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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Doctor Bean honored me several years ago (five? six?) by taking me to his temple for Passover services. I remember being asked to do that thing where the guy stands up and holds the Torah. My attempt to politely decline was met with polite encouragement, and my subsequent attempt to turn invisible was not successful, so I played the "I'm not Jewish" card and that earned me a pass. However, I felt then and I feel now that, customs and rituals aside, religious Christians and religious Jews are more alike than they are different. Anyone that serves and glorifies the Lord is on the same team. There are real, fundamental differences, but I like to focus on what we have in common - the ten Commandments, trust in the Lord, service to the Lord, service to the world. Perhaps you think I am off the mark on this.

I've never been to a Muslim worship service before, although I did a report on Muslims in high school that took me to a mosque in Garden Grove for an interview with a Muslim cleric. I'm tempted to seek out and attend a Muslim service in a spirit of friendliness. Perhaps you think such friendliness would be misdirected. I certainly don't identify with anyone who serves and glorifies the Lord by supporting violence against Jews or the U.S. However, it is my hope (if not my conviction) that the vast majority of Muslims are not that way.

I wonder if the readers have ever attended a worship service outside their faith and what they thought of the experience.
Two thoughts. I always find it difficult to attend Christian services. Partially because of the crosses at the front of the sanctuary and partially because of the feeling that I am probably committing idolatry (as a Jew).

On another note, Dr. Bean and I were just discussing this last night. I have recently come to the conclusion that most major religions in the USA have been Americanized. By which I mean that at the core they now preach tolerance, equality and freeson of expression wrapped in the cloak of their particular rituals. That is why we Christian and Jews get along so well these days. I don't know how Americanized Islam in the US is. I bet there are places where you would feel similar to how you felt in our Synagogue. The problem is that Islam seems to be going the wrong way, as the bombings in London reveal. Maybe because their religious institutions are supported by foreign governments. There are elements in all the religions that are going backwards, but Islam seems to be on a fast track to the 11th century.
As a Christian whose theology is liberal, I certainly recognize the commonalities of the Jewish and Christian faiths. It is certainly true that our commonalities are greater than our differences.

I do not believe Jesus was God incarnate; moreover, I do not believe Jesus ever claimed to be any such thing. I believe Jesus was a good Jew to the end of his life. So I take him as an exemplar and teacher, but reserve the act of worship for the Lord.

I have studied other faiths, notably Islam and Buddhism, to some extent. But I've never attended a worship service for any religion other than Christianity.

There's a Rabbi in this city who impresses me, insofar as one can judge from public statements. Some day I might visit that synagogue, but so far I'm held back by the fear that the experience would be quite alien to me.

Among other barriers, I don't know any Hebrew. I assume this would put me on the outside of the action to some extent.
I have been to Jewish services. Of course, Catholic services. Episcopal, Lutheran, Penteostal, Southern Baptist, Muslim,(sunni) BaHa'i, mormon (before they were private) Shinto and sikh services (though I understood almost nothing)

I would encourage anyone to do the same.

People, for the most part, are decent.Asshole leaders are good at steering people in bad directions because they are told they must do so for the good of their souls; this has been true of almost every religion everywhere. Nowhere is this more evident today, as you say Ms B&C, as islam. I wish everyone could see it for theirselves.
This article may or may not be relevant to this discussion. Glad to be of help.
Thank you, Ball-and-Chain, for your perspective. I am dismayed that Christian services are unpleasant for you. I enjoyed the Synagogue. To most Christians, the cross is not a murder symbol, if the story of the crucifixion is what troubles you. I also suspect that you are capable of sitting in a church without commiting idolatry as a Jew, but if that is what your faith tells you then I respect it.

Q: Thank you for your perspective as well. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, if you believe the Scriptures.

Og: I agree with you and Ball-and-Chain.

Ralphie: Interesting article. Anything is relevant if you want it to be.

