Bible Commentator

CHRISTIANITY: A JEWISH PERSPECTIVE

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org


Raphael 'The Baptism of Constantine'

CHRISTIANITY: A JEWISH PERSPECTIVE


1. INTRODUCTION


A. Introduction


I was born and raised in a neighborhood of Brooklyn, called Williamsburg, a Jewish Orthodox ghetto primarily populated with Holocaust survivors. I attended Jewish parochial schools through Elementary School and High School, then Yeshiva University. To entertain the notion of entering a Church was considered tautamount to blasphemy. When I was approximately ten years old our housekeeper Hadie, a black Protestant died. Her husband was a Protestant Minister; I recall him always dressed in  a dark gray suit with a New York Times under his arm. They were throughout my childhood the only Christians I ever remember meeting. My mother announced to my father that we had to go to Church for the Funeral. My father, a well known Orthodox Jewish figure retorted said ‘I will not go into a Church’. I think my father believed he would be strike dead by God if he were to enter a Church. My mother who had worked full time with my accountant father retorted ‘she raised our children and we are not going to her funeral’? They attended the funeral and my mother even allowed me, their eldest son to accompany them. I learnt a great deal from this  event.


As a graduate student at Oxford University in 1970 I decided to visit the Anglican Church on Christian Eve.  I was amazed how the services seemed Jewish-like to me. I discovered a class on the Talmud at Oxford. I naively assumed that the teacher would be a Rabbi; in fact he was an Anglican Minister. Not only was I amazed - having grown up in a Jewish ghetto I assumed only Jews learnt the Talmud - I was also angry. Why was this Gentile cleric reading our books? In 1984, after visiting Auschwitz I entered an Orthodox Church in Bucharest and was once again I was struck by the resemblance to a service in a Jewish Synagogue. At the time my knowledge of Christianity was virtually nil.  The following year I found  an ex-Jesuit Priest from Yale University who agreed to teach me the Christian Bible.


During my period of immersion in the Christian Bible, the world of Christianity underwent a radical transformation. Pope John XXIII stated in 1969 that the Jews had not killed Jesus. Even as Papal Nuncio in Paris Pope John XXIII then Cardinal Rancalli, after viewing photographs of Jewish corpses from Auschwitz as WWII ended, exclaimed ‘This is the Body of Christ’. In the early 1980’s Pope John Paul II named the Jews ‘the People of the Covenant’ and visited the Jewish Synagogue in Rome to meet his ‘elder brothers’ as he called them. The Catholic Church no longer missionizes Jews and not only because of embarrassment for the Holocaust, but more importantly the theology has indeed changed.  God had written (at least) two covenants. God had not changed, the Catholics had. Not all Catholics have yet accepted that transformation but the establishment certainly has espoused this approach.  


Certain enlightened figures within the Catholic world advanced further.

Professor Didier Pollefeyt of The Catholic University of Leuven (the oldest continual Catholic University in the world) stated his view at the Cathedral Notre Dame on October 1996 as follows:

‘The way Jesus will come as the Christ and the Redeemer of the world will depend on the way Christians re-present Him in the present. When Christians are not able to bring His redemption to the world today, especially in relationship with the Jewish people, I'm afraid that at the end of times, they will not meet a triumphalising Messiah, but what I would like to call a `’weeping Messiah', a Messiah weeping for the injuries and the unredeemedness Christians caused, especially to His own people. Then it could end with the fact that indeed not Christians, with their triumphalistic Messianic perceptions, but the Jews will be able to recognize as the first one's the Messiah as the Savior of the World.’


At a pre Christmas service in 2001, Father Dr. Reimund Beiringer, also of the Catholic University of Leuven, began his sermon with the following opening remarks:  ‘when Jesus comes back he will be circumcised, he will not be able to eat at my home because it is not kosher and will look at this church and ask the Rabbi where can he find a synagogue’. The above remarkable statements confirm that Jesus the Jew continues to accept the symbol of Jewishness – the circumcision – by eating kosher he continues to observe Jewish ritual law and by attending a synagogue he continues his Jewish persona. This embodies the total antithesis of Rejection theology. Father Reimund personally asked me to attend this church service and pointed me out as the person Jesus would ask for a synagogue and at whose home he could eat.


As a result of the concerted effort of many scholars the Vatican stated (Jan. 17, 2002) that "The Jewish wait for the Messiah is not in vain . . . The difference consists in the fact that for us, he who will come will have the same traits of that Jesus who has already come." (Cardinal Ratzinger, is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.)


