Learning Christology through Dialogue with Jews

by Allan R. Brockway

If anything has been learned from interreligious dialogue it is that Christians can actually learn something, can gain knowledge or understanding about Christianity they did not previously have. In interreligious dialogue things are learned, not only about other religions, but also about ways in which the relationship between them and Christianity affects one's own religious self-understanding. Learning is far more than the acquisition of data; it is the assimilation of fresh data with that already available in such a way that new conceptualities and new sensibilities emerge, creating new faith re- alities. As Dirk Mulder of the Free University, Amsterdam, says, interreligious dialogue often requires unlearning attitudes and beliefs that had been learned before.

In no field of human endeavor is learning in that sense more evident than in interreligious dialogue. Learning is not automatic in dialogue, however, for it is quite possible to engage in dialogue for many years, coming to know a great deal about another religion, without learning anything about oneself or one's own faith. Likewise, all relations between persons of different religions, or even between the organized expressions of religions, are not properly interreligious. For instance, Jews and Christians may work together for a common social goal, such as racial justice or care for the homeless, without engaging in or learning from interreligious dialogue.

In commending "Guidelines on Dialogue" to its members, the Central Com mittee of the World Council of Churches noted that "To enter into dialogue requires an opening of mind and heart to others. It is an undertaking which requires risk as well as deep sense of vocation."[1] Although much has been said and written about the risk of engaging in interreligious dialogue, the nature of that risk has usually been implied rather than spelled out. The implication, I would suggest, is that Christians might learn something about their own faith, indeed its reality -- learn something that would necessitate change in long-held theological belief. But is not the word risk too loaded? Does it not throw up danger signals when, on the contrary, the "opening of mind and heart to others" should imply hopeful expectation of what God has in store for Christians and the church? Christians have nothing to risk, so long as they have a "deep sense of vocation," the calling to serve the God whom they know through "Jesus Christ our Lord."

It is precisely at the point of their understanding of Christ that interreligious dialogue has proven most problematic for Christian believers. And it is in christology that they have the most to learn from interreligious dialogue and from that with the Jewish people in particular. We may learn christology through dialogue with Jews. The phrasing of that sentence should be noticed. It does not say that Jews teach Christians christology; it does say that through dialogue with Jews Christians learn christology. The learning takes place in the interaction -- the dialogue -- which includes, as a most necessary element, considered reflection upon what is heard from Jewish tradition and history, as it is mediated to Christians by Jews, both in person and through their writing. Dialogue is too frequently understood as limited to talking in arranged seminars and conferences, when the whole range of dialogue encompasses reading, writing, and -- preeminently -- thinking and correlating and integrating. The learning of dialogue usually takes place after the speaking is over, learning that is then tested in further direct interchange.

As we look at the christological learning that has taken place as a consequence of dialogue between Christians and Jews, we should remember that theological learning is not an individual experience only, although that is important; it is a learning of the church. In the last analysis, interreligious dialogue is an ecclesiastical activity; otherwise it can only be an interesting avocation of Christians who elect to engage in it, for whatever reason. The question, then, is not what any one Christian may learn through dialogue, but what has the church to learn, what has church theology to learn? Implicit in the question is another question: what in its theology must church unlearn in order to learn?

The stage was set at the beginning of the Christian movement for its subsequent conflict with Jews and Judaism by a failure to recognize the fundamental difference between the meanings of "Messiah" and "Christ." Although a scholarly consensus holds it unlikely that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, there can be no doubt at all that his followers came to view him as such and that the church, from that time to this, has insisted on the identity: Christ = Messiah (of the Jews). The Jewish people, of course, have denied the equation with equal insistence, to which Christians, throughout most of their history, answered, You had better believe that Jesus is the Messiah -- or it will go very hard for you."