A personal anecdote I remembered after posting: I spent a summer in Japan. In one large church there, the stained glass window, maybe 30 feet high, displayed the Virgin Mary in kimono, with Japanese facial features.
Oven: I didn't say unpleasant, just personally difficult. For a Jew, the act of kneeling before, bowing before or even acknowledging a human God is problemmatic. Possibly even idolatrous.
Q: It depends on the denomination of Judaism. Different branches use differing amounts of Hebrew.
Q: To follow up B&C's post, wherever you go, the prayerbook will almost certainly have an English translation. Feel free to follow along in English, or, heck, just wander around the prayerbook on your own... (no one will be the wiser!)
No Catholic has ever practiced Idolatry,(the worship of idols)any more than you might think that a photograph of your uncle is your uncle. We don't belive the statue IS mary, it's no different than a photograph. I understand the distinction of the theologies, but no Catholic ever thinks of it that way. Nor do we "kneel before" anyone or anything. We kneel in the presence of the creator, who is everywhere.
Interesting discussion, Oven. If you're trying to compare religions, though, I'm not sure that their religious services are where the interesting contrasts are. Judaism is much more about what happens at the dinner table ,or at home on a Saturday afternoon, or at a parents' home eight days after a baby's born, than what happens at Synagogue.

By the way, just to nitpick about terminology, the Jewish house of worship is generically called a Synagogue. Those on the left end of the Jewish religious spectrum (Reform and maybe some Conservative) refer to their Synagogues as Temples, seeing their house of worship as replacing the Temple in Jerusalem. The rest (Orthodoxy and some of Conservative) see the Temple in Jerusalem as unique and irreplaceable, and await the construction of the third Temple (but on timescales much longer than, say, waiting for a bus) so we just call where we pray Synagogues. Official stuff like newspapers and politicians always use the inclusive generic term, Synagogue.

Og: Just to clarify, b&c doesn't think that Christians are idolaters. In fact, Judaism thinks that Christianity and Islam are monotheistic faiths that worship the same God that Jews do. Having said that, since Judaism thinks that Jews are commanded to do all the commandments and non-Jews aren't, it has stricter rules for what counts as idolatry for Jews than for non-Jews. (Ralphie, correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong.) So many authorities would hold that for a Jew to participate in a Christian religious ceremony, especially where images are involved, would be idolatrous, though we don’t think it's idolatrous for the Christians to be participating and we understand that Christian theology makes it clear that the worship is not directed at the images.
I am very interested in other religions and have found the devout to be wonderful people regardless of the religion. I am afraid that the fundamentalists scare me in most religions. I think that there are great truths to be found in any of the religions that worship one true G-d. I also believe that in his wisdom, he made many paths as there are many different people in the world. I have gained a real respect for Jewish people, simply because I happen to be addicted to several Jewish blogs. Through them you can see the love, friendship, community and family values that are so lacking in our world. I think that regardless of how folks choose to worship, good G-d fearing people shine through and are good ambassadors for their faith
Thanks for clearing that, Beano. I knew you knew better, just wanted to make sure the clarification was out there.
Amen, jc. I too enjoy the company of devout people.

Bean: We could compare religions one day, but I wouldn't do it at the end of a comment stream. Let's save that for a major post in the future. Perhaps a collaborative effort, with me taking the Christian side (not that I claim to be an expert) and you on the Jewish side (not that you claim to be an expert). The collaboration would ensure fairness to both sides, eliminate the nitpicky terminology issues, and hopefully focus on the truly salient points.

The post asks whether you have been to a worship service outside your faith and what were your impressions. I have been to Christian services of many denominations and exactly one Jewish service that I can recall (more if I include weddings). Everyone was nice to me and I enjoyed the experience. My interaction with other faiths is limited (some field trips and research papers in school), but it has benefitted me by increasing my understanding. To me, climbing Mount Everest is personally difficult. Learning about other faiths and even attending a worship service outside my faith is not only easy (and not idolatrous), it enriches me.
I have been to multiple church services, Catholic, Baptist, Protestant and a couple of others.

I always feel a little weird because a cross makes me uncomfortable. The truth is that I see that and it reminds me of the distance and difference in belief.

