A holiday against syncretism . . . syncretized

merry menorahEven though fewer than 2 percent of the American population is Jewish, the religion ranks number two in America behind Christianity’s 77 percent of the population.

I don’t have the stats handy, but the number of Jews who marry non-Jews is a growing number, with interfaith marriages becoming more typical in the last few decades. And so every year we get stories about interfaith families — which in this case means families where one parent is Jewish and one parent is Christian. And even though presumably this poses challenges every day — of how to inculcate religious faith in children, celebrate holidays, and remain religious — the press notices it once a year. Around Christmas.

So here’s the Washington Post‘s Sue Anne Pressley with her hard-hitting coverage of the December interfaith dilemma:

The first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, falls on Christmas for the first time since 1959 and for only the fourth time in 100 years. And [Eve] Edwards–who is Jewish, married to a Catholic and raising their two daughters in both faiths–is primed for the occasion.

“I’m packing up the menorah with the candles and taking it to my Catholic mother-in-law’s,” said Edwards, 35.

No one really equates Hanukkah, a secondary Jewish holiday, with Christmas, which hardly needs amplification. The holidays sometimes overlap; in 1997, the first night of Hanukkah was Dec. 23. But this year’s coincidence gives Dec. 25 a special luster of inclusiveness.

The only problem with these stories about religious holy days downplay the religious aspects of the dilemma. Hanukkah might be a secondary Jewish holiday, but its religious significance speaks directly to the comingling of religions.

A brief history: Under the reign of Antiochus (around 170 B.C.), Jews were forced to violate the precepts of their faith and an altar to Zeus was erected in the Temple. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion. Judah, who took over following his father’s death, became known as Judah Maccabee and under his leadership the Temple was liberated and rededicated.

A new altar was constructed in place of the syncretistic Zeus altar and oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout each night. Even though there was only enough oil for one day, the menorah burned for eight crazy nights. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.

Here’s how the Washington Post piece analyzed the religious difficulties of celebrating Hanukkah, a Jewish festival to honor the lengths which Jewish forebears went to preserve their religion from syncretism. Here’s how it discussed the difficulty of practicing this holiday with integrity in an interfaith family:

But in some households, there may be a few debates: Will it be mashed potatoes with that big meal or potato latkes?

I wish I was joking. The article was completely devoid of critical thought. Apparently the collision of Christmas and Hanukkah gave reporters equal opportunity for offensive writing, however. Take a gander at this bizarre passage from Tim Townsend, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who I praised last week:

As the New Testament story of Christ’s birth is told in modern Christian churches throughout the world this weekend, Isaiah’s words also will be read and interpreted to support the idea that Christ’s coming was predicted several centuries before his birth.

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground,” wrote Isaiah. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering …”

The prophet’s words are part of a larger passage of 15 verses about a figure Biblical scholars call “the suffering servant.”

Most scholars today acknowledge that Isaiah was not predicting the birth and death of Christ, but instead was using the suffering servant to talk about God’s relationship with Israel during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.

That last sentence is one of the most preposterous I’ve ever read from a religion reporter. Ever. It’s one thing to attribute the claim to someone — but to substantiate it with an unidentified cabal of “most scholars” is particularly offensive. If, in fact, “most scholars” believe this, perhaps we could learn of the survey where they were asked about their views. Perhaps we could learn what type of scholars they are. Also, perhaps, someone could notify Christendom.

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  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    What’s so preposterous about that sentence? It’s a little reductive of a fairly complex issue, but journalists tend to be reductive in that way. They frequently cite the most literalistic reasons as the sole (and evidently weak) basis for a religious belief. That may be implied here. But what is actually written is not really “preposterous.” It may well be that even most conservative protestant biblical scholars do not have problems with the idea that the truth and prophetic nature of prophecy doesn’t require the prophet to know his role, let alone the full meaning or all possible subsequent applications of his words.

