Bible Commentator

CHRISTIANITY: A JEWISH PERSPECTIVE

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org


Marc Chagall - White Crucifixion

CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION


A. JEWISH-CHRISTIAN BACKGROUND

30 CE - Jesus was crucified (these and other dates are approximate within several years).

33 CE - The Hellenist Jewish believer in Jesus, Stephen conflicts with the High Priest and his associates (Acts chapters 6-7) . Saul was present and approved the killing of Stephen (Acts. 8:1) The High Priest was associated with the Shammaites. Gamaliel (the grandson of Hillel) would never have approved of such an act. (Acts 5:34-41). I have noted before that I believe Luke was in error in stating that Paul’s teacher was Gamaliel; his teacher had to be a Shammaite (Chapters 3 – Hillel and Jesus and chapter 5 Paul). Shammaites approved the killing of ‘heretics’ and later supported the war with the Romans, Hillelites were opposed to such practices. If Paul was authorized to persecute believers in Jesus, he did not learn that from Gamaliel, but a Shammaite.

34 CE - Approximately one year later Paul had his vision and his call to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul spent some time in Damascus, wandered in Arabia and then returned perhaps to Damascus and then to Antioch. We are also told that Stephen the Hellenistic Jew founded churches in Phoenicia, Cyprus, Cyrene and Antioch.  He and some of his associates preached to Jews and to Greeks (Acts 11:19-21). By the time Paul went to Antioch the church had been founded and Barnabas apparently was the leader (Acts. 11:22-24). Paul remained in Antioch until approximately in the year 49 when he and Barnabas traveled to Jerusalem for what become known as the Council of Jerusalem. This event and the subsequent Incident at Antioch have been discussed in chapter 5.

During the time when Paul was in Antioch he preached a Jesus based form of Judaism. At this geographical area was still dominated by Palestinian Judaism and a very large number of people there were born Jews. When Paul left for the ‘foreign’ lands the situation radically changed. In Paul’s new ‘world’ Jews were a small minority; In has been estimated that Jews represented 10-15% of the Roman Empires population. Given the percentage in Israel, Syria and Alexandria the percentage in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome must have been very small indeed.  For Paul instead of the majority of people being born Jews his new world had few Jews and some God-fearers however they were defined  

50 CE - When Paul began his ‘foreign’ missionizing there were already those preaching a Jesus oriented Judaism (‘James men’, Peter, Barnabas, the other three brothers of Jesus Joseph, Judas and Simon (See chapter 5) – a Gospel different than Paul’s. Some were Jewish Christians who preaching to Jews about Jewish law including circumcision; some are preaching to Gentile God-fearers who wish to associate with the Synagogue and would follow some Jewish customs and rituals; and Paul who is at this point (after leaving Antioch) preached a Gentile Christianity unrelated to Jewish customs and Jewish law.


Were the non-Pauline emissaries preaching to Pagans? Probably; they may have been preaching the Noahide laws. As we have seen Paul wrote against Jewish law and seemed to be preaching a ‘law-free’ - of Jewish laws - gospel.  Paul’s preaching of his ‘law free’ gospel was rejected by the Jews and by the non-Pauline emissaries. Paul then rejected preaching to Jews about the ‘risen Christ’. ‘We had to proclaim the word of God to you [Jews] first, but since you rejected it . . we turn to the  Gentiles’(Acts 13:46). Jews felt they did not need the ‘risen Christ’ for salvation; theirs came from the covenant of law. The tension between Jewish law remained in force for centuries.


50 CE - Galatia

52 CE - Thessalonica

54-57 CE - Corinth and Ephesus – Paul then returned to Jerusalem and was arrested and sent to Rome.

63 CE - Rome - The Letter to the Romans was probably composed when Paul was in Corinth. Paul was almost certainly martyred in Rome.


By the time the Gospels were written, the direct disciples were almost certainly dead and the writers were their successors.


