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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

Yoder and Boyarin: The Jewish-Christian Border Lines

Over the last few decades, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism has been transforming - and transforming in a decidedly noticeable manner. Following the Holocaust, a reconciliatory mindset on the side of Christians arose to oppose and, for the most part, gradually replace the hostility that previously existed. Nostra Aetate, one of three declarations released by the Second Vatican Council during its Fourth Period (Autumn 1965), is a prime example. The document, meaning 'in our age,' is concerned with current relations between the Catholic Church and non-Christians, such as Buddhists, Muslims, and, most pertinent for our case, Jews. In it, Jews are recognised as having a significant 'spiritual patrimony' with Christians, and as being held by God as 'most dear for the sake of their Fathers.'1 Thus, Nostra Aetate puts forward to 'foster and recommend . . . mutual understanding and respect,' declaring such to be 'the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies as well as brotherly dialogues.'2 This statement is a stark contrast to the fourth century priest John Chrysostom, who, in his first homily of eight, collectively known as Kata Ioudaion (Against Jews), declared that not only do 'demons dwell in the synagogue' but 'also in the souls of the Jews.'3 In addition to these drastic statements, John Chrysostom is attributed by some to be one of the driving forces which furthered the accusations of deicide made towards the Jewish people. His constant paralleling of the Jewish people with demons makes the modern reader decidedly uncomfortable; moreover, he ensures to his listeners that they know the Jews are evil and 'God-slayers' by incessantly stating so.4

Such anti-semitic sentiments ran rampant throughout the early and middle years of Christianity; the often dangerous notion of supersessionism has historically been widely held, and without a doubt is still being claimed today. To be sure, the reconciliatory Nostra Aetate manages to subtly slip in the belief that 'the Church is the new people of God' even in the midst of protecting the Jews from being presented as 'repudiated or cursed by God.'5 Yet, in the midst of this Jewish-Christian dichotomy comes a rise of more and more voices acknowledging the common heritage shared between the two faith communities. Accordingly, a renewed interest in Jesus' Jewishness - which inexorably produces the recognition of Christianity's own initial Jewishness - has become increasingly pursued and in many cases unmistakably relevant. As a result of these explorations in the somewhat uncharted (or at least little-charted) theological territory, questions concerning the fracturing between Messianic Jews and non-Messianic Jews have inevitably been triggered. Was Jesus of Nazareth in fact rejecting the ways of Judaism and thereby creating a new faith system? Are modern Christians painfully mistaken in dichotomising the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek Scriptures as Old and New Covenants? How did this particular Jewish movement become completely marginalised when others have continued as Jews? How long did it take before Christians were perceived as separate from Jews? What was the ultimate cause that divorced Christianity from Judaism? Did Jews and Christians have to become rival forces?

Playing on the logical principle of tertium non datur - 'there is no third'6 - John Howard Yoder proposes, in regards to the parting of Jews and Christians, tertium datur - that is, 'there is a third.' Simply put, Yoder argues in his posthumously published book, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, that the wedge driven between Judaism and Christianity historically did not in fact have to occur - that the modern binary conception of 'Jews' and 'Christians,' per se, is not the necessary end result of Jesus of Nazareth's coming. Moreover, the schismatic event was not any one particular episode, but instead took place over the course of nearly two centuries, involving a variety of factors. The provocation of tertium datur is Yoder's way of introducing the immersion of Christianity in Judaic history, theology and practice that today goes too much unnoticed - it is the means by which Yoder argues a way that is not plural, but is instead singular; a way that embraces not only the common heritage between Christianity and Judaism, but also raises the issue of Jewish-Christianity.

Throughout approximately the first half of his book, Yoder examines the relationship between Jews and Christians, drawing on insights from his experience as a Mennonite theologian and ethicist. His first chapter, 'It Did Not Have to Be,' is most telling, packed with a great deal of mental fodder and serving to establish a broad foundation upon which he attempts to build his argument. His first point is especially beneficial, and is a theme which is not only emphasised by being stated as the title of the chapter, but is also a theme that pervades the entire book: 'If God's purpose might have been to offer a different future from the one which actually came to be, then we do not do total justice to God's intent in the story by reading it as if the outcome he did not want, but which did happen, had to happen.'7 This is a crucial point for Yoder's tertium datur; history seen through this lens is not predetermined, but is instead intended and therefore contains the potential to turn out differently than the way it may have been sought. Said differently, nothing had to be the way it was - even when it comes to events such as the American Revolution, World War One, and Auschwitz.8 This notion is ostensibly a Jewish one, insofar as it posits human action as the determining factor in the movement of history, thereby placing blame for the painful misconduct and sordid misdirection of humanity's global as well as local past square upon humanity's own shoulders - seeing God then as the comforter and corrector.

  1. Walter M Abbot, S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II, trans. Joseph Gallagher (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1966), 664.
  2. Ibid., 665.
  3. Wayne A Meeks and Robert L Wilken, Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978), 97.
  4. Ibid., 100.
  5. Abbot, Vatican II, 666.
  6. Thomas Mautner, The Penguin Dictionary of Philosopy, 2nd Ed. (Toronto, ON: Penguin Group, 2005), 613.
  7. John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, ed. Michael G Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2008), 47.