  • Tom Breen

    I wish journalists would abandon the lazy habit of writing “most scholars” or “critics” or something like that. There’s not much distance between that and just writing, “Here’s what I think.”

    On the other hand, I agree the sentence is preposterous, but that’s Calvinism for you: the over-literalism, the reliance on the intentions of an author, the belief that a document is “dead” once it’s written.

  • Beth

    …Who reads Isaiah 53 on Christmas Eve?

  • ceemac


    What might seem preposterous is your response to a fairly standard interpretation of the origins of Suffering Servant passages. That’s why there is no need to list the scholars.

    I don’t have any references handy but the person who has written the most about the Exile in the last 25 years is Walter Bruggemann.

  • Brad

    I agree that it’s a stretch to say “most scholars” interpret Isaiah 53 that way.

    What kind of scholars is he talking about, after all? “Bible scholars?” Theologians? Commentators?

    Even NT Wright, who while traditional overall has a history of reinterpreting things, lets Isaiah 53 talk about both the exile and Jesus.

    By the way, I don’t know who reads Isaiah 53 on Christmas Eve. I tend toward Luke.


  • Mark

    My Lutheran church read Isaiah and Luke on Christmas Eve. Nothing wrong (at least in some Christian traditions) with believing the Isaiah scripture refers to both events. Clearly the ancient Christian church believed the words prophetically referred to Christ. I guess “most” scholars in 2005 know more about scriptural interpretation than did the early church Fathers and NT writers of 1900 years ago.

    This kind of phrasing has the effect — intended or not — of taking a swipe at believers by implying that their religious foundations have been proved wrong by modern “scientists.”

    It’s a shame this one paragraph is, I suppose, poorly worded to give that implication. The rest of the article has some thoughtful history and a nice explanation of covenants. The writer seems to understand something of biblical history, and that’s certainly useful in a Christmas article. It could teach readers something, as long as they can get past the statement that believing a very long-held Christian belief goes against what “most” scholars believe.

  • Herb

    Having finally finished (or almost finished) one of my life goals of memorizing Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in the original, I can only say that it certainly belongs to any Christian service at any time. The whole gamut of Christian theology is included, from the resurrection and ascension (“he shall be high, lifted up, and greatly exalted”) right down to his birth and ministry: “As a tender plant out of very dry ground” reflecting both the condition of Israel at the exile (if you want, but I fail to see how the “Suffering Servant” here can apply to anyone else but Jesus — it certainly makes no sense to apply it to Israel or even Isaiah), and even more so to Israel’s situation in the first century A.D. There are references in Isaiah 53 to Jesus’ healing ministry (as quoted by the Gospel writers).

    Finally, the personal references, as indicated by the constant repetition in the Hebrew text of the personal pronoun, “hu’” = “He himself” mitigate strongly against any other than a personal interpretation. It is, I think, the most important passage in the whole of the Old Testament, and undergirds how Jesus understood himself and his work.

    No wonder Jesus warned us, “they have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them” — http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2016:22-29;&version=31;

  • Andy


    So, you’re blaming… Presbyterians? Huh?

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Townsend’s word choice was oversimplified–but preposterous? Really? Do we have to rush to be offended by this? Townsend’s talking about, as far as I can tell, what that passage meant in it’s original context. His word choice could have been clearer, but the statement has some facual content.

    The biblical prophets were reinterpreted after the coming of Christ. Isaiah 7:14, “a virgin shall concieve and bear a son” isn’t about Jesus, at least not in the context of Isaiah. (the rest of the passage–”But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” is rooted in the time of the prophet.

    Maybe it’s me, but I’m not sure how this kind of commentary–which seems to be a knee-jerk reaction–helps the MSM get religion.

  • matt

    you are absolutely right about “most scholars”. Every time I see “most scholars”, “most scientists”, “most people”, “most educators”, etc. I think to myself that the reporter has an agenda and is trying to hide it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Some people here are reading Townsend’s graf as a discussion of whether Isaiah knew what he was prophesying. Others say everybody knows Isaiah was referring to Babylon. Others say his graf is merely discussing the “original context.”

