The back cover summarizes well the central thesis of this book.
Between 1971 and 1996 the late John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) wrote a series of ten essays Several of the chapters were first given at Bethel College in the Menno Simons Lecture Series in 1982. (Audio files of these lectures can be found at this link. Appendix A also includes his sermon,
revisiting the Jewish-Christian schism in which he argued that, properly understood, Jesus did not reject Judaism, Judaism did not reject Jesus, and the Apostle Paul’s universal mandate for the salvation of the nations is best understood not as a product of Hellenization, but rather in the context of his Jewish heritage.
Salvation is of the Jews, given at the Bethel College Mennonite Church (mistakenly named as
college church, Bethel College, Newton, Kansas). The essays were originally available in a
Shalom Desktop Packet, (with a preface by Yoder) that Yoder made available in 1996, just before his untimely death.
The book is part of the Radical Traditions Series edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Peter Ochs, which invites
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers to retrieve their scriptural resources and give voice to their theological claims without having to submit or reduce them to strictly modern standards of meaning and truth. Books in the series employ new paradigms of reason through post-liberal and post-critical methodologies that are unfettered by the foundationalist assumptions of modernity. We are indebted to Michael Cartwright, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Dean for Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs at the University of Indianapolis for redacting, correcting, and annotating Yoder’s essays and to Peter Ochs, Bronfman Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia, for his explanatory and interpretive comments (as a Jewish interlocutor) at the end of each essay. Cartwright also writes two substantive essays: a critical assessment of Yoder’s argument in which he raises the question whether Yoder has fully overcome Christian supersessionism, and a second essay in which he places Yoder’s theological dialogue with Judaism in the historical context (1949-2002) of Mennonite Central Committee’s work in Palestine and Mennonite missions in Israel. Another fascinating feature is the editor’s documentation of decades-long conversations and correspondence, beginning in the late 1960s, between Yoder and Rabbi Steven S. Schwarzchild. Yoder’s dedication of the essays
to Rabbi Steven S. Schwarzchild of blessed memory gives evidence to Yoder’s affection and respect. Yoder’s essays show his deep engagement with the Jewish tradition, evidenced by his correspondence, conversation, and reading. The last Yoder essay,
See How they Go With Their Face to the Sun, (previously published in For the Nations) draws on Stephan Zweig’s poem-drama
Jeremiah written during World War I, during Zweig’s military service as a journalist and archivist in Vienna.
In his first essay,
It Did Not Have To Be, Yoder raises the issue of historical methodology. Historians tend to look at the outcome of history, in this case two separate religions named
Judaism, and then identify the causes for this outcome as if it were inevitable. Yoder argues that in fact there was not one normative Judaism in the 1st century. Judaism was fluid and diverse, and Jesus and all the earlier followers of Jesus (including the Apostle Paul), affirmed their Jewish identity and viewed themselves as continuing in the Jewish tradition. One of the foundational texts for Yoder is Ephesians 2 with its vision of a broken wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, a vision in which Gentiles are included within the Abrahamic covenant to form one new humanity.
Yoder argues for a fundamental continuity in the central story of the Bible beginning with God’s call to Abraham to leave country and kindred to be a
blessing to the nations and the call of God’s anointed, Jesus, to be a light to the world. It is not a
mythic story of about cosmic origins, but a real historical story with names, places, and events that define a people’s identity.
Abrahamic communities who are called to be a
light to the nations, are to be distinguished from the temptation to empire (as under Solomon, the Maccabees, and Constantine).
The most important of Yoder’s foundational texts is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles to
seek the peace of the city where they dwell. This text establishes a fundamental turn in religious history, a minority group of believers loyal to God who, though while not in charge of running the empire, are called by God to live faithfully as a minority
to seek the peace of the city where they dwell. This is the framework for Yoder’s identification of a number of common features of the Jewish diaspora and the believer’s church: a view of history, a peace narrative, a non-Constantinian way of thinking ethically, a logic of mission to the larger culture, and a de-centralized view of authority of a community gathered around scripture. Diaspora Judaism and believer’s churches share a view of history. Israel and the church are called by God to be a people among the nations. The center of history is not empire (Babylon, Rome, Germany, the United States), but a people God has chosen from among the nations to be a light to all the peoples of the world.
Sociologically this history has been lived by a people who are on the margins, people for whom it is not an option to
be in charge. For Jews in the diaspora it meant to live as a minority within the Babylonian, Persian, and Roman Empires, and later within Christendom and Islam. Until Constantine, Christians lived with a similar marginal status, and later within Christendom various renewal movements experienced a similar status: minorities who were not only not in charge, but had little or no influence on kings and princes, and what they commanded their armies to do.
