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“Nostra Aetate” at 50 (Essay #2 of 2):
The Impact of Lay Jews’ Independent Gospel Study

The period between Gibson’s Passion (2004) and this year’s 50th anniversary of Vatican II has been marked by an unprecedented and irreversible blossoming of Gospel study by Jews in their own right—scholars and lay Jews alike—notably overriding ancient rabbinic objections. Yet this same period has also seen growing lay disinterest in celebrating significant “Nostra Aetate” anniversaries (cf. Essay #1). What could happen were lay Jews’ deepening independent Gospel study to be channeled into analyzing references to the Gospels in the “Nostra Aetate” documents themselves? Might discussion of these references revitalize waning lay Jewish interest and even meaningfully broaden Catholic horizons as well—about three documents that, after all, are also substantially and significantly about the Jews?

By Michael J. Cook
Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati campus
May 2015

In January 1988, three lay Jews (non-experts in dialogue) independently sent me press clippings analyzing the Erasmus lecture program just held in Manhattan. One headline proclaimed: “Ratzinger—Modern Biblical Scholarship Dilutes Church Teaching.”[1] Here Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (later Pope Benedict XVI), amiably “chided modern exegetes ... for inserting their presuppositions into their study of the scriptures,” adding that “some modern exegesis has ‘ceased being theology.’” While endorsing use of the “historical-critical method” of Bible study, he found “the technique ... subject to perversion by the views of those who use it.” During a follow-up news conference, he distinguished between “what scholars can discuss and what can be taught in the name of the church.”[2]

The “historical-critical” method, sometimes termed “higher criticism,” conjectures how and where disparate Biblical writings or sections thereof originated; also how presentations of persons, events, beliefs, forms of speech, etc., in the Bible developed; how recountings of events, ostensibly reflecting ancient Biblical times, could yet actually constitute retrojection—superimposition—of circumstances from the time of the redactors (requiring us to reconsider the accuracy of information they relate about earlier contexts). Our particular focus could well be on how creative, improvising Gospel writers, in full integrity, may have enlisted and remolded Jesus’ figure to address problems of their day that were not necessarily the case during his own.

It was indeed this second approach that was championed by Ratzinger’s respondent, Fr. Raymond E. Brown, Auburn Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, recipient of twenty-four honorary degrees from Protestant as well as Catholic institutions. Both in his own lecture (“The Contribution of Historical Biblical Criticism to Ecumenical Church Discussion”) and in follow-up conversation, Brown congenially countered that “‘moderate biblical criticism’ served the church well,” even “bolstering the proclamation of the gospel and unifying Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox views.” The New York Times’ Peter Steinfels highlighted Brown’s insistence on a type of scholarship representing a search for a new way of using the Bible that would be “authoritative and church-building,”[3] together with Brown’s claim that Vatican II actually supported the “higher criticism” that characterized and vindicated Brown’s approach![4]

What most piqued my interest, beyond the program notices themselves, was how intrigued my three lay Jewish correspondents were: after all, how could the writings of so highly-reputed a Catholic scholar as Brown champion the “historical-critical” approach—whose various facets (depending on one’s disposition) could extend far beyond Catholic doctrine! The very emphasis that these three lay Jews had found so appealing has essentially now blossomed decades later: namely, an independent burgeoning, within Jewish ranks, of Gospel study often filtered through the type of historical-critical approach advanced by Brown’s own scholarship. This is an especially remarkable development if only because the ancient rabbis had declared exposure to the Gospels off-limits for Jews.[5]

Symbolic and substantive in this modern regard has been 2011’s publication of The Jewish Annotated New Testament,[6] reputable scholarship billed as “clear” and “accessible”—i.e., earmarked also for lay readers, with Jews of course prominently among them. Even more pointedly, the already numerous Jewish scholars contributing to this first edition are to be considerably expanded in the second edition, with publication slated for as soon as 2017. These volumes are but prime examples of what has veritably become an ever-rolling stream of highly respected Jewish books and essay compendia[7] on New Testament, both theologically and historically, many likewise geared also to lay readerships.

