Tikva Frymer-Kensy, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer, eds.

Christianity in Jewish Terms 

(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001)

ISBN 0-8133-3780-1   hdbk 438 pp. $30

by Philip A. Cunningham

On September 10, 2000 four Jewish scholars, supported by the signatures of almost two hundred other Jewish leaders, published Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity in The New York Times and The Sun of Baltimore (see the previous issue of SIDIC, pp. 16-17). They urged Jews to respond thoughtfully to recent transformations in Christian teachings about Jews and Judaism and offered eight assertions about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

The same four authors, joined by David Fox Sandmel, have assembled this volume of scholarly essays to expand upon the ideas expressed in Dabru Emet. A companion volume entitled Irreconcilable Differences? A Learning Resource for Jews and Christians, that explores the same themes on a more popular level for congregational use, is expected this summer. Dabru Emet and the two attendant books represent what is likely the first broad-based Jewish engagement with the renewal in theological approaches to Judaism that is underway across many Christian communities. The entire project was conducted under the auspices of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

Christianity in Jewish Terms is addressed primarily to a Jewish readership, though the editors are aware that Christians will be reading the volume as well. They believe that Jews need to understand the languages and beliefs of their Christian neighbors, particularly in the light of the recent "dramatic and unprecedented shift of Jewish and Christian relations" (p. xi). The editors state in the preface that the book "is an effort to help Jews relearn the vocabulary of their own faith and then, with this vocabulary, to help them recognize and understand the main tenets of their [Christian] neighbors’ faiths" (p. xiii). Participants in interfaith dialogue, who typically report deeper insights into their own faith tradition as a result of their encounter with another religious heritage, will not be surprised that the editors are thus seeking to inform Jewish readers about Judaism as well as Christianity.

The bulk of the volume is devoted to an exploration of the topics of God, Scripture, Commandment, Israel, Worship, Suffering, Embodiment, Redemption, Sin and Repentance, and the Image of God. Each topic is introduced in a longer essay by a Jewish author and is followed by two shorter reflections by a second Jewish commentator and a Christian writer. There are also introductory and concluding essays that frame the collection, treating the nature of Jewish-Christian dialogue and the history and future of the communities’ relationship.

It is inevitable that there will be some variation in the quality of essays submitted by thirty-two contributors. Some are more successful than others in applying in reverse the principle articulated in 1974 by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews that Christians "must strive to learn by what essential traits Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience" (Guidelines, Prologue). Observing these efforts, one is struck anew by the difficulty of trying to express the deep convictions of a related but different religious heritage using the language of one’s own tradition. At the same time, it is clear that the attempt is rewarding and necessary, even if not is possible to achieve it perfectly.

A brief review of a collection of essays cannot properly explore all the themes raised in the book. Therefore, I will mention only two recurring theological topics that personally struck me as significant. First, it was noteworthy that at least a fourth of the essays referred to the Christian doctrine of original sin as an important separation between the two religions. The great diversity in Christian theological anthropology makes it important to identify which Christian denomination is being discussed. Moreover, any sustained exploration of the subject ought to distinguish between original sin and "the Fall." There are ways of understanding the former in socio-cultural terms that avoid the exegetically difficult ontological claims of the latter. Finally, some deeper conversation on the relationships among the Jewish traditions of the yetzer hara / yetzer hatov and Christian understandings of free will and original sin would have been helpful. Be that as it may, it is clear that Genesis 2:4b-4:16 is a text of surpassing importance for future Christian-Jewish theological dialogues.

Second, a number of essays referred to Paul’s olive tree metaphor in Romans 11. Some claimed that its freedom from supersessionism should set the pattern for Church thinking today. This approach needs refinement. Paul does not seem to think that his metaphoric olive tree is Israel per se, but rather is "a remnant [of Israel] chosen by the grace of God" (Rom. 11:4). The root supporting the wild Gentile branches are Jewish members of the Church, such as Paul himself. Jews outside the Church, the broken-off branches, while not eternally fallen are in a sort of "theological limbo," to use Daniel Harrington’s expression,1 until the time after the "full number of the Gentiles enter in" when "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:25-26). Paul thus understands Jewish faith in Christ as superseding that which preceded it. Given the intervening two millennia and our very different eschatological horizons this is a conclusion that should not be mindlessly reiterated today (as was made clear by Nostra Aetate §4’s actualization of Paul’s words). However, there are some hermeneutical complexities in the Jewish-Christian relationship that occasionally the book’s essays do not adequately address.

Such fine points aside, there can be no doubt that this is an important book. Perhaps over time it will even be looked upon as the historic beginning of unprecedented Jewish and Christian mutual theological enrichment. Everyone concerned about Christian-Jewish relations should study it.

1. Daniel J. Harrington, Paul on the Mystery of Israel (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1992), pp. 55, 81, 90-91.

[This review appeared in SIDIC Review 34/1 (2001):28-29. Posted with permission.]