Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

1980-04-28 (1) German Bishops Conference - The Church and the Jews

The Church and the Jews
German Bishop's
Conference, Bonn 1980
(English translation by Phil Jenkins) 

I. Jesus Christ - Our Approach to Judaism

He who encounters Jesus Christ encounters Judaism. According to the evidence of the New Testament he, as 'son of David' (Rom. 1:3) and 'son of Abraham' (Mt. 1:1; cf. Heb. 7:14) and 'of their flesh' (Rom. 9:5), was descended from the People of Israel. 'When the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law' (Gal. 4:4). According to his human nature, Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew; he stemmed from Judaism. According to his ancestry, he has a place in the history of the people of Israel (cf. the genealogy of Jesus Mt. 1:1-17 and Lk. 3:23-38).

Today Jewish authors too, are discovering the 'Jewishness' of Jesus. Martin Buber saw in Jesus his 'big brother'.1 Schalom Ben-Chorin acknowledges: 'Jesus is for me the eternal brother, not only a human brother, but also my Jewish brother. I feel his brotherly hand which grasps me, so that I should follow him...His faith, his unquestioning faith, absolute trust in God the Father, readiness to submit himself completely to the will of God, that is the attitude that we see in Jesus as an example, and which can bind us-Jews and Christians .2

II. Israel's Spiritual Heritage

Jesus Christ, through his Jewish Origin, brought a rich spiritual heritage from the religious traditions of hip people into the Christian faith, so that Christ, is 'spiritually bound to the tribe of Abraham'3 and perpetually draws on this heritage.

1. Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament

First, one points to the Scriptures of Israel, called by Christians the 'Old Testament' (that is, The Hebrew Bible). When the New Testament speaks of 'Scripture' or 'the Scriptures' or refers to that which is 'written' (cf., for example, Mt. 4:6; Mk 1:2; Lk. 24:44-46; Jn 19:36f.; 1 Cor. 15:3f; 2 Cor. 4:13; Gal. 3:10-13), it is referring to the Old Testament. The Second Vatican Council teaches: 'God, with loving concern contemplating and making preparation for the salvation of the whole human race, in a singular undertaking chose for himself a people to whom he would entrust his promises...The story of salvation, foretold, recounted and explained by the sacred authors, is presented as the true Word of God in the books of the Old Testament.4 The Old Testament is a source of belief common to Jews and Christians, although for Christians the New Testament has become a special source of belief. In the Old Testament the God of Revelation speaks, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is also the God of Jesus. In addition, the Vatican 'Guidelines' on the implementation of Nostra Aetate (N. 4), issued 1 December 1974 states: 'An effort will be made to acquire a better understanding of whatever in the Old Testament retains its own perpetual value, since that has not been cancelled by the later interpretation of the New Testament. Rather, there is a reciprocal elucidation and interpretation.5 One must not contrast the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded on it with the New Testament in such a way that the Old Testament appears to embody a religion of Justice, Fear and Law without the call to love God and one's neighbour (cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:3440).6 The Church has rightly constantly refused all attempts aimed at removing the Old Testament from its scriptural canon and leave only the New Testament.

2. Belief in One God

The Hebrew Bible testifies above all to the one God: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One!' (Deut. 6:4). This sentence is the 'credo' of the Jewish religion that is recited at family prayers, morning and evening as it is in the Synagogue service. To the question of the Scribes, 'Which is the first of all the commandments?' Jesus answered: 'The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength" '(Mk 12:29f.). The council teaches: God, 'did acquire a people for himself, and to them he revealed himself through word and deed as the one true living God, so that Israel might experience the ways of God with men, and that through the word of God out of the mouths of prophets they had to understand his ways more clearly and more fully, and make them known more widely among the nations (cf. Ps. 21:28f.; 95:1-3; Is 2:1-4; Jer. 3:17)''

