Tied by pain and prejudice

Bound by the Bible
December 9, 2005

The stereotype of Judaism held by many Christians, even those of goodwill, is that Judaism stopped when Christianity began. Obviously, there continued to be Jews, but the Judaism they practised was for ever after the one that Jesus had rejected. Jews had originally been God's chosen people but were so no longer. God had rejected Jews because Jews had rejected Jesus - minimally by refusing to accept him as the true Jewish Messiah, maximally by killing him. True, Jesus had been born a Jew, but his teachings and deeds, such as healing on the Sabbath, constituted a rejection of his boyhood religion.

Above all, Jesus's conception of the Messiah turned the traditional Jewish, specifically Pharisaic, conception on its head. Where Jews had believed that the Messiah, descended from King David, would be a military hero à la David and would lead his people to permanent victory over all oppressors, Jesus's death and rebirth, not his military prowess, defined his Messiahship.

Moreover, his Messiahship was on behalf of all humanity, not merely fellow Jews. Put summarily, the sacred scripture of Jews had been succeeded by the New Testament, so that the Hebrew Bible was now designated the Old Testament.

It is against this background that Edward Kessler, the founder and executive director of the Cambridge Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, has written Bound by the Bible . Kessler seeks to abet mutual understanding on the part of Jews and Christians by uncovering more of their common biblical heritage. He begins by tracing the increasing recognition on the part of Christians, and of Jews as well, of the Jewish origins of Christianity. He stresses that contemporary scholars such as Geza Vermes have stressed the Jewishness of Jesus, especially the similarities between Jesus's teachings and those of the Pharisees, who had conventionally been deemed the group of Jews pitted most strongly against Jesus.

Kessler proceeds to focus on a biblical story that has been enlisted by Jews and Christians alike to bolster their theologies: that of the sacrifice, or near-sacrifice, of Isaac by his father, Abraham (Genesis xxii, 1-12). As Kessler explains, Abraham's willingness to kill his own son has been taken by Jews to symbolise the devotion of Jews to God, and God's delight in Abraham's obedience has been taken as justification for the chosenness of Jews. Isaac has been taken as a symbol of the willingness of Jews to suffer for their faith.

In turn, Abraham's willingness to follow God's commandment without question has been taken by Christians to evince true faith, and the sacrifice of the innocent Isaac has been taken as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus.

Kessler's contribution is to show how Christian interpretations of the story were influenced by Jewish ones and, even more strikingly, how Jewish interpretations were influenced by Christian ones. Kessler's aim is twofold: to show that Judaism was a living tradition and to show that Jews and Christians actually incorporated each other's interpretations in their own exegeses.

For example, he shows that the rabbis emphasised Isaac's readiness to die, suffering, actual death and resurrection - all clearcut aspects of Christian influence.

The irony is that the influence of Jews and Christians on each other in no way diminished their mutual antipathy. Thus, Christians downplayed Isaac's self-sacrifice and contrasted it to Jesus's. As heartfelt as Kessler's excellent study is, it hardly fosters ecumenism.

Robert A. Segal is professor of theories of religion, Lancaster University.

Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians and the Sacrifice of Isaac

Author - Edward Kessler
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 222
Price - £45.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 83542 9 and 54313 4

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