Thursday, 29 April 2010

Monday, 26 April 2010

Synod of Brefi

The Synod of Brefi was a church council held at Llanddewi Brefi in Ceredigion, Wales around 545. The synod was apparently called in order to condemn the heretical teachings of Pelagius, although this is far from certain. It was an important milestone in the rise of Saint David. The story goes that Saint Paulinus persuaded Saint Dubricius, the senior Bishop there, to allow David, a minor abbot, to address the crowd. His words were so eloquent that Dubricius retired in David's favour. One of his first duties was to consecrate Saint Deiniol as Bishop of Bangor. It is also said that the synod was called while Saint Cadoc, Abbot of Llancarfan, was away in Brittany. In disgust, he refused to return for many years.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Saints, Sinners and Scribes in the Celtic World

The Celtic Studies Association of North America (CSANA) embraces all aspects of Celtic Studies and provides an academic and scholarly forum unavailable in any other discipline. The 2010 CSANA Annual Meeting convenes at the University of Notre Dame to discuss papers related to the conference theme: ‘Saints, Sinners and Scribes in the Celtic World.’ We invite proposals from faculty and graduate students in particular for individual 20 minute papers that address the conference theme or any aspect of the languages, literature, history, folklore, music, art and archaeology of ancient, medieval and modern Celtic cultures.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Life of St Columba

My Argument with the Pope: Jacob Neusner, Jerusalem Post, 29th may 2007.

In the Middle Ages rabbis were forced to engage with priests in disputations in the presence of kings and cardinals on which is the true religion, Judaism or Christianity. The outcome was predetermined. Christians won; they had the swords.

But in the post-WW II era, disputations gave way to the conviction that the two religions say the same thing and the differences between them are dismissed as trivial. Now a new kind of disputation has begun, in which the truth of the two religions is subject to debate. That marks a return to the old disputations, with their intense seriousness about religious truth and their willingness to ask tough questions and engage with the answers.

My book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, was one such contemporary exercise of disputation, and now, in 2007, the pope in his new book Jesus of Nazareth in detail has met the challenge point-by-point. Just imagine my amazement when I heard that a Christian reply is fully exposed in Pope Benedict XVI's reply to A Rabbi Talks with Jesus in his Jesus of Nazareth Chapter Four, on the sermon on the Mount.

POPES INVOLVED in Judeo-Christian theological dialogue? In ancient and medieval times disputations concerning propositions of religious truth defined the purpose of dialogue between religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. Judaism made its case vigorously, amassing rigorous arguments built upon the facts of Scripture common to both parties to the debate. Imaginary narratives, such as Judah Halevi's Kuzari, constructed a dialogue among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a dialogue conducted by a king who sought the true religion for his kingdom. Judaism won the disputation before the king of the Khazars, at least in Judah Halevi's formulation. But Christianity no less aggressively sought debate-partners, confident of the outcome of the confrontation. Such debates attested to the common faith of both parties in the integrity of reason and in the facticity of shared Scriptures.

Disputation went out of style when religions lost their confidence in the power of reason to establish theological truth. Then, as in Lessing's Nathan the Wise, religions were made to affirm a truth in common, and the differences between religions were dismissed as trivial and unimportant. An American president was quoted as saying, "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're a good man." Then disputations between religions lost their urgency. The heritage of the Enlightenment with its indifference to the truth-claims of religion fostered religious toleration and reciprocal respect in place of religious confrontation and claims to know God. Religions emerged as obstacles to the good order of society.

For the past two centuries Judeo-Christian dialogue served as the medium of a politics of social conciliation, not religious inquiry into the convictions of the other. Negotiation took the place of debate, and to lay claim upon truth in behalf of one's own religion violated the rules good conduct.

In A Rabbi Talks with Jesus I undertook to take seriously the claim of Jesus to fulfill the Torah and weigh that claim in the balance against the teachings of other rabbis - a colloquium of sages of the Torah. I explain in a very straightforward and unapologetic way why, if I had been in the Land of Israel in the first century and present at the Sermon on the Mount, I would not have joined the circle of Jesus's disciples. I would have dissented, I hope courteously, I am sure with solid reason and argument and fact.

