Ellenson on Christians as Idolaters (Or Not)

I started Christianity in Jewish Terms, which has essays by Jews and Christians.  The essay that I really enjoyed last night was by David Ellenson, who is the President of Hebrew Union College, which is where I go to school.  Within rabbinic Judaism, there is a prominent belief that Jews have to observe the Torah, whereas Gentiles to be righteous only have to obey seven Noachide commandments.  One of these commandments is against idolatry.

There’s a good chance that I’ll be talking about the Noachide commandments tomorrow.  Today, I’ll focus on a question that Rabbi Ellenson addresses: Did Jews believe that Christians were in violation of the Noachide commandment against idolatry?  I have heard from Jews that to worship a man as God (as Christians do to Jesus) is idolatry.  So are they saying that Christians are idolaters?  And, as a professor I once had at Jewish Theological Seminary asked, what are the implications of Christians being idolaters on the presence of churches in Israel?  Do Jews believe that Christian idolatry is polluting the holy land?

I don’t have the answer to all of these questions, but I do think that Rabbi Ellenson shed a significant amount of light in his contribution to this book.  According to Ellenson, writings in the rabbinic period (i.e., the Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 9:1; Exodus Rabbah 29:5) lambast Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity and the incarnation, and a negative attitude toward Christianity “and its visions of God had hardened in many Jewish precincts” by the Middle Ages.  In addition, Maimonides considered Christians to be worshipers of idols, in his comments on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:3 and the Mishneh Torah (Hiclhot Avodat Zarah 1:3).  But, starting with the twelfth century in Christian Europe, there was a tendency to view Christianity as a form of monotheism and the worship of the one true God, the God of the Bible, who created the heavens and the earth.  Jews were forbidden to associate another personality (such as Jesus) with God, a practice that is called shituf.  But Gentiles could do so, according to normative Jewish law, without violating the prohibition on idolatry, perhaps because, in their minds, they were worshiping the one true God.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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