3. Belief in the Creation

This one God is also the Creator of the whole world. With classic precision, that is immediately expressed in the first verse of the Bible: 'In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth' (Gen. 1:1). These words maintain the idea that the Creator and creation are not identical or interchangeable. They prevent a worldly idolatry, although Israel has, through her fascinating, thorough system, seen and extolled the world in her prayers. They protect the mind of man from the gnostic-neoplatonic interpretation of the world according to which the world was not created by God but emanates from Him, and guards it from that idealistic philosophy according to which the history of the universe is a self-development of God. Through Jesus and the Church the message of creation in the Old Testament came to the people of the world. It helps to acquire the right relationship to the world.

4. Man Is God's Image

Of particular significance today is the teaching of the Hebrew Bible that man is made 'in the image of God'. 'Then God said, "Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild beasts and all the reptiles that crawl upon earth." God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them' (Gen. 1:26f.). 'God made man imperishable and made him in the image of his own nature' (Wis. 2:23). The precept of man's image in God implies the incontestable dignity of man, and thereby also what man calls today 'human rights'. According to Jewish teaching, one who kills diminishes his likeness in the image of God.8 One may not despise his neighbour, because he is made in the image of God.9 The Lord created man with his own hands and made him in the likeness of his own countenance . . . He who despises the countenance of man, despises the countenance of the Lord!10- The letter of James, taken entirely from this belief of Judaism, puts it thus: 'We use it [the tongue] to bless the Lord, but we also use it to curse men who are made in God's image' (Js. 3:9).

5. Covenant

Israel knows that it has made a covenant with its God. This covenant is grace, and, at the same time, commitment. The demands of the covenant are aimed at the exclusive veneration of Yahweh through Israel. The 'rule of the covenant' reads: 'You will be my people, I will be your God.' The prophets warn their people about breaching the covenant.

The Hebrew Bible tells, too, of a former covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen. 15), where God gives to Abraham the sworn pledge of the fulfillment of the Promised Land; and, again, with Noah (cf. Gen. 9:9-17). The picture of salvation, in which the covenant with Noah is involved, is all-embracing, in that it refers to the whole 'earth' (Gen. 9:13), to 'all living creatures, (Gen. 9:10-12, 15, 16), to 'every living creature of every kind that is found on the earth' (Gen. 9:16f.) including the animal kingdom (Gen. 9:10). So it means that 'the history of nature and mankind is based on God's approval of his creation. God's approval of all life, so that neither through any catastrophe in the course of history, nor...through lapse, corruption or rebellion of man, can it be upset. God's promise will continue as strong as iron as long as earth exists11 I God will save the world, even if the earth is once again 'defiled under its inhabitants' feet, for they have transgressed the law, violated the precept, broken the everlasting covenant' (Is. 24:5). God fulfils that which was promised in the covenant with Noah, which he concluded with the whole world, with all mankind.

The guarantor for the final fulfillment of the obligation of the covenant is the 'Divine Servant' whom God selects, in person, to be 'the covenant of my people' and at the same time 'the light of the nations' (Is. 42:6). According to Christian belief, he has appeared in Jesus Christ, whose blood, shed on the Cross, clearly refers to the 'blood of the covenant shed for many (Mk 14:24; Mt 26:28) as does the Chalice offered by him as the 'new covenant in my blood' (Lk. 22:20: 1 Cor. 11:25). Jesus makes use of this concept of Jewish tradition for the interpretation of his death. Salvation manifests itself as a covenant into which God has entered as a permanent act of faith with Israel and the whole world, a "covenant" that God will not forget his creation. The Creator is also the Redeemer (cf. Is. 54:5).

