Calling a New Humanity

Words are messy. Rarely are the categories and distinctions we use today as clear-cut as they often seem. As Friedrich Nietzsche eloquently pointed out, words have histories, and these histories are connected to the values and conflicts of past ages [1].  Take, for instance, the supposed distinction between Christianity and Judaism. When they are used today to pick out two separate (and diverse!) communities with their respective beliefs, practices, and customs, the differences are apparent to all. What is often less apparent, however, is that the distinction between the two was not always so clear. In the early days of the church, for instance, Jewish followers of Jesus are clearly depicted as continuing to participate in the rites and ceremonies of the Jerusalem temple and their local synagogues [2]. This brings up an interesting historical question: how did the ethnically exclusive Jewish faith end up expanding itself beyond Jews to include Gentiles (non-Jews)? How did, to be a bit anachronistic, the ethnically diverse Christianity arise out of the ethnically uniform Judaism? In an age where conflicts and tensions between race, culture, and ethnicity continue to trouble us, the importance of such a question should not be understated.

When we hear the word “Judaism” today, we often think about it in context of the other “world religions”. When it was coined, however, the Jews were locked in a clash of cultures so tense that we got the word “macabre” from it [3]. The Maccabees were a group of Jewish guerillas who revolted against the attempts of the Seleucid leader Antiochus IV Epiphanes to consolidate power within his empire by pursuing a zealous Hellenizing policy. Possession of the Torah became a capital offense, and those that they found were torn to pieces and burned with fire[4]. Circumcision was outlawed, and the families who continued to show their faithfulness to their covenant with God were brutally executed. The infants in question would be hung around their mothers’ necks as a public warning [7].

Perhaps the most gruesome encounters between the Jews and the Greeks, however, were those which occurred over the question of animal sacrifice and dietary restrictions. Antiochus desecrated the temple and offered sacrifices to the Greek gods upon the altar that was reserved for YHWH alone. He also tried to force Jews to eat the pork that would be offered at these sacrificial feasts. Second Maccabees records in excruciating detail what happened to seven brothers who refused to eat “unlawful swine’s flesh”:

The king [Antiochus] fell into a rage, and gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated.  These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan.  The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “Th Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us…” [6]

To say that Jews were hostile to “Greeks” would be an understatement.

It is little wonder, then, that the first doctrinal controversy that plagued the early Christian church was precisely on these issues of circumcision, the law, and dietary restrictions. Indeed, a great deal of the New Testament preserves this conflict in the writings of Paul, especially in his letters to churches in Rome and Galatia. Here, oddly enough, we find him arguing for a position that would have made the Maccabeans roll over in their graves: it was not circumcision, the law, or dietary restrictions that really made one a Jew. “There is”, Paul would write, “no longer Jew or Greek… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [5]

The gravity of such a statement is often not as clear to us as it was to Paul’s opponents. Even though it had been a good couple of centuries since the Jews had overthrown their Greek overlords, their independence had been short-lived, and Judea now chafed under the rule of the Romans. The rise and fall of various messianic movements and revolts meant that attempts to replicate the success of the Maccabees was not far from the minds of the Jewish people. ” The continued tension between the Jewish and Greek ways of life would eventually culminate in a widespread rebellion that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in AD 70. [8]

And yet it is precisely in the midst of such agitation that Paul writes his letters claiming that Jesus, the messiah, has “made both groups [Jews and Greeks] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” [9] This was no idle claim. Paul, along with many of the leaders of the early church, was convinced that something had happened that then radically changed the entire picture of what it meant to be a member of Israel, to be part of God’s people. “For a person is not a Jew,” Paul wrote in his epistle to followers of Jesus in Rome, “who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.” [10] It is not, Paul claimed, the physical act of circumcision which made one a Jew. Rather, he continued, “someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code.” [11] It is, in other words, possession of “the Spirit” that makes one a real Jew, something that both ethnic Jews and Gentiles alike have access to.

What went for circumcision also went for the dietary laws. Jesus’ trusted disciple Peter is recorded as having a strange vision while waiting for lunch to be prepared. While some might chalk this up to heat and hunger, it is a radical message that Peter puzzles over on the seaside roof:

He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. [12]

As a Jew living in the shadow of continuing cultural conflict, Peter was right to be confused at God’s command. What he was being called to kill and eat were animals of the type that the Maccabean martyrs had suffered and died in order not to eat. [13] For Peter to obey God and “slay and eat” would have been to impugn the blood of the martyrs and essentially repudiate his identity as a Jew.

