I recently read Jeremy Cohen‘s book Living Letters of the Law, it is a fascinating (and quite challenging I might add) look at how Christianity has understand Jews and Judaism from a historical perspective. Cohen’s primary objective in Living Letters of the Law is to examine the manner in which Patristic and Medieval Christian writers, from Augustine to Aquinas, constructed the Jew and Judaism. He labels this construction the ‘hermeneutical Jew’ drawing attention to his notion that Christianity’s portrayal of the Jew is often a theological concept rather than an actual description of Judaism.
Whether we intend to or not, we all have ‘others’ that we write against and for. And the danger is that we can construct these ‘others’ giving more thought to our own conceptual agendas than to reality. In this light, Cohen’s book has numerous implications for Christian theology (especially to those of us in academia).
Foremost, I believe it prompts us to remember our tendency to define ourselves in light of others, or the hermeneutically crafted other. Although, history bears countless marks of this approach, two extreme examples are the Crusades and the Holocaust, we still insist on creating a mindset that differentiates us from them. I acknowledge that this presents us with a difficult task. For, on the one hand, we hold certain truths about salvation that are exclusive in nature. For example, Jesus is way, the truth and the life and no one comes to Father except through him (John 14:6). Yet, on the other hand, scripture tells us to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). If we are to truly fulfill this command, we must be willing to find a way to define ourselves without denigrating others.
A second implication for Christian theology is we must be cognizant of the effect our theology has on the world around us. Cohen’s central premise is that the medieval church created a ‘hermeneutical Jew’ to function in its theological agenda. His recounting of the events is a clear example of how theological constructs can have disastrous effects, in this case on the Jews of the medieval ages. Our own theological constructs can have the same results. Examples from my country’s history are the church’s endorsement of slavery, the church’s, especially those in the south, fight against the civil rights movements, and the current battle over homosexuality. The development of a faithful theology is important, but it cannot be done as if it exists in a vacuum. We must take the time to consider how our theological framework will affect not only our religion but also our world. I do not have an answer for how we are to accomplish these tasks, but Cohen’s book is a stark reminder that we must set our minds and our hearts wholeheartedly towards achieving them.