6. Commandments and Conscience

What the pious Jew holds particularly dear to this day is a life conforming to God's doctrine, called in Hebrew, 'Torah'. This 'doctrine' governs the everyday life of Jews before God. The core of the 'doctrine' is the Ten Commandments. Jesus, too, plainly accepted the commandments (cf. Mk 10:19). The 'Ten Words', as they are called in the Old Testament, mark the standard for the conscience of all mankind, not only the Jews. They are the embodiment of the ethical awareness of the human race. According to the Apostle Paul, they are 'by nature' 'written in the hearts [of all men]'-'they can call a witness, that is, their own conscience-they have accusation and defense, (Rom. 2:14f.). They are defined in positive phrases, and without their observation there is no true community life nor true relationship with God. The experience of history teaches that without a conscience based on God's precepts man becomes a beast. Opportunity for tyranny, dictatorship, loss of freedom and personal enmity is great. The commandments describe the spiritual order of man's behaviour; they are, therefore, indispensable for all time.

7. Messianic Hope

Messianic hope originates also in the Jewish religion. Its origins were already bound up in the Dynasty of David. Attention is drawn 2 Sam. 7:12-16: 'And when your days are ended and you are laid to rest with your ancestors, I will preserve the offspring of your body after you and make his sovereignty secure. It is he who shall build a house for my name, and I will make his royal throne for ever. I will be a father to him, and he a son to me...Your house and your sovereignty will always stand secure before me and your throne be established for ever.' The prophets of Israel established the Messianic hope time and again and bore witness to it in a distinct manner. If we ask what brought the Messianic tidings to mankind, three answers present themselves:

i. The Messianic idea springs from man's cyclic thought. The history of the world does not move in a circle, is not the endless return to the same point; the Messianic promise allows history to be judged.
ii. This movement of history towards a God-centred goal is a movement from disaster to salvation.
iii. The turning towards salvation will be brought by an ultimate Redeemer, who will be called the Messiah.

The Messianic hope came to the expectancies and hopes of the people, even if in a different form, through Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Church acknowledges and proclaims as the promised Messiah. In the first instance, Christian Messianism also wanted to be involved in a deep intensification of the relationship with God, so Jesus himself proclaimed his second coming at the end of time as an event that will concern the whole world: 'Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory' (Mk 13:26). The Apocalypse, in particular, understands the second coming of the Lord as a world event in which the 'Antichrist' is destroyed by the returning Messiah Jesus, and a new heaven and earth will be raised.

Messianism is more influential than ever in the world today, even if frequently in a secularised form. The world no longer wants to go in circles, it looks to the future and towards a goal. The Messianic Belief testifies to the future, because it proclaims a coming saviour for Israel and all people. Moreover, Messianic hope unites with a longing for a just world and for total peace for all mankind, announced by the prophets of Israel as a future salvation, although they often link this proclamation with a censure of the social abuses of their time. The New Testament pursues this line. Christ is proclaimed in it as the one appointed to be the judge of the whole world (Acts 17:31) and who came to bring peace to those who were far away, and to those who were near at hand, that is, to all men (Eph. 2:17). The Church waits, with Israel 'for a new heaven and a new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home' (2 Pet. 3:13). Jesus certainly warned too, of false messiahs, who deceive the people with their ideologies (cf. Mk 13:22). Messianism can be perverted. The Church should know that; 'You, therefore, must be on your guard. I have forewarned you of everything' (Mk 13:23).

8. Prayer

Devout Jews are a praying people, glorifying God. From the great Hebrew treasury of prayer the Church has taken, above all, the psalms, which play a great role in public worship and, in particular, in the prayer of the hours. The Lord's Prayer, too, the 'Our Father', modeled on the Jewish prayers of petition, is, much as it bears the stamp of the spirit of Jesus, marked out as special by the salutation, 'Father'. The devout Jew, too, calls for the coming of God's kingdom, desires the hallowing of 'the Name' and concerns himself with the fulfillment of God's will; he prays for his daily bread, the forgiveness of sins and preservation from temptation. The two great hymns of praise form the time of Jesus' childhood, which are used in the Liturgy, the 'Benedictus' (Lk. 1:68-79) and the 'Magnificat', (Lk. 1:46-55), abound with words and phrases from the Old Testament.