If I heard what he said in the Sermon on the Mount, for good and substantive reasons I would not have become one of his disciples. That is difficult for people to imagine, since it is hard to think of words more deeply etched into our civilization and its deepest affirmations than the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and other pronouncements of Jesus. But, then, it also is hard to imagine hearing those words for the first time, as something surprising and demanding, not as mere clich s of culture. That is precisely what I propose to do in my conversation with Jesus: listen and argue. To hear religious teachings as if for the first time and to respond to them in surprise and wonder - that is the reward of religious disputation in our own day.

I WROTE the book to shed some light on why, while Christians believe in Jesus Christ and the good news of his rule in the kingdom of Heaven, Jews believe in the Torah of Moses and form on earth and in their own flesh God's kingdom of priests and the holy people. And that belief requires faithful Jews to enter a dissent from the teachings of Jesus, on the grounds that those teachings at important points contradict the Torah.

Where Jesus diverges from the revelation by God to Moses at Mount Sinai that is the Torah, he is wrong, and Moses is right. In setting forth the grounds to this unapologetic dissent, I mean to foster religious dialogue among believers, Christian and Jewish alike. For a long time, Jews have praised Jesus as a rabbi, a Jew like us really; but to Christian faith in Jesus Christ, that affirmation is monumentally irrelevant. And for their part, Christians have praised Judaism as the religion from which Jesus came, and to us, that is hardly a vivid compliment.

We have avoided meeting head-on the points of substantial difference between us, not only in response to the person and claims of Jesus, but especially, in addressing his teachings.

He claimed to reform and to improve, "You have heard it said... but I say...." We maintain, and I argued in my book, that the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement, and the Judaism built upon the Torah and the prophets and writings, the originally-oral parts of the Torah written down in the Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash - that Judaism was and remains God's will for humanity.

By that criterion I propose to set forth a Jewish dissent from some important teachings of Jesus. It is a gesture of respect for Christians and honor for their faith. For we can argue only if we take one another seriously. But we can enter into dialogue only if we honor both ourselves and the other. In my imaginary disputation I treat Jesus with respect, but I also mean to argue with him about things he says.

WHAT'S AT stake here? If I succeed in creating a vivid portrait of the dispute, Christians see the choices Jesus made and will find renewal for their faith in Jesus Christ - but also respect Judaism. I underscore the choices both Judaism and Christianity confront in the shared Scriptures. Christians will understand Christianity when they acknowledge the choices it has made, and so too Jews, Judaism.

I mean to explain to Christians why I believe in Judaism, and that ought to help Christians identify the critical convictions that bring them to church every Sunday. Jews will strengthen their commitment to the Torah of Moses - but also respect Christianity. I want Jews to understand why Judaism demands assent - "the All-Merciful seeks the heart," "the Torah was given only to purify the human heart." Both Jews and Christians should find in A Rabbi Talks with Jesus the reason to affirm, because each party will locate there the very points on which the difference between Judaism and Christianity rests.

What makes me so certain of that outcome? Because I believe, when each side understands in the same way the issues that divide the two, and both with solid reason affirm their respective truths, then all may love and worship God in peace - knowing that it really is the one and the same God whom together they serve - in difference. So it is a religious book about religious difference: an argument about God.

WHEN MY publisher asked for suggestions of colleagues to be asked to recommend the book, I suggested Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Rabbi Sacks had long impressed me by his astute and well-crafted theological writings, the leading contemporary apologist for Judaism. I had admired Cardinal Ratzinger's writings on the historical Jesus and had written to him to say so. He replied and we exchanged offprints and books. His willingness to confront the issues of truth, not just the politics of doctrine, struck me as courageous and constructive.

But now His Holiness has taken a step further and has answered my critique in a creative exercise of exegesis and theology. In his Jesus of Nazareth the Judeo-Christian disputation enters a new age. We are able to meet one another in a forthright exercise of reason and criticism. The challenges of Sinai bring us together for the renewal of a 2,000 year old tradition of religious debate in the service of God's truth.

Someone once called me the most contentious person he had ever known. Now I have met my match. Pope Benedict XVI is another truth-seeker.

We are in for interesting times.

The writer is distinguished service professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Sola: Part IV

What is ‘scripture’ in fact? By that question, I mean, what determines whether a text is canonical or not? There are many texts claiming to be authentic ‘gospels’ and yet only four are recognised as actually being inspired; as being ‘scripture’. Scripture itself does not tell us which books are scriptural, so where does this information come from?

