Building on the Ruins of the Temple

Apologetics and Polemics in Early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism

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Adam Gregerman
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , June
     2016.
     266 pages.
     119.00 €.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783161543227.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of its temple by the Romans in 70 CE was an undeniable fact for the people who lived in the region in the following centuries: the ruins were there for all to see. For two groups living in the conquered land, the ruins of the temple were more than simply evidence of a calamitous military defeat. For the fledgling, increasingly gentile movement comprised of the followers of Jesus and for the remnant of the Jewish people, the destruction of the temple was a sign of God’s will for the chosen people. The issue was—and in a sense still is—how to interpret that sign.

Adam Gregerman’s project in Building on the Ruins of the Temple is an investigation of the ways that Christian apologists and Jewish rabbis interpreted the destruction of the temple and how they reassessed the relationship between God and Israel in light of that event. Gregerman’s goal is to find out whether “rabbis/rabbinic views and Christian/Christian views [regarding the destruction of the Temple] impacted or influenced each other during the formative first few centuries of the Common Era” (2).

Gregerman narrows his investigation to include roughly contemporaneous writers (second through fourth centuries) who lived in the same general geographical region—the land of Israel. The Christian documents he examines are Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, Origen’s Contra Celsum, and Eusebius’s Proof of the Gospel. The Jewish document that he examines is Lamentations Rabbah, an exegetical midrash on the book of Lamentations. These commentaries on a book written in response to the destruction of the First Temple provide more explicit rabbinic discussions of the meaning of the destruction of the Second Temple.

The book is well written and well organized, the analysis of the texts that refer to the destruction of the Temple is thorough, and Gregerman admits the limits of such a study: “My argument and conclusions are therefore more modest than those of some other scholars, but I hope also more reasonable” (8). Rather than posit direct clashes between Jews and Christians, such as one finds in the disputations of the Middle Ages, he focuses instead on the defensive functions of the texts. He asks whether the texts show any evidence of being a defense against the claims of the other with regard to the law, the covenant, and the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

It is easy to see Gregerman’s point with regard to the defensive function of the Christian texts. Even the titles of the documents point to the apologetic nature of the treatises. Christians had to defend their claim that the old law and covenant had been abrogated and replaced with the new law and covenant of Christ, and the documents Gregerman analyzes make it clear that these Christian writers understood the destruction of the temple by the Romans as punishment for the Jewish rejection of Christ, and as a clear sign that God had abandoned the Jews in favor of those gentiles who believed in Christ. The Romans’ destruction of the temple “is integral to the arguments of these Christian writers. Their treatments of the destruction are not peripheral but central to their defenses of one type of Christianity, Gentile Christianity” (11).

The same cannot be said about Lamentations Rabbah. While it is correct that Lamentations Rabbah contains “substantive deliberations” (15) about the destruction of the temple and its implications for the ongoing relationship between God and Israel, one cannot as easily detect the defensive function of these midrashim. Gregerman pays special attention to those rabbis who depart from the traditional theodicy that describes suffering and disaster as God’s just punishment for the sinfulness of the Jewish people. For these rabbis, “the suffering was too great, the effects were too long-lasting, and the comparative success of the sinful Gentiles was too inexplicable to fall back on this theodicy” (221). Instead, the selected midrashim offer a variety of rather creative explanations for the disaster, from God’s incompetence to God’s lack of power to God’s injustice, all of which defend the covenant fidelity of the Jewish people against God’s apparent punishment. Gregerman points out that “this affirmation that the covenant does continue, of course, is directly contrary to the claims made by Christians” (223); however, it is not obvious that the rabbis made that affirmation as a counter-argument to Christian polemic. Still, all work with ancient texts involves a degree of speculation and educated guessing, and Gregerman’s description of the milieu in which the rabbinic texts were produced does make his claim that these midrashim “reflect a need to respond to threatening claims from Christians that the destruction was God’s rejection of the sinful Jews” (16) quite plausible.

Building on the Ruins of the Temple is an interesting exploration of one aspect of the relationship between Christians and Jews in the early centuries of the Common Era. The book includes helpful footnotes and an extensive bibliography, as well as source, author, and subject indices. In addition to adding to the scholarship on ancient Jewish and Christian documents, Gregerman’s work is a helpful contribution to contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue in that it provides insight into the historical origins of Christian anti-Semitism and its supersessionist stance toward Judaism. The contemporary dialogue cannot be fruitful without an awareness of that historical reality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Linda S. Harrington is Associate Professor of Theology Emerita at Briar Cliff University, Sioux City, Iowa.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Gregerman Born 1973; PhD in Religion at Columbia University; currently Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies and Assistant Director, Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia, PA.

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