A Helpful Resource for Ecumenists and a Challenging Read for Traditionalists
Leonard Swidler sets out to show in educated laymen’s terms that the supernatural “Jesus” of Catholic and Protestant tradition is better understood as “Yeshua,” a flesh-and-blood Galilean rabbi: “merely a human being,” but “the most influential Jew of history”; “not the Messiah expected by the Jews, but . . . the Christ through whom the Gentiles came to know the one true God of the Jews.” Yeshua points to God—not as a supernatural savior but as a teacher and role model.
Readers who share Swidler’s presupposition that the Bible contains theological and moral truths wrapped in accretions will find a concise exposition of how Yeshua’s original words are found in the document tradition known as Q, how the Torah was the standard to which he pointed his disciples as the way to lead a fully human life (Matt 5:17–20), and the nature and origins of subsequent accretions. Traditionalists who regard ecclesiastical dogma or “sola fide, sola Scriptura” as authoritative will have to rethink the facile assertion that Swidler’s circle simply does not believe the Bible; instead, they must face the challenge of defending on scriptural grounds (beyond ipse dixit) such ethical stands as Paul’s relegation of women to silence and submission in the face of Yeshua’s elevation of women to metaphors for God (Luke 15:8–10) and primary witnesses of the resurrection (Matt 28:9–10).
Such an intentionally brief, accessible work omits what some might like to see. While Swidler uses the phrase “the resurrection experience” four times, he never defines it. Was the resurrection, like the Sermon on the Mount, a historical experience (as Paul declares in 1 Cor 3:4–5) or a pious fiction? While he says that the judgment in Matt 13 is “where final justice [will] be meted out” and even identifies Yeshua with the “Son of Humanity” who will send out the angels to throw all evildoers into a blazing furnace, he does not state how a mere human being assumes that office. For that matter, was the calming of the storm (Mark 4:49) or the raising of the widow’s dead son (Luke 7:11–17) historical? Curious readers are left to begin investigating these matters further by consulting the ninety-one scholarly works cited in the notes.
The most glaring problem for me is Swidler’s treatment of the traditional claims to Jesus’ exclusivity. Instead of discussing “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), arguably the Bible’s strongest assertion of Jesus’ exclusivity, he focuses on 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ.”
Perhaps he felt he had answered the exclusivity question by arguing at length that the early Greek Christians misread Hebrew metaphors as Greek ontological claims. For example, he argues that a Jew would read “the logos was God” to mean that to listen to God’s message was to encounter God, but the Greeks mistook it to mean that Jesus was himself, God. He may thus have expected the reader to infer that John 14:6, if genuine at all, is to be understood as “My words are the way to God. They are all true, and if you follow them, you will live an authentic human life”—that is, Yeshua was making no claim to exclusivity.
The exclusivity problem plays out in the interfaith dialogue so dear to Swidler’s heart. He has devoted his entire life to the proposition that if adherents to different religions “dialogue” about their differences and similarities, they can come together and build a world of peace. And if God wants more than anything to see people get along with each other and does not care whether they think or speak of deity as “the ultimate meaning of life” or “God herself” or as a plurality (Hinduism) or nonexistent (Buddhism)—more like the Force of Star Wars than the destroyer of Sodom or one called Father but never Mother—then Swidler is on the right path. But if the purpose of the flesh-and-blood person who spoke the Sermon on the Mount was that all people “know . . . the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [God] sent” (John 17:3, emphasis added), then he is tragically off course.
The book gives worthwhile food for thought to any reader willing to engage with its argument. It presents most of its points clearly and is an interesting read. It is thus an important addition to the library of anyone involved in the ecumenism debate.