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Posted on Fri 22 January 2021

What would Jesus say? Bishop Nazir-Ali replies to Frederic Raphael’s Open Letter

I greatly enjoyed reading Frederic Raphael’s Letter to Jesus and the sharp questions he poses in it. As the ending of the letter hints, it may be that Jesus has replied to him already but, if not, perhaps I might be permitted to wonder at what Jesus would say to an interrogator such as him.

It seems that behind much of the Letter is the question about Jesus and the Jewish people. Here there can be no doubt that the New Testament depicts him as a Palestinian Jew of the first century. The testimony of Tacitus, the Jewish historian Josephus and the Talmud itself confirm this. Raphael is right that Jesus did not seek to overturn the Commandments or God’s Covenant with his ancient people. When asked about the greatest of the commandments, he quoted directly from the Shema, from Deuteronomy, recited daily by pious Jews, “Hear of Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your souls, and with all mind, and with all your strength”. He then added a second, from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

He did, however, emphasise, the importance of understanding the deeper meaning of the Law and internalising it rather than just fulfilling it ritually. The Sermon on the Mount is the finest moral teaching the world has seen and here he shows that it is not just acts that are morally significant but our intentions towards other persons, friend or enemies, family or foe. The whole point here is, as he says, “to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” – a difficult challenge, indeed! He also goes behind and beyond the Law as it was understood in his time. This is seen, for instance, in his teaching about marriage, where he goes behind Moses to Creation itself. He tells his audience that it was because of the hardness of their hearts that Moses allowed divorce but that it was not so at the beginning: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder”. According to Jesus, singleness, for himself as for others, can be a vocation or the result of circumstances. In neither case is to be seen as an easier option. Many single people tell us how it has particular challenges for our humanity, as well as opportunities for service. Raphael’s question to him about this suggests that he is not fully aware of the value and the pressures of the single state. A week in a monastery or convent might be revealing!

Again and again, Jesus goes beyond the Law: this is seen in his declaration that what goes into a person doesn’t defile him or her but what comes out i.e. “evil thinking, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and foolishness”. In doing this, he not only liberates people from excessive concern about what and how to eat or to dress but points them to what is really required for purity. Even more seriously, perhaps, he refuses to endorse the Jewish leaders’ desire to stone, according to the Law, the woman taken in adultery and tells her to go and sin no more. Raphael rightly tells us that Jesus associated with women of dubious reputation. He did so with others also thought disreputable in Jewish society, such as rapacious tax collectors. When asked by the Pharisees why he did so, he famously replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick … I came not to call the righteous but sinners”. He always loves the sinner but never the sin. In the well-known parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is the latter who goes away forgiven because he has seen the wrong he has done and felt sorry about it, whereas the Pharisee could not see his own sin of pride and hypocrisy. The Prodigal is also generously forgiven by the father but the elder son remains unaware of his need to be reconciled to his father.

Talking about Jesus keeping company with women, I was somewhat surprised at Raphael’s reading of the New Testament. He speaks of the Blessed Virgin Mary as “virtually a non-speaking part”. This may be so in primary school nativity plays but certainly not in the Gospels! Her questioning of the Angel, her ultimate submission to God’s will, embarrassing and dangerous as it was for her, her treasuring everything in her heart (which later became one of the sources for the Church’s knowledge about the Birth), her requests to him to meet the urgent need at the Wedding in Cana (by the way, the Steward at the feast would not have agreed with Raphael’s wag about preferring water to the miraculous wine), her concern for his mental wellbeing in the midst of his public ministry and, most of all, her presence at the foot of the Cross, when all must have seemed lost, do not suggest a shrinking violet! Stabat Mater is not for the faint hearted. It is, however, the Magnificat, sung daily in churches throughout the world, which is Mary’s revolutionary charter. Her own experience testifies that “the humble will be exalted, the hungry fed, the mighty dethroned and the rich sent empty away”. It is entirely consistent with the songs of Miriam, Deborah and Hannah in the Hebrew Bible and with the Bible’s concern for freedom and social justice.