    Beyond the fact that Townsend never raises the discussion of whether Isaiah knew what he was discussing, let’s look at the second and third claims.

    Judaism and Christianity have different interpretations of what Isaiah was prophesying. Christians would say Isaiah was prophesying of Jesus Christ. Originally. Jews, for instance, would not.

    But did “most scholars” decide one way or the other? It’s news to me and many other people. If it’s so well-established, as some here are intimating, it should be downright easy to substantiate, right?

    Let’s revisit Townsend’s relevant words:

    “As the New Testament story of Christ’s birth is told in modern Christian churches throughout the world this weekend, Isaiah’s words also will be read and interpreted to support the idea that Christ’s coming was predicted several centuries before his birth. . . .

    “Most scholars today acknowledge that Isaiah was not predicting the birth and death of Christ, but instead was using the suffering servant to talk about God’s relationship with Israel during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.”

    What does the word “today” mean in this statement? Today, as opposed to . . . when? When Christians believed it predicted Christ’s life? Also, the question still stands: who are these “most scholars”?

    Bob says this isn’t preposterous because, after all, Isaiah was not predicting the Virgin Mary when he said, “a virgin shall concieve and bear a son.” But many (“most”?) Christians do believe Isaiah was predicting precisely that. So should a reporter at a mainstream paper take a position on this?

    Should he dismiss the views of Orthodox Christianity with a tossed off “most scholars” reference?

    It doesn’t offend you, Bob, because you agree with it. But for those Christians who do believe the prophet Isaiah was prophesying about Christ it is extremely offensive. And bizarre.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    What really hits me (as one of those “Half-Jewish” people who are not supposed to exist, and who suffered under the asinine “let them decide for themselves when they grow up, after we systematically deny them anything to base a decision on”) was the offhand claim about “raising their daughters in both faiths.” How, when each asserts that the other is wrong on crucial (literally) matters? And why does coverage (and other commenters) pass this over?

    The anti-syncretist position does not display any greater sensitivity. My reading of literature on the “intermarriage” problem from “the” Jewish side leaves me the impression that they find the only tolerable option for us *mischlinge* is “conversion” to Judaism… that is, that I should renounce my baptism.

  • Scott Allen

    For scholarly discussion of Isaiah 53 (identity of the Suffering Servant) and other subjects, strongly recommend Michael L. Brown’s book “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus…Volume III.” Available on Amazon.com and at most bookstores. Volumes I and II can be harder to come by, but all are truly educational and edifying.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    This is an intriguingly high number of comments.

    Bob believes that OT prophetic books justify the existence of Jim Wallis but not Jesus? Well.

    I still think the author’s implied definition of prophecy as a pretty clear clairvoyant prediction allows him to declare that “most scholars” don’t believe this. I best “most scholars” would say it depends on what you mean by “predict” and “prophecy.”

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana


    The idea that the New Testament writer reinterpreted the OT after Jesus is nothing new and doesn’t undermine orthodox Christianity. The question of the Isaiah 7 passage about a “virgin conceiving a son” isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of reading the passage, which in its context is tied to a particular time. The Gospel writers took that passage, reinterpreted to apply to Jesus. Any good theological commentary (even the ones by Christians) on Isaiah would point this out about the original context.

    I agree that Townsend’s word choice was poor but still don’t think it warrants “preposterous.” By “today” my best guess is that he is drawing a contrast to the NT writers and contemporary scholars (a number of whom are not orthodox) think. And pointing out that contemporary scholars are more likely to take the OT on its own merit, without reading it through the lens of the NT. They even teach this at evangelical seminaries.

    The crux of the matter, as DK points out, is a question of how you define “predict” and “prophecy.” (For the record, do I think that Isaiah was predicting Jesus in some mechanistic fashion? No. Do I think that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy? Yes.)