B. Goals of This Book:


In underlying thesis of my fist book ‘Messengers of God: A Theological and Psychological Perspective’: a commentary of the Hebrew Bible, was that each messenger of God by dint of his unique nature and nurture externalized God’s calling in a unique and personal manner.


Much of the Hebrew Bible is composed as if it were autobiographical;  Samuel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel appear to written their own stories. Are autobiographies the Truth and nothing but the Truth? An autobiographer chooses selectively what he wishes to record. We have learnt from Freud that what we choose to record may be less important, than  what we ‘forgot’. (The author is fully aware of the many conflicts about the authorship of the Bible. My interest is in commenting on the text regardless of the identity of the author – assuming that such could ever be ascertained. In view of the enormous influence of the texts, (both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles) that itself is a worthwhile endeavor. Many scholars indeed do interest themselves with the authorship issue.)


The suffering of both Jeremiah and Job’s seems too truthful not to be true; Is Ezekiel’s story too outrageous to be true or too outrageous not to be true? Would God really ask His prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute and an adulterous woman? Maimonides wrestled with that reality. The subtle negative irony in Samuel’s narrative seems more biographical than autobiographical.   Genesis seems written by a narrator-historian with great insight into the characters whom he portrays.


Jeremiah and Ezekiel both were born as Priests and then received God’s call to be Prophets. Born within a decade of each other shortly before the destruction of the First Temple. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. He referred to the destroyer, Nebuchadnezzar, as an Servant of God and attributed the destruction to the Jews and specifically the Priests for their own ethical misbehaviour. Ezekiel several years younger than Jeremiah was exiled to Babylon; he blamed the Jews for their own ritual misbehaviour and painted Jewish history in much more bleaker terms that Jeremiah. For Ezekiel the building of a New Temple with a Davidic Messianic figure (a ‘nasi’) was the only solution. Cultic ritual behaviour required a Temple. Ezekiel seemed more concerned with his position as a Priest (which he was born into) than a Prophet (which was his calling from God).  For Jeremiah live as an ethical person even in the exile of Babylon was superior to living unethically with a Temple in Jerusalem. Jeremiah suffered greatly as a prophet partially because he rejected the Priestly position. Can his position be compared to Jesus’?



The Christian Bible is quite different; five major authors write about Jesus: The authors of the public ministry of Jesus are the three synoptic authors (Mark, Matthew and Luke) who write from a similar oral tradition, John emanates from a tradition differs significantly in important aspects. Paul by means of his epistles and Luke in the Acts of the Apostles do not comment on the public ministry of Jesus but on Paul’s own conversion to believing in Jesus and his propagating such  belief among mainly pagans, but also Jews. None of these authors personally knew Jesus


Very little is known about the lives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John or their communities. No consensus exists as to whether were born as Jews or were Gentiles; it seems unlikely that any of them spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, the language of Jesus and his direct disciples. Mark, Luke and John and their communities appear from their writing to be ‘Gentile identified’ while Matthew appears more ‘Jewish identified’. All, possibly including Paul, so far as we know read the Bible in its Greek translation – the Septuagint. Their audiences were primarily Jewish and non-Jewish Hellenistic speakers. By the time of their writing (70 – 110 CE) the Gospels had already failed to convince the majority of Jews of Jesus’ Messianic status. The primarily reason for that was that a Jewish Messiah had to be alive to accomplish his task.


Most of the biographical information about Paul is from his companion Luke. It is Luke and not Paul who tells us the Paul studied under Gamaliel; Paul tells us he was a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’ (Phil. 3:4) but does not mention Gamaliel. When Paul tells us of his life as a persecutor (Gal. 1:13-14) he does not mention Jerusalem as we would expect. Luke tells us he went to Jerusalem immediately after his conversion-call. Paul tells us he went from Damascus to Arabia for several years, back to Damascus and then to Jerusalem. When Paul tells of the meeting in Jerusalem with James and Peter in the Letter to the Galatians it is a different story than Luke tells in chapter 15 of Acts of the Apostle.


No common theology is shared by the five authors; neither had Jewish theology attained a level of unification.


