This remarkable volume in Eerdman's Radical Traditions series brings together, for the first time in book form, John Howard Yoder's essays and lectures on the Jewish-Christian schism. The volume is considerably enriched by the commentary of Jewish theologian Peter Ochs and Christian theologian Michael G. Cartright, who share both their appreciation for Yoder's work and their critiques.
The Preface "What Needs to Change in the Jewish-Christian Dialogue and Why?" articulates the overarching vision that shapes the entire collection. Despite significant progress in our understanding of the origins of Christianity and Judaism, Yoder maintains, revision of once-standard schema have not gone far enough, insofar as scholars assume the inevitability of the emergence of Christianity and Judaism as two separate, mutually exclusive, sociological, cultural, and theological systems. Challenging this assumption, Yoder argues that there is nothing in the life and teachings of Jesus nor the theology of Paul that necessitated this historical development and that, in fact, the Jewish-Christian schism need not and should not have happened. "I seek here to articulate one basic alternative perspective, which if correct will call for redefinitions all across the board" (p. 35).
The ensuing essays begin this process of redefinition. Yoder argues that the "fall of the church" that his Radical Reformation tradition traces to the era of Constantine has roots in Christianity's break from Judaism. Once Christianity was removed from the Jewish matrix that the New Testament presumed, it lost the decentralized communal structures of the synagogue, an appreciation for Torah as grace, the Jeremianic ethos of an exilic people serving God and humanity without seeking political power, and the accompanying pacifist ethic that the church had maintained for the first two centuries of its existence.
Judaism, too, was affected by the schism. Yoder emphasizes that the Rabbinic Judaism of the Mishnah emerged in the context of this schism and defined itself, in distinction from Christianity, as a non- or anti-Messianic religion. Judaism thereby lost the missionary ethos through which it had once exercised its vocation as people of God to and for all nations. Yoder views contemporary Zionism, in contrast, not as Judaism's self-distinction from Christianity, but as a phenomenon in which Judaism becomes the mirror image of Constantinian Christianity's fusion of religion and nation-state. He laments Judaism's loss of the Jeremianic ethos of the diaspora and its missionary vocation to the nations, and he calls upon Christians to acknowledge that much of our history and tradition is rooted in a schism that should not ever have happened, a recognition that would lead to radical reformulations in Christian theology and practice.
Och's commentaries highlight both what he terms the "wonders" and "burdens" of Yoder's call for a paradigm shift in Christian and Jewish self-understanding. The wonders include Yoder's very interest in Judaism, his open dialogue, his post-liberal approach to theology, and his identification of the sociological and theological common ground that the churches of the Radical Reformation share with Judaism. The burdens include a historical foundationalism, stark distinctions and uncompromising judgements, a binary logic, and a theology that is unintentionally supersessionist insofar as it defines normative Judaism as exilic. Yoder desires a new form of sharing between Christians and Jews, Ochs observes, and yet appears to be committed from the onset to a specific, normative vision of the form that post-schism Judaism and Christianity should take. True dialogue would bring Christians and Jews together to a common table, from which genuinely new understandings and visions may emerge.
Cartright, in turn, describes this collection of essays as Yoder's most ambitious scholarly project. His scholarship is wide-ranging in compass, including the disciplines of biblical studies, history, ecclesiology, ethics, and theology, and the implications of his work are significant not only for Jewish-Christian dialogue, but also for Christianity itself. Yet if this work is Yoder's most ambitious, Cartright notes, it may also prove to be his most flawed. Among its limitations, Cartright highlights the "neo-supersessionism" that is manifest in Yoder's eclipse of the covenantal basis of Judaism in the triad of God, land, and people, even as Yoder affirms Judaism's universal significance and missionary mandate.
Like so many pioneers, Ochs comments, Yoder crosses a new frontier but has not entirely left the old behind. He proposes a new paradigm in Christian thinking about Judaism even as the influence of the old supersessionist framework still lingers. "He has made his contribution," Ochs concludes, "the challenge is for his students to continue the new order he introduced, and let go of the old" (p.68). One only wishes Yoder himself could respond to Cartwright and Ochs to continue the conversation his paradigm-changing essays have stimulated. One imagines, in any case, that Yoder is grateful for their efforts to publish his work posthumously, accompanied by such thoughtful critique and commentary. Readers of this volume will be grateful too.