Interpreting Paul, Jesus' knowledge & more

LOST IN TRANSLATION

According to John Wilkins (“The Beginning of the Beginning,” January 18), the opponents of Cardinal Augustin Bea at Vatican II argued that St. Paul had spoken of Jews as “enemies of God.” Indeed the New English Bible features the following translation of Romans 11:28: “In the spreading of the gospel they are treated as God’s enemies for your sake, but God’s choice stands, and they are his friends for the sake of the patriarchs.” Yet the Douay-Rheims translation rendered the same passage this way: “As concerning the gospel, indeed, they are enemies for your sake: but as touching the election, they are most dear for the sake of the fathers.” In the King James Version the passage reads: “As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.”

By consulting the original Greek, one finds these older translations truer to St. Paul’s words than the more modern New English Bible. Paul did not describe Jews as “enemies of God.” What happened? Perhaps modern scholars have wanted to make explicit what they felt was implicit. Here they do so at the risk of fomenting hatred. In any case, at Vatican II, Romans 11:29 proved more important: “For the gifts and calling of God [are] without repentance.”

JOHN CONNELLY
Berkeley, Calif.

 

THE AUTHOR REPLIES

I thank John Connelly for his letter. He refers to a passage in my article where I cited opponents of Cardinal Bea’s draft of Vatican II’s declaration on the Jews. A key Pauline text was at issue for one critic, the Melkite leader Maximos IV Saigh, who wanted changes in the draft. His reasons for intervening are reported by Giovanni Turbanti in the final volume of Giuseppe Alberigo’s History of Vatican II: “Maximos IV asked that Romans 11:28–29 be cited in its entirety, for it spoke not only of God’s special love of Israel because of the fathers, but also of Israel’s enmity toward God because of the gospel” [my italics].

Connelly points out that the original Greek simply says “enemies.” In a footnote, Turbanti cites the actual text of Maximos’s objection: “When the text cites St. Paul saying that the Jews are ‘beloved because of the fathers,’ it should add the words ‘yet enemies because of the gospel’” [my italics]. So Maximos followed the Greek.

The Revised Standard Version (RSV), however, the best translation in English for scholarly work on St. Paul, and the one which I consulted for my article, is explicit. It translates Romans 11:28–29 this way: “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” [my italics].

Turbanti explains why Maximos’s proposed change was not accepted at the council: “The reason for the rejection...was that the words in Scripture referred to persecutions inflicted on the first Christian communities and not to Jews of later centuries, still less to the Jewish people as such.” That could point to taking “enemies” to mean “enemies of the Christians,” though it could also be compatible with the RSV reading. Scripture scholars I have consulted, however, regard “enemies of the Christians” as a very unlikely interpretation. They prefer “enemies of God” or “enemies of the gospel.”

In any event, one must consider St. Paul’s characteristic rhetorical style. We must not force the expressions “enemies of God” and “enemies of the gospel” further than they were meant to go. This is another of the paradoxes St. Paul loved: enemies...but beloved. The first term should be kept in apposition to the second, and the stress falls on the latter—as verse 26 makes clear (“All Israel will be saved”). This was precisely Cardinal Bea’s approach at Vatican II.

JOHN WILKINS

 

WELL...DID HE?

The subtitle of “Human & Divine,” Luke Timothy Johnson’s January 31 article, is “Did Jesus Have Faith?” Despite the many valuable things Johnson wrote in that piece, he never attempted to answer that question. I wish he had. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stresses the cognitive content of faith, indicating that Jesus really was incapable of belief because he always possessed the immediate vision of God, thereby having vision (knowledge) instead of faith (belief). The CDF apparently concluded that Jesus always knew the salvific plan of God, and knew that he was God as well as man. I imagine that the CDF might further hold that Jesus always knew he would found a church with seven sacraments and a sovereign pontiff, and that Jesus also lacked the virtue of hope since he already possessed God fully-—we do not hope for what we have. Without having read Jon Sobrino’s Christology, I would guess that such statements and interpretations are what he saw as “dangerous” because they seem to undermine the fully human nature of the God-Man.

I hope that someday you have a competent theologian address this question: Did the Jesus of the ministry have faith (understanding faith to have cognitive content) or not? If he did, I could understand Jesus’ cry of anguish from the cross when all seemed dark and lost. Such a person, who lived with faith and not with sight, as we all try to do, would make a great model. Am I wrong to think that, at least in this instance, the CDF, despite its sincere efforts to safeguard the teachings regarding the Incarnation, is trying to turn back the clock on genuine theological development?

ANDY GALLIGAN
Tracy, Calif.

 

NEGLECTING THE MYSTERY

Luke Timothy Johnson frets over what he considers a “reduction of the mystery of Jesus by several liberation theologians.” I wonder if he shares a similar concern with the theology of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in its pursuit of distinct ontological terms to describe the divinity of Jesus. Is defending Jesus’ divinity more important than defending his humanity?

