An important book on understanding the Bible recently appeared: The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christian Read the Same Stories Differently, by Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine. I have asked both authors to provide a guest post or two, and here is the first. Marc Brettler has long been a prominent scholar of ancient Judaism. Since 2015 he has been the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University.
Marcion, an early church theologian active in the first part of the second century, taught that the God of the Old Testament, typified by wrath, was distinct from the loving God of the New. His biblical canon excluded the entirety of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. (His NT canon was also different than the one the Church ultimately settled on, but that story needs to wait for another day.) His views were rejected by the nascent church, and he was ultimately excommunicated in about 140.
As a professor of biblical studies, I know that his legacy continues. This year in particular, I have found some blog posts of this semester’s students surprising and unsettling, even upsetting. I am co-teaching a course called “Scripture” with the NT scholar Mark Goodacre and the scholar of Islamic literature, Ellen McLarney, with TA Abigail Emerson (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament PhD candidate). In the posts for one of the first classes, several students commented on the OT’s angry God—their language—highlighting a small selection of texts that they had read, such as the conquest of the land of Israel by Joshua. But none of these students balanced this presentation with other texts that they also knew, such as the book of Jonah, whose very theme is God’s compassion for all. At the beginning of the next class, I called out this problem, and even showed the entire class a website, which, using principles as selective as Marcion, highlights the loving God of the OT and the fierce and vengeful God of the New.
But it made little difference. Several student posts for the following class, the last one surveying the contents of the OT/Tanakh, called this corpus “hypocritical.” They might as well have been quoting from the refrain in Matthew 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” They had no sense of the resonance of this word, and what it might mean to use this word for anyone’s scripture (especially to a Jewish professor). And yes, in the following class I yet again called attention to this issue, gently but firmly, to the students’ attention.
I certainly had heard and read these canards before, but had never seen them in student posts. The three of us had taught Scripture three years earlier, and none of us could recollect similar student posts. So I became curious, wondering if my personal experience in 2021 was representative, and if there was indeed a resurgence of Marcionism; I also wondered, if so, how we might be able to combat it, and what strategies my colleagues at other institutions are using.
So I turned to Facebook, where I posted about my experience. I had over one hundred responses. I would like to share what I learned from these.
To my dismay, I was not alone—several other faculty members had similar experiences, suggesting a recent resurgence of these ideas among their students as well. My FB friends suggested a variety of reasons for this. (Since I was not given permission to cite each of these by name from my FB friends, they will remain anonymous here.) Several connected this to the strengthening of right-wing nationalism, with its attendant antisemitism. I don’t think that most of the students expressing such views identify with this movement, but the trickle-down of its hateful vitriol has been powerful. Others have connected it to a desire to blame a God during the pandemic. (See, e.g., even this prepandemic article, arguing for Marcion’s relevance to our broken world: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1015-87582018000300002 .) A former student connected it to the fact that most people have not been going to church during covid, and thus are more open to religious influence through websites, including antisemitic ones. Related to this, someone noted: “I wonder if the increase in such an attitude may be the result of the increasing popularity of (poorly trained and informed) evangelical/atheist social media and YouTube commentators and video essayists.” A former high school classmate who also teaches spoke of students who in essence want to remove Revelation from the NT canon, so the OT-wrathful and the NT-full of love dichotomy can prevail more obviously. Another person spoke of the contemporary “promotion of a kind of neo-Gnosticism that holds up the more ostensibly peaceful and spiritual movement within Christianity that rejected the God of Judaism and was itself suppressed by the institutional church.” As a student of antiquity, I cannot judge which, if any, of these explanations is accurate, or how these different factors might interact.
But I feel that I can, and must, offer some strategies about combating this pernicious attitude—some of my own, but also various suggestions, texts, and stories that colleagues have offered.
In class, I showed the brilliant document initiated by Eva Mroczek, who teaches Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of California at Davis: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BG5PvCO5pTTATcgBF-Da5j9p0myFgg9wj1ECkrRhFbI/edit?fbclid=IwAR2YMomv0s6SmBpG9kjOt5rroKd9tkp7XB7m7QaV8iHGEpx-vAbzsJeYpKE . It starts with this contrast: God [in the HB/OT] is compassionate and slow to anger: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6) vs. Jesus says he has come to sow violence: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’ (Mt 10: 34-39). It continues with a series of similar contrasts, and should be shown by all teachers of the Bible in one of the first classes. This post by Notre Dame’s Gary Anderson is also very helpful: https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/god-doesnt-break-bad-in-the-old-testament/?fbclid=IwAR18Z1U_cjL7fLM97R4_7ztbnSej0swR4WrSEd55Uegnn4lYD4-RjYzPdOA . But websites are not enough.
Others suggested different ways that this problem needs to be handled. Some professors insist on acknowledging the problem in a clear and straightforward way during the very first class. My Duke colleague Anathea Portier-Young has students read, before the first class, Johanna van Wijk Bos, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice. Others suggested quoting in class from early church fathers who present, with great authority, the opposite view of Marcion, for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.28.1, where he notes that the punishments noted in the NT are more severe than those in the OT.
The eminent NT scholar Amy-Jill Levine has spent decades trying to educate toward mutual respect and a more historically accurate depiction of early Judaism and Christianity. I have assigned to some of my classes chapters of our recently co-authored The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christian Read the Same Stories Differently, written to encourage mutual understanding rather than viewing religion as a zero-sum game; the key word in the title is “and.” (We hope to blog on this here together in the near future.) The students were surprised to see that two Jews can respect both Jewish and Christian readings of Old Testament / Tanakh texts. I hope that this book can be a model for teaching the Bible.
I am writing my first draft of this on erev Rosh Hashanah, the afternoon before the Jewish New year starts. A significant theme of the day is God’s forgiveness—the prophetic reading (Haftarah) for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20, which speaks of the joy that restored Israel will experience from its ever-compassionate God, full of “eternal love” for his people. With this in mind, and with a sense of hakarat hatov, “recognition of the good,” namely appreciating the beneficial things that people have done for you (and have taught you) in the past, a core Jewish value, I would like to conclude with the following story. It is from a former teacher and colleague of mine at Brandeis University, Reuven Kimelman, as shared on Facebook:
In the mid-1970’s when I taught at Amherst College I teamed up with Karl Donfried of Smith College for a course on Judaism and Christianity in the first three centuries. For the last session, we assigned contemporary readings on Jewish-Christian dialogue asking how much of it is rooted in the reality of the first centuries.
The procedure of the course was one of us would lecture, the other would respond, and then give-and-take with the students. After Donfried’s irenic presentation, a student blurted out: “I don’t understand this whole course, the Jews killed Christ and have been getting what they deserve.” Donfried was dumbfounded as if the whole course was in vain. Suddenly, students who had not said much spoke agitatedly, taking sides on the issue. I kept quiet knowing that I would have the last word. At the end, I turned to the student, saying, “I know where you are coming from believing in the God of the NT who holds a grudge for two thousand years, but you must understand where I am coming from believing in the God of the OT who tempers His justice with His mercy.” The course was over.