Yoder was particularly interested in the common roots of nonviolence, the central theme in his dialogue with Schwarzchild. Though the Jewish rabbis do not identify themselves as pacifists and were not doctrinaire advocates of nonviolence, in practice they live out an ethic of nonviolence in the diaspora. Yoder even titled one of his Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College,
Judaism as a Historic Peace Church. The basis of rabbis’ position, he says, was the call by God, since Abraham, to be different amidst the world’s exercise of power and violent force.
They were committed to reasoning from within a world view where the inscrutable omnipotence and sovereignty of ADONAI makes it inappropriate, if not blasphemous, to claim to save God’s cause for Him.1 Jews, in fact, practiced more faithfully Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence than most Christians within Christendom who after Constantine adopted just war theory as a framework for the shape and control of the political order.2 The basis for both the Jewish tradition of nonviolence and the believer’s church commitment to nonviolence is an alternative peace narrative of God’s call to Abraham and to the church to be a light to the nations. This volume is especially engaging for the way it raises issues in the continuing dialogue between Jews and Christians. After each chapter Peter Ochs identifies positively the
burden of Yoder’s ideas. For Ochs, the issue raised by both Yoder and Zweig is that there is no middle ground between Zionist nationalist sovereignty and exile. Ochs argues that Jeremiah did not assume permanent exile, but also a return to Jerusalem. For Jews identity is linked not only to the dyad of the people Israel and Torah, but the triad of Torah, people, and land. For Jews, the question is how to live faithfully on the land without succumbing to the temptations of empire and the violence entailed in running an empire. As Ochs puts it:
For Zweig and Yoder, there is no middle between Israel’s exilic separation from the land and the Maccabean strategy for remaining in it: that is, between an ancient foreshadowing of modern nationalist sovereignty in that land and Israel’s forced separation from it in this world.... For post-liberal Jews, the emerging religion of Israel will draw both exilic and landed life into a relationship that we cannot yet define.3 Ochs criticizes Yoder for his binary logic, an excluded middle, which assumes so often that there are two possibilities, one faithful and one not. This carries over, Ochs argues, to Yoder’s reading of scripture-the tendency to see only faithful or unfaithful readings, rather than multiple possible readings of the text, a diversity of readings by the rabbis reflected in the Talmud, for example.
Michael Cartwright raises similar questions, but from a Christian point of view. Cartwright affirms Yoder’s significant contribution in overcoming the worst forms of Christian supersessionism (e.g. the church’s replacement of Israel, evolutionary liberal notions of
higher Christian truth, dispensationalism). He asks whether Yoder’s theology of history (a view of Judaism from the point of view of Yoder’s textual interpretation of the meaning of Abraham and Jeremiah) reduces Judaism to a believer’s church paradigm. Does Yoder allow for genuinely pluralistic understandings of what it means to be faithful to God? Is his theology of history a residual form of
modernism, a monolithic reading of history in the light of the Jeremiah paradigm? Like Ochs, Cartwright identifies Yoder’s failure to include
land (also noting Yoder’s minimal treatment of post-exilic texts like Ezra and Nehemiah) in his understanding of the three culturally unique traits of Judaism-synagogue, Torah, and a rabbinate form of servant leadership that is non-sacerdotal, non-hierarchical, and non-violent. It is remarkable how these traits are similar to Yoder’s vision of leadership in a believer’s church tradition. In short, the issue is whether Jews are absorbed into Yoder’s Christian definitions, whether they cease to be a genuine
These questions are linked to how we interpret Romans 9-11–a text Cartwright observes plays a strikingly little role in Yoder’s argument. In his chapter on
Paul the Judaizer Yoder comes close to saying there is a single covenant shared by Jews and Christians. The issue is whether Jews, on their own terms, are included within the covenant or, as Cartwright puts it whether
the way that Yoder goes about affirming the 4
Abrahamic model... involves narrating the history of Jewish peace witness in a way that is determined by the Anabaptist tradition. As a result the very coherence of the vocation of the Jewish people turns out to be reliant upon the
free church vision.
This book takes us far beyond polite and tolerant conversation between Jews and Christians. It engages deeply, directly, and with integrity the fundamental theological issues in the relationship of Jews and Christians. There is
meat here to be digested for a long time. The book also raises indirectly the question of how Christians within the Anabaptist tradition should interpret Jeremiah’s text to
seek the peace of the city where we dwell. Like Jews living in the land of Israel who must learn to live peaceably and justly with Palestinians, we in North America must find a way to be faithful to God in our lands as settled and
bodied people, responsible for the well-being of real cities and institutions. What third way between
empire will we learn as disciples of the Jewish Jesus?