Could it be that the tensions between the CDF and Jon Sobrino originate in the context in which they “do” theology? The CDF is in dialogue with the councils and is concerned with rational belief in the divinity of Jesus. Sobrino is in dialogue with Scripture and is concerned with those considered nonpersons by a dominant elite. To neglect the mystery of the Jesus who shares the interests and values of a marginalized people is to neglect a doctrine affecting the lives of millions around the globe.

TOM DUNN
Laurel, N.Y.

 

CONFLICT, FOR NOW

Luke Timothy Johnson’s “Human & Divine” shows the kind of theology that could be pursued in dialogue between theologians and the magisterium to the benefit of the whole church. As long as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continues its “top down” ways, we will have more doctrinal conflict than doctrinal development.

KENNETH SMITS, OFM CAP
Madison, Wis.

 

THE REALITIES OF 'JUNO'

While I liked Rand Richards Cooper’s review of Juno (“Life & Death,” January 31)—a truly remarkable film—I disagree with his conclusions about how the movie may represent cultural changes regarding abortion. Again, someone’s judgment has been driven by ideology rather than the facts on the ground.

The heroine in Juno makes a decision to keep her child. Fine. But she is middle-class, lives in a nice neighborhood, goes to school, and has supportive parents—all of which may be missing in the lives of many pregnant teens. Having a child out of wedlock can be a calamity for poor, lower-class, uneducated teens of various ethnicities and races. Statistics have shown that this often locks a young woman and her child into an ongoing cycle of poverty. Is this anything to celebrate?

The reason that the abortion rate has gone down is not that people’s attitudes are changing: it is the result of restricting abortions for teens and women across the country. No one wants an abortion, in the way one might, say, want an ice cream. Having an abortion is not always a sign of an “insistence on unencumbered freedom, individual attainment, and absolute control over one’s destiny.” It can be a necessity for some women. Restricting abortions and outlawing them will mean one thing—women will go underground to terminate unwanted pregnancies and will be endangered by back-alley abortionists. Is this celebrating the seamless garment of life?

I think Cooper’s conclusions about the shibboleths of our lives are incorrect and a gross generalization. Juno is a wonderful film, but it is not an iconic representation of cultural change.

ANN TURNER
Williamsburg, Mass.

 

THE REVIEWER REPLIES

Ann Turner takes me to task for being ideological. Truth is, where abortion is concerned, I don’t have much of an ideology, other than believing that too many of them take place. I certainly don’t deny that unwanted pregnancies can trap mothers and children in poverty. But to pose the hope for betterment against the ability to experience wonder at unborn life strikes me as a false dichotomy.

For the record, I do not favor outlawing abortion. Nor, contrary to Ms. Turner’s implication, did I attempt to extract from Juno any such policy recommendation. All I said was that the film portrays a girl for whom an unwanted pregnancy does not turn out to be a calamity, and who experiences awe and joy at the images on an ultrasound; and that this portrayal may betoken changing social attitudes. Is that so terrible?

In fact, Ms. Turner’s letter perfectly replicates the hypersensitivity of the pro-choice movement, ever ready to perceive a threat to its interests. But as long as we liberals (yes, I am one) insist on construing any reference to the miracle of pregnancy as a political assault, we will continue to seem heartless and cynical. For thirty-five years American liberalism has tendentiously obscured the humanity of the unborn child in order to facilitate a political result. That I happen to favor that result—namely, preserving the legal right to an abortion—does not mean I approve the means.

RAND RICHARDS COOPER

 

ANOTHER OPTION

I applaud Patrick Hicks for his article about his and his wife’s struggles with infertility (“Family Planning,” December 7, 2007). But contrary to what Hicks might suggest, one does not have to masturbate to give a sperm sample. Sperm can also be collected by means of a perforated condom and quickly delivered to a lab, and this method is perfectly in keeping with the church’s teachings about sex.

A. W. LICHTENWALNER
Crofton, Md.

 

A SHARED HOPE

In his review of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger’s The Promise (“Sibling Rivalries,” January 18), Michael Peppard asks how we can “share in Israel’s hope while we proclaim its fulfillment.” This is possible because the fulfillment of Christ both is and is not yet. The fullness of Christ before he delivers all to the Father is the completeness of his body, which includes all the saints—past, present, and future. It is this complete body that Christ will deliver to the Father at the end.

Until then, we hope for the fullness of God’s kingdom to appear. Both Christians and Jews look forward to the final coming of the Messiah. Thus, both communities can share a hope, while Christians also proclaim its fulfillment in Christ.

PETER J. RIGA
Houston, Tex.

 

SYRIAN SURPRISE

The information about the Syrian Christian tradition presented in Sally Cunneen’s “The Mary We Never Knew” (December 21, 2007) is of great value. A piece like this is enough to keep me subscribing to Commonweal for life. Now I must read Cunneen’s books.

EMERO STIEGMAN
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Published in the 2008-02-29 issue: 
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