CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Hat tip to Victor Reppert for this one.

Every year, as Lent season starts up and Easter approaches, it isn't unexpected to find counter-Easter apologetics gearing up as well in Western culture. Which is entirely fair: we're still a free society, and it's still quite acceptable and legal for apologetics either way to be publicly promoted in North America and Europe, on broadcast and in print media. Um... right?

Actually, in a way I would be more worried if mainstream broadcast and print media (I mean those not specifically dedicated to evangelism) started throwing up pro-apologetic articles and neglecting counter-apologetic ones. Not because that would mean they've been co-opted by a faction promoting a particular religious view (instead of being... well, what they currently are. {g}) But because it would mean that the pro-apologetic side has become such a true minority that the news media thinks pro-apologetics count as "news"!--i.e. as something interesting and unusual that people don't usually hear, which they can sell along with advertising piggy-backing on the interest level, and so make a living.


[Note: in my original version of this article, I didn't notice the tiny datestamp in the upper left corner of Time's internet article. I have since revised accordingly. My thanks to the unknown Anon in the comments below!]

Back in 1979, Time Magazine (re-releasing the article online from May 7 that year) found a curious way to split the difference. (See previous sentence about "something interesting and unusual that people don't usually hear". Hey, it worked on me! {ironic g!})

Pinchas Lapide, a former chairman of the applied linguistics department at Israel's Bar-Han University, and (at the time of the original article) a visiting professor of New Testament studies at Gottingen University (in West Germany), had been promoting a new book on the Resurrection (Resurrection—A Jewish Faith Experience, eventually released in English as The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Faith Perspective), where he opined that it's entirely possible God raised Jesus bodily from the dead and maybe even in a uniquely transformed way. The unusual hook about this, is that PL was an observant Orthodox Jew who was not a Christian in any remote sense of that term: he doesn't follow Jesus as a rabbi, much less as a prophet for Judaism, much less as a Messiah, much much less as God Incarnate in any way.

The Time article, which can be found here as two internet pages (and which I'll treat as current for ease of reference afterward), may not be entirely accurate in presenting PL's position of course, so take that as a qualifying caution. But they do seem to be quoting him, not as definitely believing that Jesus was bodily resurrected by God, but as being impressed enough by the data to be trying to allow for the truth of this within non-Christian Judaism.

The article amusingly quotes a German rabbi declaring that this is "a terrible shock", that PL has "overstepped the bounds of Jewish theology", and that "if I believed in Jesus' resurrection, I'd be baptized tomorrow!" The amusing thing, is that this rabbi (Peter Levinson) is described as "liberal", i.e., a rabbi of Reformed Judaism, not part of the Conservative much less the Orthodox Jewish movement. (i.e. a branch routinely accused of terrible shocks overstepping the bounds of Jewish theology.) But that isn't what I want to discuss at the moment.

Nor is my purpose to adduce PL's grounds for believing God's resurrection of Jesus is at least feasibly possible. I'm admittedly curious about why he thinks so, but the details reported by the article are more of a socio-cultural expectation for why a group of devoted Jews might even mistakenly come to believe Jesus had been resurrected. Not about why an Orthodox Jew might be willing to believe, theologically and historically speaking, that it's feasibly possible God did do this.

No, my purpose is to call attention to the oddity that PL's position lands him in: an oddity that is probably behind a lot of the rejection of his work among Jews across the ideological spectrum.

The oddity, is that in order to stay non-Christian (even in a non-deific sense), PL has to arrive at a position where an avowedly Jewish teacher (a proto-rabbi in the pre-70s sense of the notion of rabbinic teaching) with avowedly Jewish disciples and followers, could be truly resurrected by God, and even be a (or even the) real Savior, without being a Jewish Messiah -- much less being the King Messiah to come.