It is kind of interesting for me to think about.I met my best friend (not Jewish) on the first day of kindergarten and spent endless hours at his house and went to the beach with his church youth group a thousand times.

It cost 50 cents and was far superior to the RTD.

But in truth I paid little to no attention to the religious talk around me, other than when everyone bowed their heads and closed their eyes.

Ok, when you get interrupted a thousand times you lose all continuity, don't these people understand I am trying to blog.

Ok, wrapping things up. I have been to church. It was fine, but I am not real interested in attending again.
OK. So to answer your question, I've been to Catholic weddings that included a mass. I don't remember being to any Protestant services of any flavor. I haven't been to anything Muslim or Buddhist.
Dr. Bean:

I found your distinction quite interesting: i.e., that a Jew and a Christian could both participate in the same act, and for the Jew it would be idolatry but for the Christian it would not be. That's a bit of a mind bender, but I understand the reasoning you employed.

What puzzles me is the focus on the images. When B&C mentioned idolatry, I assumed she was referring to the worship of a human being (Jesus) as God. Surely that is idolatry, never mind about the images. I was relating to B&C's dilemma: I'm often in a service where others are worshiping Jesus but I cannot participate in that act. Apparently that wasn't B&C's issue, so I guess I can't really identify with her experience after all. To me, images are not idolatrous unless we ascribe deity to them.

Oven, I don't believe the scriptures in the way I assume you mean. But as for the term, "Son of God" — if Jesus did make such a claim, as some New Testament texts report — it does not necessarily imply deity. The Psalmists refer to the king as a son of God, but they didn't believe the king was a literal incarnation of God.
Q: I'm fascinated by some of the things you said, and I hope you let me ask you some questions. They're personal, but I hope not too. I'm just trying to chisel at my ignorance.

You call yourself a Christian with a liberal theology. If I understand what you've written correctly you do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, which I always thought was a basic tenet of all Christian denominations, no? Do you believe, like Muslims do, that Jesus was a prophet and a great teacher, and call yourself a Christian because your life is guided by his teachings, though you don't worship Jesus, no more than Jews worship Moses or Muslims worship Mohammad? What is the name of your denomination?

To follow up on the thread about what is idolatrous for Jews, you're right; there are two issues. The Trinity (or the divinity of Jesus) is one, and graven images are the other. (Again, I'm no expert, and I'd love help from Ralphie or Psychotoddler or Treppenwitz, or really anybody.) Just as Judaism holds that if a Christian and a Jew share a pepperoni pizza, only the Jew is violating dietary laws, if both are praying before a statue I think Judaism holds that only the Jew is committing idolatry.
Idolatry is worshipping an inanimate object, an idol. We can stretch the meaning to include worshipping false gods, but it is too much of a stretch to include being in the presence of a picture, a statue, or another faith's worship service.

You can spell idolatry using each lettered button on your phone.

Og: Jesus implied deity left and right. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also." (John 14:6-7) So, either Jesus is God, or he is completely insane. The deciding factor for me is this - Jesus had witnesses.
Oops. I responded to Og, but I meant Q.
Just to throw something else out into the mix. I have been to about every kind of shul/shtebl you can find.

One of the things that I have been aware of for quite a long time is that I am always comfortable. I can be davening with Chasidim or Reform Jews and feel kinship.

FWIW, I have also been to some Buddhist services and was comfortable and very interested.
Oven: I grokked that.

Jack: Wherever people are gathered together for worship where that worship is not dominated by the collection of cash or the submission/domination of others, it's a good thing. Decent people exist of all beliefs, I know that to be true- but assholes of all beliefs take away fromm that. Pitiably.
Oven and q: Let me try this again. Oven, for exactly the reason you stated "but it is too much of a stretch to include being in the presence of a picture, a statue," Judaism does not hold that Christians are idolators. We understand your interpretation that you are not actually worshipping the statue or picture and that you (mostly) believe in the same God that we do. I don't get why you don't understand why this can be wonderful for Christians yet wrong for Jews? Like Dr. Bean said, if we shared a pepperoni pizza only the Jews would be doing anything wrong. Likewise, when you bow your head toward the cross and pray to Jesus, you are doing something noble and beautiful. I, conversely, would be bowing my head toward a graven image of a man. That would be a sin. That is why I don't eat pepperoni pizza and why, when I have been in a church I try to sit toward the rear so that people won't notice that I don't bow my head, kneel or pray. That is why attending church services is uncomfortable for me. I should add, that I have been to church a couple of times. I have also eaten pepperoni pizza a couple of times. I don't believe that my immortal soul is in danger from either of these actions. It should go without saying, of course, that our spiritual convictions (since we both favor tolerance and acceptance) should in no way effect our friendship.
A very interesting discussion.

