Some Musings on Rituals and Tradition Transmission

Scholars have been turning and twisting in angst at night for centuries trying to figure out exactly what happened in that relatively tiny gap between Jesus’ actual ministry and the writing down of the letters and the gospels about him. A tiny gap that turns into a gaping black abyss of a hole if you stare at it long enough – like Chinese water-dripping torture. I’ve just recently experienced a surge of interest in this period myself, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to traverse the vast and littered battlefield of different theories and hypotheses. Since I am a student at Uppsala University in Sweden, I felt morally obligated to begin my odyssey with “Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity” by the former Uppsala-educated and Lund-based professor of NT, Birger Gerhardsson. I’m only a couple of pages in, but I can already feel that the book will become a guide of sorts – the Lonely Planet to the world of tradition transmission – for me. Although it is important to remember that Gerhardsson wrote the book in the 60’s, my opinion so far is that, although I might not agree with all the specifics (like his, for me unrealistic, faith in Josephus’ trustworthiness and his approach to the dating of the Rabbinic material he makes use of), his methodological discussions are very interesting, and they propel the mind forwards, to new ideas – which is all one can, and perhaps should, ask of academic literature.

But, I don’t want to make this an entry about “Memory and Manuscript” (although I just have to make a note of how much I appreciate alliterated titles! This one has to be one of the more delightful ones I’ve come across – short, sweet, succinct!). Rather, while reading the first chapter, something occurred to me which I felt I needed to expand upon. The idea of tradition transmission is an interesting one – but is an analysis of literature really the way to go about it? In a context were the majority of individuals were illiterate, are we misleading ourselves by placing too heavy of an emphasis on the literary relationships between the early Christ-believing texts, in some sort of (to me seemingly) banal attempt to extract “red strings” of tradition from them, strings which we hope will somehow lead us back to that hilly Galilean landscape where the words were first uttered? Hansel and Gretel have not wandered into the Gospels before us, leaving breadcrumbs for us to follow that lead us straight to the words of Jesus.

My uncle is a reverend, and he once told my family about a curious phenomenon in one of his old congregations. The actual church building they used was old, pre-dating the Reformation, like many of Sweden’s churches. When Gustaf Vasa imposed Lutheranism on his kingdom, many of these churches were white-washed on the inside, so as to cover up the elaborate, Catholic church art they often boasted. In his particular congregation, there was an old tradition to touch a specific part of the wall just inside the entrance of the building upon entering the church. In connection with the growth of the High Church movement and a general desire to explore the roots of the Church, many of these white-washed churches were restored to their original, more colourful forms. Lo, and behold, when the white paint was chipped away from the interior of my uncle’s church, what do you think they found under the spot which hundreds of church-goers had touched in reverence throughout the centuries without remembering why? A painted icon of the Virgin Mary. What can we deduce from this (apart from the fact that it’s like a commercial for the High Church movement)? That rituals last longer than ideas. The church-goers of my uncle’s former church had forgotten why their parents used to touch that specific spot on the wall – they did it out of habit, ritualized habit – rather than out of some sort of Marian theological convictions. Yet, those first church-goers who began touching the wall, did it out of respect and reverence for a religious figure to which they were no longer allowed to publically display devotion. Rituals outlive theological ideas. Ergo, it is my humble opinion that it would perhaps be more interesting to try to trace rituals rather than literary dependence in the gospels. Admittedly one could probably use literary dependence to trace rituals, but the point I want to make is that it would be interesting if the point of the analysis was to identity traces of early Christ-believing rituals in the Gospels and Paul, rather than trying to identify exactly how certain Jesus Sayings are related to each other from a literary standpoint. Of course, if one views the transmission of tradition as a ritual (which I think one ought to), these Jesus Sayings are still afforded an important role in the investigation.