The article provides no real clue how that's supposed to work. Perhaps that's for brevity's sake; but I could see how anyone, especially Jews (regardless of theological liberalism or conservatism), would have an extremely hard time figuring out how that could even possibly be sensible. For one thing, it's blatantly obvious that the NT texts (all four canonical Gospels, canonical Acts, the canonical Epistles, and RevJohn) are teaching that Jews as well as Gentiles should accept Jesus as the expected Messiah to come. But even discounting this as relevant evidence--though how to do this while still avowing that Jesus' first post-Easter evangelists were Jews?!--PL still avows that Jesus' first post-Easter evangelists were Jews and apparently thought they were still being Jewish to do this evangelical outreach.

Think about that a moment. The concept here is that God could send a savior for Gentiles, who is himself Jewish, and whose disciples are Jewish, and whose disciples are expected to preach this good news to Gentiles, grafting them into the promises of Israel (including the salvational promises??)--but whose salvation is not for Jews as well as for Gentiles. Therefore, this Jewish savior sent by God through Jewish Jews is not even a messiah, much less the Messiah of Israel.

If I had read that article in Harvard's The Onion, I would have immediately thought it was a comedy satire.

Again, it's possible that the Time article doesn't have enough detail (more like no detail at all) for explaining how this could be anything but preposterous; or, a little more charitably, how this could be anything but a way to try to dodge around accepting Jesus as at least a (much moreso the) Jewish Messiah. When the article reports Jewish scholars complaining that PL has taken some rabbinic commentary statements from Maimonides and the Talmud wildly out of context, I suspect they're talking about rabbinic teaching of two Jewish messiahs--one the self-sacrificing son of Joseph, and one the kingly son of David who will avenge the death of the son of Joseph and then reign as the King Messiah into the age of the Day of the Lord to come. This doctrine appears to have originated in the late 1st century, if not before; and it isn't hard to see an attempt at grudgingly answering Christian claims where some details are agreed upon. But it's still two Jewish Messiahs who are primarily relevant for Jews, and are only relevant for Gentiles--if at all--in that context. But since the article lacks any details about those objections, I can't be sure; that's only an educated guess on my part.

But it does so far sound like a variation of that non-Christian (and relatively late) Jewish teaching (not insisted upon as a religious doctrine, necessarily), except with the son of Joseph 'messiah' being only a savior for the Gentiles and so not properly a Jewish Messiah at all. Despite being a Jew himself, with Jewish disciples and evangelists, offering a Jewish salvation.

What's even more interesting is that, as Jewish Christian apologist and evangelist Michael Brown points out (especially at length here in Volume 2 of his multi-volume work), a very large proportion of even Conservative and Orthodox rabbis respond to the lack of a Temple (and its sacrifices) and to Christian evangelical apologetics (or to one variety of it anyway, regarding the necessity of the sacrificial system being fulfilled by the sacrifice of the Messiah), by the expedient of prayer, repentance and righteous deeds being the only things necessary for reconciliation between God and sinners (along with God's mercy and love, of course, without which none of the other things are literally worth a damn--Jewish rabbis have long been well aware that salvation cannot be earned or merited by works apart from the primal and authoritative grace of God, regardless of what their other beliefs are around the topic of good works and salvation.)

This common rabbinic point is supposed to be that neither Israel nor the Gentiles need the sacrificial system of the Temple (and/or tabernacle) for atonement--despite equally common and authoritative conservative Jewish prayers and hopes for the re-institution of the sacrificial system someday, specifically for giving the atonement sacrifices! (Not only sacrifices for thanksgiving etc. MB's argument, by contrast, is that the sacrificial system was indeed needed, somehow, for real atonement, and also was fulfilled by the sacrifice of Christ. I don't entirely agree with his beliefs on this matter; but my technical disagreements, such as they are, are beside the point.)

But if that is true, then why would Gentiles need the sacrifice of a (Jewish) Savior?--even if Jews did not, having the Temple sacrifices instead?

