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Prophetic Continuity

A Review of Basic Principles

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Matthew 5:17

As already mentioned elsewhere, “Judeochristianity” is not a new religion nor is it intended to replace either Judaism or Christianity. It is a perspective on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible based on the principle of prophetic continuity.

“Prophetic continuity” is a way of seeing the Bible as representing a continuous whole. Prophetic continuity considers both sets of writings (both “testaments”) to be works of prophecy, connected in a very important way. It avoids the term “Old Testament” in favor of the term now used by most modern Bible scholars, the “Hebrew Bible.” The Hebrew Bible is not something “old” to be replaced by a “newer” Bible. While the purpose of each is different, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament belong together and are related to each other.

Judaism and Christianity have lived in tension for two thousand years. But things have changed, history has evolved to the point of making possible a dialogue between these two faiths that could not have existed earlier. This perspective represents the great hope of building a bridge of understanding between Judaism and Christianity. Neither Jew nor Christian need give up anything of consequence in appreciating this approach, which deeply respects and is grateful for both of these great religious traditions.

What exactly do we mean by “continuity”? What is being “continued” from one set of writings to the other? The scritpures themselves show a variety of style and content, so where exactly is the common thread? That which is continued and amplified throughout the scriptures is the idea of the “Covenant.”

The essence of the Covenant is that God exists and is intimately involved in human life. The Bible presents the Covenant in the form of a reciprocal promise: the covenanted people pledge to follow God’s will, and God promises to be present with them, guiding them and caring for them. This way of putting it may need some reinterpretation to speak to modern audiences, especially to those who do seek faith but feel God has abandoned them. What we can say even today is that belief in the Covenant means believing that God is an active influence in the lives of human beings, not merely a helpless spectator as many contemporary theologians propose, or the disinterested deistic “watchmaker” who sets the mechanism and then lets it run entirely on its own.

The purpose of this reflection is to assert the presence in the Bible of the idea of a God who is actively involved in human affairs, and the continuous development of this idea throughout the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Bible scholars will point out, rightfully so, that one cannot really locate a single unified theology in the Bible, that ideas change along with time, place, and history. Nevertheless, the present perspective recognizes an inspired wisdom in the redaction and compilation of the diverse ideas and sources that make up the Bible, and it is possible to trace throughout this diversity some important common themes. The most central of these is the assertion of an active relationship between God and human beings. This is what we have been calling “Covenant.”

In broad terms, the connection between the Hebrew and Greek scriptures is this: The Hebrew Bible describes the growing awareness of the covenantal relationship in the experience of the Hebrew people, while the New Testament extends this awareness to the rest of humanity.

We first see the use of the term “covenant” in God’s relationship with Noah, but because Noah did not attain the awareness of covenant through profound inward struggle and transformation, he failed to acquire it on a deep level and it was not preserved. The struggle to discover the covenantal relationship between God and humanity really begins with Abraham. Abraham was repeatedly tested and transformed, and his relationship with God was deep, deep enough for him to transmit it to his descendants.

The legacy of Abraham passes through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, “Second” Isaiah, as well as the other, lesser-known prophets. What began as a personal search, transmitted to members of a family, eventually became a prophetic teaching and proclamation. It is the news that no matter how precarious or tragic the conditions of life, God is never out of reach, and is always available to transform one’s life in a positive direction. God is not the passive sympathetic spectator of modern popular theology, but “a very present help in trouble.” “When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13) - this is the message of Covenant.

Jesus began his career solidly within the tradition of Hebrew prophecy. His mentor was Isaiah, and he echoed Isaiah’s message of God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed, and also God’s rejection of religious hypocrisy and rituals that have lost their meaning. Compare the following sets of prophecies from Jesus and Isaiah, and see how similar they are:

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:1-5)

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. (Matthew 6:16)

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” (Matthew 23:1-7)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. (Matthew 10:29-30)

Note the common themes: a thirst for justice, condemnation of hypocrisy, and affirmation of the covenantal relationship between God and the people. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that Jesus’s criticism of the religious authorities of his day should not be read as a Christian critique of Judaism. If these criticisms are historical (there is no firm scholarly consensus about this, and in any case most readers will react to them as historical), they represent a dispute within the borders of Judaism. Jesus, like Isaiah, condemns empty, meaningless rituals and calls the people to return to what these religious practices were originally meant to represent. Jesus did not intend, any more than Isaiah did, to criticize his own religion from the viewpoint of another.

In all likelihood Jesus did see himself as continuing the line of Hebrew prophecy. He specifically directed his disciples to preach the message only to their fellow Jews (Matthew 10:5-6). But something happened that made him change his focus, and helped him discover the full implications of his prophetic destiny.

One day Jesus met a Canaanite woman who asked him to help her troubled daughter. At first he rudely dismisses her, telling her he was sent to minister only to his own people. But he is so impressed by her persistence and her faith that he relents and helps her too (Matthew 15:22-28). After that, Jesus makes no distinction among the people he was called upon to serve. When asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies with the Parable of the Good Samaritan: the neighbor whom we are called upon to love as we love ourselves may not necessarily be a member of our own ethnic or religious group (Luke 10:29-37).

After this, the resurrected Jesus instructs his followers: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Compare this again with Isaiah: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Jesus takes the universalism of the Hebrew prophets and brings it to its fulfillment.

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33): this is Jesus’ statement of the Covenant in a nutshell. Of course, as Jesus himself knew, what the Covenant promises is not a life free from pain and suffering, but God’s presence shepherding us toward the fulfillment of our destiny. And this promise applies not just to the Jew but to every sincerely committed follower of this teaching. Jesus took the spiritual legacy of the Hebrew prophets, which they inherited originally from Abraham, and made it accessible to everyone. This is the basic principle of prophetic continuity.

The perspective of prophetic continuity recognizes a vital connection between Judaism and Christianity. In ideal terms, Judaism and Christianity may be considered expressions of different aspects of the covenantal message. The Jews were the “chosen people” in that the proclamation of the Covenant was first revealed in their history as a nation. This proclamation has, since the time of Jesus, become the foundation for anyone and everyone to become “chosen” in this very same sense, to know that they too belong to the covenantal family.

Over the centuries both Judaism and Christianity have crystallized and hardened around firm and irreconcilable ideas concerning the significance of Jesus. But when taken together, the full meaning of Jesus’ message becomes increasingly apparent. Today Jews, without abandoning their Judaism, can come to recognize the place of Jesus within their own prophetic tradition. And Christians, without abandoning their Christianity, can come to appreciate more deeply the roots of their Savior’s message within prophetic Judaism. Hopefully the result will be a religious climate in which adherents of the two traditions can embrace each other, instead of treating each other with suspicion. Christians owe Jews a deep debt of gratitude for having produced the tradition from which Jesus grew, lived, and taught. And Jews owe Christians a deep debt of gratitude for having preserved the teachings of their own greatest prophet.

It is more than regrettable that for so long Jesus has been used to separate rather than unite the members of these two faiths, and even today, for many the chasm remains unbridgeable. But reconciliation seems more possible now than at any previous time in history, and not only possible but necessary as both Jewish and Christian values are under attack. We may only hope that, as more time passes, the life and teaching of Jesus will become increasingly a focus of unity rather than division for people who have for so many years failed to understand one another.

Thanksgiving 2002

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