Although I realize that this post is of a highly fragmentary nature academically, I nevertheless cannot stop myself from feeling that the most important aspect of historical research (for me at least) is to uncover the lives, habits, and convictions of the (ordinary) people behind the texts – the illiterate ‘masses’ who make up the backbone of any group, but who are rarely represented in our source material. Perhaps this feeling is based on a strange sense of displaced responsibility or some sort of Western-scholar-guilt, or perhaps it represents my ideologically-tainted conscience flaring up. Either way, when we place too heavy an emphasis on literary dependence theories and the like, I cannot help but feel that we risk banishing the vast majority of ancient Jesus Followers into the margins of history, when they in reality deserve a place of honour – a place that is perhaps more easily awarded them if we place a greater emphasis on ritual analysis and tradition transmission as performance.

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Blinded By Bultmann?

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“It is in truth far from easy to say how an eschatological prophet who sees the end of the world approaching, who senses the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and who accordingly pronounces blessed those of his contemporaries who are prepared for it (Matt 13:16-17, 5:3-9, 6:5-6 etc.) – to say how such a person could argue over questions of the Law and turn off epigrammatic proverbs like a Jewish rabbi (since to practically all the moral directions of Jesus there are parallels and related words of the Jewish rabbis), in words which contain simply no hint of eschatological tension (e.g. Matt 6:19-21, 25:34, 7:1, 2, 7, Luke 14:7-11, Mark 2:27, 4:21).”

Rudolf Bultmann, “Form Criticism: Two Essays on New Testament Research”(1934).

This sentence accosted me as I attempted to delve into my long-awaited (and, let’s face it, mandatory) Bultmann-reading. At first glance, I dismissed it as a product of Bultmann’s zeitgeist. But as I continued reading I kept coming back to it in my mind. Is this really just a product of his zeitgeist, or is it also a product of our zeitgeist? Does NT research still hold this to be true, albeit (usually, optimally) under the surface? I don’t think many serious scholars today would suggest that Matt 25 is not an eschatological text, but are there examples of how this (false) juxtaposition between moral sayings and eschatological beliefs still rears its ugly head, perhaps disguised in a little something we like to call ‘Q’?

I want to begin this analysis by pointing out the obvious: Bultmann was extremely sharp. Even though most NT scholars have perforated the power dynamics of form criticism (in theory at least), I think we can all agree that its giver-of-birth was a man with a bright and innovative mind. Right, now that the obligatory disclaimer has been taken care of, let’s move on to the juicer part of the argument: the place of eschatology in modern NT scholarship, and the burden of “moral teaching” that Bultmann has loaded onto our collective backs.

Let’s start by assaulting the Lutherans (since I categorize myself as a follower of Luther in the most general sense of that term [the one thing Bultmann and I have in common], my conscience finds it easier to start the rampage closer to home). Lutherans have a specific way of reading the Old Testament and dealing with all the disconcerting theological complications it brings forth. I like to call it the “Quick-n-Easy Ethical Fix”, a model influenced by Bultmann and his clique. The approach consists of categorizing the precepts and laws in the OT into two categories: cultic and ethical. The ethical rules are to be followed; the cultic rules are to be ignored. Quick and easy. Or is it? Are we really capable of distinguishing between the ethical and cultic laws in the Bible (yes, the Bible as a whole: the NT also contains a number of cultic rules [see Matt 5:22-24], which is enough to confuse one to distraction if one is too strict in one’s Lutheran appropriation of the Bible)? Is the distinction between cult and ethics valid at all?

If we take a closer look at Jeremiah 7, a different image begins to form. The passage begins with a reference to the Temple, thus setting the thematic stage as a cultic one. In 7:6-7, the speaker, God, says that He will not continue to dwell in the temple unless the people do not cease oppressing the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow; shedding innocent blood, and worshipping other gods. This is, according to my mind, one of the best examples of how mingled and messy the supposed “borders” between ethics and cult is: what we categorize as moral guidelines (not oppressing the immigrant, orphan, or widow; not shedding innocent blood) is intimately connected to cultic matters (God dwelling in the temple), making it very difficult for us to distinguish clearly between them. Of course, in Jer 7 it is much easier for us to tell the difference between “ethics” and “cult”, since the ethical guidelines are some of the most celebrated rules in Judeo-Christian tradition. But what about other texts, where the contextual veil is harder to lift, like Ps. 51:16-19? Matt 5:22-24 is another such example. The majority of preachers (and perhaps many scholars as well) would tell their flock that this is a text about the importance of reconciling with your brother or sister. They wouldn’t be wrong per say, but it’s also a text about how to make offerings without tainting the sacrifices with moral impurity, something which often gets left out of the discussion. The pattern in Jer 7, Ps. 51, and Matt 5 is the same: “moral” behaviour is linked to the purity/impurity of God’s dwelling place, in the same way that ritual purity usually is. The existence of moral purity and its cultic connections makes it difficult to draw a clear line between ethics and cult – the line quickly turns into a blurry smudge. Perhaps what we today label as “ethics” and “cult” were once one and the same thing: meshed together, two strings in the same Biblical tapestry.

