Saturday, October 23, 2010

The "Jewishness" Of The New Testament

We live during a period of time that has seen remarkable new scholarship and discovery within the pages of the New Testament writings, both from Christian AND Jewish scholars. The "Jewishness" of Jesus (Yeshua), once a fact known primarily in the back of a few Christian minds, and slightly more so in the academic world, though hugely ignored by the majority, is now at the forefront of much of what is written and spoken about in our modern time about Jesus/Yeshua...and for good reason: Jesus was (and still is) a Jew! That fact cannot (indeed, MUST not) be ignored, nor forgotten, especially when one seeks to understand His teachings (given in the NT), and how one ought to "...walk according to His commandments..." (see 2 John 1:6), and to "...walk, even as He walked..." (see 1 John 2:6).

 With this in mind, I wanted to re-print the following article form the website  My Jewish Learning, and while I don't agree with the idea that the New Testament is anti-Semitic, the bulk of the article is interesting and informative (for one, Jesus does not condemn ALL Jews, nor ALL of the Pharisees, as many "Jews" and "Pharisees" came to trust in Him as the Messiah. The word "Jews" in the NT, many times [though not all] refers to the  "Judeans", and more specifically, the leadership in Judea at the time - note that "multitudes" followed Him, listened to His teachings, and even hailed Him as King during what is commonly referred to as His "triumphal entry"). 

 So, enough said, here is the article - 

What Jews Can Learn from the New Testament

A rich source for understanding the history of Judaism and the history of anti-Semitism.

 By Martin I. Lockshin

It is daunting to think of the number of books a Jew "must" read in order to achieve Jewish literacy. With trepidation I suggest yet another volume to add to that list: the New Testament (NT).

Anyone who lives in a country with a Christian majority (such as the United States or Canada) should acquire basic knowledge of the foundational literature of the dominant faith. Students of the arts need to know stories like the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44), and the "passion" of Jesus (i.e. his trial, suffering, and death) or they will be at a disadvantage when studying many works of literature, art, and music. But there are also reasons why Jews, specifically, would gain from study of the New Testament. It is a rich source for a better understanding of Jewish history, Jewish thought, Jewish law, and the history of anti-Semitism.
jews and the new testament
Almost all of the books of the NT were written by Jews, many of them during one of the most eventful periods of Jewish history: just before and just after the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 C.E.). Very few Jewish writings from that century survive, and none by the rabbis, the representatives of what soon became normative Judaism, since the rabbis of that period felt that their teachings had to remain oral (a position they eventually abandoned). So really the only surviving religious books written by Jews in the first and second centuries are a few of the later Dead Sea Scrolls and the NT.

Ancient Jewish Sects

Any rabbinic text describing the factions and sects of Jews in Israel in the first century were written much later--only after groups like the Sadducees and the Essenes no longer existed.  And while biblical critics teach us that most of the NT authors never actually saw Jesus--and so their descriptions of his words and actions are at best second-hand reports--these authors definitely did record their first-hand knowledge and experience of what it was like for a Jew to live in the Land of Israel in the first century, under the oppressive Roman occupation.  They often described the old Jewish sects and the tensions between them in very realistic ways.

For example, the book of Acts (23:1-10) tells a surprising story about Paul, who realized he was in danger from a Jewish crowd because of his belief that Jesus had been resurrected and that faith in Jesus was the only way of achieving salvation. Paul figured out an ingenious way to escape their wrath:

 "When Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council (verse 6), 'Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead, I am on trial'." In other words, Paul convinced the crowd that all the opposition to him had originated from Sadducees--who did not believe in the concept of resurrection and who were angry that Paul was teaching that resurrection of the dead would occur. Once Paul made that claim, the book of Acts records that the Pharisees in the crowd rallied to Paul's defense ("We find nothing wrong with this man") and he successfully escaped the angry members of the crowd.

This text creates the impression that, in the first century, the followers of Jesus might have been very similar to the Pharisees--the faction that went on to become the dominant group of rabbinic Judaism.  And there are many other texts in the NT that support this idea.

Familiar Language & Ideas

In fact, the more a modern Jewish reader is acquainted with rabbinic literature, the more he or she is likely to find texts of interest in the NT, and to notice just how similar many NT teachings are to those of the rabbis. For example, Jesus is quoted in Mark as coming to the defense of some of his disciples who had been criticized by the Pharisees for breaking the laws of the Sabbath. Jesus said that they had done no wrong since "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).

