The New Teaching Paradigm
Guidelines for Teaching
Professor Maureena Fritz
A Paradigm Change: Introduction
Since the close of the Vatican Council in 1965, the Church has proclaimed that the covenant of God with the Jewish people has “never been revoked” (cf. John Paul II, 1980; Romans 11:29), and that the Jews “still remain most dear to God” (Nostra Aetate, #4).
These statements and subsequent documents on the Church’s relationship to Jews and Judaism connote a change of heart towards the Jewish people. Such a shift in thinking is known as a paradigm change.
What do we mean by a paradigm change? A paradigm is simply the predominant worldview in the realm of human thought. A paradigm shift occurs when a current worldview, a thought system, is transformed into another. For instance, a major paradigm shift occurred when Copernicus (ca. 1600) discovered that astral bodies did not revolve around the earth, but the earth revolved around the sun. This discovery, which displaced humans as the center of the universe, created a pivotal change, a paradigm shift, in humanity’s conception of itself. The change was slow and painful. Paradigm shifts do not just happen but rather are driven by agents of change.
One of the major agents of change in the Church’s attitude towards the Jews was the Shoah, the destruction of six million Jews in Hitler’s reign and the Church’s growing recognition of its responsibility in the growth and spread of anti-Semitism. The Seelisberg Conference, which met in Switzerland in 1947, gathered a group of over a hundred persons of various Christian denominations representing nine different countries, and produced a document known as “The Ten Points of Seelisberg” (Fritz, 1986). This document had as its starting point formulations presented there by the Jewish historian Jules Isaac (1877-1963), who wrote the book, Jesus and Israel.
The Seelisburg Conference was a dramatic turning point in Christian thinking. Two years later, in 1949, Jules Isaac met with Pope Pius XII and drew his attention to the wording of the Good Friday prayer for the “perfidious Jews.” (The phrase was later removed by Pope John XXIII in 1959). Again in June 1960, Jules Isaac met with Pope John XXIII, in a meeting that formed the basis of Vatican II’s “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Wahle, 1997).
With the publication of Nostra Aetate, several other ecclesial documents followed such as, Guidelines to Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (1975), Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis (1985), and The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002).
In introducing the 2002 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) asked the question, In its presentation of the Jews and the Jewish people, has not the New Testament itself contributed to creating a hostility towards the Jewish people that provided a support for the ideology of those who wished to destroy Israel?” This document, and We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (1998), candidly admit the historical link between the ancient and modern forms of anti-Semitism.
It is clear to us now that “supercessionism,” which declared the Jewish faith inferior and outmoded once the Christian era arrived, and which claims that the Jews are thus no longer within the covenant, is both theologically untenable and the cause of anti-Semitism. Knowing these facts however, does not teach us how to present the Scriptures in a manner consistent with the new paradigm of “the covenant never revoked.” How do we change nearly two thousand years of thinking? We do have some guidelines to help us.
(a) It is important to remember the manner in which the Gospels were written:
The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work: The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, [and] explicating some things in view of the situation of their Churches...” (Notes, 85 #24).
Of particular note in this regard is the Gospel of John. As Raymond Brown states, this Gospel underwent more than one edition to meet the needs of the Christian community at the time, and the most plausible date for the final written form of the Gospel was between 100 and110 CE (Brown, 1966, p. lxx).
The Gospel of John, like the other Gospels, expresses the evangelist’s theology of who Jesus is. For John, Jesus is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament prophecies, a fulfillment that became known as a fulfillment of replacement. According to Brown, the theme of Jesus’ replacement of Jewish institutions such as ritual purification, the Temple, and worship in Jerusalem is reflected in chapters 2-4 in John, and of Jewish feasts like the Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, and Dedication in chapters 5-10 (Brown, 1966). John’s Gospel has been a main source of much anti-Judaism in the Church, and it is this Gospel that will be the most difficult to accommodate to the two major statements above: that the covenant with the Jewish people has not been revoked, and that the Jewish people are still the beloved people of God.
(b) The Gospels, like other parts of the Bible, reflect the Word of God, but the Word of God is mediated through the word of the human writer; hence the Word of God is subject to the limitations of the human writer. Two schools of thought flourished in Judaism near the time of Jesus—that of Rabbi Akiva and that of Rabbi Ishmael (Sifre Num. 15.41). The school of Rabbi Akiva taught that each word of the Torah is a concentrate of the divine Word; hence every word is considered capable of infinite expansion and an infinite number of explanations and interpretations (cf. Mt. 5:18). Rabbi Ishmael, on the other hand, emphasized that God’s word was contained in human language and therefore shared in all the weaknesses and limitations of that language.