It should not be forgotten, however, that the designation of Jesus as Messiah was almost certainly not the cause of the rupture between the Jesus movement and the Jewish people. As James Parkes, the pioneer in twentieth-century Christian ap- preciation of Jews and Judaism who has curiously been all but ignored by most the- ologians, wrote, "belief in a Messiah was not an invention of Christians; it was a wholly Jewish belief, which Pharisees shared with other Jews. They would have had no ground for opposing a Jew simply on the basis that he claimed to be Messiah."[2] Instead, "The split would appear to have developed not because of Jesus, nor even because of Easter; the issue turned on Jewish fidelity to Torah: when Gentile Christians began telling Jews who believed in Jesus that Torah was no more to be followed by them, then all faithful Jews had to say No."[3] We may conclude that "The Messianic issue is therefore properly concerned with the events consequent on the foundation of the Church and the development of Christology."[4]

Without recapitulating the centuries-long dreary history of these mutually exclusive convictions and their tragic consequences for the Jewish people and the moral credibility of Christianity, it will be sufficient to note that as recently as 1948 the founding Assembly of the World Council of Churches could declare:

It was Israel to whom He promised the coming of His Messiah. By the history of Israel God prepared the manger in which in the fullness of time He put the Redeemer of all mankind, Jesus Christ. The Church has received this spiritual heritage from Israel and is therefore in honour bound to render it back in the light of the Cross. We have, therefore, in humble conviction to proclaim to the Jews, "The Messiah for whom you wait has come." The promise has been fulfilled by the coming ofChrist [5]

Behind that statement lay positions taken by the churches, such as the following submitted to the World Council by the Protestant Federation of France in preparation for the 1948 Assembly:

It is obviously very hard to use this language to the survivors of the Nazi massacres. But Christians cannot attempt to proclaim the Gospel to the Jews unless they begin by affirming that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God, and that their unfaithfulness consists in their refusal to recognize Him as the Messiah foretold in the Prophets.[6]

It is little short of miraculous that the churches who produced these statements could by 1979 state, in the World Council's Guidelines on Dialogue, that "One of the functions of dialogue is to allow participants to describe and witness to their faith in their own terms"[7] The "Guidelines" would seem to rule out, therefore, Christian descriptions of Jews and Judaism that require Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. But a church statement here and there is not sufficient to unlearn what has been learned over nineteen hundred years. In what is perhaps the most significant official Christian affirmation of the Jewish people in recent years, a 1980 declaration of the Synod of the Rhineland could still make reference to "the Messiah of the Jews," [8] and the "Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue," commended to the churches by the WCC's Executive Committee in 1982, could speak of Jesus as "being both Lord and Messiah."[9]

The importance of these statements by duly constituted ecclesiastical bodies lies precisely in the fact that they are, by nature, consensus documents, not the positions of individual clerics or scholars: they reflect official church theology. Might it not, then, come close to heresy to suggest that the hoary formula is not only inexact but wrong? A growing body of participants in the Jewish-Christian dialogue does not think so. On the contrary, they are convinced that clarification of and discrimination between "Christ" and "Messiah" will free Christians to be more faithful to their own history, tradition, and God. As Roman Catholic theologian John T. Pawlikowski says,

It is becoming increasingly clear that nearly every Christian scholar, regardless of how he or she would move in creating a new Christology, has concluded from a serious investigation of the Judaism of Jesus' time that traditional claims for his Messiahship must be dropped as unwarranted on the basis of the data at hand.[10 ]

And what is the data at hand? During the past sixty years research into second- temple Judaism -- the time of Jesus' ministry -- has accelerated (see, for instance, George Foot Moore's Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, and E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism and the bibliographies they contain).

