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the universal, human need for Tisha b’Av: the necessary Jewishness of the Bible

July 28, 2012

It’s just hours away from a day of world remembrance.  How many of us, nonetheless, forget.  Or we feel as though, especially if we’re not Jewish, it’s none of our business.  No, I’m not talking about the Olympics or the International Olympic Committee refusal to remember, the IOC refusal to remember even for a minute, in London in 2012 the horror in Munich only 40 years ago in 1972.  I am talking about Tisha b’Av.  But since we do have the Olympics on our minds anyway, did anyone else in America listening to the commentary during the opening ceremonies last night notice how there was discussion about Ramadan and how Islamic athletes were having to decide whether to observe or postpone the observance of fasting during the games?  And didn’t we all notice the play on the movie, Chariots of Fire, in which the Christian athlete was more observant of his sabbath (i.e., his decision not to run on Sunday) than any of the others including the Jewish athlete?  So wasn’t it a glaring omission for the same commentators not to say a thing about Tisha b’Abv and the decision some athletes in London will have to make about their participation in the games from sunset July 28, 2012 to sunset July 29, 2012, when there are many ways one may mourn though these might negatively affect performance?  I am talking about the observance of Tisha b’Av now as a universal need, a human need.

When explaining Tisha b’Av, Theophrastus, one of the BLT co-bloggers, has written:

It is the anniversary of the destruction of first and second Temples, but is also celebrated as the day of commemoration for many events ranging from sin of spies in the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14), the razing of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and for some Jews, the Holocaust.

We might note how helpfully he writes, “some Jews.”  This speaks to the diversity within the community of Jews, the communities of Jewish peoples all around the world and through different points of history.  What I’m trying to say, additionally, is that whether one is a Jewish person of any group or is one of the Greeks who walked first into the Olympic ceremonies last evening, Tisha b’Av has implications for you.  If you are breathing on planet earth, Tisha b’Av has implications.  It’s a day of remembering, of mourning, precisely because of someone’s violent and destructive Othering of a class or a race or a religion of peoples.

This doesn’t mean that everyone is Jewish.  But Tisha b’Av does get us all thinking of our relationship to Othering, to violence, to destruction, Othering because somebody else is not like we are.  It might prompt a blog commenter to say to a non-Jew writing about Tisha b’Av:  “i always knew you were Jewish!”  Such is the case here, after Bob Cargill’s blog post, Remembering Tisha b’Av (The 9th of Av).  A hat tip to blogger Brian LePort, also a non-Jew, who points us to Cargill’s post in his own, The temple in the Book of Acts.

So here I want to take a turn in my own post.  In talking about Tisha b’Av, it seems that we always have to draw the line between Jews and non-Jews.  I mean, Brian LePort asks, “it is preventing the Jews from realizing the universality of their God’s reign?”  The implication is that Luke, writing the book of Acts, and Stephen, written of by Luke in the book of Acts, are men acting out a rather non-Jew perspective (if “the Jews” are necessarily the ones who are prevented “from realizing the universality of their God’s reign”).  In other words, Brian LePort finds more in common, as a non-Jew, with Luke and Stephen than with “the Jews” so ostensibly prevented.  Now, I’m just trying to track the blogger’s language here, the separations that are implicit in the statement here about “the Jews” in contrast to everybody else, including the blogger.

Something similar is going on in the language of respective blogposts of non-Jew bloggers, Nick Norelli and Rachel Held Evans.  Please do click the following links and read the quotes I’m excerpting here in their full contexts.  But do notice the language about the Jews in relation to the Bible and how it is read by Jewish people.  Nick Norelli in one sentence writes:

Just as Jewish exegetes used these creation accounts to bolster their views of God’s uniqueness as Creator and sovereign Ruler and how they relate creation to eschatological hopes of salvation that is to be accomplished through God’s word or wisdom, so John uses these accounts to say many of the same things about Jesus.

To be fair, and clear, the blogger is writing about “Second Temple Jewish exegesis” as another writer (non-Jew Masanobu Endo) writes about this in his book, Creation and Christology: A Study on the Johannine Prologue in the Light of Early Jewish Creation Accounts.  Look, nonetheless, at how non-Jew-ish this language makes John and Jesus.

Likewise, Rachel Held Evans is reading and writing about what a couple of other non-Jew writers (Peter Enns and John Walton) are writing.  She writes (her bold font):

… I’ve been blessed to encounter Christian scholars like Peter Enns and John Walton, along with Jewish interpretations of Scripture that have shifted my perspective. I love how, when folks in the Jewish community confront Scripture, they don’t freak out over its conflicts and tensions, but rather engaged them—and with enthusiasm! I’ve learned from Christian scholars more about the historical contexts that influenced the way different scriptural texts were written.  And I’ve gone back to my English major roots which have helped me see Scripture as a collection of various genres—from poetry to history to  stories to philosophy to law.  I’m still struggling to make sense of much of Scripture, particularly the violent stories of the Old Testament, but this new perspective has helped me engage difficult texts with more heart and integrity.

