MODERN JEWISH REACTIONS

 

TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

 

by Doug Ward



OXFORD, OHIO-When the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth began to proclaim that Israel's Messiah had come, they divided the Jewish world of the first century. Some gladly received the message of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, while others vehemently opposed it (see e.g. Acts 13; 14:1-4; 17:1-5, 10-13; 18:1-17; 19:8-9).

 

The apostle Paul, who longed for all of his fellow Israelites to follow Jesus, reflected on this state of affairs in chapters 9-11 of his epistle to the Romans. Based on his understanding of the scriptures, he asserted that one day "all Israel" would come to accept Jesus as Messiah (Romans 11:26). He admonished Christians in the meantime to be respectful, not arrogant, toward God's covenant people (v. 18).

 

Regrettably, Christians through the centuries too often have ignored the instruction of Romans 11:18. Instead of honoring the countrymen of Jesus and Paul, Christians have treated Jews with contempt and hatred. The story of centuries of persecution of Jews is one of the darkest chapters of Christian history.

 

Today, thankfully, the overall situation is much different. Controversy between Christians and Jews over the Messiahship of Jesus continues, but in an atmosphere more often characterized by openness and mutual respect.

 

In such an atmosphere, there are opportunities for people on all sides of the controversy to learn from each other's views. For example, Christians can find it eye-opening to learn more about how the New Testament appears from a Jewish perspective. One expert on this subject is Rabbi Michael J. Cook, who holds the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professorship in Judaeo-Christian Studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In teaching courses on the New Testament to many future rabbis, Cook has seen firsthand how educated Jewish readers approach the Christian Gospels and Epistles. On April 16, 2009, he shared some of his insights in a lecture given at Miami University.1

 

Ecclesia and Synagoga



Dr. Cook began his lecture by relating how he came to be a New Testament scholar. He noted that nothing about his childhood gave a hint of such a career path. He grew up in a New York neighborhood in which ninety-five per cent of the people were Jewish. In this environment, the name of Jesus was rarely mentioned.

 

Things changed, however, when he moved away from home to attend Haverford College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Jewish students were a small minority in the early 1960s.2 Suddenly he was confronted by Christian culture, history and scripture.

 

In an art history course at Haverford, Cook saw European Renaissance works in which Jesus was flanked by two women. On Jesus' right was a woman called Ecclesia, representing Christianity. On Jesus' left was a second woman, Synagoga, symbolizing Judaism. In these pictures,

 

"Ecclesia is often portrayed as graceful and crowned, with staff in hand. Synagoga, however, is often represented as blindfolded, with broken staff, and sometimes decorated with broken tablets of the Law".3

 

Cook learned that in Christian tradition, the wives of the patriarch Jacob were sometimes seen as types of these two women. Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife, represented the favored and triumphant Church, while the "weak-eyed" Leah was a type of the blinded and defeated Synagogue.

 

Cook resented these depictions of Judaism as blinded. At the same time, he had to admit that he knew nothing about Jesus or Christianity. He resolved to do something about his ignorance, and his new interest turned into a passion and eventually a career. His latest book4 is intended to help Jewish readers come to terms with the New Testament and introduce Christians to Jewish perspectives on Jesus and Paul.

 

Mixed Feelings



Based on extensive experience, Dr. Cook noted three tendencies that he has often observed in Jewish readers of the New Testament:

 

a certain detachment, since these readers are dealing with a text that is not scripture for them.

a particular interest in sections of the New Testament that seem to have the greatest relevance for Jews and Judaism.

a sadness, because Christian understandings of the New Testament have contributed to Christian persecution of Jews.

 

Jewish readers also quickly notice many parallels and similarities between Jesus and the sages of rabbinic Judaism. For example,

 

like the sages, Jesus taught in parables, often dealing with aspects of the kingdom of God.

Jesus was in agreement with the sages in upholding the reality of the resurrection of the dead.

there are a number of striking parallels between the sayings of Jesus and the sayings of the rabbis recorded in Pirke Avot, the most famous compilation of early rabbinic teaching.

the Lord's Prayer has much in common with tradtional Jewish daily prayers.



At the same time, the Gospels often portray conflict between Jesus and Jewish teachers and leaders, especially the Pharisees, the predecessors of the Talmudic sages.

