[World Council of Churches] Dialogue with Judaism challenges Christians to think more deeply about their own identity and faith, according to panelists at a forum during the German Protestant Kirchentag, a church convention that brought almost 100,000 people to the city of Stuttgart.
The Kirchentag forum on 5 June took place under the title “Who is the people?”, a reference to Jews and Christians each seeing themselves as God’s people.
In an opening address, US Jewish scholar Mark Nanos urged Christians to reassess their views about the role of St Paul, who according to the New Testament spread the message of Jesus after an experience on the road to Damascus.
Prevailing perspectives approach Paul “as one who converted from Judaism to join a new religion, Christianity, and become its most famous missionary,” said Nanos, of the University of Kansas. But Nanos said he believed Paul remained within Judaism, and wrote from that perspective.
“He was not only from a Jewish ethnic and religious background, but, I believe, continued to practise Judaism, and moreover, he continued to promote it,” said Nanos, expounding his standpoint using examples from Paul’s letters in the New Testament.
Some people might find such an assertion inconceivable, Nanos acknowledged. However, he added, many New Testament scholars now accept that the descriptions “Christian” and “Christianity” did not exist at the time of Paul but arose later.
Over time, differences emerged that led to Judaism and Christianity defining themselves as different religions. These were often turned into “warrants for discrimination”, Nanos said.
Against this background, central values propagated by Paul in his letters came to be seen as Christian and as being in opposition to Jewish thought and practice.
However, “The ideal of living graciously towards those who are different from ourselves, of extending welcome, of living for instead of against them, are principles central to Judaism,” said Nanos. “When Paul is read in a Jewish way: are these not programmatic principles from which we can all learn, that we should all embrace?”
Another panelist, Claudia Janssen, a New Testament professor at Marburg University, warned that when Christians say they are the “people of God”, they risk excluding those of Jewish faith.
Clare Amos*, programme executive for interreligious dialogue of the World Council of Churches (WCC), described the Christian-Jewish relationship “as a sort of prism” which could offer perspectives for wider Christian interreligious encounter.
She referred to a recent WCC study, “Who do say that we are? Christian self-understanding in a multi-religious world”, which explored how dialogue with people of other faiths may challenge, alter or deepen Christians’ own faith and identity.
The study emphasized “that it is in dialogue and mutual questioning with people of other faiths, including Judaism, that we come to understand ourselves more fully”, Amos said.
The study also described the relations with the Jewish people as “a very special and particular dimension of Christian interreligious engagement”.
The rethinking and new self-understanding of Christianity in its relations with Judaism, especially since the mid-20th century, the study suggested, could offer perspectives for how Christians see their own identity in relation to other faiths.
Yohanna Katanacho, dean of the Bethlehem Bible College, said that as a Palestinian with a second class status, he approached the issue with a different perspective to other panelists.
“Judaism is a faith community that has many facets,” he said. “I am sad that many Jewish Israelis discriminate against Palestinian Christians.”
Nanos was addressing Christians who need to relate in a new and better way to Jews, Katanacho said. But, he asked, “Can this new interpretation of Paul help both Palestinians and Israeli Jews move towards peace for me?”
*Claire Amos has served as the Anglican Communion’s Director of Theological Studies and coordinated the Network for Inter-Faith Concerns.