B. RABBINIC JUDAISM BACKGROUND

Johanan ben Zakai re-instituted a  Judaism later called Rabbinic Judaism in Yavne, but he was not firmly established as the leader. In the last few years of the first century Rabbi Gamaliel II, a descendant of Hillel became the Jewish leader and .was recognized both by Jews and the Roman establishment. From 100 – 135 CE conflicts between the Jews both in Palestine and the Diaspora against the Romans continued unabated. The Diasporian Roman-Jewish war known in Jewish history as the ‘Kitos War’ (115-117) resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. The Bar Kokhba war (132-135) resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Palestine. The latter war supported by Rabbi Akiva, the most prominent sage in his time; who declared Bar Kokhba as a Messiah. Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba were both killed during the war. Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah would not fight for Bar Kokhba and if they lived in Palestine would have been killed if not by the Jews as disloyal then by the Romans during the war.  From the Jewish perspective this was the end of the sect of Jewish believers in Jesus.   


However this was not the end from the Christian perspective.


C. CHURCH FATHERS AND THE BEGINNING OF ANTI-JUDAISM (ADVEROS JUDAEOS)


Rosemary Ruether wrote ‘We must recognize Christian anti-Semitism as a uniquely new factor in the picture of antique anti-Semitism. Its source lied in the theological dispute between Christianity and Judaism over the Messiahship of Jesus, and so it strikes at the heart of the Christian gospel’. 1


The system of ‘adveros Judaeos’ has three major theological components:

1. The ‘law–free’ Gospel of Paul created an antithesis of a ‘Torah-centered’ vs. a ‘Jesus-centered’. Lloyd Gaston had written this is ‘the most fundamental root of theological anti-Judaism’. 2  

2. The supercessionist theory starting with the Gospel of John alienating Jews.

3. Matthews curse (Matt. 27:25) widely used by laypeople and passion plays to incite pogroms against Jews.


‘Christian scriptural teaching and preaching per se is based on a method in which anti-Judaic polemic exists as the left hand of its christological hermeneutic’. 3 Ruether asks ‘is it possible to eliminate anti-Judaism from Christianity and still affirm Jesus as the Christ?’ 4 ‘Possible anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the formulations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure’. 5 Gaston said perhaps the ‘more serious . . . question [is] whether the church ought to survive. A Church with an anti-Semitic New Testament is abominable but a Christian Church without a New Testament is inconceivable ’. 6


Justin Martyr (100-165) was writing in the period just before Jewish Christianity as a sect was separated from the Church.  Justin Martyr wrote a fictional "Dialogue with Trypho" (probably Rabbi Tarfon – an important Talmudic sage).  

This discussion took place after the Bar Kokhba War was written as a cordial discussion; both regret that due to Justin’s imminent leaving departure will impede further discussions of the Scriptures. They discuss Plato and then Jewish law and customs and the Scriptures extensively. The meaning of the term ‘virgin’ in Greek is discussed with Tryphon stating its meaning in Hebrew - ‘young women’ (chapters 66-68).  Tryphon asks Justin whether ‘I understand you to say that none of us Jews will inherit anything in the holy mountain of God? (25:6) Justin responds ‘I did not say that but I do say that those who persecuted Christ in the past and still do and do not repent, could not inherit the holy mountain unless they repent.’ (26:1)

Addressing Trypho he accuses the Jews of "cursing in your synagogues those who believe in Christ" referring to the twelfth benediction of the Amidah. Similarly Trypho has his say about one of the basic causes of the Jew's rejection of Christianity. "You set your hopes on a man that was crucified," says Trypho in astonishment.

The context was the re-establishment of the twin faiths of Judaism and Christianity after the destruction of the Temple. The issues of cult practice, the locus of Divine Favour and the identity of the true Israel were the subject of lively but respectful debate in a time when Jews and Christians still had meaningful concourse. In fact Justin Martyr learned Hebrew from a Rabbi to better interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. The recourse to Scripture was the basis of anti-Jewish argument. In order to have any effect on Jews the proof had to be grounded on the scriptural text.