    Putting this complicated question in a story and attributing it to “most scholars” is ill-advised and unclear. But preposterous and bizarre, and tossing off an othodox Christian belief? Not necessarily, if you know anything about how the OT is taught and studied at seminaries. Townsend’s bigger mistake would be assuming that his readers (and bloggers) would understand the context of his statement.

  • Michael D. Harmon

    So, “how the OT is taught and studied at seminaries” is supposed to be a guide to the faithful? Has anyone heard the phrase, “Treason of the clerks” lately?

    In point of fact, Isaiah probably didn’t know he was prophesying about the Messiah. But when the Birth of Jesus actually occurred, it became clear he was. And Mollie — you go, girl!

  • Herb

    Bob, there is often a “shadow” fulfillment in OT prophecy that partially, but incompletely fulfills what is said. A plain case in point is David’s statement that his body “will not let your Holy One see decay” in Psalm 16:10. In Acts 2:30, Peter makes plain that these words cannot be primarily applied to David, though one can argue that David may have been “jumping for joy” so much at the promise of God’s presence (see 2 Samuel 7) that he spoke in legitimate hyperbole of his own view of death. The same sort of thing would apply to Isaiah 7 — my seminary professors to a man all argued that the Hebrew there cannot be construed as anything else but “virgin”, so Isaiah’s wife can only be a weak fulfillment. Most of them (Culver, McComiskey, and I believe also Walter Kaiser) argued that Isaiah 53 is a unique case in point. The first three Servant Songs in Isaiah 42, 49, and 50 may have some partial fulfillment in Isaiah himself, and/or better, in the Messiah as representative of the nation. But 52:13-53:12, as the central passage in the restoration and recreation section of Isaiah (chs. 40-66), goes far beyond any other prophetic passage in the OT. Nothing in the context can fulfill it. (Israel does not suffer “for the sake of” Israel.) It is not only the pinnacle of Isaiah’s Servant songs, but in a real sense, the pinnacle of OT revelation, culminating a process that begins in Genesis 3:15. Of course, more liberal scholars will argue differently, but they have a different set of presuppositions.

  • Tom Breen


    I’ve got nothing but love for Presbyterians. My beef is with the specific model of textual analysis most famously utilized by that troublesome Frenchman, Msr. Calvin. In my opinion, a Calvinist understanding of how texts should be read and understood underlies a great deal of theoretically secular American thought; but that’s a tale for another day.


  • http://interrupting.blogspot.com Invisible_hand

    the claim posited by mr townsend is definitely reductive, and over-generalized. i do agree that unqualifiably utilizing the weighted attribution of “most scholars” appended to a thesis is irresponsible. however, if “most scholars” is read as “the vast majority of critical bible scholars” then he is quite correct… obviously with jewish scholars and even with christians as well! note please that i am not saying theologians or clergy but rather academics. for a good introductory rundown of the suffering servant motif, please take a look at (christian) bible scholar john j collins’ INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE. it’s a great intro book too.

  • http://www.xanga.com/branthansen Brant

    Here’s why it’s preposterous:

    Ever actually interview a “scholar”? Seriously. Academics are generally horrible interviews. They simply won’t answer questions simply, even if their answer is actually simple. It’s ALWAYS “yes, but” and “no, and” so forth, fairly reveling in complexifying.

    I guess it’s like NPR commentators always saying “a sort of” when they don’t need to; it’s “a sort of” marker of intellectual pedigree; a cue to knowing souls everywhere that “I’m one of you.”

    So no way “most” scholars categorically say anything about this passage so easily-put. No way they say something so absolutely “not this” and absolutely “this” as in this example.

    Too simple. This reporter is merely doing the ol’ “most smart people agree with me” routine.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    This reporter is merely doing the ol’ “most smart people agree with me” routine.

    Brant nails it!