You may ask (rightfully) what all this has to do with Bultmann and eschatology. Allow me to humbly attempt to tie the strings into a bow. Eschatology and cult in the Gospels are like twins borne of the same womb. In Mark 13 with synoptic parallels, known as the Little Apocalypse, Jesus ties the destruction of the temple (cult) to the End of the Ages (eschatology). Indeed, the “discussion of Law” that Bultmann mentions in the quotation above often dealt with matters of purity (Mark 7, Matt 5:22-24; 15 etc.), which means that regardless of whether we think he was for or against it as a concept, Jesus still taught about cultic matters. Thus, since the part of the Mosaic Law dealing with cult is intimately related to the eschatological vision of Jesus, and since there is no difference between cult and ethics, one should perhaps also problematize the separation of eschatology and ethics in the NT. By carving what he referred to as ethics out of the eschatological entity of the Gospels with his exegetical scalpel – dripping with the poison of early twentieth century zeitgeist – Bultmann invented a new category (not to mention a bleeding mess of an interpretative wound). This new, neat, comfortable category fit so well with the beliefs of his time that it settled in like a relative on a visit. But the visit was prolonged and prolonged, until Aunty Ethics became a permanent resident. And now we take her for granted, like an old, comfortable couch that we stash in the corner of our living room even though it doesn’t fit with the rest of the décor, just because we don’t want to go through the hassle of lifting it out the door. It’s high time to re-decorate.

When we accept what Bultmann says about ethics (subconsciously or not), we accept a worldview where the role of Jesus is stripped of its eschatological and cultic function, where cult and ethics become opponents in some bizarre puppet show. But, as Schweitzer pointed out (to pit Bultmann against a contemporary), the historical Jesus becomes void of meaning when his mission is de-eschatologized. The Gospels all place the heaviest focus on the Passion Narrative – it is the climax of the story, the culmination of the narrative. Thus, Jesus’ teaching needs to be in coherence with his death, since everything is leading up to it. Why would the Romans execute an ethical teacher preaching love and justice for all? They wouldn’t. Who they would execute, on the other hand, is a wandering Galilean prophet who preached charismatically about the End of the Ages, the supremacy of the God of Israel over all other gods (read emperors), and the religio-political restoration of a colonized people.

Thus, most modern scholarship has in large parts established that Jesus was an eschatological messianic figure. Ergo, according to the line of argumentation I’ve been attempting to follow, Jesus’ eschatological teaching must also contain cultic aspects (which we saw when we looked at Matt 5).Thus, since there’s no clear line between cult and “ethics” in the Bible, Jesus’ teaching cannot be classified as ethical. Thus, Bultmann’s argument above that Jesus’ eschatological statements should be in some way contradictory to Law discussions is unsustainable and deeply problematic. Much of the Law is connected to cultic matters: all the purity laws (moral and ritual), laws regulating temple practices, taking care of immigrants and widows (because otherwise the Land will “vomit you out” – the Land being tied to the Temple), etc. etc. If we strip discussions of the Law from their cultic and eschatological function, we risk loosing the meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

In the examples that Bultmann lists at the end of the quotation, we can see how confused the picture gets when one juxtaposes the invented category “ethics” with eschatology. The Matthean examples are particularly jaw dropping. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around how the following: “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’” could be interpreted as an antithesis to eschatology. As a dedicated opponent of ‘Q’, I can’t help but note that this is the tradition one falls into when one accepts theories such as the Two Source Hypothesis, which is based on the assumption that the oldest and most authentic manuscript about Jesus is an almost purely ethical text – not eschatological, not cultic, not enough of a deviation from Bultmann to put my mind at ease.