If we accept both of these schools of thought we can accept the truth of our sacred scriptures without undermining our capacity to critique them and reinterpret them, a task now demanded of us in the light of the new paradigm change. How, for example, will we deal with texts like, “You are from your father, the devil” (John 8:44), and “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6)?
It is a difficult task to change 2000 years of teaching that resulted in the demonization of Jews to a recognition that the Jews are “the still beloved people of God” and that the covenant of God with them has not been broken. Following are some practical steps to be taken:
1. Become acquainted with Church documents, especially, the 1975 Guidelines and the 1985 Notes, listed above. Since these documents are springboards not destinations, we will want to keep abreast of subsequent documents as well as the work of other Christian denominations that are engaged in the same task.
2. Study the religion of Judaism, ancient and modern: “It is a practical impossibility to present Christianity while abstracting from the Jews and Judaism, unless one were to suppress the Old Testament, forget about the Jewishness of Jesus and the Apostles, and dismiss the vital cultural and religious context of the primitive Church” (Introduction to Notes). Hence the “urgency and importance of precise, objective, and rigorously accurate teaching on Judaism” (Notes #8, 1985) and the need “to strive to learn by what essential traits Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience” (Guidelines, Preamble, 1975).
An example of the fruit of these studies can be seen in the Sabbath text quoted above, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). Even a minimal knowledge of Jewish teaching on the Sabbath would let the reader know that Jesus did nothing worthy of death and that the text is a reflection of the tensions within the community when the text was written.
3. Recognize a difficult text and admit the difficulty. For example, the story of the tenants (Mark 12:1-12) is particularly problematic in this regard. The Holy Scriptures of most religions have difficult texts that tend to debase other religions in order to exalt the superiority of one’s own religion. Scholars have found ways to deal with difficult texts: ignore them; demythologize them; reinterpret them. Reinterpretation in light of the new paradigm shift is high on our priority list.
4. Check for Jewish themes. Since the Gospels are rooted in Judaism, it is likely that many Jewish concepts are close at hand. For example, John 7:37, “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.’” The clue here is “the last day of the festival,” which is the Jewish festival of Succoth. A study of this festival and the water ceremony will open the door to a new understanding of the Holy Spirit, Ruah HaKodesh, and the Presence of God in the Temple.
By now, you may ask yourself, “How can I, a busy professional person, do all that is required for the writing of a teaching unit?” But it is much simpler than it may appear. Suppose you accepted to prepare a teaching unit on Jesus and the Samaritan woman, you might do the following (“A Midrash on the Samaritan Woman, which follows, incorporates many of these suggestions)”
1. Read the text, John 4:5-26. Look for themes related to Judaism—there are many: the Holy Spirit, living water, the tension between the Samaritans and Jews and their attitude towards the Torah, an earlier story of Jacob at the well, and meeting at wells generally. The material is easily accessible. It may be as near as your next-door rabbi.
2. Acquaint yourself with the documents cited in this article. A handy source is the website of the Vatican, www.vatican.va.
3. Bring all of your study to your own encounter with the text, and write out your interpretation, which belongs to the joy you will experience in this exercise. The result may be a well-prepared lesson and a rich midrashic teaching.
4. When you have finished writing the unit, ask yourself if you have presented the Jews and Judaism in a favorable light. A good test is to let a rabbi read it, something that is not too difficult in this day and age of electronic mail.
Sifre, Numbers, 1917. 15.41 ed. H. S. Horowitz (Leipzig).
Brown, R. (1966-1970). The Gospel according to John. 2 vols. Anchor Bible, 29-29A. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. (1975). Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration “Nostra Aetate.” (n. 4)
Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. (1985). Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis.
Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. (1998). We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.
Fritz, M. Nostra Aetate: A Turning Point in History. Religious Education, Vol. 81, No.1, 1986.
John Paul II. (1980). Address to the Jewish Community in Mainz, West Germany.
Pontifical Biblical Commission. (2002). The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.
Vatican II. (1965). Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.
Wahle, H. Pioneers in Christian-Jewish Dialogue: A Tribute. Sidic Vol. XXX, No. 2, 1997.
PS. This article was printed in: Journal of Religious Education, Australian Catholic University, Volume 56(2) 2008, pp. 51-58.