Truths in the undergrowth

A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations

December 8, 2006

For complex reasons, a change has overcome the relations between Jew and Christian in the past 100 years or so. It has been a massive shift, marked by the acceptance by the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (Vatican II) of the validity of the covenant with the Jewish people and of the independent (rather than merely preparatory) force, even authority, of Jewish traditions of biblical exegesis, and then by developments in Jewish history, among them the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the response of Jewish thinkers to the condition of the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In 2000, for example, a group of American Jewish scholars issued a statement, Dabru emet ("Speak truth"), laying out the grounds of a Jewish view of Christianity.

This dictionary is the first attempt of its kind to take stock of this shift, and it does so in the light of the entire span of Jewish-Christian relations. The subject matter does not stop at dialogue, or at the content of the two faiths, but, bolder than this, it hopes to cover 2,000 years of Jewish-Christian encounter.

More than a few times, the articles dash off, like a dog unleashed by his master, into the undergrowth away from the main path, then find their way back with reassuring suddenness.

In this they resemble history tout court . Only by getting outside the obviously Jewish-Christian is it possible to say anything true to life about, for example, the distinct national versions of anti-Semitism. How far and how is anti-Semitism bound up with the quest for national identity itself? (See "Literature, English", "Literature, French" and so on.) If the breadth and newness of what is being said means something tentative in the tone, coherence always finds its way out of the undergrowth and back to the problem of encounter. And this method allows the dictionary to touch lightly but repeatedly on a peculiarly urgent truth of the time we are in, that religion has to do (above all?) with relations between religions.

This is a volume for everyone. There are 700 articles. In them, a lightness fitting to often thorny material comes of clear prose written by scholars who know when enough has been said (for the time being). The editorial hands have worked with deftness. The bibliography is at the back, and this will mean the book is read more as a collection of intercommunicating essays than for information. An entry such as the one on Dura Europos (in Syria) is highly suggestive on figural art as an aspect of early synagogue and church, but a reader will go elsewhere for a bibliography.

One great theme that goes into and comes out of of hiding across the entries is that of the need of a third term in any dialogue. In the history of Jew and Christian and their attempts to speak with one another, this middle ground can be a desolate place. It is the sadness of the aftermath of Shoah, which, however, by laying waste any easy assumptions on both sides, might have made possible a new, halting conversation (see "Death of God theology" and "Holocaust theology").

Philosophy has long occupied a place such as this, through its sceptical power to render knowing provisional, thus to throw the certitude of faiths into relief while offering belief a kind of ante-chamber of promise, which for some is also the space of (mystical) desire (see "Mysticism", "Pico della Mirandola", "Enlightenment", "Buber" and so on). This absorbing volume provokes such musings and countless others besides.

Peter Cramer is assistant master at Winchester College.

A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations

Editor - Edward Kessler and Neil Wenborn
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 507
Price - £120.00
ISBN - 0 521 82692 6

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