Posts tagged Judaism

Review: Girl Meets God

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Review of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life.  By Lauren F. Winner.  Chapel Hill, NC.: Algonquin, 2002.  320 pp.

As we’ve started this series on the Nicene Creed, some of you may be thinking about your own church background (or lack thereof).  In particular, if you come from a less liturgical tradition, you may wonder how less familiar things like the Nicene Creed fit in with your own spiritual life.  And if I’m lucky some of my blog posts have inspired at least a few of you to ponder the Jewish origins of the Christian faith and feel frustrated by the church’s lack of familiarity with its own background!  Well, if any of the above applies to you, how about an author that helps you explore both of these at once?

Lauren Winner is one of my favorite people ever.  She is hard not to like: young, funny, intelligent, and the author of some fabulous books.  One of those books, Girl Meets God, tells her unique story as a Reform Jew who converted to Orthodox Judaism, only to later convert to Christianity.  As an evangelical Episcopalian from a Jewish background, as well a scholar of American religion (who now teaches at Duke Divinity School), Winner possesses unique insights into both religions.

I would say Winner played a formative role in my life in college, as well as the lives of several friends).  Especially for us coming out of conservative evangelical Protestant backgrounds, Winner was a fantastic introduction to many aspects of Judaism, as well as to a more liturgical Christian tradition.

While admittedly, the book is a memoir rather than a systematic explanation of either Jewish-Christian relations or the Anglican tradition, it is still a useful starting point for the curious.  Additionally, it is a fascinating and uplifting book, plain and simple.  Anyone with an interest in young adult journeys in religion should appreciate Winner’s story, and many may even find in her a kindred spirit or a hero of sorts.  I know for me, Winner has become one of my “smart Christian” role models and an example of how one can successfully integrate various spiritual influences into a more robust Christian faith.

One (Particular) God

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We believe in one God…

One of the things I have most appreciated about my academic study of religion is a newfound appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish background.  My first religion course in college was on Judaism, actually— “Early Judaism,” i.e. Judaism of the Second Temple period, that time after the exile and before 70 CE.  Of course, my college New Testament introduction and my later seminary courses also emphasized the stories of ancient Israel and the significance of this religious background for Jesus and his Jewish community.

In particular, I have found it fascinating to ponder the enormity of the Jewish commitment to monotheism.  In seminary I learned that some scholars believe Israel was originally henotheistic—worshipping only one god but accepting the potential existence of many.  Over time, they say, Israel increasingly emphasized that YHWH was not only the stronger god or the proper god to worship, but YHWH was indeed the only real deity.  The others were merely idols fashioned by human hands and imaginations.  Some more conservative Christians are disturbed to think about Israel potentially believing in other gods, but however things happened, Israel’s dedication to YHWH was radical in their polytheistic surroundings.

Many of us who grew up in a Western context find it enough to simply accept the existence of one God, so I appreciate Judaism’s emphasis on not only the number of gods but also the identity of the true God.  God has a name YHWH, typically translated “the LORD” or read by Jews as “Adonai.”  The character of this God matches what we might assume in some ways—but in some regards we may be surprised.

The Hebrew Scriptures always emphasize that YHWH is compassionate, forgiving, a lover of social justice, and a powerful force to be reckoned with, among other things.  Some passages actually explicitly or implicitly compare YHWH to other peoples’ gods.  For example, unlike Baal who doesn’t answer, YHWH never sleeps, always available to his people (1 King 18).  Unlike Marduk, YHWH didn’t make people to be his slaves but to be co-reigners over the earth (Gen. 1, as compared to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish).  And in contrast with the sexual overtones of most religions, Judaism’s God transcended gender.

We who are Christians are also devoted to this one God who revealed himself as YHWH to Moses at the burning bush and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.  This story is our heritage—with all of its rich descriptions of God’s character and actions and instruction for us.  When I say with the Nicene Creed that I believe in one God, I like to pause and remember that this is not just any abstract deity that I worship but a deeply personal God who has interacted with human beings throughout history.  And the better I get to know this God, the more I feel grateful that YHWH, in particular, is the one real deal.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 3 of 3)

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I’ve explained the basic organization of the Christian Bible and the special organization of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) used in Jewish circles.  However, there is a final topic which I alluded to in my original post: the Deuterocanon/Apocrypha.

