Most Jews do not grow up with New Testament stories. While the term “Prodigal son” may be familiar, Jewish readers may not know that this very Jewish parable, which begins “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11), evokes the Hebrew Bible stories of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Jews who attended U.S. public schools prior to 1962 likely recited the “Lord’s prayer” every morning, but not a few believed the words included “Harold be your name” and “Lead us not into Penn Station.”
Most Jewish readers approach the New Testament, if they approach it at all, with at best a certain unfamiliarity. This is unfortunate, for much if not all of the New Testament is Jewish literature. Jesus himself was a Jew; he is, in terms of dates of documents, the first person in history to be called “Rabbi” (John 1:38, 49, 3:2, 6:25). Paul is a Jew; he describes himself as “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). Indeed, Paul is the only undisputed first-century Pharisee from whom we have written records (a case can also be made for Josephus). Most Biblical scholars think that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and John were Jews. (The earliest manuscripts as well as references to them do not attach the names “Matthew” and “John”; the original Gospel texts were anonymous.) The author of the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse of John) thinks in Jewish terms, as does the author of the Epistle of James.
Jews, especially those who come to the New Testament unaware of how its interpretation has been used to denigrate Judaism, will find much to appreciate. Some will be pleased to find that the opening line, Matthew 1:1, connects Jesus to Abraham and to David. Some will celebrate the morality of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7); others will find in the parables of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30–37) and the “Sheep and the Goats” (Matthew 25:31–46) timeless, universal messages or deem 1 Corinthians 13 a perfect description of love (see box).
But for most Jews, especially those aware of the difficult history of Christian-Jewish relations, the dominant first impression may well be one of 060 dismay, if not worse. Some will conclude the text is a message of hatred for Jews and Judaism. Others will find blasphemous the announcement of Jesus’ divinity. Still others will find illegitimate the assertions that Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy.
For these dismayed readers, a second look is advisable. When the New Testament is understood within its own historical contexts, not only can Jews recover part of Jewish history, but also the polemics, the assertions of Jesus’ divinity and the claims of fulfilled prophecy become comprehensible.
Children of the Devil
Paul describes the Jews (the Greek term is Ioudaioi) as those “who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets … they displease God and oppose everyone” (1 Thessalonians 2:15). The Gospel of Matthew has “all the people” clamor for Jesus’ crucifixion; when Pontius Pilate literally washes his hands of the matter, the people shout, “His blood be on our heads and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the Jews (Ioudaioi), “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44).
History cannot excuse these and similar passages, but it can help to explain them. First, the language of polemic is not unique to the New Testament. Amos and Jeremiah, Nahum and Ezekiel, are hardly models of civility when it comes to criticizing neighboring countries, the government or the priestly establishment. The New Testament’s polemic is comparable to passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the objects of excoriation are fellow Jews. 1QS, the “Community Rule,” describes the “sons of darkness” (not a positive designation), as full of “wickedness and lies, haughtiness and pride, falseness and deceit, cruelty and abundant evil, ill-temper and much folly” (1QS 4.9–14). Nor are first-century Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo complimentary to fellow Jews with whom they disagree. Josephus calls the Sicarii, the “dagger men” who promoted the Revolt against Rome in 66–70, “slaves, the scum, and the spurious and abortive offspring of our nation” (Jewish War 5.443) who “left no words of reproach unsaid, and no works of perdition untried, in order to destroy those whom their contrivances affected” (Jewish War 7.262). Speaking of his fellow exegetes in Alexandria who do not read Scripture as he does, and so unfortunately anticipating some of today’s exegetical battles, Philo inveighs against “impious ones” who “use these and similar passages as stepping stones as it were for their godlessness” (Confusion of Tongues 2). Their comments about certain gentiles are even nastier.
When this harsh language in the New Testament was written, such language was conventional rhetoric. Today it is no longer recognized as such. Moreover, words spoken by Jesus to Jews are now read as words spoken by the Church against Jews. Words spoken by Paul (or perhaps attributed to him; scholars debate whether 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 is from Paul or was added by a later scribe) to encourage his gentile congregation are part of the process of the Church’s self-definition over and against the more established Jewish community.
It is also good for Jews to know that most modern churches, recognizing the tragic effects of how this language has been interpreted, reject anti-Jewish teachings. For Jews to understand the New Testament, two types of knowledge are therefore essential: the first is to understand the text in its own historical context; the second is to ask how the text has been read over time.
The Divine Jesus
The New Testament’s descriptions of Jesus—what Biblical scholars call “Christology”—may also prompt negative reactions from Jewish readers. Some will reject John’s claim that Jesus was involved with the act of creation, as John’s gospel puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the 061 Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This is the Word that “became flesh” (John 1:14). Others will find ludicrous the idea that Jesus was “in the form of God,” let alone that “And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6, 11).
