TH6317 The Interpretation of the History of Israel

Christian Retellings


Major themes


The point here is simple. The New Testament canon begins with a claim that the history of Israel has its continuation (or fulfillment, or culmination) in Jesus Christ. Also worth noting is the ending of the good news according to Matthew, “And behold, I am with you always until the end of the age.” Similarly, note that the Christian Old Testament is ordered to end with the promise, “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day.”

Romans 9-11

I recommend reading Romans 9-11 three times. First, read it through and think for yourself what Paul means. Second, read it from the perspective of those in Christian history who believed God had rejected the Jews because they killed God’s son. What passages would you emphasize? Which would you have to ignore? Third, read through it after reading Nostra Aetate. Note that Romans appears in the footnotes more than any other book. What passages are given different meaning?

Melito of Sardis

Melito was a second-century Bishop of a fairly significant city in modern-day Turkey. He has been called the poet of deicide. If you only read for the poetry (at least in Greek) it is quite beautiful. If you read for the deicide it is quite disturbing. (Deicide is the accusation that all Jews everywhere, of all subsequent generations, are responsible for the death of Christ.) The legacy of this accusation is long and bloody. For Melito’s own context it is worth noting, for what it’s worth, that the Jewish community in Sardis was more wealthy and powerful than the Christian community at the time. Melito was on the defense, not the bully as would so often be the case in later times. We also know that Melito was accused of being too Jewish by fellow Christians because he used the Jewish calendar to set the date of Easter. As I have mentioned, the establishment of a calendar is remarkably contentious and linked to identity formation.

The title Peri Pascha could be translated as, Concerning Passover. The advantage of leaving it in Greek is that Christian use of “Paschal” (as in the paschal mystery) connotes not just the Passover in the book of Exodus, but the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Jewish festival of Passover is the reason Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time. In the synoptic Gospels Jesus’ last supper was the traditional Jewish Passover meal. According to John, the chronology is different by a day such that Jesus was not eating the lamb that had been sacrificed, he was the lamb sacrificed. Certainly the Jewish understanding of the Passover and the Christian understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection are intertwined on many levels. In Melito’s day, some of the same people might have been interested in celebrating both ways (who doesn’t enjoy a good festival?). Melito clearly wants us to believe that being a good Christian means not being Jewish, something taken for granted in later centuries but not the early centuries.

If historical context somewhat moderates the harshness of some of Melito’s words, the same cannot be said for later moments in Christian History. Much sin and disgrace surrounds Christian mobs, theologians, and homilists who understood God as having revoked God’s promises and covenants. It wasn’t until after the Holocaust that Christian theologians seriously rethought supersessionism, the idea that Christianity supersedes Judaism, the Church supersedes the Synagogue, the Gospel supersedes the Law, and Christians supersede Jews (although the racial superiority dimension emphasized by the Nazi party was a new direction). Some real nastiness persists even in this century. There are also some subtle questions not yet entirely worked out. What is the relationship between the History of Christianity and the History of Israel?

Make sure you are very clear on a few points, according to Melito:

Blood Libel Painting in Cathedral in Sandomierz, Poland

Blood libel painting in the Cathedral Basilica of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Sandomierz, Poland. The Blood Libel is the accusation that Jews need the blood of Christian babies to make matza (unleavened bread) for their celebration of Passover.

Nostra Aetate

This document from Vatican II was a major milestone in the work of re-evaluating supersessionism in Christianity. If it seems moderate today, that is because John Paul II went considerably further in apologizing for the sins of Christians against the Jewish people and emphasizing God’s unending love for the Jewish people and commitment to the covenants made with Abraham and the whole people at Sinai.

According to Notra Aetate,

The Easter Vigil Lectionary and Redaction Criticism

There are a couple of important points to get out of the Easter Vigil Lectionary for this class. It relates to the question of supersessionism and to the relationship between the history of Christianity and the history of Israel. It is a retelling of the history of Israel in its own right, and an opportunity to think more about redaction criticism. Some of the retellings of the history of Israel that we have seen depart from the received stories so much that they may be barely recognizable. Sometimes changing even a single word can have significant theological implications. The point to emphasize here is that even if not a single word is changed, merely excerpting and sequencing is itself a retelling that generates new meaning. We have seen redaction criticism before. Redaction criticism is studying the work of the editors who compiled collections such as the Deuteronomistic History from previously extant sources. We have seen that the book of Joshua reflects heavy redactional work, while Judges has limited insertions. The point to add now is that even without any insertion at all, redactors do significant work just by cutting and arranging. You could think of it as like a florist who doesn’t grow the flowers but trims and arranges, or like a mixtape (see excursus below). One fun thing about being a Bible scholar is that I often know the context when people quote the Bible out of context. Last year at commencement, the speaker quoted Jeremiah, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you... plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). The speaker left out the context, “Only after seventy years...,” which did not fit the theme of celebration, but was essential for the ancient author’s point about hope, patience, and long-sightedness. The “short readings” in the lectionary are often more about avoiding difficult issues than they are about saving time.