I currently worship at a Wesleyan church, and the church is much more conservative in its theology than I am. But I'm there because there's real spiritual life in the congregation, and they accept me despite my liberal ways. They minister to a lot of university students who often challenge the theology and the behavioural norms of the church, and they're a very tolerant group.

No church that I've ever worshiped in has made much use of statues and icons. Those things are more "high" church whereas I have moved in "low" church circles. That said, it is typical to place a cross at the front of the sanctuary (an empty cross; i.e. Jesus is not hanging from it).

Oven, I am a seminary graduate and very familiar with the art of biblical exegesis. You're absolutely right, the New Testament proclaims the deity of Jesus.

The question is whether the New Testament is reliable, particularly when it represents Jesus as claiming deity for himself. For me, the answer is a clear No. And John's gospel is especially problematic, as any New Testament scholar would attest.

The usual view among scholars is that the resurrection of Jesus changed the perspective of the early church. During his lifetime, he was viewed as a teacher and prophet. After his resurrection, he was elevated to another category of being in the minds of believers.

But I don't want to be in the position of trying to undermine your faith. I've examined the evidence, and formulated my conclusions, but I freely admit that your faith is more orthodox than mine.

Dr. Bean, your questions don't cause me any offense. One of the reasons I enjoy Jewish blogs is because of the opportunity to observe the interaction of our respective faiths.

There was a time when to deny the doctrine of the trinity was to put yourself outside of the Christian church. Obviously many Christians still feel it is a clear demarcation. But in many denominations, it is now acceptable to deny the deity of Jesus. Many seminaries teach that Jesus was an ordinary human being. Your description —

Do you believe, like Muslims do, that Jesus was a prophet and a great teacher, and call yourself a Christian because your life is guided by his teachings, though you don't worship Jesus, no more than Jews worship Moses or Muslims worship Mohammad?

is very apt. My parents worship in the United Church of Canada, which is perhaps the most liberal denomination here. I believe the United Church of Christ is an example of a similarly liberal denomination in the USA. There is a wide range of convictions in the Anglican Church (i.e. the Church of England) from very liberal to very conservative.

And many Roman Catholic scholars are quite liberal in their beliefs. To give a single example, Raymond Brown is regarded as one of the foremost scholars on John's gospel. He is a Roman Catholic priest but quite liberal in his views. And he is still accepted as a good Catholic, as far as I know.
I've attended a Catholic mass once. The church is conveniently located right next door to my university, which is Jesuit.

During my freshman orientation, my mother dragged me in there. Now, I love looking at cathedrals and am very interested in other people's traditions, but I felt that I would make a fool of myself and insult people who were praying, or on the contrary, would do something that would go against my own religious beliefs.

So when I went in there, I wanted to die. I hoped no one would look at me. I was very much surprised to notice that no one cared whether I said anything or not. When people stood up, I stood up as well, but didn't pray, just stood there respectfully and watched what everyone else was doing.

Close to the end of the services, everybody started singing to absolutely beautiful music. They also sang "Ode to Joy" which I've only heard on CDs or TV before this, so it was a cool experience to hear it live.