Some readers over the years have concluded that Jesus was making an antinomian statement, devaluing the Sabbath.  But students of rabbinic literature will recognize that Jesus' words sound very similar to those of Rabbi Yonatan b. Yosef in the Talmud,  explaining why the Sabbath may be desecrated to save a human life (Yoma 85b): "'It [= the Sabbath] is holy for you' means that the Sabbath was handed over to you and you were not handed over to it."  This is not to say that Jesus and Rabbi Yonatan would necessarily agree about the criteria that justify breaking the Sabbath.  But Jesus' remarks appear much more orthodox when read beside those of Rabbi Yonatan.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) reads, on a rhetorical level, like an anti-rabbinic text. In it Jesus argues that the righteousness of "the Scribes and the Pharisees" (= the rabbis) is insufficient and he challenges his followers to strive for what he considered a higher level of morality. The "Lord's prayer" (Matthew 6:9-13) is introduced by Jesus with a charge to his followers not to pray the way the hypocrites pray in synagogue.

But, in fact, every phrase in the prayer can be found in rabbinic literature.  For example the opening phrase, "Our father who art in heaven" is simply the Hebrew phrase avinu she-ba-shamayim, found in the beginning of many rabbinic prayers.  And the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are, on most points, very similar to those of the rabbis. Books like The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount, by Gerald Friedlander, show just how many teachings of the NT, particularly those found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), are parallel and sometimes even identical to the teachings of the rabbis. 

For example, Jesus claims in Matthew (19:9) that divorce is permitted only in a case of adultery and his position is presented there as being in stark opposition to that of the Pharisees.  Students of Mishnah know that a great rabbi in the generation before Jesus said the same thing (the opinion of the house of Shamai in Gitin 9:10). 

Both Jews and Christians ought to understand that most of Jesus' reported teachings are, from a rabbinic perspective, not particularly revolutionary or even new, and that the rift between Judaism and Christianity is a function of what was said about Jesus after his death.

The Difference between Jews and Christians

Of course, that is not the whole story. Careful Jewish readers of the NT will come to a better understanding of the vast theological differences between Jews and Christians--for example, on the issue of whether God can have a son, and whether God can be incarnated in a human body. Jews will also find interest in reading the virulently anti-Jewish passages of the NT that have resonated in the minds of many Christians over the ages.

It is hard for a Jew not to be taken aback when reading Paul's reaction upon hearing that a group of recent Christian converts were considering becoming circumcised.  Paul castigates them: "If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you" (Galatians 5:2). And, for good measure, Paul expresses the hope that the (presumably Jewish) advocates of circumcision will let the knife slip and mutilate themselves (Galatians 5:11). While modern scholars have tried to contextualize and tone down the shocking words of Jesus to a group of Jews, "You are of your father the devil" (John 8:44), Jews should know about this and similar statements in the NT because throughout most of the last two millennia, many Christians did believe literally that the Jews were associated with the devil, their father.

Jews can read the NT to see both the strong Jewish values and the strong anti-Jewish values there. Virtually every page of the NT addresses Judaism either implicitly or explicitly. Jews who want to read a "Jewish book" will find much of interest there.
Martin I. Lockshin Martin I. Lockshin, Ph.D., is a professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. He received rabbinic ordination after studying at the yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. Even though I do not agree that the NT has anti-semetic views. Jesus Himself is a Jew so He can't really speak against Himself, can he? However, I do think that Christians today (generalizing) don't fully understand some of Jesus' teachings because they are looking through Americanized glasses and not Jewish ones. Also, Jesus deals with our hearts and that is the point of the Galatians scriptures the author referenced. We must read everything around the verses and see the full picture not just tidbits. Thanks for sharing. :)
Blessings, Jen

JRM said...

I agree, the NT does not have anti-semitic views. That's why I wrote the preface before posting the article. I don't agree with everything the author of the article wrote, but I did like how he pointed out that so much of it (dare I say, ALL of it) is very Jewish in style, context, and cultural meaning. I think for a long, long time, both Christians and Jews have viewed what was/is written in the NT as antithetical to Judaism, and Jewish thought. That is wrong though. Many of the ideas, teachings, and thoughts expressed by Yeshua, Paul, Peter, James (Jacob) were and are firmly grounded and established in Jewish thought, and especially in the ancient sages of Israel. Much of Yeshua's teaching is very similar to that of Rabbi Hillel, Grandfather of Gamliel, the Rabbi that Paul was brought up under, and taught by. Even after Paul came to faith in Yeshua, his teaching style, and thinking were quite Rabbinic. These are points that I think we need to recognize and understand, if we want to grow in the "grace and knowledge" of our Lord.

Thanks for your comments Jen - ALWAYS good to hear from you for BOTH of us - you are a great friend. Blessings to you and Greg and the family.