The Messianic Crisis

Every page of Eusebius's writing bears the message that the conversion of Constantine proves the Christhood of Jesus: his messianic standing. History— the affairs of nations and monarchs—yields laws of society, proves God's will, so that matters now speak for themselves. For Judaism the dramatic shift in the fortunes of the competing biblical faith raised a simple and unpleasant possibility: perhaps Israel had been wrong after all. Since the Jews as a whole, and sages among them, anticipated the coming of the Messiah promised by the prophets, the issue could be fairly joined. If history proves propositions, as the prophets and apocalyptic visionaries had maintained, then how could Jews deny the Christians' claim that the conversion of the emperor, then of the empire, demonstrated the true state of affairs in heaven as much as on earth? And as large numbers of pagans as well as Jews accepted the imperial faith, Christian theologians had also to restate the messianic facts.

Specifically, to former pagans they had to establish the fact that one could worship only Jesus as Christ, no other. To Jews newly entered into the Church, as well as to converts from pagan religions, there was another issue. Since the Church invoked the Israelite Scriptures as warrant for Jesus' messiahship, the standing and status of other statements in those same Scriptures required attention. The messiahship of Jesus—so most of the Church maintained— rendered void the scriptural rules, so that Golgotha did not mark a mere way-station on the road to Sinai. If Jesus was Christ, then Sinai (so to speak) had come to Golgotha, and converts to Christianity were not to adopt the Old Testament rules and regulations, as the Jews kept them, nor were Jewish converts to maintain the old rites. So for the Christian theologians the messianic crisis demanded a clear statement of precisely what Christ demanded—and did not demand—from Christians. Chrysostom, who stands for Christianity in the messianic issue, typifies the Christian theologians' concern that converts not proceed to the synagogue or retain connections with it. For the burden of his case was that, since Christ had now been proved Messiah, Christians no longer could associate themselves with the synagogue. Judaism had lost, Christianity had won, and people had to choose the one and give up the other.

At stake for Chrysostom, whose sermons on Judaism, preached in 386-87, provide for our purpose the statement of Christianity on the Messianic issue, was Christians' participation in synagogue rites and Judaic practices. He invoked the Jews' failure in the fiasco of the proposed rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem only a quarter of a century earlier. He drew upon the failure of that project to demonstrate that Judaic rites no longer held any power. He further cited that incident to prove that Israel's salvation lay wholly in the past, in the time of the return to Zion, and never in the future. So the happenings of the day demonstrated proofs of the faith, just as we realized in chapter 2. The struggle between sages and theologians concerned the meaning of important contemporary happenings, and the same happenings, read in light of the same Scripture, provoked discussion of the same issues: a confrontation.

The messianic crisis confronting the Christian theologians hardly matches that facing the Judaic sages. The one dealt with problems of the triumph, the other with despair; the one had to interpret a new day, the other to explain disaster. Scripture explicitly promised that Israel would receive salvation from God's anointed Messiah at the end of time. The teleology of Israelite faith, in the biblical account, focused upon eschatology, and, within eschatology, on the salvific, therefore the messianic, dimension. On the other hand, the Mish-nah had for its part taken up a view of its own on the issue of teleology, presenting an ahistorical and essentially nonmessianic teleology. Sages' response to the messianic crisis had to mediate two distinct and, I think, contradictory positions. Sages explained what the messianic hope now entailed, and how to identify the Messiah, who, of course, would be a sage. They further encompassed the messianic issue within their larger historical theory. So we cannot address the question as if the Christians had defined the issue. True, to Israel all they had to say was, "Why not believe in Christ?" But sages responded with a far-reaching doctrine of their own, deeming the question, in its Christian formulation, trivial.

But the issue confronting both Judaic sages and Christian theologians was one and the same: precisely what difference the Messiah makes. To state matters as they would be worked out by both parties: In the light of the events of the day what do I have to do because the Messiah has come (Christian) or because I want the Messiah to come (Judaic)? That question encompasses two sides of a single issue. On the issue of the messiahship of Jesus all other matters depended. It follows that one party believed precisely the opposite of the other on an issue identically defined by both. For Christians, the sole issue—belief or unbelief—carried a clear implication for the audience subject to address. When debate would go forward, it would center upon the wavering of Christians and the unbelief of Jews. Our exemplary figure, Chrysostom, framed matters in those terms, of course drawing upon the events of his own day for ample instantiation of the matter. The Christian formulation thus focused for Chrysostom all matters on the vindication of Jesus as Christ. When Christians found attractive aspects of Judaic rite and belief, the Christian theologians invoked the fundamental issue: Is Jesus the Christ? If so, then Judaism falls. If not, then Christianity falls. No question, therefore, drew the two sets of intellectuals into more direct conflict; none bore such immediate and fundamental consequences. When, therefore, Christians in the Church of Antioch gave evidence of wishing to join in Judaic worship and to practice Judaic rites, with reference to the festivals and the Sabbath, John Chrysostom raised the question of whether Judaic rites yet mattered, and whether Jesus is Christ. So we turn to his framing of matters in our inquiry into the context and circumstances for the Judaic sages' thought on the same topic.

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