Origen (185-254 CE) was born in Alexandria, a city with significant number of Jews. He lived part of his life in Caesarea. In both cities he met many Jews. He wrote extensively on the ‘Old and New Testaments’. G. Baudy, a Christian scholar on Origen estimates that Origen borrowed seventy thoughts from Jewish tradition. 7  Origen called Jews the murderers of ‘the Lord Jesus’ and accused them to be still responsible for that murder. 8 He noted that Jews did not hate Pagans but hated those who believe in Jesus as Lord.  The Jewish Encyclopedia suggests that Origen knew and related to Judah, the Prince, (misnamed Jonathan in an ancient text) the writer of the Mishnah


St. Jerome  (347-420) studied Hebrew and Aramaic and translated the original Hebrew into ‘Vulgate Latin’. He also quotes Jewish Midrashim. While not a friend of the Jews he did believe that the holy scriptures were originally written in Hebrew.


The most anti-Semitic of the Church Fathers was John Chrysostom Chrysostom (350-407 CE) after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. He preached in Antioch and against Judaizing Christians. These Judaizing Christians practiced circumcision, dietary laws, observed Jewish Sabbath, fast days and festivals as well as Christian festivals and baptism and went to Churches and Synagogues. (It would be difficult to celebrate the Passover and mourn Easter simultaneously, but apparently some tried.) Jerome and Augustine discuss the problem; Augustine though it was acceptable to Paul it was no longer acceptable while Jerome argued that Paul never approved. 9  It is tragic that Paul’s discussion ‘of styles within Christianity’ has become a weapon against the Jews. 10 This problem continued for several hundred years as late as Gentile Christians visited Jewish Synagogues and were attracted with Jewish rituals and the reading of the scriptures. 11


Chrysostom believed that Judaism having rejected Jesus became an illegitimate religion, unconnected to God. ‘The Passover has been terminated and replaced by the Christian Pasch’.  . .  The Jewish priesthood has been brought to an end with the temple. The Jews now have no lawful ministry’.  . . . to go there [the temple] to celebrate the ancient festivals is no better than to visit a brothel’. ‘Christ himself will judge those who fraternize with his murderers’. . .  Get away, I do not know you. For you have fellowshipped with those who crucified me’. 12


Chrysostom  wrote eight sermons entitled ‘Against the Jews’. It has been argued that they should be entitled ‘Against the Judaizers’ 13. While St. John, the ‘Golden-Mouthed’ Saint may have been enraged against Christian Judaizers his language is anti-Judaic in itself.  He also calls Jews ‘miserable’, ‘perfidious’, pitiable’, ‘harlots’ and the Synagogue ‘an abomination’ and  ‘inhabited by demons’; this in Sermon One of his eight Sermons. Sermon Two is entitled ‘Against those who Fast the Fast of the Jews and Against the Jews Themselves’. (The Didache – a well known non-canonical work written in the second century before St. John, states ‘Let not your fast be with the hypocrites, who fast on second [Monday]  and fifth ]Thursday] days; rather you should fast on the fourth [Wednesday] and sixth [Friday] days (8:1) 14)


According to Ruether ‘the Jews themselves, in Chrysostom’s sermons have passed beyond the pale of humanity altogether into the realm of the demonic’. 15


The fourth century was perhaps the definitive final break for both religions. The Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and the establishment in Babylon (outside of Roman rule) of the important Talmudic academies in Pumbeditah and Sura were critical.  In Babylonia there was little interchange between Jews and Christians; both religions grew to fruition independent of each other.  The Babylonian Talmud became the senior Talmud.


“Christianity can lose its anti-Judaism only when it is able to hear and internalize the message from Judaism which heretofore it has repressed and projected back as the sin of Judaism ‘rejecting Christ’.” 16 For Jews the Kingdom of God has not been brought by Christ and the Messianic age is still unredeemed. The coming of the Messiah is inseparable with the Messianic age. The historical Jesus did not bring the Kingdom of God. Early Christianity believed that Christ would return shortly – he has not – and consequently Christianity must revive its original theology. It is not inconceivable for him to return as the Messiah, but early the Christian belief has been proven wrong.


