AN INTERVIEW WITH MARVIN WILSON

"We may simply raise the question: "If Jesus were to come to earth this weekend, where do you think he would chose to pray?" 
                                                                                                      -Marvin Wilson

Marvin R. Wilson is the Harold J. Ockenga Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. A leader in the dialogue between Christians and Jews, he has coedited many books and written numerous articles on Christian-Jewish relations.

The following comments were made by Marvin Wilson in an interview with Christianbook.com on July 1st 1999.

CBD What was the motivating force for writing Our Father Abraham?

Marvin Wilson One of the biggest reasons Christians do not connect with the Jewish people that we read about in the Bible, is because they fail to understand that Biblical Judaism influenced the origins of Christianity, and how Judaism had evolved from the Bible times to its present expression. Our Father Abraham is an attempt to bridge that gap [between Biblical Judaism and Christianity] and to remind Christians that the Christian faith is profoundly Jewish in its origin.

Every major doctrinal, theological, ethical, moral, and worship concept that has come into the New Testament has grown directly out of first century Biblical Judaism. Our Father Abraham was written to show the relationship between Judaism and Christianity; to show how the roots of Christianity run deep into Hebrew soil, and to show that the Bible is one book with two parts. Also, Christians need to understand that there was only one Bible in Jesus' day, the Jewish Scriptures, which the Church came to call the Old Testament.  What you have in the New Testament is really a reflection upon, an interpretation, of a further development of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). 

What we have tried to do in Our Father Abraham is to remind the Church that without the Jewish Scriptures and without the Jewish people the Church would fall.  And there is no way you can understand the origins of Christianity without understanding the Jewish people, Jewish thought, the Jewish theology, and ethics were part of the Jewish community that evolved into the earliest Jewish Church.  To make the connection between the two [the earliest Church and first century Biblical Judaism] is of paramount importance.

CBD Our Father Abraham does a good job of informing readers regarding the connection between the Church and Judaism.

Marvin Wilson Thank you!  A Christian cannot intelligently talk about the origins of Christianity without dealing with Judaism.  Until Christians can speak with a sense of indebtedness to the Jewish faith, there will be anti-Judaism in the Church; there will be even acts of Antisemitism which emerge from segments of the Christian community.

I think that Christian origins in Judaism directly relate to a correct understanding of Galatians 3:29. Our Father Abraham really is an exposition of Gal. 3:29 "If you belong to Christ you are Abraham's seed."  What we have tried to show is that Christianity 101 really starts with Abraham, who is the father of all who believe.  Christianity was not invented out of whole cloth.  But the Christian faith is a development of hundreds of years of God's work with a particular people- the Jewish people. The Church to begin with was one hundred percent Jewish.  Their Scriptures were the Jewish Scriptures.  The religion of Jesus and the twelve was Judaism.  Therefore, we really need to understand Judaism and have a profound appreciation of the Jewish Scriptures to truly grasp the Gospels and the origins of Christian thinking.

CBD Our Father Abraham challenges the way the Church has generally viewed the Jewish people. You seem to indicate that when the Church separated from its Jewish roots it made a grave mistake, and that the Church today should make every effort to amend its error.  Is this correct?

Marvin Wilson The Church needs to see itself not as an adversary of Judaism and of the Jewish community that gave it birth. Rather, the Church is grafted into Israel.  Therefore, its posture is not to see itself historically as the antithesis of Judaism but rather as an outgrowth of Judaism. The Church is to see Israel as the olive tree, as Romans 11 puts it, which nurtures and sustains Gentiles who are grafted into that olive tree.  The last two thousand years, however, has been a history of contempt. Though there are profound differences today between Judaism and Christianity, the same parent nurtured early Christianity and early Rabbinic Judaism, and that parent was Biblical Judaism.  Both the Church and Synagogue have gone separate ways and reveal differences over how they understand Jesus, sin, covenant, and a number of other issues.  Yet, the use of a common Scripture, namely the Hebrew Bible, means that in the end, Christians and Jews share far more in common than what divides them.

CBD Would you like readers of Our Father Abraham to embrace the Jewishness of Christian faith?

Marvin Wilson Certainly not in any legalistic sense but rather as a means of enriching our knowledge and appreciation of the Word. The Jewishness of Christian faith is a very good thing because it enable us to understand the origin of the faith and the cultural and religious perspective of those who gave us the Bible.  

CBD With the regretful state of separation and the ongoing "family feud" between Christians and Jews, what would be the best outcome, or what would you envision as the best outcome in current Jewish Christian relations, along the line of the thinking found in Our Father Abraham?