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Is the Shortest Way to Jesus Really the Best Way?

A few weeks ago, I caught myself reading Helmut Koester’s important book “Anicent Christian Gospels” (1990). After having read the Gospel of Philip, I was confused enough (both academically and as a Christian) to feel compelled to surround myself with literature concerning ‘apocryphal’ gospels and the like. Although this reaction didn’t necessarily ease my confusion (it only gets worse after a certain point [for me that point was differentiating between different forms of Gnosticism without enough source material, but for you it might be the intricate relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the different layers of Q]), it did wake me up to some harsh exegetical realities.

It seems to me that the unspoken rule behind the majority of theories surrounding (suffocating?) the relationship between the canonical Gospels, “Q”, and Thomas is that the shortest text is the most original. As if ancient authors were incapable of summarizing, as if they had some sort of innate need to expand on everything they copied – as if the first person to write about an event or a Jesus saying was always the most succinct. I don’t know about you, but if I witnessed a crucified guy stepping out of a grave dressed as a gardener (there must have been some reason Mary confused her ‘Rabbouni’ with a carer of plants) I would find it hard to organize my thoughts to the point where I could produce a succinct theological statement about it. I’m not saying that any of the texts in question were written by an eye-witness (I don’t want to be disowned by the academic community), I’m trying to use a hyperbolic example to illustrate that the assumption that the shortest text is the oldest might be what some would refer to as a logical fallacy. In many cases it seems that theological statements tend to get more stylized and succinct as time passes, when the need for them to be institutionalized and cohesion-producing emerges.

Reading Koester’s arguments concerning the relationship between the canonical Gospels, “Q”, and Thomas was a uniquely frustrating experience for me (probably because I feel so strongly about “Q”). It seemed to me that the main argument supporting the claim that “Q”, a text which we have not found and which might not even be entirely textual (yes, the differentiation between textual and oral Q is a real thing), was more faithfully copied by Luke than by Matthew, is that Luke is often more succinct than Matthew. The same logic is applied when comparing Thomas to the canonical Gospels (something which is somehow even more frustrating than the above-mentioned). Back to Luke and Matthew: the Sermon on the Mount (Plain) is often used as an example, and it’s easy to see why. It looks as though Matthew expands very evenly on the Lukan version. But, I repeat my earlier musing: could it not just as well be the case that Luke is very evenly summarizing Matthew’s version? Just for fun, I decided to go through my lovely little book of Gospel Parallels (a godsend on boring train rides, even though it does tend to produce some perplexed stares from fellow travellers) to see if there were any examples of the reverse. Turns out I found one on the very first page I opened. If one compares Matt 6:22-23 with Luke 11:34-36, it seems to me that Luke is very clearly expanding on and explaining what exactly Matt means when he (excuse the generic masculine) writes “if then the light inside you is darkness, how great is the darkness”. Thus, even if I, by some nineteenth-century liberalistic miracle (oxymoron intended), decided to accept the theory that the shortest version is the oldest, I would still be left with the disconcerting realization that Luke sometimes expands on Matt anyway. The shortest way to Jesus isn’t always as straight as it sometimes appears in scholarly literature; there are a lot of confusing twists and turns on the way even here.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the longest version necessarily has to be the oldest. I’m just saying that the assumption that the shortest version is the oldest is an empty assumption – empty of force and function, unrelated to how things tend to work outside the safe embrace of a university office.

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Why Radford-Reuther’s Jesus Reconstruction Needs a Reality Check

After reading Rosemary Radford-Reuther’s book “Women and Redemption”, I feel the need to raise some critical thoughts concerning her Jesus reconstructions, based on the following question:

Who is the Jesus Radford Reuther reconstructs? Who does she reconstruct him for?

