationship between the two traditions. This Jewish theology is offered, moreover, in response to efforts by courageous Christians who, in the years since the Shoah, have exposed those aspects of their tradition that helped create Western anti-Semitism and who offered new Christian visions that affirm the rightful place of Jews and Judaism in the cosmic order. Our theological project has therefore been dialogic in form, part of an ongoing history of responses to responses; in keeping with that theme, we introduce the project here by illustrating how our editorial group responded and to what we responded, with what effects.

Bleak images before the eyes. We editors work, still, in the shadow of the Shoah and the dominant images out of which this project grew are terrible images. We were all children born into a world of shadows as members of a traumatized people -- and children of parents and grandparents whose memories and images of Christianity were, to say the least, dark.

But there are also more recent, more positive images. We were all educated, in part, in American universities, alongside Christian students and teachers of religion and theology, some of whom became friends and colleagues. And compatriots, too: fellow students of scripture and history and philosophy and ethics. Each of us had Christian colleagues whose concerns overlapped with aspects of our own Jewish pursuits: our concerns, for example, to nurture disciplines of reason as instruments of our religion and to revitalize the role of biblically based studies as sources of ethical thinking. We knew that Jews and Christians took different approaches to Bible studies: our approach was rabbinic, theirs was based on patristic and/or contemporary Catholic or Reformation models of reading. But each of us found -- to our initial surprise and against the expectations of other Jewish colleagues and kinfolk -- that an expanding number of contemporary Jewish and Christian thinkers adopted analogous strategies for defending their biblical traditions against three common challenges.

One common challenge was the emergence of radically secular, materialist, and relativist tendencies that diminished the influence of any biblical religion in the contemporary West. As our work in the university matured, we each discovered that we shared with a circle of Christian as well as Jewish colleagues some analogous strategies for recovering and defending the status of biblically based modes of reasoning within the academy. [2] For example, we all studied and practiced biblical and post-biblical forms of interpretation as modes of reasoning rather than as some extra-rational form of confession. We held these interpretations to sophisticated standards of criticism, but we also applied the same standards to our university colleagues' studies of philosophy or literature or science. We argued that these studies held no more privileged position in the orders of being and reason and ethics than our religious studies. …

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