Some things have changed; Vatican II has addressed the charge of deicide. Pope John Paul II had stated that the Jewish covenant is continual and still valid and the Jews are the elder brother’s of the Christians. But especially in continental Europe (particularly German and French) the story continues. Charlotte Klein a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism and a member of the Order of Our Lady of Sion dedicated to improving Jewish-Christian relations wrote in 1978, after reviewing many Christians authors ‘if the authors listed here were not outstanding scholars every one of whom has made his own contribution to the different branches of Bible study, we should be tempted to charge them with plagiarism, so closely do their opinions and even their forms of expressions resemble one another when they come to speak about late Judaism’. 17  The similarities she if referring are the modern post-Shoah, post Vatican II version of adversos Judaeos. These writers continue to claim that ‘late Judaism’ is legalistic, Jews rejected the messiah, Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus and Jewish self curse on themselves and their descendents (Matt. 27:25).  She is particularly concerned with young preachers, students of hers, who go to the pulpit with these ideas.


Gunter Wasserberg, a Lutheran German tries to save Christianity from ‘anti-Judaic left hand’ 18 through Paul, particularly in Romans 9-11, feels he fails. ‘I fear that many Christians will not leave Jews in peace, because the Christian claim that Christ is the universal savior is directed also towards Jews.  The Jewish ‘no’ is a deep wound to the Christian soul’. And as long as we do not perceive the problematic and potentially explosive dynamics underlying Christian texts and discourse about Judaism, similar Shoahs may result’.  19



CONCLUSION

As has been said by many scholars Christians have said ‘Yes’ to Jesus and Jews have said ‘No’. The vehemence of John Chrysostom and Martin Luther are based on the Jewish ’No’. To them it was a sign of Jewish ‘hardening of the heart’, Divine rejection and therefore deserving of punishment. The Jewish ‘Yes’ was more a Yes to Judaism that a ‘No’ to Christianity. The issue of Christianity in the late First Century and the early Second Century was not that important to the Jews; the Romans were their killing enemies.


The center plank of Christianity is ‘God, the Father, Jesus, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. This trinity with Jesus at its center is the key theoligcal difference between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus as an intermediary is not different in kind from H’Ari or the Baal Shem Tov as intermediary. As one born in an exalted manner Jesus is not different, in kind, from H’Ari and the Baal Shem Tov. As a metaphor to a ‘Son” of God Jesus is also not different, in kind, from H’Ari and the Baal Shem Tov or other Jewish ‘Saints’ or ‘Tzaddikim’.  


Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jewish life and died as a Jewish martyr; he was crucified by the Romans in as much as he embodied a threat to their oppressive regime. The Christian Anthony Saldarini reframed the question; would the situation differ if Jesus were born an ‘Inca, Ethiopian or a Mongolian’? 20 Of course it would matter!  The Old Testament would not be an inherent part of the Christian Bible. Jesus could not be the Messiah or a Son of God, both Jewish concepts. Without Jesus the Jew, Christianity cannot exist. Ancient Christians understood that Jesus and his immediate disciples were Jews; they were concerned that he was rejected by own people – the Jews. Much of the writings of the Church Fathers in the first several centuries of Christianity’s growth was concerned  with precisely this issue. Church fathers such a Justin, Origen, Jerome and John Chrysostom were quite familiar with Jews and Jewish issues.  This was a time of Christian growth and development of Christian theology. This theology still haunts us today. In order for Christians to truly understand their own religion they need to find their Jewish roots.


Believers in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah began as a Jewish sect. Within several years after Jesus’ death the community centered in Jerusalem was headed by Jesus’ brother James. As a Jewish sect they can be compared to the community in Qumran. The community in Qumran however chose self-imposed isolation from the remainder of the Jewish (and world) community.  The community was largely destroyed in the Jewish Roman War (66-70 CE). Their isolation was so effective that their influence was largely unknown until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid twentieth century.  By the Roman War believers in Jesus lived in all of the major cities of the eastern Roman Empire. We have described the Jewish community before the War as very striated. That was equally true of the various emerging Christian communities. Some like James following all of Jewish law, some were like the various communities Paul met while his preaching in Galatians, Rome and elsewhere believing in some Jewish laws, some like the Mathew’s community were Jewish oriented and some like John’s community were more Hellene oriented. Thus both the Jewish and emerging Christian communities followed varieties of laws, customs and theologies coming from Judaism. (Christianity is not and cannot be, despite Paul, a religion of ‘Grace’ without ‘Good Deeds’.) Neither Rabbinic Judaism nor Christian orthodoxy (such as defined by councils in 325 at Nicaea or 451 at Chalcedon) developed suddenly; they grew gradually and in fact interacted with each other for centuries. During the time the debates were held in Nicaea and Chalcedon the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud were being debated defining Rabbinic Judaism.