Yet production of scholarship is hardly the whole of the matter. What of the synagogue scene, where conversance with New Testament is now becoming a going and growing venture whether in adult education programming, teacher training, counseling interfaith and blended relationships, planning Scholar-in-Residence weekends and synagogue Institutes for Christian Clergy and Seminarians, workshops on how Jews can sensitively yet fully answer questions from Christian friends—in other words, quite a panorama with potential for working profound change.

Evidently, then, proceeding here simultaneously are two watershed reversals—the prospect of whose partnership we may either welcome as compatible or resist as mutually exclusive. The first reversal is the Vatican turnabout represented by the three-document “Nostra Aetate” complex (as outlined in Essay #1).[8] The second, independently, is the reversal by Jewish forays—widely-inclusive of Jewish laity however defined—into historical criticism of the Gospels themselves. A Catholic accommodation here of this lay Jewish interest would open new channels for discussion, attractive to lay Jews especially and likely lay Catholics as well, potentially reversing what we witness to be dwindling Jewish lay interest in “Nostra Aetate” programs not to mention anniversary celebrations.

Recall here the Jewish lay proclivity for historical, not theological, exploration, brought into high relief in Michael Harvey’s M.A. survey[9] (see Essay #1):

QUESTION: ... Roman Catholic clergy, academicians, or other ... officials familiar with “Nostra Aetate” view it primarily in theological terms whereas lay Jews so familiar do so primarily in historical (and non-theological) terms. (A large 50%, of 762 respondents, agreed; only 6% disagreed; 44% were non-committal. Of those offering definitive responses, almost 90% agreed.)

Consider in this light joint Catholic-Jewish study generated by merely the five following focal examples of Gospel texts alluded to directly or indirectly within the “Nostra Aetate” complex itself:

Focus #1 —Where Are Pilate and Rome?

Each document of the “Nostra Aetate” complex—in 1965, 1974, 1985—frees Jews from collective, perpetual blame for Jesus’ death.[10] Yet in all three solely Jews remain pronounced culpable, now just fewer of them. Absent is what countless Catholic historians readily acknowledge: that Rome and its puppet governor, Pontius Pilate, were also (even primarily) instrumental in Jesus’ death—for crucifixion was a Roman punishment; the high priest was always beholden to the Roman governor; with “King of the Jews” on Jesus’ placard worded from Rome’s perspective and signaling a crime against Rome (since none but the Emperor could legitimately claim that title[11]).

The first-century historian, Josephus, in structuring tiers of authority in Judea, places the Roman governor as overlord of the high priest (not vice versa), and with the power of ready dismissal of his underling. By far the longest overlapping—i.e., joint tenure—of Roman governor and Jewish high priest was that of Pilate (26-36 CE) over Caiaphas (18-37 CE),[12] all but guaranteeing consonance of Caiaphas’ actions with directives from his superior. This renders inconceivable Caiaphas’ alleged convening of a Sanhedrin trial for Jesus unless at Pilate’s direction—assuming that Jesus’ Sanhedrin trial was not a fiction to begin with.[13] Josephus terms James’ Sanhedrin trial in 62 CE illegal (Ant XX.ix.1; 197-203) because it was convened solely at the high priest’s behest (given a temporary vacancy to be filled as soon as the successor governor, already on the road, arrived). Were this rule likewise operative in Jesus’ own time, ca. 30, his (presumed legal) Sanhedrin trial would have had to be Roman-directed by Pilate, and not at all the Jewish high priest’s independent doing.

The “Guidelines” (1974) and “Notes” (1985), instead of refining the incorrect formulation in “Nostra Aetate” itself, actually solidify it by their strict verbatim repetition of its wording—this on the matter of such overwhelming priority and consequence to modern Jews. Here we have theological retention without needed historical elaboration and revision (incorporating acknowledgment of Roman involvement). Independent attempts by Catholic scholars to introduce such historical-critical correctives cannot compete, in either gravitas or circulation, with the three revered Vatican documents.[14] This is a potential subject for discussion that could help revitalize currently waning lay Jewish interest in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Focus #2—Jesus’ (Fictional?) Trial and the Mel Gibson Ordeal