But of course, the original context of this theological position was the issue of how Jews distant from the Temple could participate in Jewish atonement without offering sacrifices per se; the answer was that the sacrifices were vicarious anyway, and so could be offered in absentia. Non-Jewish 'God fearers', who were sort-of participating in Jewish worship, were exempted from the necessity of having to participate (even in absentia) in Jewish atonement sacrifices; but then, neither were they formally considered Jews! But then again (again!), the question arose as to how the 'God fearers' could be atoned to God without the sacrifices. (Thus also a debate over just how far Gentile God-fearers could be accepted into the covenant promises of Israel. Thus also a debate over whether Gentile God-fearers could be saved, from sin and/or from the wrath of God, without 'really' being Jewish.)

When the Temple fell, and the atonement sacrifices were thus shut off, all these debates became shatteringly practical (for devoted Jews anyway) because now all Jews were at least in the same boat as Jews of the Diaspora, and maybe even in the same boat as the Gentile God-fearers: the latter people might (according to one rabbinic theory) have benefited vicariously, too, from the atonement sacrifices (the concept being that they might somehow 'belong' to the Jews), but now even that was gone, and not only for the Gentiles. Even within observant Judaism, then, the debate became:

a.) Was there no atonement with God anymore for Jews (much less Gentiles) living and dying without the sacrificial system?

b.) Could other atonement sacrifices be instituted in the interim until the Temple was re-established? (For example, waving a white bird to be slain on the day of atonement, Yom Kippur, asking God to accept this in lieu of the Temple sacrifices until they could be re-established.)

c.) Could repentance and good deeds suffice for atonement (on the sinner's side of the account) until the Temple sacrifices were re-instated?

d.) Were the Temple sacrifices actually needed for atonement at all, even from their institution?

These questions were further complicated, on one side, by the fact that the ark of the covenant had long been lost, and so there was some concern that even if a 'tabernacle' had been rebuilt for the Second Temple (and for the Second-and-a-half Temple, so to speak, during the massive Temple upgrade to nominal status instituted during the reign of Herod the Great and completed between the death of Jesus and the Temple's destruction in 70 CE) it wasn't really the real tabernacle and so the sacrifices couldn't have been valid since the days of Ezra anyway. So maybe it had been repentance and the doing of justice instead of injustice all along. On the other hand, Moses had instituted the atonement sacrifices even before creating the tabernacle (though not long before). So maybe neither the tabernacle nor the Temple were really necessary but the sacrifices were. But on yet another hand, there were 400+ years of sacrifices from Abraham to Moses without atonement sacrifices per se (unless those could be creatively read back into the sacrifices that had been given)--not even counting the time before that! So what counted for atonement before Abraham??--whether for Abraham's ancestors (not all of whom were religiously faithful to God anyway, as Abram himself had once been an idol-maker himself) or for righteous God-fearing Gentiles like Melchezidek the mysterious priest-king of Bethel who mediated peace between Abraham and other tribes in the region and from whom Abraham himself sought blessing?

The various solutions to all these questions, but especially along the line that the sacrifices had never really been necessary as such for atonement, were a big part of the development of the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism, compared to Orthodox Judaism; but even within Orthodox Judaism there were and still are proponents of most of those positions.

Which brings us back to the attempt to propose, from within Judaism (especially from within Orthodox Judaism), the idea that Gentiles need a Jewish savior who is nevertheless not also a savior for Jews (because they don't need him--only Gentiles do.) If Gentiles don't need some kind of Jewish sacrifice (broadly speaking) for reconciliation with God, but only need to repent and do justice instead of injustice, then why do they need a savior at all?--Jewish or otherwise?! Much less a Jewish savior who serves as a sacrifice for their atonement to God??! Yet if Gentiles do need an atonement sacrifice (in some way), in what way would this be properly effective by sacrifice of even the best Jewish rabbi for their sake rather than the Temple atonement sacrifices? (And anyway how could Jesus be the best Jewish rabbi only for Gentiles and not to be followed by Jews--does that make any conceptual sense whatever!?) How could Jesus' sacrifice 'for Gentiles' even begin to be vaguely feasible outside and apart from whatever was effective at atoning sinners within Jewish theology (and practice)?! But if the sacrifice of Jesus was effective from within Jewish theology (and practice), then how so in connection to the Jewish sacrificial system of atonement??--specifically, how is it that Gentiles only need this one self-sacrifice of a Jewish rabbi instead of the atonement sacrifices (and certainly given apart from formal procedure of Day of Atonement sacrifices, to say the very least!), yet Jews not only don't need it but would apparently not benefit from it??! Not even with the Temple gone and the atonement sacrifices shut down!?