As a result, the use of the word Messiah by Jews of Jesus' day has become more clear. "In addition to the royal concept, Messianic speculation in ancient Judaism included notions of a priestly and prophetic Messiah, and in some cases, of a Messianic figure who would perform all these functions in one. On occasions, furthermore, Messianic brood- ing and reflection went hand-in-hand with the belief that the Anointed had already come. The concealment 'in heaven' and subsequent revelation of a 'pre-existent' Messiah are also alluded to, and although the attestation is late, the figure of a 'slain' Messiah, too."[11]

In the mind of ordinary Jews these various conceptions of the Messiah doubtless were not clearly differentiated. Whether priest or prophet, the Messiah was the redeemer of Israel, descended from King David, who would restore Israel to the autonomy of David's reign, with the abolition of war, sickness, and injustice not only for Israel but for the entire world. In addition, there was the widely-held conviction that the Messiah would be a combination of military leader and righteous judge.[12]

Obviously the activity of Jesus bears little resemblance to that picture of the Messiah. And certainly the history of the church does not bear out any claim that Jesus initiated the messianic age. By no stretch of the imagination, therefore, can Jesus be understood as the "Messiah of the Jews," despite Christian belief. The most that can be claimed is that Jesus was a failed messiah, as was bar Kokba (as opposed to a false messiah like Shabbatai Zevi). Could we then say that Jesus, while not the Messiah of Israel, was and is the Messiah of Christianity? Perhaps. But to do so would be to twist the meaning of the word so out of shape that it would lose meaning altogether. Far better to understand Jesus as Jesus Christ.

Paul van Buren believes that

"None of the possible uses of the term 'Messiah' is sufficient to catch even a modest part of what the Church wants to say of the things concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The term 'Messiah' says far too little. The Church would therefore do well to continue its traditional use of 'Christ' as a proper name and to recall that christology has been its teaching and critical reflection on the importance of this person, not a doctrine concerning the Jewish concept of the Messiah."[13]

Van Buren is right, but he does not go far enough. It is not simply that the term "Messiah" says too little about Jesus, it is that the term "Messiah" says something different from what the term "Christ" says. Not only does the attempt to equate the concepts do violence to the Jewish hope for the Messiah, it hinders if it does not block the development of cogent christologies. Far from the loss of something essential and precious to Christian faith, the recognition that Jesus is not and has never been the "Messiah promised by the prophets" frees Christian thought from the theological dead- end where it has languished for far too long -- and at the same time frees it to relate to the Jewish people in new and mutually beneficial ways. Christians and the churches of which they are a part are beginning to unlearn from their dialogue with Jews.

The necessity to differentiate "Christ" from "Messiah" allows christological development without the necessity to justify it in terms of messianic concepts that can never be accepted by Jews or, for that matter, by Christians. And simultaneously it allows Christians and the church to acknowledge their proper relationship with Jews and the Jewish people (a relationship that has not the slightest similarity to that enunciated by the French Protestants and the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, noted above), in light of the fact that Jesus and all his first followers were Jews in both the cultural and religious senses.

The traditional Christian understanding has been that Jews must recognize Jesus as their Messiah and that it is the duty of Christians -- out of love for the Jews, no less -- to convince them of their error and "bring them to Christ." No Christian "mission" was more important because so long as the Jews, from whom came Jesus "after the flesh," refused to acclaim Jesus as Messiah there continued to be doubt about his legitimate messiahship. What a burden will fall from Christianity -- not to mention the Jewish people -- when it finally, after almost two thousand years, agrees that Jesus was not the Messiah promised by the prophets. The corporate sigh of relief will be almost audible. Paul van Buren foretells the relief when he speaks of

the incredible idea that the Jewish people, the Israel of God, fell within the scope of (the church's) mission to the Gentiles ! . . . That Jesus lived and died a Jew, that all his disciples were Jews, that 'salvation is from the Jews' (John 4:22), was ignored. Having so fully forgotten who the Jewish people were, it was inevitable that the Church should lose its own sense of identity. Such would have to have been the case for it to have invented the theologically impossible notion of a 'mission to the Jews.' The full extent of the apostasy was not seen at the time. In the years 1933 to 1945 it became painfully clear.[14]

