“Two Religions separated by a common Scripture”?

As you will have been aware from my previous postings, I have just completed auditing a Masters degree course at Australian Catholic University called “Jews and Christians reading the Bible”. I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on it. This will not be a review of the course, of course, that would be inappropriate. But I did make a discovery I would like to report.

The main lecturers in the course were Rabbi Fred Morgan and Fr Francis Moloney. The course obviously fitted in with my interests in both biblical studies and interfaith dialogue, although as Rabbi Fred said in our last conversation together, it wasn’t a course in the latter. Still, for me, it was an exercise in bringing together two ways of reading (at least some of the same) Scriptures from two different religious starting points, and so in that respect, an “interfaith dialogue” was taking place – at least in my mind.

Rabbi Fred said at one point that he sees Judaism and Christianity as “two religions separated by a common scripture” (an idea based on Shaw’s wry comment about England and America). I’ve written a little about this in the post below. Reading N.T. Wright’s “Jesus and the Victory of God” has given me a lot to think about in this regard, as has another little book by Amy-Jill Levine, the American Jewish New Testament scholar, “The Misunderstood Jew”. If you haven’t the time or the inclination to read Wright, at least take a look at Levine’s book. It is short and easily readable. You might disagree with her in places (I would be surprised if you didn’t), but her writing is refreshingly honest, and an example of the kind of real dialogue Jews and Christians could be having if we really wanted to. She has a very good chapter entitled “From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church”. As a point of interest, Levine also has co-edited an annoted NRSV New Testament called (appropriately enough) “The Jewish Annotated New Testament”. I have it on order and am just itching to have a good look at it.

Anyway, the upshot is that because the two surviving 2nd Temple Jewish movements followed completely different and mutually exclusive histories in the intervening centuries, Jews cannot today recognise Christianity in any way as part of the “Jewish” tradition. It would be fair to say that the very idea – that modern Judaism and Christianity are different varieties of the same religion – would seem ridiculous to most Christians.

During the course, Rabbi Fred introduced us to the history and methods of Rabbinic interpretation, including ideas, methods and collections such as written and oral Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash (both halakha and Aggadic) and so on. In the main, it looked as if there was very little that the Rabbinic Jewish scriptural hermeneutic had in common with the Christian tradition of reading Scripture.

But then, to my great surprise, we discovered a very significant point of commonality. This emerged almost incidentally in the course, and wasn’t made much of, except as a curiosity. It is my belief that in fact, this “point of commonality” actually speaks volumes about a shared history that extended far beyond 135AD, and even beyond the era of Constantine, right into the later Patristic period of Christian history. This is a period which is roughly equivalent to the formative Rabbinical period. What we discovered is a clue that in fact the separation of the “two religions” was by no means hard and fast, and that there WAS some overlap in hermeneutical procedure.

Rabbi Fred introduced us to the Jewish concept of “Pardes”. “Pardes” is the Persian word from which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike get the word “Paradise”, and it means a “water garden” or “pleasure orchard”. Jews use it as an acronym of the four ways of interpreting Torah, where the Torah is seen as a “paradise” through which the reader strolls. Courtesy of the wonderful source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, here is a summary:

Pardes refers to (types of) approaches to biblical exegesis in rabbinic Judaism (or – simpler – interpretation of text in Torah study). The term, sometimes also spelled PaRDeS, is an acronymn formed from the name initials of the following four approaches:
Peshat — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning.
Remez — “hints” or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
Derash — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
Sod (pronounced with a long O as in ‘bone’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

When it is pointed out that the “Derash” includes interpretation of the text for how one is to practically live one’s life based on the Torah, the astute and well-informed Catholic reader will immediately go “Ah-ha! That sounds familiar!”, and so it should.

An “innovation” in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church was the inclusion, front and centre, of the ancient Patristic (and Medieval) Christian idea of the “four senses” of Scripture. Here is a brief summary abbreviated from paragraphs 115-118 of the Catechism:

115 …[O]ne can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. …
116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” [St. Thomas Aquinas].
117 The spiritual sense…
1. The allegorical sense…
2. The moral sense…
3. The anagogical sense….
118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses: “The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”

Now, if you allow that the anagogical sense is in some way the “mystical” reading of Scripture, what we see in this Patristic hermeneutic is in fact exactly the same as the Jewish Rabbinical hermeneutic of PaRDeS.
I find that incredibly fascinating. I wonder what Kate would make of it, given that she has been pressing me to go beyond the historical reading of Scripture and to apply the Patristic methodology. Perhaps she would agree with our Jewish friend, Amy-Jill Levine, who writes on page 116 of “The Misunderstood Jew”:

To suggest that the text cannot take on new meanings but must be interpreted only in the context of its original setting dooms both the church and the synagogue, because this argument precludes people from finding their own meaning in the text. Theologically speaking, a fully historical focus threatens to put the Holy Spirit out of business.