According to Enns, we would do well to learn a few things from the Jewish readers of Scripture whose emphasis in engaging the holy text is “not on solving the problems once and for all but on a community upholding a conversation with Scripture with creative energy.” In contrast, “the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture,” says Enns. “The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside, namely, by scholarship hostile to Christianity…It is a great irony that both the critical and evangelical options (as distinct from the Jewish model) take part in the same assumption: God’s word and diversity at the level of factual content and theological messages are incompatible.”

Now, I have no problem with where Rachel Held Evans is going.  She’s moving her blog readers toward more open, liberal ways of reading the Scriptures.  But notice her language, how implicit the separations between “the Jewish readers” and others.  She does mention “the Old Testament,” but she does imply that the New Testament is less violent and less tense and less discomforting and less ambiguous, perhaps not-Jew-ish.

Well, let me return now to that post by Theophrastus, the Tisha b’Av post.  There he’s calling it “The strange religious holiday when study is ‘prohibited’.”  And I couldn’t help but return to what he wrote when this weekend I was reading the New Testament, the book of Acts, in an English translation of the Aramaic version, the Peshitta.  Here that is (with the Aramaic first, followed by John W. Etheridge’s English translation, then James Murdock’s, then George Lamsa’s):

You will want to click on the image above to study it.  What you’ll see is how I’ve highlighted for you “the Jews” in the English translations of the Aramaic.  Notice how the English translations go like this:

For the Jews there were more liberal than the Jews of Thessalonica; and they gladly heard the word from them daily, and searched from the scriptures whether these things were so.

Now click the image again to read Luke’s Greek language, his account (in the “Westcott-Hort 1881 combined with Nestle-Aland 27th variants”).  The King James Version in English (based on the “Stephens’ 1550 Textus Receptus”) is not so different in that it goes like this:

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

(Here is where you can find and read the Aramaic, the English, the Greek.  Here is another look at some of that:


What the Aramaic spells out much more than the Greek, from the Greek, is that the Bereans and the Thessalonians were all the Jews.  “Some Jews” were “more liberal” than others in reading the Scriptures of the Jews, i.e., the Hebrew Bible and/ or its translation into Greek, outside of Jerusalem before 70 CE.  Paul is one of “the Jews.”  The book of Acts, then and there, is largely about various ones of “the Jews.”  This particular passage is about the necessary Jewishness of the Bible, the Jewishnesses of its readings, of all sorts.

Now I’m going to conclude this post by suggesting that the “the Jew” and the “the non-Jew” binary is the particular problem that Tisha b’Av must remember.  Sometimes the problem is as subtle as our language.  Unfortunately, more often the problem of Othering, of classifying a group of people into a narrow and tight and “different-from-me” category is a problem that has led to violence and to destruction that endures, regretfully, and universally, to this very day.  There is a universal, human need for the observance of Tisha b’Av for all of us.  And isn’t it also necessary to understand the variation in what we all know as the Jewishness of the Bible?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2012 1:42 pm

    Your point is taken. I can see how someone could read my review and think that I was contrasting John to Jews even though John is Jewish and is simply continuing to use the same (or similar) exegetical techniques as those who wrote the texts that came before his.

  2. July 30, 2012 2:13 pm

    Thanks Nick. Don’t you think Masanobu Endo, whose book you were reviewing, some sets up this language? John’s gospel, with its odd Greek phrases such as οι Ἰουδαῖοι, creates what former Christian and convert to Judaism Julie Galambush calls “Consummately sectarian literature, [since the gospel of] John was written to be obscure, arcane, even offensive.” And, as Endo notes, some have actually attributed the language to allegedly non-Jewish movements, therefore.

    For example, Endo discusses Rudolf Bultmann. (Coincidentally, we may want to remember that Bultmann passed away on this very date, 36 years ago.) And Endo writes:

    Bultmann … argues that the λόγος of John 1:1 cannot be understood on the basis of the OT since the notion of God’s word in the OT is different from that of the λόγος in John. He argues that the figure of wisdom which is found in Judaism (as well as the OT) is related to the Johannine λόγος…. Bultmann maintains that this wisdom myth does not have its origin in the OT nor Judaism at all, but in Gnosticism.

    This argument, of course, makes the LXX a reflection of gnosticism too and tries to suggest that the gospel’s sources are all non-Jew-ish. But scholars such as Joseph Jacobs and Ludwig Blau would counter by saying that even if one must assert that the Gnostics were never ever Jews, well, then, they certainly did have Jewish ideas and Jewish language in the derivation of their ideas; and that flattens Bultmann’s efforts to suggest that John is not a Jew. Willis Barnstone, who is a translator of The Other Bible: Jewish Pseudepigrapha, Christian Noncanonical Apocrypha, and Gnostic Scriptures, and of the NT also, gets into the problem of language. The NT he says must be restored to its Jewishness, and so he tries. So there’s a long history here, and I appreciate your seeing how easy it is then for us to read these things.

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