The Easter vigil lectionary creates a new meaning from the assemblage of scripture passages, almost all from the Old Testament. Try to focus on the significance of the selection, cuts, and arrangement, rather than the individual passages.

  1. What is the overall theme of the whole sequence?
  2. How would you describe the arc of the narrative?
  3. How would the narrative change if the sequence was moved around, or if a passage was left out?
  4. Specifically, how would the meaning change if the Ezekiel passage was put before Isaiah 54? Historical-critical scholarship would place Ezekiel at the beginning of the Babylonian Exile and Isaiah 54 and 55 at the end of the Exile.
  5. How does the lectionary interpret the Babylonian Exile?
  6. What is the relationship between the History of Israel and the History of Christianity?
  7. It is traditional at Easter Vigil liturgies to begin in darkness and end at full brightness. Would you increase the light gradually, or all at once? Where in the narrative would the lights go up?
  8. I’m not asking you to look up the context of each passage, but if you do notice something being conspicuously out of context by all means make a note of it.

Further Reading

Michael G. Azar, Exegeting the Jews: The Early Reception of the Johannine Jews. Bible in Ancient Christianity 10. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Excursus: How we listen to music

The important point, whether or not it is made more clear by thinking about how we listen to music, is that meaning is a function of context and the changing of that context, deliberate manipulation or otherwise, creates or changes meaning. You don’t have to read this or care about music to do well in the course.

When my parents, the first crop of baby boomers, started consuming music the dominant medium was the single record, which played one song per side at 45 revolutions per minute. Long play (LP) records could hold several songs on a side at 33 revolutions per minute. The collection of songs onto a LP record could be a decision of the producer after the fact, without input from composers and songwriters. A long play record could also be a collection of “greatest hits” over many years and recording sessions. At some point, however, artists began to conceive of their musical creations not just one song at a time, but as a complete album. The Beach Boys, with their album “Pet Sounds,” are credited with innovating the concept album. The Beatles followed suit with their album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In both cases the songs on the album have both unity and sequence. If you listened to the same songs as part of a random mix of music by the Beatles you would have a different experience. If you listened to the album in “random” sequence (which did not exist at the time) you would have a different experience. It is no coincidence that this way of making music correlated with the Beatles ceasing to tour and perform live. A set list of a live performance is usually different from the sequence of an album (although I know of three exceptions: The Rolling Stones, U2, and They Might Be Giants toured with live performances of an album in sequence). Artists also gave thought to where the break between side A and side B of the vinyl record would interrupt the album-listening experience. On the original compact disc issue of Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever” he created an artificial interruption to simulate the break experienced by stopping to turn over the record (which was not necessary or possible on compact discs). Compact discs could hold more music than a LP record, not just per side but total, so artists and producers increasingly thought about duration and pacing.

Meanwhile, magnetic tape allowed home enthusiasts to make their own compilations from music recorded off the radio, vinyl, compact discs, and other tapes. The cassette tape in particular popularized this option. Teenage boys in the late eighties would try to impress girls not just with gifts of stolen music, but expressive new creations called “mixtapes.” The best of these were not just collections of favorite songs or songs around a particular theme. A mixtape (or CD once writable compact discs became affordable around the turn of the century) could have a meaningful sequence. A narrative arc could be constructed. Not just the lyrics, but the tempo and orchestration could construct a sequence of moods. The silence between songs could be compressed or expanded to convey urgency or suspense. Listening to the same songs on “random” would have a very different effect. In fact, random was pretty much impossible for a while. A jukebox could be kind of random. Compact discs could play tracks on the same disc in random sequence. Some players could switch between discs, but only with a very annoying delay. Computers and the iPod were responsible for truly random sequencing of large music libraries. Music suggestion services such as Pandora claim to predict music you might like based on other music liked or disliked. The default way to play an artist in Spotify sequences from most to least played tracks across all users. All these changes in how we listen to music impact how artists and producers create music.

Some forms of interpretation of the history of Israel might be more likenable to remixes and mashups. Even a mixtape like a lectionary is itself an interpretation of the history of Israel.