Understandably, then, Jews often experience mixed feelings in reading the New Testament. On one hand, they see in Jesus a faithful Jew whose teachings were similar to those of Hillel the Great and other esteemed ancient Jewish teachers. On the other hand, they see a Jesus in conflict with Jewish leaders. The conflicts described in the Gospels prefigured later strife between Jews and Christians, which eventually led to Christian persecution of Jews.

 

Resolving Tensions in the Gospels



To resolve the tensions they perceive in the Gospels, Dr. Cook explained, Jewish readers often try to distinguish between an "authentic" original Jesus and one presumably created later in the first century by Jesus' followers. Cook has identified five perspectives often adopted toward the Gospels by Jewish readers.

 

One of these is the idea that as the relationship between the early Christians and the rest of the Jewish community changed during the first century, Christian portrayals of Jesus' relationship with other Jews were adjusted accordingly. According to this view, Christians initially saw themselves as a part of the larger Jewish community and emphasized that Jesus was a faithful Jew. Later, when they cane to regret the fact that more Jews had not decided to follow Jesus (as in Rom 9-11), they had Jesus express such regret (e.g. Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34). After that, as friction increased between Christians and the rest of the Jewish community, Jesus was pictured in sharp conflict with Jewish leaders (e.g. Matt 23; John 5, 8).

 

A second perspective sees the epistles of Paul, the earliest Christian writings, as having influence on the Gospel portrayals of Jesus. Adherents of this perspective suspect, for example, that Gospel passages implying that some Gentiles would belong to the Kingdom of God, while some Jews might be excluded (Matt 3:9; 8:10-13; 21:28-46), were attributed to Jesus in order to support Paul's mission to the Gentiles.

 

The third perspective in Dr. Cook's list charges that Christians invented certain parts of the Gospel narrative in order to respond to challenges they faced in later years. According to this view,

 

Christians portrayed John the Baptist as an Elijah figure in order to answer the argument that a coming of Elijah must precede the coming of the Messiah.

the tradition of the empty tomb and the story that guards were paid to say that Jesus' body had been stolen (Matt 28:11-15) were fictions created to answer questions frequently encountered by early evangelists.

the idea that Jesus knew about his crucifixion in advance and died voluntarily as a fulfillment of biblical prophecies (Mark 10:33-34; Matt 26:53-54) were added to the traditions about Jesus in order to answer those who said a crucified man could not possibly be the Messiah.

Jesus' prediction that his followers would be expelled from synagogues (John 16:2) was invented later to comfort Christians who had been expelled from synagogues.


A fourth perspective is based on the widely held theory that the Gospel of Mark was written earliest and was available to the compilers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This perspective asserts that the later Gospel writers added anti-Jewish elements to their narratives that were not present in their sources. Cook offered four examples:

 

Comparing Mark 14:55-56 and Matt 26:59-60, he noted that Mark says the Sanhedrin sought testimony against Jesus, while Matthew has the Sanhedrin seeking false testimony.

Comparing Mark 12:13-17 and Matt 22:15-22, he observed that Mark attributes hypocrisy to those questioning Jesus, while Matthew mentions malice as well.

He pointed to Mark 12:28-34 as a cordial exchange between Jesus and a scribe, with each praising the other. In the parallel account in Matthew (22:34-40), on the other hand, the mutual admiration of Mark's account is absent and the scribe is replaced by a lawyer trying to test Jesus.

Comparing the Synoptic accounts of Pilate's decision to have Jesus crucified (Mark 15:12-15, Matt 27:22-26, Luke 23:21-25), he noted that the crowd was more insistent on the death sentence in Matthew and Luke than in Mark.


The fifth perspective involves the relationship of Jesus to the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Rabbi Cook explained this perspective with an analogy. Christians, he said, view these prophecies as an arrow that hits a bullís eye (Jesus). Many Jews, on the other hand, suspect that Christians painted the bullís eye around the arrow after the fact, using the Hebrew Scriptures to invent details about Jesus' life and death.

 

As an example, Cook cited the account of Jesus' "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 21:1-11). He asserted that Matthew, misunderstanding the parallelism of Zech 9:9, created a ludicrous scene of Jesus somehow riding upon two donkeys at the same time in order to have Jesus fulfill that prophecy.

