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Comparison Between Judaism and Christianity, Essay Example

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Essay

Introduction

The West these days has, in many ways, appeared to move beyond religion.  Church attendance in Western Europe is very low.  While church attendance is higher in the United States, there is little evidence that religion has much effect at all on moral behavior.  Divorce rates are higher for self-identified Christians than for those who are not Christians, for example.  Churchgoing may well have become, for many, a social phenomenon rather than a religious experience (Fisher, 2005, p. 347).  Given the vast amounts of Western art and architecture that was intended for religious purposes, this religious silence is a deafening example of irony.  It may be that the promises of technology have made many people in the West feel so self-sufficient that they do not perceive, any longer, a need for divine assistance.  Also, the brutal historical events of the twentieth and early twenty-first century may have persuaded many Westerners that God either does not exist, or is so apathetic about the course of human events that His existence is not significant enough to take notice of.

According to a conventional wisdom, the first century witnessed the beginning of only one religion, Christianity. Judaism is generally thought to have begun in the more distant past, at the time of Abraham, Moses, or even Ezra, who rebuilt the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians (Fisher, 2005, p. 230). Judaism underwent radical religious changes in response to important historical crises. According to such sources as the Tanakh and the Talmud, the Jewish faith is based on a covenant between God and Abraham, established approximately in 2000 B.C., and renewed between God and Moses around 1200 B.C.  Judaism is monotheistic (Fisher, 2005, p. 231).  Judaism relies on its texts and traditions to provide its central authority.  The Torah underwent a brief period of development and evolution as its society grew sufficiently to support a priestly class, adding specifics of the sacrifice process to the initial laws passed down by divine revelation (Momigliani 1994, p. 20).  However, Judaism did not undergo a shift nearly as fundamental as the change in Christianity thought concerning the afterlife. There are interesting similarities and differences in their foundational teachings that show some of the elements that unite people, and some of the ways in which cultural context informs religious development.

Judaism and Christianity

Christianity entered upon the inheritance and claimed the history and traditions of Israel as its own, but for all that, its inmost constitution remained different from Judaism (Fisher, 2005, p. 249). The nature of an adopted child will not be that of its foster father, but will keep true to the blood of its own parents. The spirit of Christianity was Gentile from the start and has remained so in spite of the great influence of the Old Testament.

It is difficult to appreciate how closely Judaism and Christianity are always interlinked, as Fisher (2005, p. 248-249) argued. Judaism gave to Christianity its finishing touches and Christianity incorporated into itself much of Judaism, yet the two have most fanatically anathematized each other in the past (p. 249). In one sense Christianity supersedes the ancient paganism, and in other sense the ancient paganism reapers in a new form in Christian doctrine. Yet the Church Fathers cannot speak of the pagans without maligning them bitterly and unjustly (Fisher, 2005, p. 347). It may be literally true that the bitterer the hostility between two religions, the more similar are they in spirit; the more marked the contrast is, the greater must be their kinship (Carus, 2008, p. 125). This statement almost appears like a corroboration of the pantheistic idea of the identity of Brahma in all things, which makes the red slayer the same as his victim, the one he slays (p. 125).

When Carus (2008, p. 125) speaks of the pagan character of Christianity, he means neither to disparage Christianity nor to deny the fact that its appearance represents a new era in the history of the world. Carus (2008, p. 128) uses the term only to bring out forcibly the truth that (in spite of the important part played by Judaism) Christianity is in all its essential doctrines the legitimate result of the religious development of mankind – not of Judaism, but of the whole world, Jews and Gentiles, but mainly of the Gentiles, i.e., the nations. Instead of belittling Christianity, Carus (2008, p. 128) raises his own estimation of respect for paganism, which was neither so thoughtlessly idolatrous, nor so immoral as it has been commonly represented.

The Jewish contribution to the development of religion is more negative than positive; it is like the salt that give the flavor, but the meat was furnished by the Gentiles (Carus, 2008, p. 129). However Christianity is like a big river which drains an enormous territory (p. 129). It has not one source but innumerable sources, and the character of its waters together with its course depends upon the geography of the whole country, not upon what is commonly called its source. Yet people will insist on calling one spring of the whole system the source of the river, as if that alone had caused its existence and none of the other need to be taken into consideration.

While there are a number of varieties of practice in Judaism, all of the branches hold in common the idea of one God, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, and transcendent.  According to Jewish belief, God created the universe and continues to govern it.  As far as particular scriptures go, the Torah contains the laws and commandments from God to the Jewish people.  Commentaries on those laws, in particular interpretations about how the laws should be carried out in everyday life, are found in the Talmud (Fisher, 2005, p. 227).

Images of a Christian character are generally endowed with a religious function, and this function is all the more certain for the first imagery created by the Christians because of the circumstanced under which they appeared (Krueger 2004). No extra-religious considerations could, at the time, have stated the use of images to any Christian if he were not resolute to possess an expression in paint or stone of some Christian truth or some personal attitude toward a grave problem of life. Neither the laws of the pagan empire nor Christian tradition – then absent – can account for this adoption of imagery; thus the suggestion that these first images are such images as those which at other periods are so often passively repeated, and about whose real religious values one can have reasonable doubts, is immediately eliminated (Woermann, 2010). Those first markers of Christian images, who worked at their own risk and to their peril, would never have done so without serious religious reasons, especially since the first generations of Christians had worshiped without cult images (Woermann, 2010). But the practices of idolaters, who all made extensive use of paintings and sculptures, made it unavoidable that a change of principle with regard to images had to take place.

