Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pressed: on the Fall of Jerusalem

One might well consider the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD to be a primarily Jewish event. But the circumstances of the time precluded it being solely a Jewish event, and its impact must resonate for Christians, at the very least, to the same degree to which the destruction of the Temple affected Jewish-Christian relations. One wonders how we might have regarded our mother faith if we had not been so externally separated from it. Titus might have failed, in destroying the Temple, to more completely abolish the Jewish and Christian religions, but one can say with little difficulty that he succeeded in further separating them.

That this occurred just as Christianity was trying to define itself and define its relations with Jews might indeed have set them on more swiftly diverging courses. Not only did this force Christians and Jews to physically relocate, it moved the center of the faith for both religions outward from Jerusalem – to the synagogues for Jews, to the Gentiles for the Christians. This meant Rabbis and Bishops as well as Mishna and written Gospels and Epistles placed in the hands of Jewish and Christian congregations alike.

Not that these developments were not parallel – one can readily see that they were – but that the similar developments in both faiths allowed them to become more different and distant over time. Jesus had once spent a lot of time critiquing the Temple system, one that was now forfeit. Even he didn’t argue with the synagogues, so one imagines the Christians finding new ways to occupy their time. Mishna might have continued commentary on the Torah, but Epistles favored commentary on the Gospels. Pauline proclamations of Christ’s sacrifice won out over Jesus’s own proclamations of the Kingdom of God prefigured in the Old Testament. Paul won out over Peter even as Christians claimed the Jewish God-fearers.

How does this affect us today? Well, we don’t circumcise, for starters; we don’t keep kosher, and we certainly don’t think that Leviticus is the center of the Pentateuch. Most of us wouldn’t recognize the Shema if we heard it, and we don’t list among our creeds anything about our ancestor being a nomad. The Kingdom of God is poorly understood, many believe that Grace replaces rather than fulfills the Law, and we are able to be more distantly sympathetic than intimately opposed to our Jewish associates.

Both Christians and Jews, for example, await the ingathering of the other at the end of days, because we are affiliated but believe each other simply to be mistaken. We agree that God is one but disagree on the culture in which one God might best be worshipped. This is not to say that there are not theological differences, but it is to say that Jews and Christians no longer spend their time debating the identity of Jesus as Messiah. We’re still certain that we’ve found him (though in a more abstract way) and many Jews, for all practical purposes, have stopped looking. The hottest of the hot buttons has very much cooled; I will tear this Temple down and rebuild it in three days is not the subject of much popular commentary.

Paradoxically, it seems to be the questions we have not yet settled that have most bitterly divided Christian and Jew, and those considered determined even in disagreement that have allowed our best inter-faith relations. That the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 AD helped to settle those disputes seems highly probable; that the desecration by Gentile armies of the holiest of Jewish holies might have actually helped decide that they would eventually relate to each other in better ways seems more surprising, but nonetheless fortuitous.

Benjamin Shank

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