A stark example of ineffectualness of even major documents ancillary to the “Nostra Aetate” complex is 1988’s Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, issued by the (then) National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It averred that “the historical and biblical questions surrounding the notion that there was a formal Sanhedrin trial [of Jesus] argue for extreme caution and, perhaps, even abandoning the device.”[15] Nevertheless, how routinely do discussions at many Catholic-Jewish conference sessions proceed by presupposing the Sanhedrin trial’s historicity—even citing as factual the speaking parts assigned Jesus and Caiaphas, excluding the NCCB's 1988 cautionary document as if of no consequence at all. (Further, these alleged speaking parts in the Sanhedrin, as Mark introduces them, appear improvised in cadence and content from those Mark assigned to Jesus’ interview with Pilate.[16])

In 2004, the Film Review Office of the Catholic News Service concluded both that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did not fuel antisemitism and also that readers should “recall the teachings of the Second Vatican Council’s decree, ‘Nostra Aetate.’”[17] This odd self-contradiction left countless Jews and Catholics baffled, likely none more so than the seven scholar-readers (four Catholic; three Jewish)[18] originally invited by the Catholic Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs to assess an advance Gibson script. All seven independently written evaluations concurred in decrying the script’s Sanhedrin and Barabbas (among multiple other) scenes. Further, much of Gibson’s fictional material turned out to be transparently lifted from the transcribed version of outlandish visions by an early nineteenth-century antisemitic German Augustinian nun (Ann Catherine Emmerich, 1774-1824[19]), and hence could not have emanated from the first century Gospels at all!

In this official film review, then, we have the theological approach trumping the historical. As Fr. John Pawlikowski later framed matters: “... by and large, church leadership failed to expose ‘The Passion of the Christ’ as a carrier of classical Christian antisemitism. In light of the experience of the Holocaust there was need for a clear-cut repudiation of the film in this regard. [Instead,] silence, and even outright support for the film, dominated Christian institutional responses.”[20]

My own March 2004 response in the Forward newspaper, neutrally titled “An Insider’s Account of the Mel Gibson Ordeal,” avowed that “the solid bridge of trust Jews thought they had with the Church now lies exposed as merely a drawbridge, readily in raised position when it is most needed by us for direct access and support.”[21] Indeed, if we have to pinpoint when the decline of Jewish interest in Vatican II anniversaries accelerated in earnest it was with this 2004 litmus test ignoring the historical-critical approach. (This was just prior to the 40th anniversary celebration of 2005.) Rampant now was the (later borne-out) fear that Gibson’s film would become the educational benchmark neutralizing, if not displacing altogether, the many gains in Catholic text-book revision (indeed the film rapidly became, and has remained, a benchmark for many Christian children’s education and even a standard for Holy Week observance by our troops abroad[22]). This is a potential subject for discussion that could help revitalize currently waning lay Jewish interest in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Focus #3—“The Hybrid Riddle”

In my experience, the single most frequently posed question from Jews respecting Christian theology is the paradox that I have coined the “Hybrid Riddle.”[23] It arises from the simultaneous affirmation of two mutually exclusive Christian theological propositions:

Harnessing together these two contrasting propositions generates the question: if it was indispensable for the world’s redemption that Jesus die, and if the Jews were a vital cog in effecting that “benefit,” then why “blame” Jews for Jesus’ death rather than praise them for their alleged key role in effecting humankind’s redemption? (Note here the parallel with the Judas story, all the more so if “Judas” signals “Jews.”[24])

Remarkably, the “Hybrid Riddle” is actually imbedded also, and even, within the “Nostra Aetate” text itself (emphases added):

BLAME:“... the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today....”

BENEFIT: “Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation.”

Fruitful dialogue has not been served when, in this connection, Jews have heard explanations of a theological “mystery” that by the same people through whom “Christ” died was the world redeemed; or that God’s plan required human agency, with the Jews that chosen instrumentality. Instead, some historical-critical resolution of this conundrum is called for—possibly along the lines that “benefit” was inferred from as early as the 30s, but “blame” was belatedly summoned to the fore once Christians began facing intense persecution by Rome (as during Nero’s reign in the early 60s)—since to protect themselves Christians needed to blame someone instead of Rome for the otherwise identifiably Roman punishment of crucifying Jesus as “King of the Jews.”[25] It was by the Gospels’ blaming of recalcitrant Jews (post 70 C.E.), in lieu of Rome, that a Jew put to death by Rome became a Christian put to death by Jews. This is a potential subject for discussion that could help revitalize currently waning lay Jewish interest in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Focus #4—Retrojection: “... Reflect Christian-Jewish-Relations Long after the Time of Jesus”