These are just the sort of questions being addressed by the Christian author of the canonical Epistle to the Hebrews--a text the dating of which is disputed, but which seems to proceed as though the Temple system is still in place (thus apparently composed before 70 CE, and even before the Roman armies were at all threatening as a possibility for shutting down the atonement sacrifices). But whether it was composed before or after 70 CE, its topic--and its proposed solutions--would have been especially pertinent in critical inter-Jewish dispute anytime after the Temple's destruction. Very broadly speaking, its points are that Jesus was not only a mere rabbi (whatever else the author is saying about him); that his (or His) voluntary sacrifice was the reality that the previous sacrifices and mediations between man and God had only foreshadowed, even the (apparently still ongoing) Temple sacrifices; and that these facts are exceedingly important for Jews as Jews, not only for Gentiles.

And indeed, whether this epistle predates 70 or not (and regardless of who its author was): if the epistles of Paul (five-to-seven of which are widely accepted as authentic even by most hypersceptics) have any testimony, they show (at the minimum) that at least one branch of Christianity (represented by Paul--who claims to be in doctrinal agreement with the chief Christian authorities in Jerusalem whom his congregations can check back with if they are so inclined) was promoting Jesus of Nazareth, and his (or His) actions (including Jesus' voluntary death), as being (somehow) God's ultimate atonement of sinners to Himself: an atoning action, by God, that transcends the Temple sacrifices to the point where atonement sacrifices in the Temple are somehow irrelevant; and that Paul expects Jews as well as Gentiles to accept as such.


How exactly Prof. Lapide has missed all this, or how he navigates around it perhaps to reach his (tentative) position, I can't tell. It must be a mind-blowing set of tactics anyway, to somehow ignore or discount the overwhelming testimony of the NT canonical texts that the first (and maybe second) generation of Jesus' post-Easter disciples, not even counting Jesus himself (or Himself), thought that the Christhood--the Messiahship--of Jesus was (even literally!) crucial for Jews as Jews in their reconciliation with God, not only crucial for Gentiles. It seems a staggering level of scholarship (if I may put it that way), that can be impressed enough with the historical data to allow that maybe God did miraculously raise Jesus bodily, yet is somehow not impressed enough with the historical data to agree that this same rabbi at least taught about his signal importance to Jews as Jews. Or to suppose that, if perhaps Jesus did teach this (and his immediate followers after him, resulting in the content of the NT texts), maybe he was just wrong about that and God possibly raised him anyway to be the savior (but not the messiah??) of only the Gentiles instead.

PL is, admittedly, willing to pop his far more 'liberal' Christian theological peers on the head, about how rejecting the resurrection of Jesus is "sawing off the branch of faith upon which they are sitting" (as the article quotes him). But to paraphrase C. S. Lewis: it must look very strange, even (maybe especially) to liberal scholars, for PL to swallow the textual gnat of the Resurrection while straining out the textual camel of Jesus' relevance to Jews.


[Hindsight epilogue: but since PL's book has long been translated into English--thanks ever so much for not updating your article, Time, {wry g}--I guess we can find out! In order to apologize for not seeing the date stamp the first time, and to satisfy my curiosity, I have ordered a copy of the book.]

14 comments:

Just a comment tracking registration.

This idea that Jesus is OK for the Gentiles ... but, somehow not quite what Jews need ... and that Christianity is God's intended means to foster the love/worship of God amongst the Gentiles, is quite common amongst Jews.

The time article you linked to is dated May 7, 1979. You might be interested in Lapide’s book The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, translated by W. Linss, 1983. Lapide died in 1997.

