To start, a quick note on the earlier discussion of whether Gentiles have to become Jews. Genia pointed out to me that a convert to Judaism, through several symbolic steps, undergoes a rebirth: he dies to the nation from which he previously came and is reborn a member of the Jewish people and heir to that people’s special relationship with God. One of these symbolic steps is circumcision for men; another is ritual bathing in a mikveh – which is, of course, the ritual that baptism was before it was called ‘baptism.’
The idea of rebirth into a new people is unique and powerful – both that one must do it in order to practice the Jewish religion (you don’t need to make yourself Tibetan in order to become a Buddhist), and that it’s possible (there’s nothing you could do, in fact, to make yourself Tibetan). The Gentile Christians do not go through this process – in that sense, the commenters are right that they never become Jews. But they are spiritually adopted into Israel: in baptism, Jews and Gentiles alike are reborn into New Israel, the adopted family of God – a family that is blood-related to Israel, that realizes and fulfills the family relationship between God and the Jewish people.
So much for that. I also wanted to comment on a link that Diana shared, because it made me mad. In the late 1990s, a Jewish group wrote to Pope John Paul II with some questions about inconsistencies in the Gospels related to Jesus’ descent and the events following His resurrection. The Vatican directed them to the Dominican Ecole Biblique, which in turn sent them to Dr. Raymond Brown. Dr. Brown – a famous theologian and an adherent of the historical-critical method of reading the Bible (code for “liberal”) – referred them to his writings, in which he effectively argued that the resurrection and the virginal birth and Jesus’ Davidic descent should not be taken as historical facts. (That’s the equivalent of a Jewish intellectual authority telling, say, Buddhist inquirers into Judaism that, from the Jewish perspective, there’s no particular need to believe that God’s appearance on Sinai really happened – it was all just an edifying metaphor.)
What Dr. Brown told this Jewish group is not what the Church believes, not what it teaches, and not what the current Pope – who has been a vocal critic of the historical-critical method throughout his career – had written in his books. The reasons the Jewish group was directed to Dr. Brown may have been confusion within the bureaucracy of the Vatican or the Ecole Biblique, or they may reflect the presence of liberal theologians at high positions within the Catholic Church. Either way, I am utterly embarrassed that the Vatican gave them the worst it has to offer in theology instead of the best, failing to treat the Jewish group’s respectful and well-phrased questions as an opportunity for genuine discourse.
On a final note, several questions had been raised about Jesus’ Davidic descent and the prophecies. Regarding the latter, I just wanted to point out quickly that it isn’t any more fair to say, for instance, that Christians only see the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14 because they want to, than that the Jews only don’t see it there because they don’t want to. On both counts, however, after some reflection I’ve made a decision not to delve deeper into those issues here myself, since much smarter and holier people have written about it. Here are a couple of references to start with, on the Christian side, and I’ll keep adding to the list:
Surprised by Christ, by Fr. James Bernstein
Jesus of Nazareth, by Benedict XVI
Regarding the Davidic descent, the most illuminating discussion I’ve read is in No. 79 of the Hebrew Catholic publication (2004). Quick digest: there are several examples in the Old Testament in which paternal identity is bestowed by adoption rather than natural birth, and at least three examples of name and inheritance being passed through the maternal rather than the paternal line – all of which indicates that, though Jesus’ claim to Davidic descent is exceptional, similar exceptions have been granted in sacred history prior to His birth.