Jesus is quoted by each of these authors’ there ‘reportings’ of Jesus  seem to contradict each other. Mathew has Jesus say:  ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them’ (Matt. 5:17). James, the brother of Jesus and apparently the head of the believers in Jesus believed in a continuation of Jewish law (Acts 21:20-26). Paul rejects the Torah law and contrasts it with ‘Christ’s Law’ seemingly based on faith (1 Cor. 9:20-21) while John presents Jesus as having rejected his own people and culture the Jews and he replaced it with Christology.


Can we truly know what Jesus really said? 1

Can we know who Jesus was – to himself, to others in his lifetime and in the century after his death?

How do twenty first century readers see Jesus?


The author believes Jesus emanated from the variegated streams of Jewish tradition.  Even his death was based on a particular stream of Jewish thought. The Gospel of John reasons for Jesus’ death is significantly different than the synoptic Gospels. It is not Jesus’ Law-free Gospel, nor his threat to the biblically mandated sacrifices as a means of repentance but as the High Priest stated ‘if we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. . .  it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.’(Jn. 11:48,50).  Jesus’ death is described by Caiaphas as the death of a martyr; his death will save the nation! Given the Romans actions toward would be rebels and insurrection and ‘King of the Jews’ Caiaphas is of course correct. Forty years late this is precisely what happened. Jesus’ prediction of his death by the Romans for insurrection, was an accurate anticipation of exactly what would happen. He understood how the Romans would misconstrue the concept of his ‘Kingdom of God’. Any apocalyptic preacher by definition makes both religious and political statements. The Romans were understandably hostile to all charismatics preaching a ‘Kingdom of God’. They could only see it as another earthly kingdom in opposition to the Roman Empire. As Fredriksen notes ‘crucifixion [for these men] would be a prudent Roman response’ given their zero tolerance policy for what they perceived as sedition. 2


Paul’s theology likewise stems from Jewish tradition, but included more of the  Hellenistic tradition. Jesus and Paul may have both been influenced by the Dead Sea Scroll community. Jesus related to his own Jewish compatriots and taught them his personal form of love, piety and of the Kingdom of God. Paul and the Gospel writers came to teach Gentiles their version of the Jewish traditions. Gentiles however were in need of a different identity than Jews and thus the ‘Parting of the Ways’ was inevitable.


The other major stream in Christian thought comes from the Gospel of John. This gospel differs radically from than the synoptic gospels. In Christological terms it is closer to the theology of Paul. Both emphasize not the Jesus historic Jesus but his death. In the Pauline letters the historic Jesus is never referrerd to. In the gospel of John David Granskou has pointed out that in nineteen of the twenty-one chapters of the gospel of John Jesus’ death is mentioned (only 4 and 9 are excluded). 3 John rejects the God of Israel for his own theology of the god-ship of Jesus. Francis Watson suggests that both Paul and John (as well as Qumran) create ‘an ideology legitimating its separation from [the Jewish] society’. 4


C. Jewish and Christian Attitudes Toward Each Other


What began within decades of the death of Jesus the Jew was the ‘teaching of contempt’ and it continued for almost two millennium and culminated in the Shoah. John XXIII and Vatican II marked a remarkable reconciliation in Christian theology. John Paul II made this a sea change by becoming the first Bishop of Rome to visit a Synagogue. He established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, and emphatically denounced anti-Semitism.

Moreover the Vatican’s recent statement ‘We Remember’ speaks of the Shoah (in Hebrew) as an ‘unspeakable tragedy’ and one that ‘can never be forgotten’.  It refers to the ‘very close bonds of spiritual kinship with the Jewish people’ and to the ‘remembrance of the injustices of the past.’

Jewish history changed radically as a result of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel. It however is not yet clear how Jewish theology will  adjust to these historical changes.


Many Jews have modified their views of Christianity as a result of the Christian reaction to the Shoah. This is a reaction to Christian Tshuva – repentance. Many Jews particularly descendants of the Shoah and of Eastern European Jewry, have difficulty in accepting this Tshuva or act of forgiving. Whether accepting Tshuva requires forgiveness is a complicated philosophical and theological issue.


What is less known to Jews and Christians is that many important Jewish figures were never anti-Christian although they fought against anti-Semitism.