As to the Virgin Birth, there are two independent accounts in the Gospels, as well as other indications in the New Testament that Jesus’ birth was unusual. In this matter, the accounts are of a piece with unusual births in the older Testament such as that of Isaac, Samson or Samuel and have very little in common with pagan legends of gods consorting with women. It is to Islam’s credit that the Qur’an accepts the purity of Mary and her son but even the hostile polemicists of early Christian history, when they foisted the canard of illegitimacy on Jesus, knew that he did not have a conventional birth.

I believe Raphael is mistaken about translations and mistranslations: the term “almah” used in the prophecy in Isaiah, wherever it occurs in the Hebrew Bible, always indicates one of the female sex who has not experienced sexual intercourse associated with being a married woman. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint, centuries before Christ, used Parthenos to translate “almah” and this is the term used in the Gospels to describe Mary’s state at the time of Jesus’ birth. No impartial reader of the Gospels could fail to understand what the Evangelists meant by this term. In the rest of the New Testament, with regard to others, the term only means a virgin and this is in line with its general use in Greek. Where it might simply mean “girl” in secular Greek, there is no indication that such a one might have had sexual experience. As to the “assumption” of Enoch, Elijah or Mary, the New Testament refers only to her blessed and glorified state but whatever might be meant, it cannot be more than the spiritual, not carnal, body promised to all believers at the Resurrection.

With Mary Magdalene, similarly, does he really believe she should have continued in the oldest profession? There is nothing about her bold witness to the Risen One so that she is often called the apostle to the Apostles! Raphael asks how much time Christianity has for women. This is a question that can be asked of Judaism and Islam as well but has he considered the women in the Gospels or leaders in the apostolic Church like Prisca, Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Phoebe and many of Paul’s “fellow workers”, not to speak of later figures like Thecla or the Desert Mothers or Doctors of the Church such as Teresa of Avila or Catherine of Siena?

The message about Jesus was first declared in synagogues in Palestine and then in the Diaspora and only later among the Gentiles. It seems to be the case that many who responded positively to the message and became members of the growing Christian communities were the Gentile “God fearers” who formed a sort of penumbra around the synagogues in the Diaspora. They were attracted to Christian Faith partly because it enabled them to fully belong to a community worshipping the God of Israel without first becoming Jews. The separation of synagogue and church towards the end of the first century was to have tragic consequences for the resultant mutual hostility between Jews and Christians down the centuries. From the Christian side, many mea maxima culpas have been expressed since the Holocaust and, for what it is worth, I am glad to add mine to this chorus. I note, however, that Raphael does not demand any such from the House of Islam, where also Jews suffered much for some fourteen hundred years.

I am glad though that eminent Jews like Geza Vermes, Dan Cohn Sherbok and Pinchas Lapide have been rehabilitating Jesus from a Jewish perspective and, of course, there have been many Christians of Jewish origin who have understood him in terms of their own patrimony and so differently from Gentile Christians. Such distinctive but also convergent perspectives are at the heart of Jewish-Christian dialogue which must continue and be strengthened.

As the Second Vatican Council has declared, the Church cannot fully understand itself without reference to God’s ancient people, the Jews. Gentiles can be regarded as part of God’s people because, according to Scripture, they have been grafted into the good Olive tree which is Israel. God’s covenant with his ancient people continues because, as the New Testament says of them, the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Nevertheless, the Church longs for the day when Jew and Gentile together will be part of the Kingdom of God and of his Christ.

According to social historians of the period, one of the reasons why Christianity spread so rapidly in the ancient world was because of its breaking down the social barriers between women and men, slave and free and Jew and Gentile. Another was the work that Christians did in opposing barbaric practices like female infanticide, the feeding and clothing of paupers and the rescue of prostitutes from the clutches of their traffickers. The courageous witness of the martyrs to the very crowds sending them to their deaths also helped to turn the tide in favour of Christianity and to the capitulation of mighty Rome to Nietzsche’s “pale Galilean” – a development noted by Raphael. While he often refers to Christendom’s historic failures, there is little acknowledgement of its successes in universal education, health care, the rule of law, marriage and the family, the amelioration and withering of slavery in Europe and then the challenge to new slavery in the Americas from Bartolome Las Casas to the Evangelical Clapham Sect.

