Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hidden Bloodlines

I just stumbled across a rather interesting documentary that argues that Edward IV of England was illegitimate, and then proceeds to track down the "real" king of England, who was (he seems to have passed away, if the YouTube comments are to be trusted) "real people", as my family would say. 

I think this sort of thing must be very common.  After all, St. Joseph was a direct descendant of King David, yet he was a carpenter with no apparent social or political significance.  More generally, although a tiny percentage of people descended from prominent families are able to trace one line of ancestors back two thousand years or so, I suppose no one can trace back all his ancestors that far.

In my case, I know I have ancestors from France, England, Ireland, and Germany -- presumably, then, basically the whole of northwestern Medieval Europe.  But what about before then?  Could one of my ancestors have been a Roman legionnaire recruited in Egypt and settling in Gaul, but descended from one of Ramses the Great's 96 sons?  Who knows?  Going back that far, we all have a lot of ancestors, and with all that has happened since then, just about anything is possible.

All this is well and good, but arguably of only trivial interest.  Things get more interesting, though much more controversial, when we get to the question of who may be descended from ancient Israel and Judah, and what that means.  An unbelievable amount of nonsense, much of it highly offensive to any thinking person, has been written on such topics.  Let me be clear from the outset that I am not in any way endorsing either the anti-Semitic pseudoscience that led to the Nazis and their successors, nor the comparatively quaint fantasy of British Israelism.

Instead, I want to focus primarily on Christian (and especially Catholic) writers who tend to take a few verses from Scripture (in particular, John 4:22 and Romans chapter 3) use them to draw unwarranted conclusions regarding the relationship of the Catholic Church to "the Jews".  (Quotation marks are actually necessary here, because the passages would have had a somewhat different meaning in the First Century than in the Twenty-first Century.)  The motivations of these authors are no doubt good; they seems to be a combination of curiosity about these particular verses, a wish to counteract the history of Antisemitism, and a desire to make the Gospel more palatable to their Jewish friends, but there are problems with their results.

First of all, in John 4:22, when Jesus said, "Salvation is from the Jews," He was kind of obviously talking about what was happening that very decade -- a time when there was not much mystery to the question of who is a Jew.  He was also building up to the very next two verses, which were about the end of Temple Judaism and the admission of non-Jews to proper worship:
But the hour cometh and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him.  God is a spirit: and they that adore him must adore him in spirit and in truth.
As for the advantages St. Paul lists for being a Jew, they appear to fall into three categories. 

  1. Some advantages are apparently due to some spiritual aspect of biological descent.  Some societies vastly overestimate the importance of such a dimension -- in particular, caste-based and eugenic societies.  Today's society tends to deny any possibility of such a dimension, in part due to its materialist philosophy, and in part due to the outrages committed by caste-based and eugenic societies.  However, it is important to remember that the doctrine of Original Sin means that biological descent does have certain real spiritual consequences, even though they are not as extreme as some have believed.

    Also, every human being whatsoever has both good and bad in his ancestry.  The Hebrews accepted the Law at the foot of Mount Sinai; they also worshiped the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai.  The prophets came from and to them, and they are the ones who murdered the prophets.  This does not make them especially bad or especially good; it makes them a fitting representative for all of humanity.  (In fact, I suspect part of the reason God called the Hebrews is precisely because there was nothing very special about them.  If He had called the Egyptians, people might have thought it was because of their science or architecture.  If He had called the Greeks, it might have been thought to be because of Greek philosophy or art.  For a long time, though, the Hebrews had no very distinctive worldly success.)

    The main problem, though, is clear in Romans 3:3.  "For what if some of them have not believed?"  Because, of course, some of them did believe, and those who did entered the Christian community and no longer identified themselves as Jews.  At this point, only God knows who is actually descended from the Patriarch Jacob, just as only God knows who is actually descended from Ramses the Great.  I suppose that there are very few people in Europe with no Jewish ancestry at all, but there is apparently no way of knowing in this life.
  2. Other advantages listed by St. Paul were due to the fact that Jewish culture going back to Abraham had been shaped by the worship of the One True God for nearly two thousand years.  This is not such an advantage today, when modern Judaism has explicitly rejected the Christian Gospel for two thousand years but several national cultures have been shaped by the Gospel for up to the same length of time.
  3. Finally, at the time of St. Paul, only Jews would have been raised since childhood in the worship of the True God.  By the time he was martyred, though, he would already have known Gentile converts whose children had been raised in the Faith from childhood.
So two of the kinds of advantage really do not apply any more, whereas the third is a mixed blessing that might apply to just about anyone of European or Near Eastern descent.  This, to say nothing of the explicit statements of Scripture in precisely the passages that are cited, makes it perfectly clear that a recent convert from Judaism does not become a First Class Christian, with everyone else a Second Class Christian, which sadly is the implication of many of these books.

As regards ranking individuals or nations or cultures, I think the problem comes with assuming that there is one universal ranking, and everyone ranked "better" is better in every way.  This certainly creeps into much that has been written about the nine choirs of angels.  We know, though, that the Blessed Virgin Mary occupies a position in Heaven higher than that of any angel or any other mere human, and we also know that she was not eligible to become a priest or bishop.  We know that she comes first among created beings by order of grace, but that Lucifer came first by order of nature.  We even know that it is meaningless to ask if an oboist "outranks" a cellist, because there are both oboe concertos and cello concertos.

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