Maimonides, the great Jewish Halakhic master and thinker stated ‘They [Christians] will not find in their Torah [the Christian Bible] anything that conflicts with our Torah.’ 5 He encouraged dialogue with Christians as well as with Muslims. The school of Tosafists (12th and 13th century Talmudic commentators) and specifically Rabbi Jacob Tam (grandson of Rashi, the most well noted commentator in the middle ages) ruled that the concept of the Trinity was not idolatrous if practiced by Christians but would be considered as such if practiced by Jews. 6 Rabbi Jacob Tam (Rabbenu Tam) also stated that Peter was a devout Jew who wrote the famous prayer recited on Shabbat and festivals ‘Nishmat’. 7 An 18th century Jewish Talmudist commentator Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) stated ‘that Jesus never intended to abolish Judaism, but only to establish   a new religion for the Gentiles based on the Noahide commandments’. 8 He further elaborated that ‘their [Christianity and Islam] are for the sake of Heaven, to make Godliness known amongst the nations, to speak of Him in distant places; they have accepted virtually all of the Noahide Commandments’. 9 A 19th century Orthodox commentator Rabbi Samuel Hirsch noted ‘In order that Jesus’ power of hope and greatness of soul should not end with his death, God has raised in the group of his disciples the idea that he rose from death and continues to live. He continues living in all those who want to be true Jews’. 10


Despite these important mainstream figures these concepts have never been integrated into mainstream Jewish attitudes toward toward Christianity.



D. Conclusions


Jesus belonged to a Jewish culture; Christians do not; how did that happen? That Christian identity can be defined as follows:

Jesus is ‘begotten from the father . . . from the virgin Mary mother of God with respect to his humanity: one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, made known in two natures ,  . . one and the same Son  and only begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ . . . and Jesus Christ himself instructed us concerning him’ (Faith of the Christian Church defined at the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE).  This statement of faith is quite remote from that of Jesus the Jew of Nazareth. That Jesus saw himself as special a sexalted as Enoch, Moses or Elijah is almost certainly true as did later Jews the Ari (Isaac Luria and the Ball Shem Tov) but it is doubtful he did not consider Joseph as his biological father. (Whose DNA was his?)


Jesus was born, lived and died as an observant Jew. His manner of death - crucifixion - was common amongst the Jewish people occupied by the Roman Empire. Pontus Pilate as Josephus tells us was a particularly cruel Governor.


Christianity did not result from Jesus’ crucifying death.  Christianity began with the visions of his resurrection by several people, particularly Paul who was told in his vision to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul made two important changes from the Jewish disciples of Jesus: One he added to the ‘Jesus movement’ Gentiles who within a century became the majority in this movement. Second he began the change from Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth to the ‘proclaimed Christ Jesus’, Messenger of God.


Later the Evangelist John writing a half of a century after Paul proclaimed him the ‘supercelestial’ Incarnate God. The historical Jesus could never have understood John’s theology.  


This gospel made Jesus equal to God. ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn. 10:30). In this Gospel ‘the deity and incarnation of Jesus are unequivocally proclaimed’. 11 For John the Gentile followers of Jesus were clearly superior to the Jews. ‘You [the Jews] are from your father the devil, and you prefer to do what your father wants’ (Jn. 8:44). Instead of the cruel Pontius Pilate crucifying Jesus Pilate is depicted as an aggrieved bystander. The Jews who several times threatened Jesus according to this Gospel finally committed deicide. P.M. Casey has written that the author of the Gospel of John created a ‘misleading picture of Jesus’. . . . It makes him divine and infallible and has him condemn the Jews, to whom the historical Jesus preached, and from whom he selected his disciples, Apostles and his supporters. We cannot reasonable believe in all the results of that developmental process.’ 12 This would have been inconceivable to the historic Jesus and to the synoptic authors.


1 Funk, R.W., Hoover, R.W. eds., The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Translated and Commentary (Macmillan, N.Y., 1993).

2 Fredriksen, Paula, From Jesus To Christ, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1988) pg. 125.

3 Richardson, Peter, and Granskou, David, Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986) pg. 209-211.

4 Watson, Francis, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986) pg. 40-48.

5 Quoted in Harvey Falk, Jesus The Pharisee, (Paulist Press, N.Y., 1985) pg. 4.

6 Falk, pg. 34.

7 Falk, pg. 34.

8 Falk, pg. 4.

9 Falk, pg. 15.

10 Lapide, Pinchas, The Resurrection of Jesus, (SPCK, London, 1983) pg. 137.

11 Casey, P.M., From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God, (James Clarke, Cambridge, 1991) .pg. 23.

12 Casey, pg. 178.