Uniquely, the “Notes” themselves (1985) make one “historical-critical” concession: “certain [Gospel] controversies reflect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus” (IV.A; cf. IV D.), correctly explained by Eugene Fisher to mean “actually hav[ing] their historical context … in the last decades of the first century” rather than in the time assigned to Jesus’ ministry itself.[26] But should not this judgment also be commonly applied elsewhere (i.e., beyond instances of Jesus’ alleged controversy traditions)? Major specific examples could include:

And literally dozens of other examples warrant this kind of attention.[29] This historical process rather than the theological is a potential subject for discussion that could help revitalize currently waning lay Jewish interest in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Focus #5 — The Shadow Side of “Typology”

The “Notes” read: “typological interpretation consists in reading the Old Testament as preparation and, in certain aspects, outline and foreshadowing of the New ....”[30] Examples cited there include the Exodus, passing through the Red Sea, the rock in the wilderness, and so forth.[31] Even while the “Notes” were being fashioned, however, some Catholic Biblicists objected to any inclusion of typology—that this would appear regressive and inconsistent with the very flavor of “Nostra Aetate,” especially because it could be inferred as supersessionism.[32]

Many lay Jews, even though but newly-grounded in historical-critical thinking, are already confident of an alternative accounting: that what appears to be typological prediction, foreshadowing details of Gospel episodes, could instead be conformance by developing Gospel tradition specifically to match antecedent Jewish Scriptural themes. Examples could include details from the scene of Jesus on the cross (cf. Psalm 22:6-8,13,16-18); intimation of Jesus’ conception (cf. Isa 7:11-17); the nature of Jesus’ sufferings (cf. Isa 53:1-12); his alleged burial in the tomb of a rich man in Matthew (cf. Isa 53:9); and so forth. Most impactful would be the seeming correlation of Jeremiah’s Passion with that of Jesus: for were Jesus’ Passion so heavily modeled on Jeremiah’s,[33] then a literary device ultimately became misapplied as a pretext for murdering countless Jews.

Meanwhile, for typology to be so riskily intruded into but the third, the latest, document of the “Nostra Aetate” complex, and decades after 1965—while typology was absent from the two predecessor documents—caused for Jews a despairing loss of confidence that dialogue would always be progressive, not regressive. This is a potential subject for discussion that could help revitalize currently waning lay Jewish interest in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Conclusion—Clashing Signals: Doctrinal vs. Historical-Critical

Our opening theme of this, Essay #2, the Ratzinger/Brown debate, described a championing by one party of historical-critical dimensions as seemingly working in tandem even with those doctrinal. True, the context of that discussion was in the main intra-Catholic, while ours is Catholic-Jewish. But must Catholic-Jewish dialogue be so heavily weighted to the theological when intra-Catholic dialogue can evidently not be?

As for both of my essays, my aim has been not to question Catholics’ prerogative to shape their own doctrinal documents but to posit the urgent question: Will we continue to ignore the evident waning of lay Jewish interest in “Nostra Aetate”? Should we not try to stem, indeed to reverse it?

Since innumerable Catholic theologians are themselves well-schooled and published in historical-critical matters, Jews are puzzled why, during “Nostra Aetate” discourse, such experts often readily shift into a doctrinal mode that appears to banish, or at least “vanish,” the historical-critical approach altogether. Jews can understand the proposition of Cardinal Ratzinger's Erasmus lecture: the difference between “what scholars can discuss and what can be taught in the name of the church.” Yet Jews in Catholic-Jewish dialogue wish no trespass on Catholic sensibilities, only to express how Jews themselves may think. Cannot what Catholic scholars may indeed “discuss” among themselves be opened to engagement by lay Catholics and Jews along with them? Otherwise—it being impossible to have it both ways—we may have to resign ourselves to continued dwindling of lay Jewish attention to significant Vatican II anniversaries, disappointing many Jews’ and many Catholics’ original, understandable, and laudable expectations and hopes.