So much for what is being unlearned as a consequence of the Christian en- gagement with the Jewish people. What now is to be learned, what shape can christology take once the weight of necessity to prove that Jesus was the Messiah is removed? The temptation is to understand Christianity to be an entirely different religion from Judaism, to be the result of a completely different and fresh revelation from God. To do so would, of course, make Christianity into a parody of itself, for as van Buren emphasizes, Christians worship the God of Israel. Jesus worshipped the God of Israel. Every revelation Christians have of God is revelation of the God of Israel. Nevertheless, Christianity is a different manifestation of the worship of Israel's God than that of Judaism. Christianity and Judaism are two ways of understanding and relating to the same divine reality, with widely divergent historical traditions and symbolic expressions.

The fact that the church began as a reform movement within second-temple Judaism, with no evident intention on the part of Jesus' early followers, including Paul, to establish a separate religion, need not obscure the additional fact that Christianity had indeed become a new religion by the second century, if not before. But it was not -- and is not -- an entirely different religion; it grew from the same "root" (Romans 11:18) as Judaism, worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. The difference between Judaism and Christianity may be indicated by the different meaning and weight given to Messiah and Christ in the respective religions.

Messiah, though important, is not central to Jewish faithfulness. For Chris- tianity, on the other hand, Christ has always been determinative, as its very name indicates. If we assume that Christ equals Messiah, then Messiah is the center-piece of Christian faith. As we have seen, however, that assumption is a linguistic and conceptual impossibility. Although Paul occasionally employs the term, "the Christ" (e.g. Romans 9:5), his usual reference is to "Christ Jesus," "Jesus Christ," simply "Christ" and, most especially, "Jesus Christ our Lord" and "the Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:4,7). The messianic title, with its Pharisaic and Rabbinic significance, became for Paul a part of Jesus' name. He placed the theological and, especially,soteriological emphasis on Lord. Thus, for Paul and the churches that developed from his teaching, the formula is not Christ = Messiah but Christ = Lord. As E. P. Sanders wrote, "Paul's principal conviction was not that Jesus as the Messiah had come, but that God had appointed Jesus Christ as Lord and that he would resurrect or transform those who were members of him by virtue of believing in him."[15]

From an evangelistic or pedagogical perspective, if from no other, it is not difficult to understand why Paul would not want to emphasize "Messiah" a dcescription for Jesus when speaking to Greeks and Romans. What possible legitimacy could the alien Jewish concept have had for them? "Lord," on the other hand, was familiar from the common usage of the mystery and emperor religions among which they lived. But there seems to have been more than practical or strategic reasons for Paul's presentation of Jesus Christ as Lord. The equation, Christ=Messiah=Lord, will not hold. While christos in Greek and mashiah in Hebrew both mean "anointed," and adonai in Hebrew and kyrios in Greek each means "lord," they had different significances in their different societies, cultures, and religious contexts. Although it is true that Jewish readers, then as now, read adonai when they encountered the forbidden-to-pronounce divine name, YHWH, it was a vocalization only, for "the replacement of the Tetragram by Kyrios attested in Old Testament codices copied by Christian scribes does not figure in the relics of Jewish manuscripts of the Greek Bible. In these YHWH is not translated but is kept unchanged, i.e. written in Hebrew letters."[16] If Lord as a title for Jesus came to be a synonym for God, it was not as the result of a simplistic transfer from Jewish usage. The title, Lord, is applied to Jesus frequently throughout the synoptic Gospels to mean "leader" or "teacher." Jesus himself would appear to have rejected the suggestion that it meant more than that: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). Calling Jesus "leader" is not equivalent to doing the will of God. Paul, however, understood the title and its enunciation differently. He wrote that "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved" (Romans 10:9f). The Pauline confession became the basic affirmation in the subsequent church. The line between Jesus as Lord and Jesus as Messiah apparently was blurred in the early church, although the distinction was made. Thus the author of the third Gospel reported Peter, preaching at Pentecost, as saying, "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ (Messiah), this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36).