The meaning of God’s mysterious answer, however, would soon become clear. Peter is soon confronted by messengers sent by a Roman centurion trying to invite him to his house. Although concerns of cleanliness when associating with a Gentile would usually apply, Peter was willing to break that social taboo. Upon arriving, Peter explains why he came by saying that “you themselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” [14]

After a quick exchange, Peter tells the centurion’s assembled family the message that he had been preaching to the Jews: Jesus is Lord of all. To everyone’s surprise, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” [15] Before this point, the early Christian movement had restricted itself to a renewal of Israel. Jesus, as the messiah, was very much a Jewish messiah. But with Peter’s visit to Cornelius’ house, things took a different turn. As Peter would explain to his confused compatriots back in Jerusalem, “The Spirit told me to go with them [the centurion’s servants] and not to make a distinction between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews].” [16]

It would be complications arising from this inclusion that would motivate a couple of Paul’s letters. If non-Jews could be included among the followers of Jesus, should they not also take up Jewish practices? Paul’s conviction, in light of the news that he and his fellow Jesus-followers were proclaiming about their king, was that they did not. As an example of ethnic reconciliation, this point is crucial. It is not as though the problem was solved by one group simply joining and adopting the culture of another. The conflict between the Jews and the Greeks was not resolved by the Jews merely assimilating the Greeks. Rather, Paul wrote, Jesus had acted to “create in himself one new humanity [emphasis mine] in place of the two, thus making peace”.[17] What would define the followers of Jesus was not adherence or non-adherence to the Jewish law, but “faith working through love”. [18] Allegiance to Jesus would trump the traditional symbols of Jewish cultural identity, and radical hospitality and generosity would be the new characteristic mark of inclusion.

What was it about Jesus that allowed him to bring Jews and Greeks together into “one new humanity?” Might its potential for inclusivity remain viable today? At the center of early Christian belief was the proclamation that God had designated Jesus as king over all the earth– not just over Israel– by raising him from the dead. [19] Jesus was qualified for this role in a way that, for Paul’s Roman audience, the emperor was not, because he, unlike the rest of humanity, exemplified the servant leadership that alone legitimates the use of power. Jesus was qualified to rule the world because his judgments were made out of love and not a desire for self-promotion. Whereas the rulers of the world– Jew and Gentile alike!– would rely on coercive force to vindicate themselves when challenged, Jesus eschewed such tactics and suffered a humiliating public execution with the faith and hope that the God who created and sustained all things would vindicate his cause. The earthshaking good news that Christians like Peter and Paul proclaimed was that God had indeed done so, and would do so again.

Jesus was able to unite Jews and Greeks because what he did transcended their differences without eliminating them. His unexpected death and resurrection caused Paul and Peter both to reexamine their Jewishness and discover that many of the exclusive aspects they had formerly held to be central to their identity were not as central as they had thought. In the letter to the Romans, Paul would reach back to the figure of Abraham to point out that he was able to be considered justified before God without circumcision, but simply on the basis of his trust in God’s promises.[20] Abraham, not Moses, Paul would suggest, was the paradigmatic father of the Jewish people. In light of Jesus’ vindication, however, what it meant to be “Jewish” extended beyond Abraham’s flesh-and-bone descendants to include all those who would offer Jesus their allegiance and alter their behavior to reflect the same faith, hope, and love that characterized their king.

Christians have not always been the best at being inclusive, but, at the same time, the paradigm of welcome is built into its Scriptures and encoded into the practice of eucharistic communion. It needs only to be enacted to become effective. In a world where inter-group violence and exclusion continues to be an all-too-real occurrence, one wonders whether the proclamation of a different sort of king may still have any effect. “Christianity”, “Christians”, “gospel”, and “Jesus”, and even his title, “Christ”, are now words that have deeply winding histories, not all of them pleasant. Yet the core message continues to sound out: Jesus is lord of all. Come to the feast! Those who are willing to listen, let them listen.

 

Notes

  1. “You sober beings, who feel yourselves armed against passion and fantasy, and would gladly make a pride and an ornament out of your emptiness, you call yourselves realists, and give to understand that the world is actually constituted as it appears to you.… [Y]ou still carry about with you the valuations of things which had their origin in the passions and infatuations of earlier centuries! There is still a secret and ineffaceable drunkenness embodied in your sobriety!” Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, Inc., 1974), 121.
  2. Read, for instance, the Book of Acts in the New Testament.
  3. It is also this conflict which gives rise to the holiday of Hanukah.
  4. ” Maccabees 1:56-57. Quotations come from the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NSRV) unless otherwise noted.
  5. 1 Maccabees 1:60-61.
  6. 2 Maccabees 7:3-6.
  7. Galatians 3:28.
  8. Often referred to as the “The Great Revolt”. It would be followed by two other attempted uprisings, the Kitos War in 115-117 and Bar’Kokhba’s Revolt of 132-135.
  9. Ephesians 2:14.
  10. Romans 2:28.
  11. Romans 2:29 (NET).
  12. Acts 10:11-16.
  13. See, for instance, Leviticus 11.
  14. Acts 10:28.
  15. Acts 10:44.
  16. Acts 11:12.
  17. Ephesians 2:15.
  18. Galatians 5:6.
  19. Consider, for instance, verse 4 from the opening of Romans: “who was appointed the Son-of-God-in-power [the one who possesses all authority in heaven and earth] according to the Holy Spirit by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (NET).
  20. See the first few verses of chapter 4 of Romans.

Image: Jew and Jewess by James Tissot.

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