Beyond Trypho

Sadie’s report last Friday on Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho raises critical issues in Jewish-Christian relationships which have their roots in the supersessionist exegesis (the understanding that Hebrew Scripture texts have been superseded by their fulfillment in Christ and are therefore only important as promises or preparation for the reality that Jesus came to bring) expressed in that writing.  Actually, supersessionist exegesis has roots already in the NT (2 Cor 3:1-11; Heb 8:13) as does the charge also implicitly present in the Dialogue that Jews really don’t understand their own Scriptures (Acts 13:27; 2 Cor 3:14).  In the NT, however, the issue was largely an “in-house” debate (Jews arguing with Jews) as the Church endeavored to establish its own identity over against Judaism from which it was emerging or more traumatically, being expelled (Jn 9:22).  Norm Beck’s Mature Christianity is a good read that uses family dynamics to help us understand and move beyond the NT polemic.

In the succeeding centuries, however, especially after Constantine the “dialogue” became more of a one sided attack on Judaism by Gentile Christian writers and theologians.  Even with Trypho, as we observed in class, Justin controlled both sides of the debate.  Sadie noted how he ended the writing with mutual respect; that spirit is sadly lacking in later works.   Tertullian, for instance, charged the Jews with rejecting or killing both Jesus and the prophets, being contentious about the meaning of words in the Bible (again, don’t understand their own Scriptures), and generally openly sinful.  Ambrose allegorically interpreted the Cain-Abel story to apply the mark of Cain to the Jews (“stained by the blood of their Lord…and Brother also”).  Augustine, commenting on the same story (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean),  insisted that Jews be preserved, but as wanderers and fugitives (like Cain) in order to be a witness to Christians of the consequence of rejecting Christ.

In our Lutheran tradition we also have no reason to boast.  Martin Luther’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism at the beginning of the Reformation indeed seemed remarkably conciliatory.  In his 1523 treatise “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew” (LW, 45) Luther sympathetically and colorfully commented on the persecution and lack of genuine Gospel outreach that Jews endured from the medieval church, “If I had been a Jew and seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian.”  The underlying premise behind the treatise is that Jews had never been taught what their Scriptures meant, but once they learned, they would certainly convert to Christianity.  Considering various OT passages, Luther described in detail how Christ fulfilled them all.  How disappointed he was to discover the Jewish community rejected his christological, supersessionist hermeneutic and in fact had their own understanding of the passages in question.  Disappointment turned to anger and anger eventually to bitterness.  In 1543 three years before his death, Luther wrote a hate-filled piece entitled “On the Jews and their Lies” (LW, 47) in which he advocated setting fire to synagogues and schools, destroying Jewish homes, forbidding rabbis to teach, and other extreme measures which found chilling fulfillment in kristallnacht and the Holocaust.  We can only echo Roland Bainton’s sentiment, “One could wish that Luther had died beore this tract was written.” (Here I Stand, p. 379)  While the above survey is a vast oversimplification of a long and complex historical process, I would still contend it correctly points to the danger of  interpreting texts, even (perhaps, especially) sacred texts, in a narrow, exclusivistic manner.

Thankfully, the ELCA has turned a page, expressing sorrow for sins committed against Jews in the name of Luther and others who have attempted to incorporate anti-Judaism into our Lutheran understanding of the faith.  At a Churchwide and local level, we have begun to engage in genuine dialogue as we read Scripture texts together, listening carefully to the understanding of the other and honestly expressing our own understanding.  The real value of this course, I believe, is not simply to help us identify patterns of Jewish and Christian exegesis in biblical times, but to help us grow in our own exegesis and proclamation so that we can “bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old.”  (Incidentally, if any class participants are interested in discussing Jewish-Christian (or Lutheran) dialog further, I’d be glad to do so at a mutually convenient time – just leave a note on my blog page).  Dave

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Published in: on October 10, 2007 at 3:44 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Thanks, Dave. A great summary and caution for all of us. As I hope all of you can tell, I’ve really been trying to have us read Scripture with 1st century Jewish eyes. Such an approach keeps us from supersessionism, but as soon as we try to step back into our modern setting, it becomes an issue. A ‘big’ question for all of you is to come to some sort of understanding of how the OT and the NT are related.


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