[1] See Charles Austin, Religious News Service Daily Reports, Jan 29, 1988: 1-2.

[2] 1988 Erasmus Lecture, “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict …,” in Ratzinger, God’s Word: Scripture, ed. P. Hünermann and T. Söding, trans. H. Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008), 91-126.

[3] Peter Steinfels, “Cardinal Is Seen as Kind, if Firm, Monitor of Faith,” New York Times, Feb 1, 1988.

[4] Treating the program: Pablo T. Gadenz, “Overcoming the Hiatus between Exegesis and Theology: Guidance and Examples from Pope Benedict XVI.” In Verbum Domini and the Complementarity of Exegesis and Theology, ed. Scott M. Carl (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 41-62.

[5] E.g., Tosefta Shabbat 13:5; cf. Tosefta Yadaim 2:13.

[6] The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler, eds. (New York: Oxford, 2011).

[7] Most notably collected essays in Teaching the Historical Jesus: Issues and Exegesis, Z. Garber, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2015); The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, ibid. (W. Lafayette: Purdue, 2011).

[8] “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions ‘Nostra Aetate,’” Oct 28, 1965: n. 4; “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’ (n. 4),” Oct 22, 1974; “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church,” Jun 24, 1985. A fourth document not here included: “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” (Mar 16, 1998)—falls outside the parameters of the other three; is relatively removed from scriptural matters; and very likely much less familiar to Jews and most Catholics).

[9] “‘Nostra Aetate’ and the Abiding Response: the Case of Fifty-Years of Graduates of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion” (Cincinnati: HUC-JIR, 2015).

[10] “Nostra Aetate” 4; “Guidelines,” III - Teaching and Education”; “Notes” IV - The Jews in the New Testament 2.

[11] Michael J. Cook, Modern Jews Engage the New Testament, 3rd (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2012), 136-47, 223-24.

[12] Ant XX.x.1; 224-30 / cf. Ant XVIII.ii.1-2; 26-35. Cook, Modern Jews, 47; sources outside the Gospels portray Pilate as so cruel that Rome removed him (War II.ix.2-4; 169-77 / Ant XVIII.iii.1-3, iv.1-2; 55-64, 85-89; cf. Lk 13:1; Philo, Embassy Gaius, 299-305).

[13] By the Gospel Dynamic that I term “aggrandizing,” a mere “consultation” Friday morning (Mark 15:1) became expanded into a full-fledged trial the evening before in the supreme court of the land (14:53,55-65). Cook, “Is Jesus’ Nighttime Sanhedrin Trial an Aggrandizement of Friday Morning's ‘Consultation’”?; ibid., Modern Jews, 135, 138–40, 143, 146, 154, 352.

[14] Philip A. Cunningham, Pondering the Passion. P. Cunningham, ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 150-51; Eugene J. Fisher, In Our Time, eds. E. Fisher and L. Klenicki (New York: Paulist, 1990), 15-16; also Within Context, Sec. for Catholic Jewish Relations, NCCB; Adult Educ. Dep’t., USCC; Interfaith Affairs Dep’t., ADL (1986), 67-69.

[15] Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988), Section C.

[16] Cook, Modern Jews, Fig. 12.4 on p. 139.


[18] Roman Catholics: Mary Boys (Union Theological Semin.); Philip Cunningham (St. Joseph’s Univ.); Lawrence Frizell (Seton Hall Univ.); John Pawlikowski (Catholic Theological Union). Jews: Michael Cook (HUC-JIR, Cincinnati): Paula Fredriksen (Boston Univ.); Amy-Jill Levine (Vanderbilt Univ.).

[19] At the Convent of Agnetenberg, Dulmen, Westphalia. See The Sorrowful (Dolorous) Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Atlanta: Anvil Publishers), 2005.

[20] Further, “despite the fact that many scholars and sensitive lay people did clearly raise the issue of the film’s antisemitic potential” (John T. Pawlikowski, “Gibson’s Passion in the Face of the Shoah’s Ethical Considerations,” Cunningham, ed., Pondering, 159-60).