Marvin Wilson I would certainly hope Christians would have a greater understanding of their own faith on several levels.  First of all, a greater appreciation of the Old Testament, which unfortunately many Christians are unfamiliar with. Since they don't know the Old Testament they don't know the main themes that derive from the Old Testament that influence the New Testament writers and their thought and their lifestyle. Secondly, I would hope Christians would realize that the Jew is not the great enemy of the Christian, and the Christian is not the great enemy of the Jew.  We derive from a common parent (Biblical Judaism), and we have had a sibling rivalry for two thousand years. Obviously, we have had our greatest and most profound difference over how we understand Jesus.  Was he the Messiah, was he not the Messiah? Was he God incarnate, or was he not God?  These issues are significant issues which have created a wedge and split with synagogue. But without Judaism and Jewish scholarship we would never accurately grasp the background of Jesus and his teachings.

CBD Despite the obvious differences, what are the benefits of ongoing discussions between Jewish people and Christians today which you outline in your book?

Marvin Wilson We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Just because we came to the parting of the way, and just because Judaism came to believe one thing about the Messiah, namely that he had not come and that Jesus was not the one who initiated the messianic age.  I think there is tremendous benefit that comes to Christians through interaction with Jewish sources today, with Jewish people today. One of the things I try to do in Our Father Abraham, is to introduce readers to Jewish Biblical scholars, Jewish archeologists, and Jews who are working with Jewish Christian relations. These people bring a tremendous enlightenment to the Biblical text, to Biblical History, and a new understanding of theological and Biblical issues because of their rich heritage.

CBD How can Our Father Abraham help to educate readers in terms of a better understanding of the rich Jewish heritage of our faith, to in turn help foster better relations between Jewish people and Christians?

Marvin Wilson My book can contribute to building some very positive and constructive relationships with the Jewish community.  Christians need to understand the very negative treatment, and sometimes brutal treatment by the Church to the Jewish community through the centuries as illustrated through the Crusades, the Inquisition and Expulsion of Jews in Spain in 1492, and through the guilty silence during the horrendous Holocaust years of 1933-1945.  What I think the Church needs to do is to realize that if the Church had a profound appreciation of its Jewish roots, the Crusades would never have happened, the Inquisition would never have happened, certainly not if Christians saw themselves as debtor to the Jewish people.  Everything they have spiritually derived from the Jewish people. There is no way that the Church could have supported the Crusades, or treated the Jewish people as vermin or lice to be exterminated during the Nazi period if they acknowledged their roots.  In short, positive Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries, if they had been there because the Church realized how profoundly Jewish and indebted to the Jewish people that Christian faith really is, would have made a great difference. We must learn from Jewish people, and they from us.

CBD You have a chapter in your book title "Where the Church Went Wrong." Please explain.   

Marvin Wilson I think the Church went wrong in becoming too doctrinaire, too esoteric, too highly theological, too dogmatic. Where Christianity in certain circles has been reduced to merely certain propositions about God, about Christ, about the Church.  Rather than something that impacts how you live.  Unfortunately, Christianity and Judaism have been reduced to two words: Christianity is interested in creeds, and Jews are interested in deeds. What the New Testament reveals it seems to me is that if you have beliefs they have to lead to behavior.  If you have Creeds, they have to impact your conduct; if you have doctrine is has to lead to deeds.  If you have precept it has to lead to practice.  There has to be a wedding of the theoretical and the highly theological to how you live not just how you think and believe. I think this is where the Church went wrong and why we need our Jewish roots. Because our Jewish roots are not merely theoretical. The Church moved more and more to the Hellenistic world, and was impacted by a highly trained philosophical approach to truth, which very often gets airborne, and gets very esoteric and abstract and highly theoretical. A very intellectualized approach to truth.  The Jewish Scriptures however bring us right down to earth, and ask the question, "what difference does it make?"  How should you live, what should your conduct be like?

CBD Heavenly good, but also earthly good?

Marvin Wilson That's right. Christians who are only interested in creed really don't understand the Bible.  It's not that the Bible is not theological. I think that the Bible is highly theological but good theology leads to good sociology. The kingdom of God is something that is very dominant in Jesus' message.  It is seeing the reign, the power of God taking charge in the human experience right now. I think we need to bring that to earth. I think that the study of Jewish roots is very helpful that way. Because Jewish people are very focused and are desirous of making a difference in this world.

CBD Could you share a final thought with us that most reflects the message of Our Father Abraham?

Marvin Wilson The New Testament uses the expression Our Father Abraham in referring to the one who is the father of the faithful, a man to whom God said: "Through you, Abraham, all the nations of the earth will be blessed."  Gentiles come into the family of Abraham, this father of the faithful.  This is an engrafting process so that the Jewish Scriptures become our Scriptures, the Jewish people become not just any old people, but the very people from whom we have received our theology, our ethics, our understanding of God's work in history. This linkage we have is an extremely vital linkage. We may simply raise the question: "If Jesus were to come to earth this weekend, where do you think he would choose to pray?" 
 

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