Commentary Magazine


Pagan, Christians, Jews

To the Editor:

I would like to commend Chaim Raphael for his sensitive, insightful article, “Pagans, Christians, Jews” [October 1987]. As a Catholic, I found his schoolboy concern over possible Christian identification with “pagan Greeks” in the story of the Maccabees particularly poignant.

Mr. Raphael may be interested to know that the Catholic Church until recent times (1960) officially memorialized “The Holy Maccabees, Martyrs” in its Church calendar on August 1 as among the “Saints of the Old Testament.” And since Catholics hold the two Books of the Maccabees as part of our canon of the Hebrew Scriptures (on pre-talmudic Jewish precedent), we continue to identify with and to revere Eleazar, his brothers, and his mother, as true witnesses to faith in the One God.

Eugene J. Fisher
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

A certain rabbi of note once wrote, in Greek, to friends in the Greek city of Corinth: “The Greeks are searching for wisdom. . . . But . . . the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.” This rabbi never quoted the great Greek philosophers or expounded, in his teaching, on Greek theology. He did, however, make extensive use of the Torah, Neviim, and Ketubim.

This rabbi is better known as the Apostle Paul. His writings in the first three chapters of the book called First Corinthians detail his low opinion of Greek philosophy and religion. True, all kinds of paganism were adopted by Christendom, especially after 100 C.E., but the fault is not Paul’s. He writes of “the mystery of God” (or, divine mystery) and of “the profound secrets of God.” His sources, however, are Job, Isaiah, Zechariah, and Jeremiah. . . .

It may be that the Christian faith of some owes more to the Greeks than to the Jews, more to Plato than to Jesus or Paul. Nevertheless, it was the “Apostle to the Gentiles” who pointed in the opposite direction, to the Torah, in 1 Corinthians 1:31 (quoting from Jeremiah 9:24): “The one boasting about his wisdom, let him boast in his knowledge of the Lord.”

Solomon M. Landers
Clinton, Maryland

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Chaim Raphael writes:

I am gratified that my reflections on the Jewish rejection of paganism evoked such a warm echo from Eugene J. Fisher. It is all the more remarkable that the Maccabee story should establish a bond of sympathy where we might have seemed beset by differences, particularly over the absence of the Books of the Maccabees from the Jewish Bible. In due course, the deeds of the Maccabees in martial terms came through to bolster Jewish pride; yet, as Mr. Fisher suggests, the really strong links are those of our shared reactions at the human level in admiring the courage of the ancient priest Eleazar and in the overwhelming pity of the story of Hannah and her seven sons.

Turning to Solomon M. Landers’s letter, there is much to consider in his judgment that St. Paul drew more from Jewish tradition than from the surrounding Greek world; but this is in any case only part of the story. One has to make up one’s mind on whether his dominant aim was to base himself on Jewish teachings for their own sake, or for their proof, as he saw it, that the Jewish Bible pointed ineluctably to the emergence of a more than human figure whose death was central to man’s redemption from sin. There are many grades of view on this.

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