At the end, people turned towards each other and if they were families they kissed, but they also turned to strangers (us included) and shook hands. I didn't go to synagogue back then so I didn't realize that's what is done after Shabbat services as well, and thought it was a bit strange but nice. By the end, I learned not to be embarrassed since being open-minded to someone else's faith is only a virtue, and no one was forcing me to do or say anything I didn't want.
By the way, at the synagogue I attend, I noticed a number of devout Catholics visiting as guests on a few occasions, so if they don't find anything wrong with attending our services, I guess it's not terribly wrong for me to attend services outside my own culture as well. I think idolatry is only if you actually worship, and you can't really worship if it's not in you.
Thinking back, I realize that my earlier embarrassment could be largely explained by the fact that just like B&C I was afraid that just attending the service would be wrong for me as a Jew. However, with time I realized that what makes you a Jew or a Catholic is not just what you practice but what you believe in. Thus attending a Jesuit university doesn't make me a Catholic (on the contrary, it makes me feel more comfortable about my own faith), and neither does attending another service.
Nor did I have to kneel or actually pray or bow down.
Daniel 3 talks about the three guys that would not bow to King Nebuchadnezzer, although it meant that they would be thrown into a furnace. The happy ending is that they were thrown into the furnace, God protected them from a fiery death, and Nebuchadnezzer was so impressed that he praised God.

Perhaps this is the model on which the Jewish version of idolatry is based. If I understand you correctly, Ball-and-Chain, then it's not okay for you to go through the motions, even if you're faking it. OK, I get that. What confused me is the notion that you, sitting in a church service, would be guilty of idolatry just by sitting there, without worshipping anything.

Q: If you are a seminary graduate, then I'm sure you know the Bible better than I do. I believe what I believe, but I willingly accept that there is a lot I don't know. I know that Mark is probably the oldest gospel, and Matthew and Luke basically followed the same script. John is very different, but why do you say it is especially problematic? Don't worry about undermining my faith - we're just sharing viewpoints here.

Irina - Good to hear from you. The way you felt at a Catholic mass is very similar to how I felt at the Beans' synagogue. I must say, however, that Catholic services are very different from Protestant services. The Catholic services involve far more rituals and complexities than what I am used to on Sundays.
Interesting discussion. Coming in late here, but just wanted to mention that my rabbi is friends with a Muslim cleric, and arranged for our congregation to go to the mosque (last Fall) and participate in a class there with the cleric.

After the class, which was a sort of "Basic Islam" primer, we were invited into the main room of the mosque for services. I chose to remain in the classroom instead, not feeling entirely comfortable with the idea of participating in a Muslim service.

As it turned out, that classroom was where the little kiddos and their Moms stayed during services, so I got to play with the little ones. Afterwards we all had a meal together -- well, the men sat at one table and the women at another, but the Jews and Muslims were all together, which was cool.

It was supposed to be the beginning of further dialogue between the two religious congregations, but unfortunately that was pretty much it -- the mosque's board of directors voted not to continue the program.
Thanks, Oven, for being open to my point of view. In brief, re the Gospel of John:

• the Kingdom of God
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God — a traditional Jewish theme. In Mark's Gospel, there are approximately a dozen such references; and there are many more in Matthew. In John, there are only two or three references to the kingdom. Instead, Jesus proclaims himself: notably in the seven "I am" sayings, one of which you quoted (John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life").

• christology
In general, the "high" and sophisticated christology of John's Gospel — e.g. the seven "I am" sayings — is assumed to be the product of decades of theological development. There is nothing comparable in the Synoptics.

• pithy aphorisms
In the Synoptics, Jesus speaks in pithy aphorisms: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath"; "If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand"; "If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me"; etc. Even when Jesus speaks in lengthier parables, the parables have a very focused point: a single message.

In John, Jesus speaks in lengthy and rambling discourses. John 10 is an example. Jesus is the door through which the sheep enter; he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; he has other sheep (i.e. the Gentiles) who are not of this fold; there is really only one flock; the Father loves Jesus because he submits to death voluntarily. This is a series of discrete theological points, very loosely linked by the shepherd/sheep theme. It is the voice of the Church we are hearing rather than the voice of Jesus, though the words are credited to him. In terms of vocabulary and writing style, the words of Jesus are indistinguishable from the rest of the text of John's gospel.