 He is a Lukan Jesus. Radford Reuther bases almost all of her assertions about Jesus on the Gospel of Luke. The canon about Jesus is diverse, and all its nooks and crannies should be taken into consideration, especially from an academic standpoint, where the scholar is not supposed to value some passages over others (which theologians are permitted to do). Her Jesus came only for the poor and the marginalized, and his message of deliverance to them is not an apocalyptic one (here she disregards Mark 13 with synoptic parallels), rather it is one of little to no eschatology/apocalyptic expectation, a purely Lukan theology (as interpreted by nineteenth century German theologians…I would venture to say that Lukan theology is eschatological by nature, just like the other Gospels). She also focuses on Luke’s inclusion and focus on women – for example, in Matthew the nativity revolves around Joseph, but Radford Reuther chooses to place all the emphasis on Mary, thus creating a biased image of the Jesus narrative.

He is an anti-Jewish Jesus. Radford Reuther’s Jesus does away with all the Jewish purity laws (here it should be noted that she fails to make the very important distinction between moral and ritual purity, rather she clumps them both together). This too leans towards the Lukan, and is an outright negation of the Matthean Jesus, who seems very concerned with both purity and the Law as a whole (see Matt 5:17-24). The same can be said of the Johannine Jesus, who in his conversation with the Samaritan woman states that the Jews worship God on the correct mountain, thus affirming the legitimacy of the Temple function, which in many ways depends on the purity laws. The Markan Jesus too observes some sort of purity when he says that only that which comes out can cause impurity (a direct reference to the purity laws in Leviticus). Radford Reuther’s (mis)understanding of the Jewish purity laws as a means of oppression is both borderline anti-Jewish and leads her down a road of great exegetical peril. In addition, Radford Reuther creates a dichotomous relationship between Jesus and Jewish patriarchal culture. Amy-Jill Levine successfully argues against this misconception in her article in the Jewish Annotated NRSV (definitely worth checking out!).

He is a modern, Western Jesus. Radford Reuther’s assertion that Jesus may have been illegitimate is highly anachronistic, and does not take into consideration the laws about sexual immorality at the time, nor the understanding about God’s relationship to his “Anointed”. In addition, her assertion that he had little to no eschatology/apocalyptic expectations and that he created an “egalitarian community of equals” is not historically plausible. Contextually, that would make Jesus too different from his surroundings to make sense from a historical, academic standpoint. So perhaps what Radford Reuther is doing here is actually some highly anachronistic theological musing. But if this was theology, she has created a Jesus who does not fit into any Christian doctrinal frame, making it a problematic theology since it doesn’t take any other perspectives into consideration and makes no reference to Christian faith or traditions.

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Jesus: A Jewish-yet-not-too-Jewish Road-tripping Galilean?

A couple of months ago I attended a tutorial at the theological faculty. One of the professors was complaining about the state of historical Jesus research, pointing out that everyone seems to be saying the same thing: “Jesus was Jewish…but he didn’t follow the Jewish Law…he wasn’t really like other Jewish leaders during this time…he didn’t respect the Sabbath…and obviously he didn’t keep the purity Laws”.  So in essence, everyone starts with a hypothesis and then unwittingly argue against it while they’re trying to argue for it. Everyone says that they’re part of the “new perspective”, but in reality, the consequences of what they say aren’t that different from Käsemann (and his criteria of  anachronistic cultural colonialism). I wholeheartedly agree with my professor: is it really good research if everyone is simultaneously arguing for and against the same thing?

To my mind, the root of the problem is this: scholars often want to distill Jesus down to something they can agree with themselves (to paraphrase Sanders). They want a Jewish-but-not-too-Jewish Jesus, someone who eases their Christian guilt by being Jewish, but who isn’t so Jewish that he becomes alien to them (classic example of creating facts to suit theories). The problem (or, rather, one of the problems) with this is that “Jewishness” is not a comparative concept. It’s a religio-ethnic category which you either are or are not a part of: you can’t be semi-Jewish, pseudo-Jewish, “diet-Jewish” or “Jewish-light”. Is your mother Jewish? If the answer is yes, then so are you. Was Jesus’ mother Jewish (and for those of you out there who don’t believe that second temple Jews traced ethnicity via their mothers: read father [if human, descendant of a Jewish king, if divine, son of a Jewish God])? Answer: yes, problem: solved. Once you have established this relatively straight-forward reality, you have to deal with its consequences. A second temple Jewish man who wanders around preaching about the coming of the Kingdom like a proper Old Testament prophet but who doesn’t follow the Jewish Law is an oxymoron. It’s not a religio-cultural category that existed during this time – when scholars try to get all Bultmann-y on Jesus, they are attempting to create a “Diet-Jesus”, someone they can agree with, someone who will agree with them, distilling a religio-historical phenomenon down to something that can be easily swallowed by our modern mindset.