The author of the Gospel of John, for whom nothing was more important than believing Jesus to be the Messiah, also kept the titles separate. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus (in John's Gospel) speaks with Martha:

"Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world" (John 11:23-27).

This passage illustrates one of the ways the standard Pharisaic understanding of the Messiah was transformed into later belief in Christ. Martha articulates the clear teaching of the Pharisees that the dead would rise at the "last day." Jesus tells her that the last day has arrived: I am the resurrection." In other words, Lazarus was to be the first of the dead to be resurrected; presumably all the others would soon follow, and those who had not died never would. Do you believe, Jesus asked, if that is so? And her answer is: "Yes Lord; I believe that you are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of God, he who is coming into the world."

John, who wrote sufficiently after the time of Jesus to know that the Messianic Age had not arrived, had Jesus ask if Martha believed the "last day" was at hand, something that would have been quite unnecessary if the events surrounding the advent of the Messiah were actually taking place. In fact, throughout his Gospel John is concerned to assure belief in Jesus as the Messiah, as for instance in that verse, which all Sunday school children learn on their first day: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Though the reference is to the Jewish concept of the Messiah, the content of John's message is the Christian concept of the Christ. The two are not the same, something that becomes even more clear in the response by Thomas when challenged to feel the wounds of the risen Christ: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). The "Messiah" has now become God. The church that adopted the fourth Gospel into its canon had gone a very long way from the Jesus who instructed his disciples not to go around calling him the Messiah (Mark 8:30).

Here, in the Gospel According to John, we see the roots of the doctrine of the incarnation that took definite shape in the formative creeds of the church: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:14). The doctrine of the Trinity that finally emerged maintained a distinction between the Son and the Father and both of them from the Spirit, while keeping them together in the Godhead; clearly Christ could not be simply identified with the God of Israel. Following Paul, the Christian movement recognized Christ (by this time only remotely related to Jesus of Nazareth) as Lord, by belief in and obedience to whom salvation is alone available.

Almost twenty centuries after the Apostles lived, taught, and died, christology must take into full account the events of these intervening centuries. Paul and the other Apostles certainly believed that Jesus had initiated the Messianic Age, even though its complete manifestation was in the future, as far as they were concerned the immediate future. Therefore the difference in meaning between Messiah and Christ was not apparent to them, even though they were, in practice, beginning to make the distinction.

James Parkes argued that, since Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew,

the early Church could not avoid a profound and, alas, too often violent, argument with Jewish leaders whether he was or was not the Messiah. For the whole policy of Paul and the Council of Jerusalem towards the Gentiles rested on the belief that Jesus had ushered in the messianic age. . . . This need not have caused such bitter conflict with Jews if first Jesus and then Paul had left Judaism, if they had simply founded a new religion which Jews, like others, could accept or reject. But Jesus and Paul remained Jews. . . .[17]

It was necessary for Paul, despite his mission to the Gentiles, to speak of Jesus' messiahship precisely because he was a Jew and because of Jesus' own attempt to call the Jewish people to renewed Torah obedience. For Paul and the other Apostles the messianic age was indeed "breaking in" and thus it became critical for salvation that both Jews and Gentiles believe before it was too late.

In rabbinic thought much discussion centered on who would or would not have a "portion in the world to come." Though none of the Apostles used that particular language, their concern was similar: who shall be saved? The answer was that salvation comes through participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. It was the answer to the question of what it took to have a "portion" in the Kingdom of God or the messianic age that would come in its fullness within their lifetimes.

That messianic expectation was not fulfilled, even though the Apostles believed it would be and urged others to believe likewise. And so the burning question became how it was possible to claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, not as Messiah -- despite the confusion of the terms. Without the fulfilled messianic age, neither Jesus nor anyone else could be the Messiah promised by the prophets. But Lord and Savior? That was something else.