Some of Jesus’ disciples remained in Jerusalem after his death. Within a decade or two believers in the Messiahship of the crucified Jesus existed in Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and as far west as Rome. Some like James followed Jewish Orthodoxy (as striated as that was) and some  non-Jews became ‘God-fearers’.  


During the second third of the first century the vast majority of believers in Jesus were part of the ‘Synagogue’ community. By the last third of that century, after the destruction of the Temple and when the four Gospels were written Anthony Saldarini claimed that ‘the majority of Jesus’ followers were Gentiles living in the eastern Mediterranean’. 21 Certainly that was true after the Bar Kokhba war. But the connection between what would become Rabbinic Jewry and what would become Christianity remained for several centuries. Saldarini wrote ‘the boundaries between the Jewish communities and the Christian groups emerging from them remained porous and indistinct [for] a long time’. 22 ‘Christians inevitably had to relate themselves to Judaism because they read the Bible (their Old Testament), practiced many modified Jewish traditions, and cherished Jesus, who lived as a Jew in Israel. They did so with varying degrees of sympathy, defensiveness and hostility’. 23


Only two Jewish groups succeeded after the destruction of the Temple; Rabbinic Judaism and ‘Jewish’ Christianity eventually becoming ‘Gentile’ Christianity. The change between the second third of the first century when the majority of Jesus’ believers were Jewish to the last third when they were Gentiles is one of the critical periods in Jewish Christian development. The fact that this change could happen in such a small period of time is truly remarkable, perhaps, (given Maimonides statement quoted earlier that ‘they [Christians] will not find in their Torah [the Christian Bible] anything that conflicts with our Torah.’ 24) even miraculous.


Memling, Christ

Notes

1 Ruether, Rosemary, Faith and Fratricide, (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 1995, pg. 28.

2 Wilson, S.G., ed. Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity, (W. Laurier University Press, 1986) L. Gaston, Retrospect, pg. 164.

3 Ruether, pg. 121.

4 Ruether, Pg. 123.

5 Ruether, pg.

6 Gaston, Paul and the Torah, pg. 15.

7 Malaty, Fr. Tadros, Y., The Schools of Alexandria, Book Two, The Deans of the School of Alexandria: Origen, St. Marks Coptic Orthodox Church, Jersey City, New Jersey, 1995) Chapter 17.

8 Quoted in Robert Louis Wilkin, First Things, May 1977, pg. 29.

9 Ruether, pg. 171.

10 Beck, Mature, pg. 53.

11 Segal, Paul, pg. 255.

12 Ruether, pg. 174, 175,176.

13 Wilkin, Robert Louis, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late Fourth Century, (Berkeley, University of Californian Press, 1983).

14 http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/St.Pachomius/Liturgical/didache.html, translated by Charles H. Hoole..

15 Ruether, pg. 180.

16 Ruether, pg. 245.

17 Klein, Charlotte, Anti-Judaism in Christian Theology, Trans. Edward Quinn, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1978) pg. 28-29.

18 Ruether’s phrase, pg. 64

19 Wasserberg, pg. 185

20 Anthony Saldarini, Christian Anti-Judaism: The first Century Speaks to the Twenty-First Century, The Joseph Cardinal Bernadin Jerusalem Lecture, April 14, 1999, Chicago, pg. 4

21 Saldarini, Christian Anti-Judaism, pg. 5.

22 Anthony Saldarini, Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community,  (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994), pg. 11.

23 Saldarini, Matthew’s pg. 195.

24 In the Introduction, Quoted in Harvey Falk, Jesus The Pharisee, (Paulist Press, N.Y., 1985) pg. 4.