Grounded in the Book

Within my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage, discipleship—living as a follower of Jesus—is central. Being a disciple requires learning as much as possible about who Jesus was, what he did and taught. I can only be a disciple of a real person who lived, taught, and acted in real history.

My desire to know more about Jesus has inexorably led me to Judaism. If, in attempting to follow the way of Jesus, one finds that Jesus’ life, teaching, and practice were grounded in Judaism, then, if one is honest, one must learn about and from Judaism. For several years, I have been studying Judaism—history, theology, biblical studies. I’ve been using the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible, reading the prayerbook, studying commentaries on the Torah, and going to services with Jewish friends. It has led me to a deeper relationship with God—the God of Abraham and Sarah—whom both Jews and Christians serve.

In the past 50 years, this same quest by academics and church bodies has been inspired by two developments. The necessary and essential first step has been for the church to confront honestly centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, and to repent sincerely for that history.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok’s The Crucified Jew is a good starting point in this quest. Cohn-Sherbok begins by noting that while many studies of anti-Semitism refer to the Christian contribution to the problem, they do not focus on the underlying Christian hostility toward the Jewish faith and people. "Anti-Jewish attitudes in the history of the Church were not accidental—rather they were the direct consequence of Christian teaching about Judaism and the Jewish nation."

He then covers that history. Beginning with the ways the New Testament laid the foundations for later Christian enmity toward the Jewish nation and how those traditions served as the basis for the early church’s vilification of the Jews, he provides an overview including the medieval history of the Crusades, the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, the European pogroms, the rise in anti-Semitism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. It is a devastating and horrifying story, one which Christians must approach in a attitude of repentance and humility.

Still Cohn-Sherbok ends on a hopeful note:

In recent decades, the Church has become increasingly aware of this bloody history and has sought to overcome Christian antipathy toward Judaism and the Jewish nation. Church bodies have formulated numerous decrees denouncing anti-Semitism, and positive encounters with Jews have been encouraged....There are thus positive signs of hope as the second millennium draws to a close, despite the heritage of 20 centuries of Christian hatred of Judaism and the Jewish people.

He cites specifically the new scholarship emphasizing Jesus’ connections with Judaism, and the growing conviction among Christians affirming the continuing validity of God’s covenant with Israel.

The second development has been the discovery and study of Jewish texts from the several centuries before the birth of Jesus. Known popularly as the "Dead Sea Scrolls," these texts have shed fresh light on the milieu in Israel at the time of Jesus. For too long, Christians have interpreted the period between the close of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as an empty time, suddenly illuminated by Jesus. In fact, the intertestamental period was one of fertile and developing Jewish theological thought. The discovery in 1947 of caves along the Dead Sea filled with ancient manuscripts has opened a new window on that period.

Kenneth Hanson’s Dead Sea Scrolls provides a popularly written overview of the history and contents of the scrolls. Dozens of books have been written on the scrolls, but most are scholarly works beyond the grasp of the average lay reader. Hanson provides a comprehensive and readable view of the history of the Qumran sect, interweaving the theological beliefs and teachings reflected in the documents with the history of that era.

Following mainstream scholarship, he shows what the scrolls reveal about life and thought in Israel during the two centuries before Jesus, particularly the fervent messianic expectations. His discussion reminds us that Jesus did not live and teach in a vacuum, but in ways consistent with first-century Jewish theology; he shows how the beliefs and practices shown in the scrolls laid the groundwork for the development of Christianity, including Jesus’ teachings.

These two developments have also led to an unprecedented effort within the church to take a new look at long-held beliefs and practices, and to revise them where necessary.

REMOVING ANTI-JUDAISM From the Pulpit, a publication of the American Interfaith Institute, is a practical guide for pastors struggling to preach the difficult texts in the New Testament. The first eight chapters are essays by scholars and theologians addressing issues of history and biblical interpretation that have supported anti-Judaism, and offering practical suggestions and "how-to" tips on dealing with them in sermon preparation.

This is followed by five sermons based on difficult texts, acknowledging that they are in the gospel and should not be simply expurgated, but suggesting new and creative ways they can be expounded upon. Preachers represented include Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, and Carol Malone.

A closing essay by Joseph Stoutzenberger concludes that "Christian preaching today must include both renunciation of past misconceptions and annunciation of a new, more authentic appreciation of Judaism....Christian preaching today must on the one hand actively counteract anti-Judaism found in scripture or tradition and on the other hand advocate a new vision of the relationship between Christianity and Jews and Judaism." This book is a good introduction to that dual task.

Kathleen Kern, a biblical scholar and Christian Peacemaker Team activist, has written We Are the Pharisees. She notes that "In the beginning, all I wanted to do was tell people that the Pharisees had gotten a bad rap historically, and that we should look for ourselves in Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees." As she dug into her research, she also came to see how "Throughout the centuries, people have used the references to the Pharisees in the New Testament as justification for persecuting Jews."