[21] The editor substituted an inflammatory headline: “The Bishops’ Cop-Out,” The Forward (March 4, 2004). Also, Cook, “An Insider's Account of the Mel Gibson Ordeal,” The Chronicle (HUC-JIR), #63 (2004), 15.

[22] As videos from watching news coverage render obvious.

[23] Cook, Modern Jews, 128-29.

[24] At the Last Supper, Jesus announces that he “goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom [he] ... is betrayed!” (Mk 14:21 & parr). Note the assonance of “Judas” and “Jew”; and their virtually identical spelling in Greek, Ioudas (Judas) and Ioudaios (Jew), also Hebrew, Yehuda and Yehudi—suggesting intentional equation.

[25] Christians would be fearful that the founder to whom they traced themselves had been crucified, a Roman punishment for insurrectionists; also that the “Christian” movement was known to have stemmed from a land mired in rebellion against Rome by Jewish insurgents with whom Christian-Jews could readily be confused since Christians worshiped the Jewish God, and shared Jewish scripture and other facets of Jewish belief, liturgy, festival practice, even family ties. Cf. Tacitus, Annals xv.44.

[26] Fisher, Within Context, 61.

[27] The commonly assumed provenance in the judgment of perhaps most scholars.

[28] Reuven Kimelman, “Birkat Ha-Minim and the Lack of Evidence for an Anti-Christian Jewish Prayer in Late Antiquity,” E. P. Sanders et al., eds., Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 235 n. 58.

[29] Cf. Cook, 352-54.

[30] “Notes” II: Relations between the Old and New Testament, 5 and passim. Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation “Dei Verbum” (Nov 18, 1965), n. 16, cited in Guidelines, III - Teaching and Education.

[31] “Notes” II. Relations between the Old and New Testament—also admitting that such readings may constitute a problem in Jewish-Catholic relations, and should not preclude the viability of alternative interpretive options.

[32] Further analysis: Fisher, In Our Time, 13-14.

[33] Jeremiah was a righteous Jew speaking for God, defying the religious establishment, demanding they amend their ways, and threatening the Temple’s destruction (a “den of robbers” [7:11]). Threatened in turn by priests with death, Jeremiah warned they could bring innocent blood upon themselves. A vacillating civil authority (reluctant to heed priests’ demands) pronounced him innocent. Later, the Temple was destroyed as the just man warned.

Comments (6)

You ask in the first essay for us to consider the idea that the Evangelists edited their story 'in full faith'. If this means 'in good faith' I would suggest that it cannot be a presumption of historical enquiry that one's sources wrote or acted in good faith or with good information: that is among the things that have to be tested. Further, that anyone attempting historical enquiry has in some degree to forget about Catholic/Protestant/Jewish identity and be prepared for conclusions that are unwelcome to religious tradition, whatever that tradition may be.
I don't see how it can reasonably be questioned that the Evangelists were in part influenced by their being involved in hot controversies after 70. However, I wouldn't agree that the only rational basis (though it is a possible rational conclusion) for enquiry into the trials of Jesus is that the Jewish authorities were actuated by the Romans, not the other way round. There's nothing in principle strange about the idea an imperial administrator wanting to please the local supporters of his administration and acting accordingly.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 05/15/2015 - 22:03

Dear Martin,

My response is too long for but one entry -- so I will add one or more others after this, in sequence.

I believe I understand, and even agree with, some of your points. However, the “sports” field on which I’m playing is not factored into you answer. Let us keep our eye on “my ball,” please -- which you have not cited: namely, interest in Nostra Aetate dialogue among lay Jews is waning, and after 50 years what are we going to do about it? THIS was my concern. Have you viewed my essay through another lens entirely? I have chosen to walk a tight-rope that may not have been factored into your thinking. I do not wish to fall off that rope and thereby undermine my goal.

[1] My assessment is that anti-Judaism is reflected within the very core of certain sections of the Gospels -- not simply that the Church (as via the Fathers) introduced a new problem by initiating misinterpretation. But in an essay imploring the Church today to widen its heralded discussions between Catholic and Jews, I am treading on very sensitive -- indeed DELICATE -- ground. It will not further the cause of better relations today, involving laypeople not just clergy and academicians, to impute “dishonesty” to the Evangelists, especially when I see no reason to justify such an assertion. Much of polemical writing is nonetheless expressed in sincerity. Nor can the Church easily smile on an option of dishonesty, and this I understand. I believe that inflammatory or deprecatory texts in the Gospels (against Jews) were, whatever their unfortunate consequences, the firm attitude of the writers who did not view themselves as liars or fabricators but rather were writing “in full faith” that they were correct.

