Holy,' Indeed

Book cover
The Land, the Bible, and Historyby By Alain Marchadour and David NeuhausFordham Univ. Press. 232p $40
Christian tradition has not been kind to the Jewish claim to the land of Israel. For many of the fathers of the church, the fact that Rome had invaded that land and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem (A.D. 70) seemed to be an objective marker of divine disfavor. Already in the fourth century John Chrysostom, the eloquent preacher from Antioch, found Israel’s landlessness a useful feature in his homilies. It indicated that Israel’s religion had come to an end, which was in striking contrast to the Christian claim to have spread the image of Christ to every corner of the world. By the medieval period, the description of the Jews as a landless, wandering people had become a well-worn image of derision.

This image was not limited merely to homiletic excess. The place where the temple had stood was left a wasteland, an ongoing testimony to the death of Judaism’s central institution. Everywhere in the ancient world it was the custom to reuse holy places. A striking example was the erection of the Dome of the Rock on the site of the Jewish temple after the arrival of Islam. Yet the Christian architects of this city chose to make this open wound a prominent part of the urban design. This was to provide visual evidence of Chrysostom’s declaration that the religion of Judaism had come to an end.

In the 20th century, largely in light of the Shoah, Christian thinkers have thought long and hard about the legacy of such theological notions. It has become important to revisit the question of Jewish identity and the relationship of Judaism to the land of Israel. In this respect, the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land and the specific acts of his praying at the Western Wall and visiting other landmarks in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem were truly groundbreaking. For many Jews such an event had been unimaginable, and not a few tears were shed in deference to the pope.

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The Land, the Bible, and History is an intelligent and helpful volume, written by two Catholic priests and scholars who live in Jerusalem. The authors consider how the Roman Catholic tradition has come to grapple with the theological and political challenge that the State of Israel presents for the believer. The authors are to be commended for providing a substantial amount of background material (slightly over half the book) on both biblical and early patristic thought, laying out clearly the theological dimension of the problem. The remainder of the book concentrates on the events of the past centuryincluding the origins of Zionism in late 19th-century Europe, the Shoah, the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948, the plight of indigenous Christians in the Holy Land and the relationship between Muslim claims to the land and those of Judaism.

Of particular significance to the authors of this book is the 1984 apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II entitled Redemptionis Anno. This document marks out several themes that must be taken into account with respect to the land of Israel: 1) the traditional Christian attachment to the land and the presence of indigenous Christian peoples who remain on that land; 2) the interpretation of the land in the Bible; 3) the way in which Jewish claims to the land affect Jewish-Christian dialogue; 4) the Christian response to Muslim claims to the land and 5) the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

As one might expect, it is no simple matter to find harmony among these five separate themes. For instance, one of the things that has been learned in Jewish-Christian dialogue is how important the land of Israel is within the Jewish tradition. If one couples this with the honest Christian admission that Christianity has taken theological advantage of the landless situation of Judaism, one might think this would lead to an unqualified assertion of the right of the Jews to return to the land. But a solution such as this would run gravely afoul of Muslim claims to the land and would complicate if not completely frustrate the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. To counter fears of anti-Semitism and to take the tragic situation of the Palestinian people seriously is no easy task.

I might add some critical observations here. The Land, the Bible, and History opens with a long exposition about the place of the land in Christian Scripture. It is not clear, however, what method the authors think we should use to read the Bible. Their opening chapter presents the biblical text as a narrative unity. Later in the book, however, they argue that we must use the historical-critical method to read the Bible properly so that we can understand the theology of the land. In the end, I was puzzled. How are we to read the Bible, and how would that address our contemporary problems in the Middle East? I was also surprised that no reference was made to Robert Wilken’s fine volume, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought. Recourse to Wilken would have firmed up a number of points made in this book about the handling of patristic thought.

Finally, the Israeli biblical scholar Uriel Simon makes an important distinction regarding Israel’s relationship to the land: the land is a divine gift to Israel, given in perpetuity (Gen 13:15). As a result, the return of the Jews to the land must be seen as involving some providential design. But the relationship of the Jews to the land is always tempered by a strong moral component. Indeed, the Bible itself declares that the land has something of a moral conscience of its own and will spit out those who try to live immorally on it (Lev 18:24-30). Most important, though the land was given to the Jews, this does not imply the Jews have a moral claim to every square inch of it. Abraham is one model to whom Simon points, for he was willing to give up a very choice piece of real estate in order to have amicable relations with his nephew Lot (Gen 13). It is one of the marks of an elect people that they act with charity toward others.

As Alain Marchadour and David Neuhaus so ably point out, it is difficult to hold together the strong attachment of the Jews to this particular piece of land with the intractable tensions it has caused among their Palestinian neighbors. What is required is a theological lens that will allow the Christian to imagine a future where the rights of both populations are respected. This book presents clearly the elements for creating such a lens.

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