In all of this, the role of the supernatural cannot be ignored: Jesus performed miracles and the Muslim commentator Omar Raageh in the BBC series on the miracles of Jesus tells us that at least some of them were claims to divine presence. In every case, they were to meet human need or to teach his followers some important truth. This continued in the early Church and was another cause of its growth, as, indeed, it continues to be today in many parts of the world. The requirement that a miracle be “against nature” implies that if nature were to be left to itself nothing would change. As agents, we have experience of how we daily alter the course of nature for our own purposes, whether in the control of disease, the generation of energy or the miracle of flight. Can we then deny agency to God who is far greater in his ability to change the course of nature than we are? In any case, the miracles of healing, for example, in the case of declaration of sainthood, have to be certified by unbiased medical opinion and to overcome the objections of the Promotor Fidei (popularly known as the Devil’s Advocate).

More widely, there is the miracle of a finely tuned and balanced universe. The more we know of it, the more it cries out not just for description but explanation. Natural disasters occur sometimes, but not always, because of human folly; building with unsuitable materials in earthquake zones, living on flood plains or too near volcanoes, inhabiting low lying areas prone to tsunamis etc. The remarkable thing about natural disasters is the world’s disposition to return to order and normality. In this humanity’s God given gifts have a very significant part to play: the discovery of drugs to treat the ill, of vaccines to control pandemics, of predictive ability to avert the worst consequences of natural disasters, all depend on the exercise of powers of observation, experiment and the use of reason which reflects the Logos or the Reason of the Universe in whose image we are made.

It is to this Mind, Reason or Word of God that the Hebrew Bible attributes the creation and sustaining of the Universe and which (who?) was, in the Christian claim, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible often speaks of God’s Word and his Spirit, his Name and his Glory. This is very much the background to Christian speech about the Trinity which must always be attentive to the unity of the Godhead. Christians are also aware of Jesus’ intimate relation with the One he called Father, never confusing it with God’s Fatherhood in creation or of Israel or even of his own disciples. It is impossible to understand his mission without a lively appreciation of this unique intimacy, seen even at Gethsemane in the face of personal disaster (note, the cry of dereliction on the cross is recorded distinctively by two of the Evangelists and testifies to their reliability even in transmitting material that was hard to understand rather than being an editorial slip up!). The experience of the Spirit as personal force by the Christians also contributed to the emergence of their understanding of the biblical God as Triune.

Jesus’ favourite title for himself was “the Son of Man” evoking that great heavenly figure, in the Aramaic section of Daniel, who comes to the Ancient of Days and is invested precisely with dominion and kingdom so all nations should worship him. There is much about this figure in Jewish apocalyptic literature at about the time of Jesus. He seems to have accepted the title of Messiah reluctantly partly because he knew that dominant contemporary expectations were of a merely human and political or military messiah but also because the Hebrew Bible’s vision is of one who is the Son of God, taking part in the divine work of shepherding his people and sharing the divine throne itself! In at least some Jewish literature of the period, there is evidence of awareness of such Messiahship.

Jesus was no diplomat. His excoriating criticism of those who relied on the privileges of institutional religion made him dangerous for the powers that be and it was for this that he was sped to the gallows without legal or moral scruple. It was religious and political leaders (and their rent-a-mob) who were responsible for this miscarriage of justice, not ordinary folk about whom it is said that they “heard him gladly” and who welcomed him with enthusiasm when he came to Jerusalem.

Whatever the expectations of the early Christians about the imminent return of Jesus, his own inimitable parables suggest delay, unexpectedness and suddenness. Raphael is right to ask whether he has returned again and again. The answer is yes: we meet him whenever we read the Gospels, we meet him in the sacraments he left for us and we meet him in the poor we serve. Many in the Middle East today are meeting him in wholly unexpected visions and dreams, resulting in life changing decisions. Both Jews and Christians are, however, expecting the Messiah to come at the culmination of everything. This much is common to the two closely related traditions. The question is when he comes can he be much different from Jesus of Nazareth who fed the poor, healed the sick, welcomed back sinners and who said the Kingdom had come in his words and works?

This piece was first published in The Critic on 22 January 2021 and can be accessed here.

Frederic Raphael’s piece was first published in the article and can be accessed here. 

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