This is deeply problematic from both an academic and a religious perspective. Academically, it’s highly anachronistic – it’s bad methodology (the root of all evil). Religiously, it creates a lense through which we distort our holy scripture. We want Jesus to be a certain way, and so we ignore all the indications in the text that point to something else. That Jesus was a full-blown second temple Jew isn’t a faith problem: I would be more worried if he didn’t follow the Jewish Law, because then he wouldn’t be in sync with the prophecies he’s fulfilling – the continuity would be broken.

In conclusion, if you pick up the New Testament looking for a sugar-coated fairy tale about a nice Jewish-yet-not-too-Jewish man and his faithful friends road-tripping through Galilee, you’ve come to the wrong place. The New Testament is a book about a messiah, a prophet like Moses, who came to the world to announce the fast-approaching judgement; the final, eschatological judgement that would usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. In order to allow for the coming of this Kingdom, the messiah had to die a horribly gruesome death, only to rise again, clothed in morning’s young blush. There’s nothing cozy, nice, ethical (according to our modern definition), or un-Jewish about that.

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On Women and Exegesis

I have often wondered why there are so few women in my field, New Testament exegesis. When I speak to other women, they often say that they feel that it’s impenetrable if you were born with the wrong gender. I’ve personally never understood this, since I haven’t felt like the field was closed off to me that way. It’s true that women often have to know much more than the men in the room if they want to be taken seriously, and that can be very frustrating at times. But NT shares this problem with many other academic fields, fields that don’t have such a shortage of female scholars.

There are in all likelihood a myriad of reasons as to why my field is so devoid of the fairer sex, but after thinking about it almost non-stop for the last little while, I have a (perhaps) new one to add to the list:

It’s harder for women to read the Bible.

This statement is only true for exegetical readings of the Bible. If you read the texts as Christian rather than a non-confessional scholar (is there such a thing?), the universal quality of the words will speak past the contextual wrapping paper and feel relevant to you, no matter who they were originally meant for. But when you read the Bible through the lenses of exegetical theories and the like, you will inevitably be caught in the contextual web of the narrative. It’s this web that creates problems for female exegetes. The majority of individuals who decide to pursue New Testament Studies do so because they come from a Christian background. Thus, the women entering the field are usually already familiar with the Bible, but they are familiar with it from a Christian perspective, a perspective from which many of the texts have personal significance for them. When they then learn to read these texts using exegetical methods, they soon realize that passages which they used to think were especially directed towards them were actually written by men, for men, about men. It can be a very difficult realization, because it separates the Bible from you – makes it more abstract, less personal, more distant. I have a theory that the process I just described is responsible for the fact that many of the women who actually stay in the field go on to write almost exclusively about women in the Bible.

As a woman who has absolutely no intention of ever writing about Feminist Theology or women in the Bible (not because I’m against it, just because I think temple theology, judgement, and the synoptic problem are so much more interesting), I nevertheless think it’s important to point out that even from an exegetical perspective, reading the Bible doesn’t have to be more difficult for women. We tend to focus all our attention on how marginalized women are in the Bible, and it taints our perception. Why don’t we reverse the exercise and emphasize some of the excellent female role models in the Bible, who are actually given a lot of narrative space and importance? Do yourself a favour and take an hour out of your day and read the Book of Esther or Ruth. Take some time to appreciate how many women are included in the New Testament narratives…they all seem to be named Mary, but at least they’re there.