Without my striking such a conciliatory note -- that I do NOT regard the Evangelists as malicious but rather as reporting accruing traditions and as reporting their own improvisations -- I might as well withhold my 2 essays.

This is the stance I feel is appropriate to the “ball I am swinging at.” I believe you will admit that I repeatedly emphasized MY objective throughout both my essays: how to re-interest modern LAY Jews in engaging Catholic counterparts.

Why indeed my repetition of this aim so frequently in both essays? PRECISELY BECAUSE I anticipated your genre of reaction -- which is valid, indeed, but which I nonetheless expected for that very reason. I was being pre-emptive, but I see I did not pre-empt YOUR personal however understandable reaction.

Do not my Catholic colleagues themselves find proper my suggestion in which they themselves should be invested, lest we allow dialogue to deteriorate into an ever-shrinking circle of the enthused? If pressed, many of them would agree (have agreed). To repeat, the road to success in dialogue is not furthered by any intimation that the Evangelists were dishonest in their own minds, especially when I don’t believe they were. (Reply continued in next entry.)
#2 - Michael J. Cook - 05/16/2015 - 19:31

(Continuation of response to Martin -- section 2 of (I hope only) 2)

[2] Your 2nd query likewise redirects the purpose of my essays. I am second to none in being prepared “for conclusions that are unwelcome to religious tradition, whatever that tradition may be.” But I honor the goal of the Nostra Aetate complex as to BEGIN a process of continual progress toward a better future, not as cutting off most Jews from hearing discussed what interests THEM -- and for most lay Jews it is not Church doctrine that is of persisting interest. This explains my repeated recourse to the emphasis in the “Guidelines” and “Notes” on Catholics understanding how Jews see themselves. Well which Jews? Our theologians only -- including Jewish? If so, then no wonder lay Jews have diminished their interest.

Lay-Jews, as per Harvey’s study, are HISTORICALLY-minded, not theologically-mind. Nor am I relying on Harvey’s study: this observation has been obvious for years. Harvey's study has only mirrored (but confirmed) what has been obvious. Jewish-Catholic relations are far more than those among theologians and scholars.

[3] As for there being “nothing in principle strange about the idea of an imperial administrator wanting to please the local supporters of his administration and acting accordingly,” I direct you to the premises on which I base my wording of the matter. If there are legitimate TEXTAL grounds for disputing whether Jesus ever had a Sanhedrin trial -- regardless of whether or not there could be a certain plausibility to such a happening -- then the close examination of the Gospel texts themselves makes it (in my view) glaringly unlikely if not impossible that the Sanhedrin trial ever occurred.

Your recourse is to a broad theoretical possibility. Mine is to idiosyncratic clues in Mark’s text that make it (I feel) utterly transparent that a Sanhedrin trial was fabricated and interpolated by Mark himself (i.e., de novo) into an earlier received Passion tradition lacking this: an aggrandizement of Friday morning’s mere “consultation,” to serve Mark's interests in having Jesus undergo a trial fitting to his grandeur. Yes, I am an advocate of a short pre-Markan Passion Narrative passed down from earlier decades, producing the essence of what early Christians would have formulated as their understand ing of Jesus' last days. Mark is consequential here because his version started the process that later Gospels embellished.

(Notice that I 100% avoid Rabbinic descriptions of the Sanhedrin which I deem utterly irrelevant to the Gospel issue.)

I have elsewhere outlined this argument -- virtually “proof,” in my view -- both briefly and exhaustively (see below). Further, Mark followed this parallel editorial pattern on other issues as well, throughout his Gospel -- stylistic fingerprints for other expansions of a written pre-Marcan Passion tradition.

If interested, please see:

BRIEFLY: “Is Jesus' Nighttime Sanhedrin Trial an Aggrandizement of Friday Morning's ‘Consultation’?”