The book explores first-century Israel, placing the Pharisees in context among the varieties of Judaism; and reviews both the positive and negative images of Pharisees from the New Testament. She then gives a history of Christendom’s persecution of the Jews, showing how "Over and over again, I see the passages regarding the Pharisees in the New Testament used by well-meaning and well-educated Christians as ‘proof’ that Jesus rejected Judaism....Christians have used Jesus’ words on the Pharisees for centuries to persecute Jews, not understanding that Jesus, a Jew, spoke to the religious establishment of his day—just as he would have spoken to the religious establishment of our day."

The concluding chapter provides suggestions "Toward Humility and Dialogue." It is a well-researched and -written book, with a series of discussion questions following each chapter containing suggestions for use in church study groups.

WHERE DO WE GO from here? Two of the most revered spiritual leaders of our time help to provide some directions for our journey.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—prominent in their own traditions and beloved by the other—were leaders in showing the way ahead. Recent collections of their writings and speeches provide a spiritual treasure for study and reflection.

A Blessing to Each Other is a collection of the Cardinal’s speeches, homilies, and writings on the subject of Jewish-Christian relations. It was a topic very close to Bernardin’s heart, and one which won him great respect and love from within both the Christian and Jewish communities.

One of the key documents of Vatican II was "Nostra Aetate" (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). That document and subsequent official church teaching form the background for the Cardinal’s speaking and writing. He consistently emphasized three points.

First, recognizing that for much of church history, the Hebrew Scriptures have been seen as useful only insofar as they pointed to Jesus, he insisted that "the books of the Hebrew Bible are worth studying in their own right....[W]ithout deep immersion into the spirit and text of the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians experience an emaciated version of Christian spirituality and know but a very truncated version of Jesus’ full religious vision."

Second, he spoke often of the "revolution in New Testament scholarship [that has] begun to restore Jesus and his message to its original Jewish milieu." And he flatly stated that "Any presentation of Jesus’ message that fails to note its indebtedness to the Jewish biblical heritage and the Judaism of his time fails to present the gospel in its fullness and integrity. Jewish tradition was integral to the piety, preaching, and ministry of the Lord."

Third, and perhaps most important, Bernardin stressed the relationship between the church and contemporary Judaism. Noting that there is a deep spiritual bond that links the church to the people of Israel, the Cardinal recognized that it was important for Christians to know the faith and religious life of the Jewish people as they are professed and practiced today. For him, this included the importance of contemporary Jewish reflections on basic religious issues—"such reflections now are seen to be integral to the Christian community, not merely as extra resources from a parallel community to be used in a peripheral way."

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the spiritual giants of the 20th century. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity is a new collection of essays, speeches, and articles compiled and edited by his daughter, Susannah, who contributes an informative and moving introduction. She describes the "central pillar of his theology" as his belief that "what human beings stand for is the great mystery of being God’s partner. God is in need of human beings."

The material is filled with spiritual gems, covering a broad range of subjects. In a section titled "Toward a Just Society," he explains "The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement," offers "A Prayer for Peace," and reflects on the role of faith and morality in the age of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. A concluding section, "The Holy Dimension," offers his reflections on "Faith," "Prayer," and "The Biblical View of Reality."

The challenge of all these books is put by Rabbi Heschel in a lecture titled "The God of Israel and Christian Renewal": "Separated from its source, Christianity is easily exposed to principles alien to its spirit. The vital challenge for the church is to decide whether Christianity came to overcome, abolish, or to continue the Jewish way by bringing the God of Abraham and his will to the Gentiles."

As I continue to reflect on my deepening relationship with Judaism, I remember Paul’s words in Romans 11:18, reminding Gentile Christians that "it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you." In my study and worship with Jewish brothers and sisters, I have deeply felt that sentiment. By getting in closer touch with the "root," with the "Jewish way," my relationship to God and my spiritual journey as a disciple of Jesus have been nourished and deepened. For that, I am thankful.

A Blessing to Each Other: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Jewish-Catholic Dialogue. Edited by Gabe Huck. Liturgy Training Publications, 1996. Available from

The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism. By Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Eerdmans, 1997. Available from

Dead Sea Scrolls: The Untold Story. By Kenneth Hanson. Council Oak Books, 1997. Available from

Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. By Abraham Joshua Heschel. Edited by Susannah Heschel. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996. Available from

Removing Anti-Judaism From the Pulpit. Edited by Howard Clark Kee and Irwin J. Borowsy. Continuum Publishing Co., 1996. Available from

We Are the Pharisees. By Kathleen Kern. Herald Press, 1995.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Grounded in the Book"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines