Old and New Covenant: Reconsideration

This previous semester at Northwest University, I observed a consistency among fellow students and my professors. In discussion of the New Testament and issues relating to the Sinai covenant to Jesus’ covenant, the entirety of covenant in the Hebrew Bible was often simply described as the “Old Covenant”. Such a basic and non-fluid dichotomy, one which attempts to systematize a fluid and dynamic biblical theology, fails to recognize the complexities of covenant within the Hebrew Bible. Covenant is not restricted to the Sinai covenant; rather, it includes God’s covenant to David, Abraham, and the whole of creation. While professors likely grasp the complexity of a simplified term like “Old Covenant”, do the students understand those complexities?

I would guess not. Unfortunately this sort of simplicity is often presented in classes, without discussion of what “covenant” completely encompasses and the relational aspects of the term. Perhaps this should become something more students and scholars actively consider as they develop their understandings and interpretations of the Bible, Hebrew Bible and New Testament alike. Such a movement would hopefully inspire students to more thoughtfully consider how they understand Israel, creation, and various leaders within the Hebrew Bible. Additionally, it would provide for more dynamic and in-depth Jewish-Christian dialogue by encouraging Christians to broaden their understandings of what, throughout the Bible, defines covenant.

From Death to Life

Of the multiple papers presented at the Society of Biblical Literature Conference, one of the most outstanding to me was by a lady, whose name I cannot recall, that drew out the concept of resurrection within Job. Upon referencing Job 19:26, a passage commonly used within the 1st four centuries as a prophetic text for Jesus’ resurrection, she explored how it was the root of the concept of resurrection which developed rapidly within the 2nd Temple Period. One nuance of Job, which I do wish she’d spent more time explicating, was that the concept of moving from death to life within the book takes place within life. Why does this matter?

In essence, reading the concept of resurrection within one’s life permits for a more practical hope to be held. Rather than simply pushing hope to be the resurrection after one has died, the hope for resurrection from death is permitted to take place in this life, not another. Essentially, it allows people to participate more practically in the Job narrative and join Job in his journey to understanding the nuances of life: how does one move from a living death to a living life?

Of course, while these concepts are utilized within the New Testament beyond this life, that does not nullify an understanding of resurrection within this life. Expansion of how we define resurrection, especially for Christians, beyond a postmortem occurrence may very well open up doors to encourage, build, and change the world in even greater ways. It offers hope to people who live now rather than forcing them to take upon themselves the pessimistic weight of Ecclesiastes as their life.

And, most importantly, an expanded understanding of resurrection, from death to life, permits more successful Jewish-Christian dialogue, which may well lead to a unity of the two traditions to move together towards the healing of the world.

The Christian “Oral Torah”

Recently, Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein visited Northwest University. I had the honor of speaking with him for an hour or so about a variety of topics including, but not limited to, Oral Torah, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and creation theology. Amongst the many things which caught my attention, there was one thought he expressed which I thoroughly appreciated. In essence, he said that Jews are unique in that they’ve thought through their theology and recognize the source of their traditions. For Jews, that is the Oral Torah, which is the framework of traditions by which they interpret the Written Torah.

Attending a protestant Christian University, I have often witnessed people who operate from a stance of sola scriptura. Many people I know often understand their traditions as something which originated in the Pentecostal movement of the early 1900’s or in the reformations of the 16th century. Unfortunately, though, people aren’t always able to, or willing to, recognize that they to, just as Jews, have a sort of “Oral Torah”. By “Oral Torah”, I really mean the foundations and environment in which the Church traditions were formulated, which vary significantly and are not completely linear. Foundations of Christian tradition are present in theologians like Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and, really, any other theologian from the past 1900 years who has dialogued with the Church and made any impact, positive or negative. This lack of recognition is often realized in people not being aware of why they think or how they think. In their minds, their framework is simply the Holy Spirit and some biblical interpretation of the 1st century context of the New Testament, or the 4th century BCE context of the Hebrew Bible.

In reality, if Christians truly do hope to dialogue with others and better understand their own beliefs within a contemporary society, it is absolutely necessary to recognize the “Oral Torah” of Christianity, those elements which shaped Christianity into what it is today.

The Truth About Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Growing up, my church never addressed the issue of Judaism’s history and how it regarded Christianity. As I began to explore how Judaism and Christianity were related, much of what I came across often claimed that Judaism had no connection to Christianity after the 1st century. That is false. In chapter 4 of “Christianity In Jewish Terms”, David Ellenson explores the Jewish view of the Christian God. While it is clear that many of the earliest Rabbinic writings were polemic against Christianity, as Judaism and Christianity developed parallel to each other over 1200 years, the 12th century records an moment of relationship between Christianity and Judaism. 12th century Rabbi Isaac spoke of Christianity as follows:

“Although [Christians] mention the name of Heaven, meaning thereby Jesus of Nazareth, they do not at all events mention a strange deity, and moreover, they mean thereby the Maker of Heaven and Earth too; and despite the fact that they associate the name of Heaven with an alien deity, we do not find that it is forbidden to cause Gentiles to make such an association…” (Christianity In Jewish Terms, 73).

There were strands of 12th century Judaism that accepted Christianity as being, in some sense, orthodox. Commenting on Rabbi Manechem’s stance on Christianity (1300’s), historian Jacob Katz states that Christians “recognize the Godhead” and “believe in God’s existence, His unity, and power, although they misconceive some points according to our belief” (Christianity In Jewish Terms, 74). Katz continues by pointing out that Rabbi Menachem believed Christians should not be included in the category of idolatrous.

Why does this matter? Even if Christianity and Judaism are unable to completely reconcile beliefs and the differences in beliefs, it is clear that they are not distinct to point of complete separation. Acknowledgement of this closeness is essential because, although Rabbinic Judaism is quite different from 1st century Judaism, Judaism does help to illuminate Jesus’ works in the Gospels and the words of the epistles. This reconciliation towards peace between Christians and Jews also allows both groups to complete what they are called to do: work for the healing of the world.