#3 - Michael J. Cook - 05/16/2015 - 19:33

Thanks for very full reply. We are taking a break in Burgubdy and perhaps thinking too much about wine but I promise to re-read your previous remarks, which I think I filed mentally at the time as impressive but not quite conclusive, as one does. I suppose I would like that 'broad possibility' in the relationship between imperial power and local elites be generally acknowledged in discussions of this topic!
#4 - Martin Hughes - 05/19/2015 - 20:00

Thank you very much for your interesting essays. It is I feel unfortunate that I have some other commitments that are very pressing at the moment, but I would like to say something touching upon your primary question, which had also been central in your previous contribution; namely, Your concern that " interest in Nostra Aetate dialogue among lay Jews is waning, and after 50 years what are we going to do about it?" ¨¨

First of all, I must ask about your strategy. That is, why are you asking us?--the readers of this on-line journal about Vatican interests in Nostra Aetate dialogue among lay Jews? Do you think that dialogue reflected what Catholics think about Jews? Hardly! Moreover, Why should lay Jews be interested in the so-called "nostra aetate dialogue? What does this dialogue, which began in an assembly of bishops back in 1965 reflect for them? Certainly, if they were concerned about how Jews and Catholics might understand each other better, this "dialogue" of Catholic mafia bosses and power brokers should be quite secondary. rather, one needs to address the Catholic correspondents of your Jewish layity. Did you really think that these bishops over the years were really engaged in dialogue? Many Catholics were interested in such dialogue--and I suspect that that was what had first interested so many Jewish layity. But these bosses of the church were oriented towards other agendas. I would suggest as a first principle for dialogue that the interested Jewish layity address their discourse to Catholics who are open to such dialogue--not to bishops. It is so simple. I found Mel Gibson's film deeply anti-semitic and a scandal. Let's forget about nostra ætate; it was a liberal outburst that Ratzinger did his best to retract. But, put with that. He is not the church.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#5 - Thomas L. Thompson - 06/02/2015 - 00:13

#6 - Responding to Professor Thompson

Your provocativeness never disappoints! Thank you!

[1] Your question of my “strategy” in posting this material on this forum perhaps is better rendered my “purpose.” Many of my personal friends are Catholic theologians also grounded in historical-critical study. Deeply, they deem the Nostra Aetate watershed the raison d’être for their core work. Yet discussions often tend to be in closed-circle. Our forum here can reputably drum home from an “outside” circle that genuine celebration of the 50th anniversary requires sounding alerts if all is not well. The alarm I sound needs to be spread to readerships outside inner circles. I thus see this forum as apt: critical thinkers, not having encountered this “voice crying in the wilderness,” might wish to show my two essays to others?

[2] I want to relieve pressure on Jews puzzled why they don’t much “feel like” attending celebrations expected of them. Might there be gravitas in reading a Jewish scholar (in New Testament) announcing: "interest in Nostra Aetate dialogue among lay Jews is waning, and after 50 years what are we going to do about it?"? I propose sample measures. (Could they be undertaken by Jews? I’ve taught required technical New Testament courses to over 1,000 rabbinical seminary students later occupying pulpits yesteryear and today -- I can specify many who could become interested.)

[3] In an unprecedented break-through, still other Jews are entering New Testament scholarship. How apt for them at this “anniversary” would be examining for the first time those very Church documents now being again celebrated, and recommending historical-critical challenges as a subject of dialogue. More Catholics would then have to ponder taking this idea to heart.

[4] As for your query about “Bishops,” it is axiomatic that changes of bishops also change even overnight local Jewish-Catholic relations -- for better, also for worse. Hence the bishops indeed matter most.

[5] Antisemitism is a recurring “radioactive” fear for Jews. A particularly rough recurrence -- with apparently little to impede its further expansion -- is upon us. Jews need non-Jewish friends politically as well as religiously. This is a time for IMPROVING Jewish-Catholic discourse, but to do so things must improve on the issues I raise: enhancing rigorous substance. The waning of Jewish lay interest comes at a terrific cost, a factor you may not have considered but which matters much.

Again, thank you. Michael Cook, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati
#6 - Michael J. Cook - 06/02/2015 - 19:33

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