• "the Jews"
The author(s) who composed the Gospel of John were self-consciously distinct from "the Jews". The bad blood between the Church and the Jews has been read back into Jesus' lifetime (as we also see in Matt. 23). Of particular note, 9:22 says, "the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be the Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue." Scholars say this text presents an anachronism: Christians were not excommunicated from the synagogue until some years after the death of Jesus.

John 7:13 is a very peculiar text: "For fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him". The people who are supposedly afraid of the Jews are themselves Jews; it's as if the author of the Gospel has forgotten. Similarly, Jesus speaks of "your" law or "their" law (8:17; 10:34; 15:25). But this is manifestly unhistorical. Jesus was a Jew throughout his life; "their" Torah was his Torah. The most offensive text is John 8:44, where Jesus describes his Jewish opponents as children of the devil.

The picture that emerges is of a Gospel where the Church has read its difficulties back into the lifetime of Jesus, and often put its message into Jesus' mouth. To some extent, the same phenomenon occurs in the Synoptic Gospels. But the blurring is not so complete, and we have a much greater sense of Jesus' own personality, distinct from the Church.

This does not mean that the Gospel of John has no value. It's just that it needs to be recognized for what it is, the product of much theological reflection. It isn't very helpful in terms of the history it presents, except at the level of certain incidental details.

Please excuse the lengthy comment. I hope it's helpful, and I hope it doesn't offend anyone.
Nope, that's basically what we learned about the differences between the Gospels in a Theology class I took at Fordham. Also (correct me if I'm wrong) I understand there are also differences in the depiction of the crucifixion.
Oven: though this is your thread, let me take the liberty of introducing Mirty to everyone, since I don't think you know her.

Welcome, Mirty!

All rise, please.

Mirty is the keeper of Mirty's Place. She lives in Texas with her hubby, Ted. (Both are aliases.) Her blog is well written and frequently poignant and chronicles her story of growing up Orthodox and ending up not. She recently went on a trip with her family to Israel, where she met Treppenwitz, which in my blogging life is like meeting the Dalai Lama.

Thank you. You may be seated.

Q: I certainly don't want to degenerate this thread into "Bean quizzes Q about interesting stuff he's never heard of" but I'm fascinated and would love to learn more. (I'd be delighted to answer your questions about colon cancer screening, or antibiotics…) I appreciate your thoughtful responses.

* When I asked for your denomination I misspoke. I didn't mean the kind of church you attend. I guess what I meant to ask was: is there a name for the school of thought within Christianity that denies the divinity of Jesus?

* Now I'm confused about the status that this school of thought believes Jesus has. My previous comment guessed that you believe him to be a prophet, a wise teacher. In this school of thought is he the Messiah? Was he resurrected? Does this school await Jesus's return, or does it simply look forward to God's rule on Earth (the Kingdom of God)? If I'm being too nitpicky just throw the big picture at me.

* You mention that "There was a time when to deny the doctrine of the trinity was to put yourself outside of the Christian church. Obviously many Christians still feel it is a clear demarcation." How recently has this school of thought been accepted in Christianity?
Oven: The Nebuchadnezzer story is exactly the kind of thing I am talking about. I turns out that within Judaism the rules go like this...you can violate almost any law to save a life. So, if you held a gun to my head and forced me to eat a ham sandwich, I'd have to. The almost part is that there are three things that one is not allowed to do to save a life. These three are murder, denying God and some proscribed sexual activites. So, you can see that bowing your head toward a cross evokes a deep-seated visceral response like Irina described. I know I'm Jewish. Bowing my head does not make me a Christian. However, if it could be misconstrued by anyone as denying my God I would be in BIG (spiritual) trouble. Refusing to do this kind of thing is what our Rabbis have been martyred for for centuries (it's a bigger sin the more renowned you are). The rules get even more strict when we are talking about actual idolaters. Like Hindus. So, I guess I won't be going to a lot of other religious services. This should free up time to attend all the Jewish services that I should be attending every week, but am not.
Dr. Bean:

Thanks for your interest. I appreciate your offer to respond in kind by answering my medical questions, but I'm learning through our dialogue here too. Ball and Chain's comments have been particularly interesting to me.