The Deuterocanonical books make discussing the organization of the Bible tricky, since they can be put several places, depending on the tradition and the specific Bible.  They appear between the Old and New Testaments, after the New Testament, or woven into the Old Testament itself.  Many Protestant Bibles don’t contain these books at all, though some (especially Anglican) Bibles do.  Roman Catholic Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain most of these books, but there is disagreement between them (and even between various Eastern Orthodox traditions like Greek, Russian, etc.) about which books should be included.

Why are there inconsistencies among Christian groups about which books belong in the Bible?  And why these books, in particular?  After all, nobody is still bickering about what to include in the New Testament.  The process of canonizing these books may have been complex, but the reason why is actually quite simple: they appear in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), though not the Hebrew version (the Masoretic text).

Many think the additional books in the Septuagint were originally written in Greek, while a few may have simply not survived in their Hebrew form.  Either way, they were composed later in Jewish history, and since some decided there were no truly inspired Scriptures after the time of the Jewish exile,  these later books  became suspect.  (It should be noted that a few Old Testament books may have been composed on the late side, as well, but because they discussed earlier periods, they were “safe.”)  For this reason, soon after the time of Jesus, Jews decided these additional books did not belong in their canon.  Christians kept them around for a while—though in various locations, various books were accepted.

They weren’t always given the same status as the books of the Old Testament, however.  When most Christians spoke Greek—the language of both the New Testament and Septuagint—it was easy to simply accept the Septuagint’s canon.  However, the church inevitably faced a decision about the inclusion of these books when the everyday language of the people switched to Latin and a new translation was needed.

Jerome, a Christian who translated the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) in the late fourth century CE, felt strongly that it was appropriate to translate the Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than the Septuagint.  While he did use the Septuagint to translate the Deterocanonical books, as well, he added prefaces noting their special status.  Throughout history a minority made a similar distinction, but because Jerome’s prefaces were left uncopied in many Latin Bible editions, a majority of people accepted the Apocrypha without question.

The real controversy over these books came with the Reformation, when Protestants decided these books should not be considered authoritative.  This was partially because the Jews had already rejected them from their own canon, but the theological content of some of the books was also a factor.  For example, parts of 2 Maccabees were traditionally used to support the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayers for the dead, which Reformers like Luther and Calvin thought were theological mistakes on the part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestants decided these questionable books should either be noted in the Bible as non-authoritative or they should be left out of it completely.  Today, the latter is more common, though some Protestants acknowledge the usefulness of these books for understanding Second Temple period Judaism (the time between the construction of the second temple in 515 BCE and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE).  Indeed, there are some interesting developments of Jewish thought evidenced in these books, such as reflections on “original sin,” discussion of angels and demons, and the hopes of the Jewish people for the awaited Messiah, as well as the resurrection of the dead.  While I don’t consider the Deuterocanonical books to be Scripture and haven’t gotten to read them all yet, I look forward to incorporating them into my future study for this reason.  It’s exciting to learn more about Judaism from around the time of Jesus and the role these books have played in shaping Christian thought in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 2 of 3)

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As I mentioned in my previous post, the Hebrew Bible is organized differently than the Christian Old Testament.  Instead of the Pentateuch, books of History, books of Wisdom, the Major Prophets, and the Minor Prophets, the traditional Jewish organization has only three major parts:  Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.

Torah is often translated “law,” but it can also simply mean “guidance,” “teaching,” “instruction”—that sort of thing.  Jews typically use the name Torah, while many Christians use Pentateuch, which comes from the Greek word for “five.”  Both, however, contain the five books of the law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These books are sometimes called the books of Moses, because traditionally, Moses was taught to be the author.  The books themselves, though, do not specify who wrote them and were probably compiled over time.  They are the core of the Jewish faith because they tell the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, as well as listing important laws about how to worship God, set themselves apart from surrounding peoples, and treat one another fairly.

Nevi’im means “prophets,” but these books include more than just the “major prophets” and “minor prophets” of the Christian Bible.  Some of the Christian Bible’s books of history also belong in this division: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings.  Notice, the books of Ruth, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are not included here, even though Christians include them in the “history” section.  We will deal with them later!  Also, there is no division of “1 & 2” for Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Bible, but simply the book of Samuel and the book of Kings.  Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are known as the “former prophets.”