The tragedy for Christians -- and for the Jewish people! -- is that the "something else" was not recognized for what it is in itself and that the identification of Messiah with Christ persisted, and persists until this very day. Only when the linkage between those two conceptualities is finally broken will Christians and the church be able to tackle the central christological question: What does it mean to say "Jesus Christ is Lord" today?

In a time such as ours, in which it is not always easy -- particularly for Protestants -- to know what Christians, not to speak of the official churches, have or have not "learned," I would suggest more modestly that they are learning, through adherence to the principles of dialogue, that insistence on "Messiah" as a designation for "Christ" is not only unnecessary but is an actual hindrance to christological development. That many Christians do not want to appropriate such learning cannot be denied, but neither can the fact that the learning is taking place, and is producing a genuine breakthrough in christological thought, be denied. The dialogue with Jews, including the study and reflection it has elicited, is leading Christians to know that it is not only conceivable but necessary and desirable to develop christology in the full awareness that the basic Christian affirmation is that Jesus Christ is Lord, not that Jesus is Messiah.

James Parkes, reflecting on the shock of the recent revelation of the deliberate murder of six million Jews, wrote that

so long as the churches are in position to maintain. . . that the contents of the New Testament on the subject of Judaism are unquestionably the whole truth, there is nothing to be said or done. The consequences are regrettable, but also inevitable, and the ultimate fault lies not with the churches, but with the Jews. But what of those Christians who cannot sincerely maintain such a position? Can they any longer escape their responsibility for doing something about a tradition, however ancient or revered, which has produced such results?[18]

And now, the christological learning taking place is moving Christians beyond even the alteration that is still resulting from theological attention to the Shoah to a new and faithful appropriation of what God is doing among Christians and his church, opening new and creative possibilities for the future. We can only give thanks to the God of Israel whom, through Christ, Christians are allowed to serve.


1 Guidelines on Dialogue. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1979.

2 Parkes, James. Judaism and Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 64.

3 van Buren, Paul M. A Christian Theology of the People Israel. New York: The Seabury Press, 1983, p.34.

4 Parkes. Judaism and Christianity, p.65.

5 Visser't Hooft, W.A. (ed.), The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches. London: SCM Press, 1949, p.160f.

6 The Protestant Federation of France, "The Approach to Israel: Statement from the Protestant Commission on the Witness to Israel." Geneva: WCC archives (unpublished), 1948, p.5.

7 Guidelines on Dialogue. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1979, III.4. Italics added.

8 Synod of the Evangelical Church of the Rhineland, "Toward Renovation of the Relationship of Christians and Jews." 1980.

9 Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983. 2.6.

10 Pawlikowski, John T., Christ in the Light of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue. New York: Paulist Press, 1982, p.19.

11 Vermes, Geza, Jesus the Jew. London: SCM Press, 1973,83, p. 135.

12 Of late an interest has emerged in some Christian circles about the Messiah ben Joseph -- the "slain" messiah -- in the expectation that this tradition might hold a clue to the Gospel attribution of the messianic title to Jesus. Unfortunately, the Messiah ben Joseph tradition arose only after the time of Simeon bar Kokba, hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the Messiah, who died in 135 C.E.

13 van Buren, Paul, "A Christology for the Jewish-Christian Reality." Unpublished paper presented to a seminar on christology, Jerusalem, 1984.

14 van Buren, Paul, A Christian Theology, p. 326. An interesting twist was given to the reference to John by the French Protestants: "We must bring it home to the Jews that not only the Old Testament, but also the gospels and the epistles, are Jewish scriptures, and that it is these Jewish scriptures in which we Christians believe. There again, for all men, salvation is of the Jews."

15 Sanders, E.P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977, p. 514 (Sanders' emphasis).

16 Vermes, Jesus the Jew, p. 109.

17 Parkes, James, Jews in the Christian Tradition. London: The Parkes Library and the Council of Christians and Jews, 1963, p. 15.

18 Parkes, James, Judaism and Christianity, p.167.

First published in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1988 [25:3]