A standard protestant answer is:‘Look and see what is being quoted in the scriptures themselves – scripture is self-attesting!’ What do the apostles quote? What does Christ quote? Well, as you can see from above, they quote more than just those texts which are generally regarded as ‘scriptural’. If you’d like a list of texts and scriptural references pointing to quotations taken from various apocryphal sources such as the book of Enoch, and The Assumption of Moses for instance, just ask and I’ll provide them, Pastor parcel. These books ARE quoted in scripture as authoritative, and yet there are books included in the Biblical canon which are never referred to in any other Biblical books – which would also, presumably then, fail the test of self-attestation in scripture? Sola scriptura is a doctrine in a real muddle, is it not? And you STILL have yet to provide a single, scriptural passage which explicitly states that scripture is the sole rule of faith. To be continued...

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Sola: Part III

There are many more examples of the positive nature of ‘sacred tradition’ as opposed to the ‘traditions of men’ presented in scripture, however, the following is probably the most notable as it demonstrates how Christ himself acknowledges the validity of sacred tradition: 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do; they do not practise what they preach' (Mt. 23:2-3; RSV). 'The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not' (KJV). Nowhere in scripture is ‘Moses’ seat’ referred to but here – Christ is referring to an extra-biblical, Jewish tradition relating to teaching authority in Israel.

When Christ ‘sits down’ on ‘the mountain’ to teach the Beatitudes to all present, He is adopting the normal posture for a rabbi to teach his ‘torah’ (with a small ‘t’). However, this act by Christ – the new Torah – is an obvious symbolic parallel with Moses’ giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai: The new Moses and the new Torah. When Christ sits down on the mountain to teach, he is sitting in the seat of Moses, quite literally. This is the gesture denoting His rightful place as the authentic teacher of Israel. As we see on Mt Tabor, when Christ is transfigured and speaks with Moses and Elijah, we are shown that Christ surpasses the Law and the Prophets: ‘listen to Him.’ But, this position of religious authority is a part of Sacred Tradition – not Sacred Scripture – which is here validated and acknowledged by God Himself. (See the Jerome Bible Commentary Vol.2, p.102; Rabbi Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus and The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism, amongst others, for further details on the non-scriptural sacred Tradition of the teaching office of Israel and Christ).

Now, as for ‘philosophies’, the scripture passage you quote is obviously referring to any system of thought which is manufactured by man, as opposed to the law of God. This also can be proven by scripture NOT to be a universal condemnation of philosophy as such, but as a specific teaching against those man-made creeds which would seek to present themselves as somehow superior or as an alternative to the divine law, or generally contradict the sacred deposit of revelation in some way. In fact, not only are philosophies in general not condemned under this censure, but St Paul directly quotes at least three pagan philosopher/poets, calling one of them a prophet of his people! (Acts 17:28, 1 Cor 15:33, Ti 1:12) This, not only contradicts the blanket condemnation of philosophy you infer, it also challenges ‘sola scriptura’ per se, as Paul is quoting a lot more than just scripture! To be continued...

Friday, 16 April 2010

Sola: Part II

Pastor Parcel:

Scripture is sufficient, in that there is nothing else that man needs to know for salvation, faith and the knowledge of God but what is given in Scripture. Christ warns us of the fallible and sinful traditions of men and the vain philosophies of the world. Matt 15.6 and Col 2.8

I reply:

There are two sentences here which treat of different things:
1) Your claim of the all-encompassing sufficiency of scripture.
2) Your contrasting of scripture with ‘traditions of men’ etc.
Now, presumably, you have added the second sentence on man-made traditions in order to qualify the point made in your first sentence which is the subject of the question you are supposed to be answering. In effect, you are aiming to demonstrate that scripture gives us everything we need, and, therefore we have no need of any extra-scriptural paradosis to add to, or compliment the teachings found in scripture, and, indeed, further than that, anything man may add would be a negative tradition or born of a fallible philosophy which would be detrimental to the truth and integrity of the divine revelation. Let’s deal with these claims one at a time.

1) Ok, so you give a definition here of sufficiency, but I already understand the implications of sufficiency – what I’m asking for is demonstrable, scriptural support for it. Again, where is this stated in scripture itself?

