Moving on from reproach to rapprochement
By Geza Vermes
Israel’s state visit to the Vatican is a challenge to faith leaders
NEXT Thursday the son of the caretaker of a Jewish school in Tehran will pay a state visit to the son of a Bavarian policeman. In plain language, Moshe Katsav, President of Israel, will be received amid pomp and ceremony in the Vatican by Pope Benedict XVI.
This event leads him to reflect on the history of relations between Jews and Christians, which has not always been constructive, to say the least. He has some advice for both:
Jews will have to stop being afraid of Jesus and treating Him as taboo. When we look at Him through the prism of history, rather than theology, and in the light of all the freshly gained knowledge of the world in which He lived, He reveals Himself as Jesus the Jew, who in the judgment of Martin Buber, one of the greatest modern Jewish thinkers, deserves an “important place in the religious history of Israel”.
The task Christians have to confront is, if anything, even more challenging. They must face up to the fact that the image of Jesus and the formulation of His message have come down to the Church not in their original language — they were delivered to simple Aramaic-speaking Galilean Jews — but in a culturally alien language (Greek) and in a form adapted to the needs of Hellenised non-Jews of Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. The saying, Traduttore traditore (a translator is a traitor), applies not just to texts but to the transmission of religious ideas as well.
Christians will need to discover the Jewish meaning of the authentic message preached and practised by Jesus and a way to apply it to their own circumstances today. Take His command to behave like children of God. Jesus does not advocate childishness, a lack of self-confidence and a constant demand for help and mediation — from priests, saints, the Virgin Mary or even from Himself — but recommends His own Jewish notion of a son of God, which entails boundless trust in the heavenly Father who can be reached directly by all his children. Such an outlook may turn out to be more exciting than the humdrum doctrine which churchgoers quite often hear from the pulpit.
During the past three decades, scholars on both the Jewish and the Christian sides have made great advances in clearing the path for a new understanding of Jesus and His gospel. Will Christian leaders and teachers of today and tomorrow be lion-hearted enough to come to grips with the challenge that beckons?
Let's hope so.