A few months back I watched Simon Schama’s gripping 5-part video series The Story of the Jews, which takes us from the reign of David to contemporary Judaism. The series is highly acclaimed and I can’t recommend it enough.
Episode 2, “Among Believers,” covers Judaism in the medieval period and its difficulties with Christianity and Islam.
Schama recounts the famous debate, known as the “Barcelona Disputation,” which took place over three days beginning on July 20, 1263. The debate, organized by the church, pitted the Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, Pablo Christiani, against one of the towering intellectual figures of medieval Judaism, philosopher Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, better know as Nachmanides.
Christiani set out to show from the Torah and Talmud that Judaism’s own sacred texts predicted Jesus as the messiah who was to come. Nachmanides’s task–surrounded by ecclesiastical and royal power–was to show that this was not the case.
Schama, together with Leon Wieseltier, recounts the debate, summarizing some of Nachmanides’s points and (it seems) elaborating a bit on those points themselves.
Christiani’s argument, they say, was unconvincing and has fallen on deaf Jewish ears ever since. They make two main points (you can get a fuller picture of the debate here), one I am very familiar with (having read Paul’s letters, especially Romans) and a second that I have not given nearly as much thought to.
First: If Jesus would have been the messiah, there would have been a mass Jewish following.
Of course, this is the very problem Paul addresses in Romans–I would even say “struggling with” in Roman. His own Jewish brothers and sisters are not following Israel’s messiah but Gentiles are. Paul reasons that the Gentile conversion will make Jews jealous, but that in time (very soon from Paul’s point of view), the time of the Gentiles would come to a close and Jews would stream in.
Instead, what happened is this Jewish movement of Jesus followers becomes a separate religion by the 2nd century and made up increasingly of Gentiles while Jews remained Jewish.
Second: The messiah of the Jews was to fulfill Old Testament/Jewish Bible prophecies of universal peace, but, as Nachmanides argued, the world was still full of war and injustice, most of it perpetuated by Christians.
As Schama and Wieseltier put it, the Jewish messianic problem is that they wait and wait and wait for the messiah but he doesn’t come. The Christian problem is that he came and it made no difference.
Of course, Christians will bristle at the thought that Jesus “made no difference,” and I certainly understand why–Jesus is raised and that conquers death and now all who believe on his name will be saved.
But Schama and Wieseltier’s second point still stands and I don’t think we should let it go too easily.
If Jesus is the messiah, why the 2000+ year delay after the inauguration of the “messianic age” (Christ’s first coming)?
Why all this time of no peace, of warfare, suffering, and injustice, much of it by the followers of the Prince of Peace?
I understand that much of that suffering by Christians have been at the hands of various versions of the Christian “state” throughout history (which is one reason why I have no interest in seeing it resurrected by the American political hard Christian right), but that simply delays the question one step: why does God allow the corrupt Christian state to remain in power after the messianic age has been inaugurated.
Does eschatological inauguration make so little difference–at least little enough that no one other than Christians notices and have to convince others of it?
For me, one of the intellectual challenges to Christianity is this delay of the parousia–the Greek term meaning “presence, arrival, visit,” i.e., Second Coming. I wonder whether Christians may not have something to learn from this Jewish critique.
Similar to how Jews in the 1st century were concerned that failure to remain faithful to the covenant not only caused the exile a half a millennium earlier but perpetuated the half-millennium delay of the messianic age, perhaps the parousia is delayed because Christians haven’t yet figured out how to be the body of Christ.
Just riffing here, but maybe the problem of the delay of the parousia isn’t simply a theological conundrum to be solved through closer exegesis or theological alchemy.
Maybe the “body of Christ” isn’t being the body of Christ. Maybe Jesus is too embarrassed to be seen with us.
This blog was originally posted in April 2015.