Could it be that, when read this way, the Holy Spirit is still “in business” among the Jews as well as in the Church?

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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7 Responses to “Two Religions separated by a common Scripture”?

  1. Jim Ryland says:

    I envy you and your participation in that group. What a fascinating study it must be. Perhaps you, or one of the group, might answer I question that has gone somewhat unanswered. Having served as a musician and liturgist in multiple Christian denominations and in the Synagogue (all three branches), the liturgical similarities are more than striking. It is very apparent where the framework for the Mass originated.

    My question is; Why did the Aaronic Priesthood disappear from Orthodox Judaism and why was it replaced by the Rabbinical hermeneutic? There is almost an eerie resemblance to the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the Christian world.

    The only reasonable explanation came from a Rabbi I served under who had a list of doctoral degrees that were as long as your arm. His answer was that it was largely due to the Romans. Judaism was tolerated in both Judea and the rest of the Roman Empire as long as it was seen as a “philosophical” belief system and did not openly counter the official pantheon of the pagan state religion. Priests were not allowed except at the Temple Mount and the destruction pretty much put an end to that. Rabbis were, however, “teachers” and could continue to counsel, practice, and celebrate the Sacred Service.

    Are there any sects that still support the priestly system other than the one African outpost? I believe that the role there carries a title much like the Islamic Imam but is fairly consistent with the biblical priesthood in its duties and rituals.

  2. SonofTrypho says:


    There are still aspects of the Aaronic priesthood present in Orthodox Judaism today – the Kohanim blessing occurs in several services where identifiable Kohanim participate under certain conditions.

    As to why the priesthood dissapeared – because the Temple was destroyed and there was thus no appropriate venue for continued priestly activities.

  3. Schütz says:

    Yes, Jim, SoT has it right. There ARE still ‘priests’ about today in the Jewish community – anyone with the surname “Cohen” is a priest – and they still have certain rules they have to follow. One of our local rabbis is also a priest (non-rabbis can also be priests) and explained to me that for this reason he can’t go into a hospital where there might be a dead body. I think these ‘priests’ are also still able to bless the people with the Aaronic blessing from the book of Numbers, but I’m not sure about that.

    But in most respects, the functioning of the Aaronic priesthood has come to an end because the Temple was demolished by the Romans in 70AD and never rebuilt. It can’t be rebuilt today even if the Jews wanted to – and most don’t – because there is a whopping great mosque on the spot where it should be. And that is another important point: the Temple can only be in that place, because only that location was designated by God as the point where he dwell and would meet with his people.

    In other places in the Empire (following the Babylonian exile) a system of Synagogues had developed, where the focus of the presence of the Lord was already transferred onto the Torah (such that the place where the Torah is housed is called the “tabernacle” and the study of Torah is seen as fulfilling the cultic law). Hence the Synagogue system was ready to take the place of the Temple system in toto after the final defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135AD.

    The reason I see the 135AD date as important is because that was the final end of the Judeans’ hope to rebuild the temple (some saw the 70 years of exile prophecies as relating this this – the end of the post 70AD exile being expected in 140AD). After that, there was no longer a place for a functioning priesthood. The Rabbis had it all to themselves. Except for that other crazy messianic mob…

  4. Jim Ryland says:

    Thanks guys. That reflects my understanding the events and current status.

  5. Pingback: Four ways of reading scripture « Joyful Papist

  6. Antonia Romanesca says:

    “The Jewish Annotated New Testament”. I have it on order and am just itching to have a good look at it. ” ~~~~~ Have had my copy for about 6 months. The essays are wonderful – just wish they were in larger print. Very mind expanding!

  7. Antonia Romanesca says:

    “Could it be that, when read this way, the Holy Spirit is still “in business” among the Jews, as well as in the Church?”
    Yes, absolutely ha Shekhinah is still active within Jewry. One cannot see how this is not the case. It was Jewry which first experienced the Shekhinah and my bishop has taught that ‘it was the Jews who brought the Shekhinah to humanity’. Examples which spring to mind, where Jewry is in touch with ha Shekhinah: Hassidic Jews dancing in a circle in Jerusalem; Jews of all varieties praying at The Western Wall; Jews praying over the Tanach or Torah, seated cross legged and rocking back and forth; the experience of ha Shekhinah as the Sabbath Bride, dancing in the door at the lighting of the candles at Shabbos. Plus of course there are innumerable other examples from the contemporary world… Aleph Lamed Daleth [May you be protected from all harm!]

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