2) Let’s begin with the scripture quotations you give to illustrate the fact that Christ warns against the ‘traditions of men’ etc. Firstly, you cite Matt 15.6: 'So, for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.' (RSV) 'Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.' (KJV) (I am quoting all scriptural passages both from the RSV - Revised Standard Version - and KJV - King James Version - just in case Pastor Parcel is one of those protestants who only recognise the validity of the KJV translation) To put this scriptural passage in context, Christ is here, in Matthew 15: 1-9, criticising the Pharisaic ‘Korban’ rule which was a dishonest ruse in which the money of the individual could be ‘dedicated’ to the Temple leaving that same individual, technically, without any money of their own and so exempt from providing financial support to their parents if they happen to be in any need. In spite of these funds being ‘Temple property’ the reality was that the individual still had access to this money and, therefore, it was no more than a get-out clause which violated the commandment to honour one’s father and mother. But does this mean that Christ was denigrating all tradition or just those concocted by men in order, as Christ says, to nullify the word of God? Is tradition always cast in a negative light and criticised in scripture, and for that matter, is ‘philosophy’ always cast negatively also? Let’s explore that, shall we? How about 2 Thessalonians 2:15: 'So then, brethren, stand firm and hold on to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter' (RSV). 'Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (KJV). Or 2 Thessalonians 3:6: 'Now we Command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us' (RSV). 'Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us' (KJV). Just two examples from the letters to the Thessalonians alone – the first in which they are exhorted to guard and abide by both the oral and written traditions which had been imparted to them. The second in the form of a command which appeals, again, for adherence to the tradition transmitted to the faithful there. Are these negative or are they regarded as equally as binding upon the faithful as scripture? To be continued...

Thursday, 15 April 2010


Having, inexplicably, been receiving an evangelical protestant group's newsletter for some time, which constantly bangs on about 'sola scriptura' (scripture alone) every other line, I decided to ask the 'pastor' of this group if he could please demonstrate to me where exactly in the Bible sola scriptura was identified as the sole rule of faith? I am aware, of course, that nowhere is 'scripture alone' advocated in scripture itself, but I was interested to see exactly how this central tennet of protestant belief would be backed up.

Having received a reply. I shall post bits of it here and there, and make my way through the various points, contentions and, alleged, scriptural supports for this position, and deal with it, a small section at a time. I'll also post his replies to my objections, and refute those also. I shall refer to him, as 'Pastor Parcel' throughout.

Pastor Parcel:

Thank you for your enquiry: Firstly: Note what the Westminster Confession says: This is the Historic and Orthodox position of the True Church.The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

I reply:

Firstly, 'this is the historic and orthodox position of the true Church?' According to whom? Up until 1983 this same 'confession' referred to the Pope as: ...that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy... Did that cease to be true in 1983? And, where exactly is that in scripture? Also, the vast majority of protestant denominations (of which there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands) do not adhere to the Westminster Confessional. I presume that they, like the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are in error, and do not qualify as occupying either historically consistent or orthodox positions? How odd that reformed denominations should occupy the historic and orthodox position of the 'true Church when they haven't even existed for 500yrs yet! Anyway, where is this 'confession' justified in and by scripture?

Pastor Parcel Continues:

Note: Please remember that only the Spirit of God can convince anyone of the Authority, Sufficiency and finality of Scripture.

I reply: Firstly, faith and reason are never contrary to one another, and man can reason his way to God, as has always been accepted and taught throughout the history of the Christian religion (as with others also). So, it is possible to reason our way to belief in God, but, according to Pastor Parcel, one needs to be moved by the Holy Spirit to believe in the 'authority, sufficiency and finality of scripture.' Even if this were true, is this the point or even relevant to the question? Whether the Bible 'is' the word of God or not is not the same thing at all as proving that this book, whether it be inspired or not, is self-attesting to its own sufficiency. In other words, one does not have to believe in the Bible's sacred status, or even in God Himself in order to ascertain whether the text claims self-sufficiency and to be the sole rule of faith: all one requires is the ability to read. If a certain individual writes a book claiming to have been kidnapped and probed by aliens I can ascertain, via a reading of that text, whether or not the individual makes claims as to the veracity of the events without my actually having to believe them to be true. If someone were to ask Pastor Parcel if the Quran made the claim that Mohammed was instructed by the Archangel Gabriel, he would be able to reply in the affirmative without the necessity of him believing the claim, would he not? Once again, does the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly, claim to be the sole rule of faith? To be continued...