Anon,

Huh!! Sure enough! I have to admit, I totally missed the (tiny) dateline stamp in the upper left corner.

My bad; thanks for the update! I'll have to revise the article appropriately.

Until then, here is an Amazon link to an in-stock translation of the book. (It appears to be the 1983 translation by W. Linss.)

JRP

Okey-doke, the article has been updated now! As noted in the hindsight epilogue, I've ordered a copy of the book in order to satisfy my curiosity on several issues. My apologies again for not seeing the original datestamp; and my thanks to our Anonymous commenter again for pointing it out!

JRP

Ilíon,

That's true, but Prof. Lapide seems to take that line rather farther than I've heard about so far. At least, I've never heard it was common among Jews who believe Jesus was God's way of fostering love for Himself and for Jews, among Gentiles, to agree that God might even have really raised Jesus bodily from the dead for that purpose!


But hey, if that's common today too (and I just haven't heard about it, which I suppose is entirely possible), maybe that's thanks to Pinchas Lapide. {s!}

JRP

I *might* have read about Rabbi Lapide and/or his position, way back when; I don't recall.

But even the "more moderate line" than Rabbi Lapide takes/took doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, as I expect you already know.

A review of Lapide's book has been up at the CADRE website for years. It is one of many reviews about books on the resurrection of Jesus.

Chris,

Thanks for the link! But I notice that the review doesn't focus on the apologetic issues raised in my article. Which is understandable, since the question of why he's willing to at least accept the possibility of Jesus' bodily resurrection, and how he assesses the case for that pro and con, is also important; and more broadly applicable to apologetics.

But maybe the issues in my article are actually addressed in another book of his. (He wrote several.)


Il,

Well obviously I'm doubtful that PL's position about the non-importance of Jesus for Jews can be (much less is) even coherently (much less sufficiently) grounded.

But since I don't know (yet) what he specifically does along that line, all I can do is register preliminary problems I have with such attempts.

JRP

From my experience with Jewish commentators and friends, it is not uncommon for them to suggest that Jesus was God's way of bringing non-Jewish pagans into a beneficial monotheism. There are few specifics on how that plays out given that this monotheism is grounded on what is clearly blasphemy -- that Jesus, a man, is God and not just a prophet or righteous rabbi.

Lapide goes much further than most in accepting the resurrection, but the idea that Jesus was meant for gentiles but not for most Jews is not uncommon in at least more conservative Jewish circles.

Indeed, Layman. And that's a big part of what I was referring to ... given that, according to rabbinical Judaism, Christianity is based on a horrendous blasphemy, how can it possibly stand up to rational scrutiny to say that Christianity is God’s means to bring Gentiles into the fold of “ethical monotheism?”

I like that there are Jews in the world ... though I wish that they were also Christians.

I’m glad we Christians no longer imagine that a Jew converting to Christianity must cease to be a Jew … at the same time, it really annoys me that some Messianic Jews are essentially Judaizers in their Christianity. What? The nearly 2000 years of intellectual and spiritual development of Christianity since Christianity and rabbinic Judaism split is of no account, just because some of Jacobs sons have realized that their ancestors chose the incorrect branch?

AND I am *so* glad that my Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity didn't saddle their lineage with trying to keep halaka.

Indeed, Layman. And that's a big part of what I was referring to ... given that, according to rabbinical Judaism, Christianity is based on a horrendous blasphemy, how can it possibly stand up to rational scrutiny to say that Christianity is God’s means to bring Gentiles into the fold of “ethical monotheism?”

I used to have a friend who was an actual Rabbi, an orthodox Rabbi who "taught" at a temple, he was not a Messianich "wanna be" but an actuall jewish Rabbi, working among Jews. He believed Jesus was Messiah and he believed in the Trinity and he believed he understood the Trinity in a way that is very Jewish and that most Jews refuse to recognize but they will admit is Jewish when they see it in other contexts.

that's through the concept of Memra. What Ederhseim says about Memra is close to what he was telling me.

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