 

Anti-Judaism Has Created a Stumbling Block



In listening to Dr. Cook's lecture, I was struck by the extrene skepticism toward the New Testament expressed in these five perspectives. Here it should be explained that Cook's rabbinical students come mainly from Reformed Judaism, a liberal branch of Judaism. Scholars from the Reformed tradition often espouse text critical interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures. Understandably, students who are taught to view their own scriptures with a critical eye are likely to be even more critical of the scriptures of a rival religion.

 

However, I believe the main reason that Cook's students approach the Gospels with such sensitivity and wariness is the fact that Christians have so often used these writings as a weapon against Jews. By reading the New Testament in anti-Jewish ways and persecuting Jews on that basis, Christians have made it difficult for many Jews to even consider reading the Gospels, let alone give the message of the Gospels a chance.

 

It is important for Christians to understand that the episodes recorded in the Gospels took place within the Jewish world of the Second Temple Period. This was a world in which people often engaged in passionate discussions about the Hebrew Scriptures, learning by debate with "iron sharpening iron." Thus when Jesus had occasion to correct some of the Pharisees, he was not a "Christian" making a blanket condemnation of Jews. Instead, following in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, he was reaching out in love toward people for whom he cared deeply. (Surely one of the reasons that Jesus and the Pharisees spent so much time in close proximity is that they had a great deal in common.)

 

Jewish readers are especially sensitive about the Gospels' descriptions of the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. Sadly, Christians have often labeled Jews as "Christ-killers" because of the role of Jewish leaders in these events. Such accusations show a profound lack of understanding of authentic Christian teaching. Christians believe that Jesus came in order to die an atoning death for the sins of all mankind. Since all people have sinned (Romans 3:23), we are all equally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus' death was foreordained by God (Acts 2:23), so the extent of the involvement of Jewish leaders in the events leading to the crucifixion is of no real consequence in the larger scheme of things.

 

Responses to the Five Perspectives



Although I can understand why Jewish readers have adopted the perspectives described by Dr. Cook, I dispute the accuracy of these perspectives. One major difficulty with elaborate models of this type, in which it is posited that a biblical text developed in a series of successive "layers", is that there is no textual evidence for them. No one has a Gospel manuscript containing just the earliest layers, before the later ones were allegedly added.

 

Such models also presuppose careless, sloppy editing. If an editor wanted to add a layer to give the text a certain perspective, why would that editor allow evidence of other perspectives from earlier layers to remain? If one is tampering with a text, why do only a partial job of it? Good editors surely would cover their tracks.

 

Text critical models of the Gospels provide a means of creating a text, and a Jesus, with which one is comfortable. If a Gospel passage describes deeds or sayings of Jesus that one finds troublesome, one can just claim that this passage was added to the original text by a later editor. That seems to be the main function of the five perspectives outlined by Rabbi Cook.

 

The first perspective suggests that Gospel accounts of conflicts between Jesus and Jewish leaders were invented by Jesus' followers as a reflection of their own later experiences. In response, I see no reason why Jesus would not have been involved in such conflicts. Jesus lived in an era in which there were lively debates among the people of Israel on a whole range of issues. It is not unlikely, then, that a popular but controversial teacher was in the middle of some of them.

 

The second perspective claims that statements about inclusion of non-Israelites in the people of God were put in Jesus' mouth in order to support the evangelistic efforts of the apostle Paul. A simpler explanation is that teachings of Jesus led to Paul's evangelistic mission. Gospel passages on Gentile inclusion are consistent with Jesus' proclamation that the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:14). According to the prophets, people from all nations would seek the God of Israel at the time when that Kingdom was established (Isa 2:2-3; 49:6; 56:8; 66:19; Zech 2:11; 8:21-23). So it is perfectly reasonable for Jesus actually to have made the statements on Gentile inclusion that are attributed to him.

 

The third perspective says that the early Christians added a layer of "answers to frequently asked questions" to the Gospel accounts in order to answer critics and encourage Christians. Underlying this perspective is the assumption that Christianity is a sort of clever hoax. However, I do not think that Jesus' disciples would have given their lives for a hoax. Instead, the basic claims of Christianity are based on eyewitness accounts, like those of the over five hundred people who had seen the resurrected Jesus (I Cor 15:3-8).

