Saturday, April 7, 2012

Among the Converts*

[The painting on the right is "The Procession to Calvary" by Peter Breughel the Elder. From afar it looks like an unremarkable village market day, until you look closer - click on the image - at the center of the crowd, where a man is hauling a cross in the direction of a distant hill on the upper right.]

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathered her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Matthew 23:37

The history of Christ is as surely poetry as it is history. And, in general, only that history is history which might also be fable.
Novalis, Aphorisms (Frederic H. Hedge, tr.)

In his great book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, V.S. Naipaul suggested that Islam is a religion of the Arabs, and for everyone else - Indians, Pakistanis, Bagladeshis, Malaysians, Indonesians, et al - a religion of conversion. In other words, the Quran is a book filled with messages and meanings that are valid only for the men who created it - the many social and moral teachings it advances have their origins in Arabic custom and cultural tradition. "There probably has been no imperialism," Naipaul wrote, "like that of Islam and the Arabs....Islam seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honor Arabia alone, they have nothing to return to."

Of course, Naipaul, an Anglo-Indian from Trinidad, provoked a great deal of controversy among the believers themselves - Muslim scholars, who were quick to refute his findings. Naipaul's defense was that he was simply reporting what he observed, without trying to impose an agenda. But what Naipaul's book does not assert is that Christianity is just as much a religion of conversion, that it is a religion that was radically re-designed when the people for whom it was intended - the Jews - rejected it, that in fact it requires a dual conversion, first to Judaism, without which it is meaningless.

Why else would the Christian Bible contain so much of the Tanakh if it were not to establish a context, both historical and prophetic, in which Jesus can be put forward as the Messiah? The Tanakh follows a trajectory that rabbinic writers gave it to establish a divine history - one that concludes in the Book of Chronicles with the restoration of the Jews in the Promised Land. Christianity had ultimately to alter the trajectory of Jewish history to accommodate the prophetic references to a Messiah and to establish Jesus as the logical candidate for that figure.

The conflict between Judaism and Christianity is one of the oldest and oddest in history. It started when a man claiming to be the Jewish Messiah was rejected by his people, accused of blasphemy and insurrection, handed over to the Romans and executed. The man's followers, who soon became known as Christians, then constructed a mythology about their dead leader, involving his resurrection from the dead, ascending into heaven and a promise to return at the end of days.(1) These followers were persecuted by both Romans and Jews until, in 73 CE, the Romans annexed Judea as a Roman province and expelled the Jews from their ancestral lands after brutally suppressing a Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. The Christians were then forced to prove to the Romans that they were not Jews and to invent pro-Roman, anti-Jewish propaganda explaining that it was the Jews who caused the death of Jesus. They also invented prophesies indicating the destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora.(2)

What all this necessitated was a radical redirection of Christian conversion away from Jews to non-Jews. Acts 13:46 makes this explicit:

It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you; but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.

But how was it possible for a Gentile, a non-Jew, to embrace the teachings of a man who professed to be the son of the Jewish God without first becoming a Jew? This problem clearly caused some controversy. Some Pharisees suggested the ritual conversion of Gentiles first to Judaism:

Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. (15:1) and That it was needful to keep the law of Moses. (15:5)

This was a thorny issue, particularly since it required Gentiles of whatever age to forsake their foreskins. Paul, who began his career as Saul, a Jewish persecutor of Christians, solved the problem:

In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. (Colossians 2:11)

The problem is, Judaism is not a religion of converts. You can no more convert to being a Jew than you can convert to being Chinese. The notion that a Gentile could be converted to Christianity without being introduced to the law of Moses is preposterous. Jesus was (incorrectly) tied to the house of David, as the scriptures prophesied. But who was David and what are the scriptures? The introduction to the law of Moses had to be a cursory one, because a more thorough one would lead inevitably to the discovery that every good Jew already knew: that Jesus was not the Messiah but a false prophet. A good Jew must deny Jesus. So a good Christian is a failed Jew.

The scattering of the Jews should have been the end of the conflict between Christians and Jews. But the rise of a Roman general named Constantine to Roman emperor in 306 CE, and the establishment of Christianity as Rome's official religion resurrected all the old enmity, wherever Christians and Jews found themselves in direct contact. The persistence of Judaism was, among other things, an embarrassment to Christianity. The presence of the people for whom Jesus was born, lived and died in vain in the midst of Christians meant that questions about the legitimacy of Christianity would persist.

Some movie critics who took offense to the apparent anti-Jewish slant of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ were rather disingenuously informed by Gibson that he was merely following the gospel of Matthew, which is notorious for its sometimes hysterical incrimination of the Jews in the death of Jesus. Why did Matthew go to such lengths to vilify the Jews? The short answer is because the Jews rejected Jesus's claims that he was the Messiah. They had seen enough false prophets by the time Jesus arrived on the scene and both his credentials and his message were considered suspect. He didn't fit the profile of the Messiah. But the Jews quickly became enemies of the Roman state, and by calling themselves "Christians", the followers of Jesus managed to persuade the Romans that they were not simply a sect of Judaism.

After the Second World War, Pope Pius XII was criticized for not doing enough to help Jews to hide and escape from the German Gestapo. But the number of "pogroms" that the Roman Catholic Church had either presided over or stood by and watched in its history, not to mention the Holy Inquisition itself, must be countless. Surely a pope can be forgiven for taking the long view?

In fact, when seen from the Jewish perspective, the Holocaust is not an historical anomaly. It was only one phase - albeit the last - of an historical process. In the film Shoah, the Jewish scholar Raul Hilberg makes a chilling statement:

From the earliest days, 4th century, 5th century, 6th century, the missionaries of Christianity had said, in effect, to the Jews, "You may not live among us as Jews." The secular rulers who followed them from the Late Middle Ages had then decided, "You cannot live among us." The Nazis finally decreed, "You may not live."

(1) This return was believed to be imminent - see Mark 9:1.
(2) A Greek word, διασπορά, meaning "scattering" or "dispersion".

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