When women decide that the Bible is not relevant to them because it was written by men, they are giving away their interpretative power, usually to other, more modern men. What we need to do is reclaim our interpretative power: the Bible is ours too, and even though it may seem like many texts have nothing to do with us, if you just keep knocking on the contextual walls around the text, eventually you’ll knock them down and reach the universal message encaged within, a message from God to all of humanity, man and woman alike.

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Why People Don’t Like the Holy Sepulchre and Why They’re Wrong

I was in Israel this summer for a course at the Galilee Center for the Study of Jewish Christian Relations (it was an amazing experience, if you’re interested in the subject, check out their website: http://csjcr.com/). My father and I spent some time in Jerusalem before the start of my course, visiting some of our friends from when we used to live there and just enjoying what has to be the most beautiful city in the world. I think one of the reasons why the city appears so stunning to its visitors is because so many people consider it to be holy, and you can almost feel the hopes and dreams of these people pulsating through the sand-coloured stones. For most Christians, the holiest site in the city is the Holy Sepulchre, the Church erected over the place where it is believed Jesus died and resurrected. However, over the years I have heard so many people say that they don’t see the Church as holy, in fact, many Christians don’t even want to visit it. When I asked them why not, almost everyone, without exception, answers either that the Church isn’t actually built over the place of Jesus’ tomb, so there’s no point in visiting it, or that there is so much conflict between different Churches associated with it, that it depresses them. When I first heard these arguments, it was difficult to challenge them. Yes, it is true that the Church may not be built on the exact place of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and yes, it is true that monks from different denominations sometimes get into fist fights when someone cleans their part of the Church. This is a little depressing, and perhaps doesn’t showcase the best this religion has to offer.

But upon closer analysis and some insight from a friend, I have come to realize that these arguments fall when one inspects the issue closer. Let us start with the first point: that the Church may not be built on the exact spot of the Passion. It’s a fair point if one thinks it important to worship at the exact spot of Jesus’ cross. But the fact is that most of the people whom I have heard criticize the Church for this reason are Protestant, so this is a non-issue to begin with. Our faith does not depend on finding the exact spot of these occurrences, but it does build on cultivating a relationship with the trinitarian God. And the Church, with all its faults, is at very least a symbolic reminder for us of Jesus’ atoning death which has freed us from the downfall of evil. Our religion is one of continuity: we believe that our canon and our traditions about Jesus go back more than 2000 years, and that we have kept the message more or less intact through it all, so what better way to interact with our God than in a place where Christians have been worshipping since the 300’s CE? That’s right: the Holy Sepulchre is built on top of one of Helena’s churches, dating all the way back to the fourth century. This not only increases the historical likelihood that this was indeed the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it also means that when we visit the church in order to cultivate our relationship with God, we are walking in the footsteps of thousands of faithful, who have been coming to this spot since the reign of Constantine. Because of this, the church becomes a meeting place of those who believe which transcends time and space.

Moving on to the next criticism of the church: that it represents the conflict between Christian denominations. While it seems a hard bargain to argue that the ladder perpetually leaned against the front of the church is a sign of friendship (it has been there since the Tuks decreed a complete freezing of the status quo sometime during the 1800’s because the monks couldn’t get along), I have recently been introduced to a new way of viewing the situation. One of my father’s friends in Jerusalem told us that her husband used to say that he didn’t understand why Christians complained so much about the Holy Sepulchre. He found it fascinating that it actually works as well as it does. If you think about it, he’s right. It’s actually incredible that after years and years of conflict, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Armenian Church, the Ethiopian Church, and so many others share a church. Sure, it may not always be a walk in the park, but when you put it in its historical perspective, it’s a miracle that all these denominations are still more or less united in this place. Can you imagine a Synagogue being shared by Ultra-Orthodox and Conservative Jews, or a Mosque shared by Sunni and Shia Muslims? Despite the tension which occasionally erupts in open and ugly conflict, in the grand scheme of things we are lucky to have a place on earth where different, sometimes warring denominations can worship and reflect on what we all share: the belief that God was incarnated and died for our sins, perhaps under the very stones over which the monks argue.

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