During his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II enacted three iconic moments that symbolized to the world the new relationship between Catholicismalso Christianityand Judaism and the Jewish people. These were: (1) his shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which symbolized a recognition of the Jewish place in contemporary history, however muddy and difficult that may be; (2) his greeting of survivors of the Shoah, painstakingly, one by one, at Yad vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem; and (3) his shuffling to the Western Wall where, in that most holy of Jewish places, he placed a request for forgiveness for all the offenses Christians have inflicted on the children of Abraham through the centuries. If one were to seek a one-volume, thoroughgoing exploration of a recasting of the Christian story to fill in the gaps that these pictures epitomized, one could do no better than read, reflect on and apply the insights of Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding, by Mary C. Boys, S.N.J.M.
In this book, Sr. Boys, the Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, brings together more than 20 years of scholarly and practical reflection on biblical studies, church history, Christian education and insights derived from dialogue with Judaism and the Jewish people. Although some of this ground has been covered by othersnot better but at greater lengthSister Boys’s unique contribution is to bring various strands of research together (including a discomforting review of Christian art) to present a persuasive case for recasting the Christian story. To this research, she adds parables and personal vignettes. Furthermore, Sister Boys shows that not only is hers a very tight synthesis of vast amounts of materialthe footnotes are as instructive as the textbut she also shows insight as to where such analysis should lead. The image of Jews and Christians as partners in witness and work is a new vision. It reverses nearly two thousand years of church teaching and popular religiosity. This reversal, however, has only begun. The process of acquiring new information, framing more adequate understandings, and discerning the implications for transforming church life will be long and arduous. This book is a contribution to that process. I would suggest that this book is not simply a contribution; it will be the measure of success for all future contributions.
The primary Christian theological paradigm that requires a new casting is supersessionism: the belief that Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s people because of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus Christ. Sister Boys suggests Christians have not replaced Jews, but that Jews are now partners with Christians in God’s plan of salvation. This requires nothing less than a recasting of the way Christians tell their storyand the reframing of this story yields new self-understanding.
Sister Boys begins with the 20th-century story of the transformation of the Sisters of Sion and the exegesis of Matthew 23 and John 9. These she uses as parables or prisms through which one may understand the more abstract conventional account of Christian origins and its corollaries. Not all will agree with the details of this latter description, but certainly most will see therein at least the contours of the Christian story as told in the past. Then Sister Boys puts forward a succinct alternative account of Christian origins. This retelling requires many historical, exegetical and interpretive decisions that certainly lead in a new direction, but the new direction is not dependent on any one interpretive decision. These historical evaluations include a new understanding of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, the nature of the first-century Jesus movement and the steps leading to the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. Even if one may quibble about particular historical decisions, Sister Boys presents a persuasive case.
For Sister Boys, however, it is not enough simply to describe and evaluate the past differently. And it is not enough to urge new cordial relations with our Jewish brothers and sisters, as important as that may be. What is most important about this project is that it gives to the Christians a truer understanding of themselves and of the God both they and Jews worship.
If Sister Boys has not fleshed out all the various dimensions of the consequences of her reconstruction (I would have liked to hear more about mission and soteriology, for example), her comprehensive work has certainly pointed in the right directions. It is now the responsibility of the reader to think through some of the implications of this most profound book. Pope John Paul has indicated that when Christians rethink the mystery and gift of Judaism and the Jewish people, they inevitably understand their own faith and themselves in a new way. Has God Only One Blessing? is evidence not only that this is possible, but also that it can carry with it a profound deepening of the Christian’s faith.