Judaism began with a culture of sacrifice as a method of propitiating their respective deities, a reflection of the primal view that death was the ultimate price to pay, and that the death of an animal, or some other substitute, could be a vicarious escape from the ultimate consequences of transgression (Fisher, 2005).  This was a fairly common rite throughout ancient religions.  The ancient Greeks also had fairly complicated regulations for sacrificing various animals (and even virgins) to their gods, and so did the Egyptians (Fisher, 2005).  Judaism developed in a time when the conditions of life were often harsh and brutal.  A great percentage of one’s time was spent in staving off starvation, or worrying about attacks from neighboring tribes, and so people relied heavily on their religious beliefs to provide emotional and physical sustenance.  As Jewish societies grew, they developed the ability to sustain a priestly class, which soon acted to cement its power.  In Judaism, being righteous was a way to avoid divine wrath, and so social mobility became one of the dominant differences.  The ways in which cultural differences so profoundly inform religious development continue to be fascinating, even millennia later.

All of the earliest Christian images belong to the category of pictorial signs. It is in funerary art that Grabar (1980, p. 10) found the oldest examples (there was an analogous imagery made for the living, even though he did not say whether or not it began as early as the sepulchral imagery). The image signs that fill the Paleo-Christian catacombs and sarcophagi are of two kinds with respect of their semantic value (Grabar 1980, p. 10). A limited number of iconographic signs represent the two major sacraments of the Christian Church, baptism and communion. Grabar (1980, p. 10) described that most of the other serve as references to or citations of divine intervention for the salvation or preservation of certain believers: the preservation of Noah, during the Deluge; the deliverance of Isaac, when Abraham would have sacrificed his son; the deliverance of Daniel from the lions or the three Hebrews from the furnace; or, from gospel narratives, Lazarus restored to life by Jesus or the paralytic cured, shown carrying his bed.

In addition to all of this, as Grabar (1980) has demonstrated at length, “Christian iconography inherited from imperial iconography, not only formulas but subjects’, such as Christ in majesty, Christ enthroned and Christ crowning the saints. This took place because it was the Christian imperial court that was the non-pagan source of readily appreciable allegories of power and which had hitherto specialized in the visual presentation of high authority. In all these above examples, real items and figures are seen employed in a partially figurative manner. Janes (1998, p. 119) finds the typical ambiguity between symbol and ‘reality’ that haunts these works. He (p. 119) accepted that these that these images were supposed to be ambiguous and so to provoke generalized feelings of awe and admiration, as well as inducing thoughts about their context. Certain items, the cross is a good example, was shown as golden art and was often constructed of that metal in reality.

The examples cited have attempted to show that there is a longstanding association, in texts, customs, and rituals, between the biological perpetuation of the Jewish people, wherein procreation becomes central concern, and the perpetuation of the religious tradition, embodied in scriptures. As Goldberg (1987, p. 123) stated that the incident of Amalek, as well as many of the stories in Genesis (the patriarchs’ encounters with Pharaoh, the warring kings, Abimelech), demonstrate the history of Israel, within which God becomes a dominant actor, is to be understood as taking place on the broader stage of history. The Torah’s message is relevant to all humankind, but is aimed directly at a portion of it, and is handed down from generation to generation in a manner closely associated with, but not identical to, biological reproduction (p. 124).

Conclusion

Generally, the study of the origins of its identity that expresses a religious concept leads to a better understanding of the reasons for its existence. By learning where, when, how, and for what end a certain image was created, we begin to apprehend the religious significance that the image may have had to its creators. And so the spiritual needs of the average Jewish people were not met by this practical religion, as Fisher (2005, p. 280) argued, meant to serve as a sort of channel for the discontent of the populace, rather than a creative response to the problems of existence. It was in this spiritual vacuum that mystery cults sprang up; it was also in this vacuum that the seeds of Christianity were sown, a religion that would change the world.  One wonders how powerfully Christianity would have been able to grow, at first, had its milieu been the fiercely humanistic and rational Greece, rather than the bored, tired religion of Rome.  Of all of the effects of the idea of the gods in the ancient world, the opportunities afforded by this vacuum for Christianity to grow may have been the most significant religious influences in world history.

References

Carus, Paul. (2008). The Pleroma: An Essay on the Origin of Christianity. BiblioBazaar, LLC.

Fisher, Mary Pat. (2005). Living Religions. Sixth Edition. Prentice-Hall: Pearson Education, Inc.

Goldberg, Harvey E. (1987). Judaism viewed from within and from without: anthropological studies. SUNY Press.

Grabar, Andre. (1980). Christian Iconography: a study of its origins. Taylor and Francis.

Janes, Dominic. (1998). God and gold in late antiquity. Cambridge University Press

Krueger, Derek. (2004). Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Momigliani, Armando. (1994). Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism. Trans. Maura Masella-Gayley, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Woermann, Karl (2010). History of Ancient, Early Christian, and Medieval Painting. READ Books

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