9. Attitude to God

Israel's basic attitude before God, as shown in Awe of God, Obedience, Recognition of God, Conversion, 'Commemoration', Love, Trust, Holiness, Praise of God and his holy deeds,12 are also basic attitudes of the Christian community; they are not 'discoveries' of the Church, but belong to the spiritual dowry of Israel to the Church, which she in her mission passes on again to all people, established anew and conclusively in Christ.

10. Exodus, Passover, the Passion, Law, Resurrection

From the spiritual heritage of Israel one can quote those events in which the plan of God's salvation of man is an actual historical fact and can thus be shown. In particular, reference should be made to the following, which are linked: Exodus, Passover, the Passion, Judgement, Resurrection.

The Exodus is for Israel the crucial act of God's deliverance, time and again commemorated in the witness of the Scriptures.'' 'Exodus' means the deliverance out of Egypt's 'house of bondage'. 'We were Pharaoh's bondsmen in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us out therefrom with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Now if the Holy One, blessed be he, had not brought our fathers forth from Egypt, then we, and our children, and our children's children, would be servants to the Pharaoh in Egypt': so begins the answer in the communal Passover meal to the question of the youngest one present: 'Why is this night different from all others?'14 Exodus means wandering through the desert in Israel's most intense encounter with God and with the experience of his help. Exodus is finally and conclusively the march depicted in the arrival in the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants. The Exodus brought Israel the experience of life's bitterness, too: the experience (often self-imposed) of suffering and judgement, and, in this respect, the experience of suffering combined with the experience of salvation through God. For this reason Jewish tradition is aware of Exodus as a sign of hope and the final salvation through God in the Resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

The Exodus experience of his people is singularly mirrored in Jesus' departure from his native village of Nazareth and from his kin, in his travels, associated with suffering, through the land of Israel, in his way to Golgotha and the Cross, and also in his Resurrection from the dead and his glorification. 'In contrast with other people, the Jewish people do not commemorate the golden age of power, do not boast of a divine lineage, but recognise themselves as the people of bondage who experience God's redemption, and this brings the past into today's recompense and suffering,'15 The Jewish religion is 'a religion of remembrance'; the concept of 'recollection'; 'remembrance' plays a central role in Hebrew Scriptures. The Jewish Festivals are festivals of remembrance: in its festivals Israel commemorates God's salvation of his people and recalls in them this divine salvation to each generation. In no festival is that more clear than at the Passover, when the Jews commemorate the night when they were freed, and when at the same time, hope is awakened for the time when they finally will be free. In the Jewish festivals the three dimensions of salvation, the Past, Present and Future, prevail.

Without recognition of this continuity, one cannot understand the great feasts of the Christian Church's year, especially the celebration of the Eucharist. Salvation in the past, present and future belongs substantially to them as well; they, too, are commemorations of his miracles. At the same time, although they do not run parallel to the feasts of Israel, they stand in a closely related association with them.16

Even though the Church is convinced that with the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead 'the coming aeon'-a phrase from early Judaism-is projected powerfully into this time, so is there also a lasting, common theme of Christian and Jewish eschatology, as, for instance, in the last clause of the Creed. 'With the prophets and the Apostle Paul, the Church anticipates the day when only God is recognised, when all people shall call the Lord with one voice and "serve him under the same yoke" (Zeph. 3:9).'17 'The Day of God plays as important a part in the Hebrew Bible as it does in the New Testament. This 'Day', according to the prophets and the New Testament, embraces the whole world; it plainly leads towards 'the conclusion'. This 'Day', is not a day reckoned by the calendar; only God knows it and directs it hither. This 'Day' fashions history and carries it to its conclusion. But this 'Day' is also a day of passing over into ultimate salvation and is thus a day of hope for Israel and the Church.

Part 2


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