Turning to your questions —

How long has it been acceptable to deny the doctrine of the Trinity?

It isn't possible to put a precise date on it, since we're talking about a shift in perspectives that happened over generations. But the great work of Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos, first published in 1913, arguably marked the tipping of the scales toward a rationalist view of Jesus. Even then, a breakthrough in the academic world takes decades to trickle down to a non-specialist readership.

Is there a name for this school of thought?

I don't know enough about the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements within Judaism to answer your question very intelligently. Liberal Protestantism is aptly described as a movement, but each denomination controls its own theology. To my knowledge, Judaism doesn't have anything like our denominations, so there is no exact parallel.

My views are pretty standard "liberal Protestant" stuff, but there is a wide range of views within liberal Protestantism. For example, German scholars have always been the most radical (i.e. septical) in their views. They tend to discount the Jewish background of the first Christians and interpret the New Testament through a Hellenistic lens. I am attracted to the findings of British scholars, who manage to be critical of the New Testament documents without totally losing their heads.

The Roman Catholic Church was slow to accept the findings of critical scholarship. However, liberalism is now firmly established within Catholicism, and there is considerable agreement between liberal Protestants and Catholics. (I'm hardly an expert on Catholic scholarship, so I hesitate to say too much.)

What do liberal Protestants believe about Jesus? Was he:

• a wise teacher?

Yes. It's clear that during his lifetime inquirers were already comfortable addressing him as "Teacher".

a prophet?
Yes, and this is not quite the same thing as a wise teacher. The prophets were social reformers. Jesus was clearly in that camp, with his concern for lepers, women, and the common people. Jesus also seems to have predicted the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE; there are good grounds for believing this prediction to be historical.

was he resurrected?
There is no unanimity on this point. Some liberal Protestants believe the resurrection is a myth; they claim that the various New Testament accounts are incredible and irreconcilable. Some (a small minority?) believe in a literal, bodily resurrection. And many believe that Jesus' spirit survived death, but deny that he was resurrected bodily. This is, perhaps, the majority view among liberal Protestants.

It is largely based on St. Paul's experience. We know from Paul's own writings (i.e. we don't have to rely on secondary sources) that he had an experience which completely reversed the direction of his life. But, according to Acts, Paul only saw a blinding light in the heavens — no body with nail prints in the palms and a sword wound in the ribcage.

is he the Messiah?
I assume you're referring to a warrior-king figure descended from David. Prophets and priests were also "anointed ones", as I'm sure you know. The Qumran community apparently awaited three eschatological figures: the prophet, a Davidic Messiah and an Aaronic Messiah.

But "Messiah" is usually taken to mean the Davidic figure. Insofar as his followers expected Jesus to lead an armed rebellion and restore self-rule, he was a big disappointment. In fact, he seems to have been an avowed pacifist and disinterested in political leadership.

Does this school await Jesus's return, or does it simply look forward to God's rule on Earth (the Kingdom of God)?

I think it's fair to say that liberal Protestants have given up any expectation of Jesus' return. Beyond that, I'm having some trouble answering the question. I have never been much preoccupied with questions of eschatology.

I believe that Jesus was raised from the dead (whether bodily or merely spiritually; I don't care very much one way or the other); I believe that we will likewise survive death; and I believe that God will ultimately inaugurate a just reign and end human misery. I don't know whether that will take place on earth as we know it, or whether the earth will be destroyed and recreated, or whether God's reign has already been inaugurated in some other (spiritual) dimension. I think liberal Protestants would agree these questions are too speculative and we can only trust God to do what is right.

Liberal Protestants are very concerned to achieve some kind of rapprochement with Judaism, that allows both faiths to continue to be true to themselves. That is, we do not attempt to convert Jews to the Christian faith. We recognize that Judaism and Christianity emphasize different things, and that our faiths have developed in independent directions since they diverged 2,000 years ago. And we believe that human society is enriched by such diversity.