 

The fourth perspective is highly speculative, since it rests on unproven assumptions about how the Gospels were compiled. It would be difficult to make some kind of quantitative comparison of the overall levels of tension between Jesus and Jewish leaders as portrayed in each Gospel. Again, that such tension existed is quite consistent with the boldness of Jesus' preaching and the times in which he lived.

 

New Testament claims that Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures have been a source of ongoing controversy between Christians and Jews. The example mentioned by Cook is Matt 21:1-7:

 

"As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, `Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.' This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: `Say to the Daughter of Zion, "See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."' The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them" (NIV).

 

The scriptural quote in this passage actually combines two scriptures with a common theme. The introductory phrase, "Say to the Daughter of Zion" comes from Isa 62:11, where it is followed by the announcement, "See, your Savior comes!" Then follows a quote from Zech 9:9, which pictures the Messiah riding on a young donkey. The artful juxtaposition of scriptures in Matt 21:5 suggests an author very familiar with the Bible, not one who would have misunderstood the parallelism of Zech 9:9.

 

Matthew's Gospel is the only one that mentions two donkeys. Mark and Luke instead mention a young donkey "which no one has ever ridden" (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30). Here Matthew is making the same point as Mark and Luke, but in a slightly different way. Mentioning that the young donkey is still with its mother is another way of emphasizing that the donkey has never been ridden before. All three Synoptic Gospels bring out this detail for symbolic reasons. Commentator D.A. Carson explains:

 

"In the midst, then, of this excited crowd, an unbroken animal remains calm under the hands of the Messiah who controls nature (8:23-27; 14:22-32). Thus the event points to the peace of the consummated kingdom (cf. Isa 11:1-10)."5

 

Matthew also mentions the mother to show that the young donkey precisely fulfills Zech 9:9 by being "a colt, the foal of a donkey."

 

Matthew 21:7 states that cloaks were placed on the donkeys, and Jesus sat on "them"-i.e., Jesus sat on the cloaks that had been placed on the young donkey. It is hard to imagine Matthew saying that Jesus somehow simultaneously sat on both donkeys. (Jesus was a miracle worker but not a circus performer.)

 

Matthew 21:1-7 does not have to be read in a way that implies its author was stupid. But readers who come to the Gospels with a jaundiced eye and are trying to find fault with the text will inevitably find ways to see it in the worst possible light.

 

Conclusion



Rabbi Cook's lecture was very informative and thought-provoking. I am thankful to live in an era and location when Jews and Christians can dialogue freely about their differences in an atmosphere of openness and mutual respect. Both groups can learn much from this kind of dialogue. Moreover, I believe that it is in such an atmosphere that Christianity's evangelistic outreach to the Jewish people ultimately can bear the most fruit.





Further Reading: Further discussion of the issues raised in this article, from a Christian point of view, can be found in the books of the Jewish Christian scholar Dr. Michael L. Brown. Brown's books include the five-volume Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Baker Books, 2000-2006; Purple Pomegranate Productions, 2010), of which Volume 4 (New Testament Objections) is especially relevant to the topic of this article; Our Hands Are Stained with Blood: The Tragic Story of the "Church" and the Jewish People (Destiny Image Publishers, 1992); and What Do Jewish People Think about Jesus?: And Other Questions Christians Ask about Jewish Beliefs, Practices, and History (Chosen Books, 2007).

 

For more on how modern Jewish scholars have interpreted the Gospels, see The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus : an Analysis and Critique of Modern Jewish Study of Jesus by Donald A. Hagner (Academie Books, 1984).


Footnotes:

1This lecture was loosely based on the material in Cook's article, "Jewish Reflections on Jesus: Some Abiding Trends," pp. 95-111 in The Historical Jesus through Catholic and Jewish Eyes, Leonard J. Greenspoon, Dennis Hamm, and Bryan F. LeBeau, Editors, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 2000.

 

2By the late 1970s, when I attended Haverford, the number of Jewish students had increased substantially.

 

3Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989, p.99.

 

4Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment (Jewish Lights, 2008).

 

5Donald A. Carson, Matthew, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984.

Issue 26

 

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