Monday, December 17, 2018

An Incredible Assertion

O come, o come Emmanuel
To free your captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Israel
To you shall come Emmanuel

As I stood and sang these words at the threshold of Advent, I realized that my singing this was, in a word, incredible.  This was the sort of thing Jews might sing while captive in Babylon or chafing under the Roman occupation or hiding from the Nazis.  Why was I, a 21st century Christian, singing about freedom from exile for Israel?

How would first century Jewish Christians’ faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah have looked to their peers?

Amy Jill Levine, a practicing orthodox Jew and Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, in her book The Misunderstood Jew—The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, suggests that the claim of the resurrection of Jesus would not have been a deal breaker among first century Jews. The Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection of human beings distinguished them from other Jews.  This implies that belief in the resurrection was not uncommon among Jews in the time of Jesus.  There are Rabbinic texts to support this.
The deal breaker would have been, according to Levine, the lack of the inauguration of the Messianic Age.  It was widely believed that the Messiah would bring a palpable change in the state of the world (pp. 56ff.)  There was little agreement about how that would happen and exactly what it would look like; but like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who commented that he could not successfully describe pornography but knew it when he saw it, first century Jews felt, whatever form the Messianic age took, they would know it when they saw.  Many of them did not see it in the life and aftermath of Jesus.

Christians asserted that Jesus was the Messiah even as the world appeared to continue to spin upon its axis mostly unchanged to the naked eye.  Most first century Jews would have met this Messianic claim with incredulity.  One gets the feeling that Levine, too, is incredulous at such a claim but is too polite to come out and say it.

This assertion becomes even more problematic when we look at what else we are claiming.  We are not arguing for a spiritual enlightenment inaugurated by Jesus that then led to a kind of transcendent spiritual awakening in our world.  We are not saying that Jesus did for spirituality what Giotto did for art and da Vinci did for science. 

We are asserting that at a particular place and time, among a particular people, God acted through a particular human being in an unprecedented and singular way.  It was a “once for all” occurrence, as the writer of Hebrews wrote (7:27 & 9:12).  We claim that in Jesus the Word was made flesh and walked this earth, and those who knew him saw “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
As I stood singing “O come, o come Emmanuel,” I realized what an incredible assertion we are making about this baby. Yet we make this assertion.  We are convinced.  We believe, and we shall go on singing our Advent hymns.

Jim Kelsey
American Baptist Churches of New York State