That said, we also believe there is considerable agreement between our two faiths on the points that matter most. There is plenty of room for mutual respect and support.
p.s. I'm perfectly comfortable having this dialogue in a public forum. But my wife suggests that you many want to continue the dialogue in private. If so, feel free to e-mail me at
Q: Thanks again. Very interesting.
I've tried to do a little research on the christianity-as-idolatry issue but I can't find anything that I consider a satisfactory explanation.

With all due respect to the bean/b-n-c duo, I can't buy the pepperoni pizza analogy. Because, no matter who is doing the eating, you can't deny that the object of the eating is a pepperoni pizza.

The question here is, is the object of worship a deity or a false deity? On that note, as a sort of aside, I don't know that the cross itself, or a depiction of the cruxifiction, or even a statue of Mary is the issue here (or at least the only issue). I believe it's more conceptual.

To be fair, there are certainly Jewish authorities that would consider Christianity as classical idolatry. I don't think anyone in this room would hold by that, and we're talking about this gray area of idolatry to the Jew but not to the Christian.

I think that both Jews and Christians believe in the same God, but we worhip and conceive of God in different ways. The Hebrew term for idolatry is transliterated as "avodah zarah,: which literally means "foreign worship." The Christian way of worship - that concept of God - is foreign to the Jewish way, and hence is forbidden by Jewish law.

How does this translate into a prohibition of even entering a church or sitting through a service? Can't say I'm positive on that one, but I think it has to do with associating with the rites of avodah zarah, which would also be forbidden. I'm a lot fuzzier on that one, and, let's face it, I was fuzzy to begin with here.
Interesting analysis, Ralphie. As I said to Dr. Bean, I'm learning some things from this dialogue, too.

Here's a little exegetical input. In the decalogue, we are commanded, "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image …".

Now the second sentence clearly speaks to the narrower issue of bowing before an image. But the first sentence is broader in scope, and that's where my focus has been from the beginning of the discussion.

To worship Jesus is idolatry from a Jewish perspective, no? Surely the images are a secondary issue?

Not that I want to increase anyone's reservations about the Christian faith. But I've been surprised by the lack of focus on what I see as the heart of the matter.
Q: The image is only secondary if you believe that there is a hierarchy in the ten commandments. I would always put murder as number one, but I don't know for sure that God sees it that way.
Yes, to worship Jesus is definitely worshipping a false god from a Jewish perspective. But, I reiterate, only for Jews. Also, to Ralphie, there is a probably a difference between merely entering a church and going when worship service is underway. Ask our Rabbi. I know he has opinions on the matter.
Q - I was actually thinking of just that right after I shut down my computer last night. There are actually two prohibitions at work here (I'm not sure if what you cited are the actual sources for them but, heck, they look good to me.

The first is, no other gods. For all intents and purposes, that means not worshipping any other god, regardless of whether there's an image involved. The second actually refers to God, you know, the Real Thing. The Man Upstairs. The Head Honcho. Etc. The point here is, don't build an idol or draw a picture or anything that is supposed to be God. In other words, we're not dealing with other gods here, but images of God Himself. That's a no-no.

My guess is, from the Jewish standpoint, the issue of whether Christianity is "avodah zarah" or not would depend on whom that second command refers to. (Quick bit of background - Jewish law considers non-Jews bound by a number or rules known as the Noahide laws. Worshipping lowercase-g gods is one of them.) In any case, the second category is certainly forbidden for Jews, so Christianity is therefore a "foreign worship" for Jews. But that doesn't necessarily make it idolatry as we usually think of it, even from the Jewish perspective.

Ya dig?
Thanks, Ralphie. Believe it or not, I am aware of the Noahide laws. There's a New Testament ruling with respect to Gentile converts (Acts 15:19-20) that appears to be derived from the Noahide laws … although most Christians would not have heard it explained in those terms.

Actually, Christians don't pay much attention to that passage in Acts.

And I take your point, that "idolatry" may be narrowly delimited to literal idols. But I also appreciate the confirmation (from you and B&C) that there's a second issue at play here: that the worship of Jesus is "foreign worship" for Jews, even if not idolatry.

Once again, a stimulating and informative discussion.
Enjoyed your Blog. Continue your great job. Thanks
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