Most of the major and minor prophets of the Christian Old Testament are sometimes called the “latter prophets” in the Hebrew Bible.  These include the big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as “the twelve,” which are shorter: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  Notice that two of the other Christian major prophets are not included here: Lamentations and Daniel.

Lastly, there is the Ketuvim, meaning “writings.”  These books include the wisdom books, but also the Christian “history” and “major prophets” books that we skipped earlier.  First, there are three books of poetry:  Psalms, Proverbs, and Job.  Next come the five megillot (“scrolls”), which were traditionally grouped together and are read by the Jewish community on special days throughout the year:

  • Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), which is often read for Passover, though also at the beginning of each Sabbath in certain communities.
  • Ruth, which is often read for Shavuot, a festival commemorating the giving of the Torah, as well as celebrating the wheat harvest, occurring 50 days after Passover and therefore also called “Pentecost” (from the Greek word for “five”).
  • Lamentations, read on the Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av, a Jewish month), which commemorates the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Jewish temple.
  • Ecclesiastes, which is read on Sukkot (the “festival of booths/tabernacles”) in some communities.
  • Esther, which is read on Purim, the day celebrating Esther’s saving the Jews from genocide during the time of the Persian empire.

The last books of the Writings are not grouped together in a special way like these first two sets and include Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (grouped together!), and Chronicles (the Christian 1 & 2 Chronicles).  The Writings are considered important Scripture, inspired by God like the Torah and Nevi’im, but most of its books were written later and included in the canon later than the Law and the Prophets.

This series is continued in Pt. 3.

Jesus was Jewish

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It’s in the title, but I’ll say it again:  Jesus was Jewish.

For those of you who have grown up in church, I’m not sure if this has been emphasized, but it sure wasn’t for me.  I don’t think I ever heard anyone seriously talk about Jesus as a first-century Jew until I got to college.  Jesus was always a nice guy, a prophet, maybe even God incarnate… but Jewish?  Not in my church, at least.

If you grew up with a Bible storybook, you probably remember Swedish Jesus.  I’m not sure why anyone would ever think Jesus had blue eyes, but apparently many American illustrators have been convinced.  And if Jesus wasn’t Swedish, he still wasn’t Jewish.  Though Sunday School portrayals of Jesus probably reflected more of my white American culture than I knew, Jesus was, in theory, supposed to be somehow removed from the messiness of life.  He probably didn’t throw up, definitely didn’t poop, and was also very “cultural neutral.”  Otherwise how could Jesus be relevant to our Gentile lives?  To China and Guatemala and South Africa and 98% of my elementary school?

I’ll save questions of relevance for another day and focus on the simple fact that this isn’t true:  We were wrong.

Jesus wasn’t a person devoid of everything that makes humans human.  Even if it’s hard to believe, he not only threw up and pooped, but he had to learn to walk as a baby, he  probably had a favorite food, and he enjoyed laughing with his friends.  And he lived at a specific time in a specific place.  In fact, Jesus lived as part of a specific people, speaking their language, keeping their customs, and otherwise surprising us by how very little he is like most of those who follow him today.  But even in his difference, he was like us—like us, Jesus had a culture.

So the next time you think of Jesus, remember that he kept the Sabbath (albeit, not always how the Pharisees preferred), ate kosher, and went to synagogue.  He was circumcised as a baby, visited the temple with his family for holy days, and grew up hearing stories about Abraham, Moses, and David.  He referred to Jewish texts in his teaching and declared the arrival of the kingdom of the Jewish God YHWH, eventually convincing his followers that he was the Jewish Messiah (for which the Greek translation is “Christ”).

While I will never be able to fully understand first-century Judaism, the bit I have been able to learn as a 21st-century white American Gentile (relying on the scholarship of others, I might add), has been very meaningful to me.  As I get to know Jesus’s culture better, I can better understand Jesus himself and better understand the message he was trying to communicate to his friends.  The story may be good by itself, but it all makes more sense—and feels more colorful and textured and delightfully complex—when we begin to understand where Jesus fits in context.

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