Ignore the demons of intolerance and prejudice

Professor James Harding
Professor James Harding
Ancient history can cast a new light on the problems of modern times, James E. Harding writes.

As a lecturer in the theology programme at the University of Otago, I spend my working life teaching and researching the languages and literature of ancient Israel.

Each year, I read through parts of the Old Testament in Hebrew with small groups of students and teach topics relating to these ancient scriptures.

Earlier this year, for example, I worked through the Book of Job with a group of third-year medical students, looking at how this ancient poem gives voice to suffering and trauma.

Also this year, I taught a paper on Judaism in the time of Jesus, looking at the Jewish world in which Jesus was born and lived, 2000 years ago.

So I spend a lot of my time in another age and another place.

Is there any reason to suppose this might be worthwhile?

Attempts to defend the relevance of the humanities can sometimes seem like special pleading.

I do, however, think there are very good reasons why such subjects should be studied and taught.

Most of all, they help us to think carefully and responsibly about the world we live in and to approach the problems facing us, both as individuals and as a society, with a sense of perspective.

For several years now, I have taught "Judaism in the Time of Jesus", a subject that has fascinated me for more than 30 years.

We start with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians in 586BC and look at the identity, history, languages, customs and beliefs of the Jewish — or "Judean"— people from then until the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD70.

It can come as a surprise to learn just how deeply Jesus and his disciples were shaped by their Jewish identity.

They were, after all, Jewish, not Christian: it can be hard to imagine a time when there was no "Bible" as we know it today, and no such thing yet as "Christianity".

It can also come as a surprise to learn how different Judaism was then to the various forms of Judaism that exist in the modern world.

At the same time, there is much that seems all too familiar.

Even in ancient times there is already plenty of evidence for intolerance and prejudice based on ethnic identity and the practice of traditional customs.

These are by no means the only reasons why the people of Judea faced persecution during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century BC, nor why the Jewish community in the Egyptian city of Alexandria faced persecution in AD38, two very different events.

However, they are an important part of the context.

There are, to be sure, many differences between modern anti-Semitism and ancient anti-Jewish prejudice.

But there is still a long and complex historical process that links the two together.

Learning about this historical process and trying to understand it can help us respond ethically to modern instances of intolerance and prejudice, based on religion or ethnicity, of all kinds.

This process of learning and understanding should also help us to resist the temptation to look for simple solutions to complex problems, to jump on bandwagons and to be seduced by hypnotic religious and political ideologies.

It should also encourage us not to ignore the demons of intolerance and prejudice that lurk within each of us.

 James E. Harding is senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies at the University of Otago.