Again, the texts make sense in their own historical context. Early Jewish sources speak of Wisdom (Greek: Sophia; Hebrew: Chochmah) or the Shekinah as manifestations of God on earth. Even more striking, these manifestations are feminine. For example, Proverbs 8:22–31 depicts Wisdom as created at the beginning of God’s work and as “beside him, like a master worker”; Wisdom’s hymn in Sirach 24:1–34 reads like a paean to a goddess; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22–10:21 follows suit, as does Philo of Alexandria’s On the Creation. The Targums, early Aramaic translations of the Jewish Scriptures, sound very much like John 1:1 in referring to the Word (the Aramaic term is Memre) as a divine agent of creation.
Claims of Jesus’ messianic status also make sense in historical context. On the one hand, there was no single Jewish classification of who the messiah would be or of the signs that would prove his identity. Josephus records several figures who were taken to be God’s agents, prophets of eschatological deliverance or what we might today call “messiahs” (the term derives from the Hebrew mashiach, meaning one who is “anointed”), including three mentioned in the New Testament: John the Baptist, Theudas and a fellow called “the Egyptian” (for the latter two, see Acts 5:36, 21:38).
Over the next several centuries, as Rabbinic Judaism and the followers of Jesus parted company, both refined their views of the Divine: The Rabbis increasingly stressed monotheism, while the Church increasingly recognized the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In other words, the idea of Jesus as a special “son of God” who combined both humanity and divinity made sense to some Jews in the first century, and those Jews who held this belief were still recognized as part of the Jewish community. By the fifth century, the ways had parted.
“To fulfill what was said by the prophet …”
Some Jewish readers will reject Christian claims that the Scriptures of Israel (the Church’s “Old Testament”) predict the life of Jesus. Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 as stating that “the virgin will conceive and bear a son,” but Jewish readers may respond: “Isaiah doesn’t mention a ‘virgin’ but a ‘young woman,’ and he’s not talking about something to take place centuries later, but about a current political issue.” The problem here is one of translation. Isaiah, writing in Hebrew around 700 B.C.E., uses a pregnant young woman as a visual illustration for King Ahaz. To paraphrase Isaiah’s comment: “Look at that pregnant young woman. By the time her baby is old enough for solid food, your international problems will dissipate.”
When Isaiah’s prophecies were translated into Greek (the Septuagint), probably in the second century B.C.E., the Hebrew for “young woman,” almah, was rendered as parthenos, which we know today from the Parthenon in Athens (or the replica in Nashville!), the temple of the goddess Athena. At the time, parthenos meant “young woman,” but it could mean virgin also. In the Greek translation of Genesis 34:3, the prince Shechem, after having sexual relations with Jacob’s daughter Dinah, uses the term parthenos to describe her.
When, 200 years later, the author of Matthew’s gospel read Isaiah 7:14 in Greek, he saw a prediction of a virginal conception. That is a legitimate reading. Jews, however, reading their Scriptures in Hebrew, see no virginal conception.
By applying Isaiah’s prophecy to his own time, Matthew is reading his Scripture in good first-century Jewish fashion. Contemporaneous Jews also took verses out of context and applied them to their own situations. For example, the well-known Rabbi Akiva, a Jewish teacher executed by the Romans about 135 C.E., is reputed to have said that Bar Kokhba, the leader of the second revolt against Rome (132–135 C.E.), was the fulfillment of Numbers 24:17, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (see the Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4.8).
Similarly, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls see the Prophetic volumes from the Scriptures of Israel as speaking directly to their own time and situation. This form of interpretation, known as pesher (Hebrew for “interpretation”), quotes a Biblical text and then shows its fulfillment. For example, 1QpHab, the Habakkuk commentary from Qumran (“1” stands for the cave where the scroll was found, “Q” is Qumran; “p” is pesher, and “Hab” is the abbreviation for Habakkuk), states that “God commanded Habakkuk to write the things that were coming on the last generation, but the fulfillment of the era He did not make known to him … Their interpretation (pesher) concerns the 064 Teacher of Righteousness [the leader of the Qumran group], to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servant the prophets.”
The early followers of Jesus, Jews immersed in the Scriptures of Israel, searched in those Scriptures for teachings that would help them understand the man they believed to be the Messiah. At the same time, they used those Scriptures to help them tell the story of his life. In both cases, they were being thoroughly Jewish.
A Jew Reading the New Testament
Jews would do well—indeed, Christians would do well—to read the New Testament, and to do so with attention to how it fits into its historical context. The text is not simply the source of numerous images found in classical art, music and literature. For better or worse (usually worse), it is a text that has shaped Jewish-Christian relations. In looking at the New Testament in context, readers can see what Jews and Christians hold in common and how we came to separate. The point is not to erase differences, get everyone to agree, and sing “kumbaya.” It is to learn about our roots, explain our differences, and see what was lost and gained in the process of separation.
For me, personally, the more I study the New Testament, the better informed Jew I become. I can fill in the gaps in Jewish history that I never learned in Hebrew School; I can see the options open to early Jews and better understand the paths they chose; I can hear in many of the teachings of Jesus a helpful restatement of the Scriptures of Israel. I do not worship the messenger, but I often find compelling his image of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Perhaps the day will come when Jesus the Jew may provide a bridge between church and synagogue rather than the wedge that he has been. Perhaps the day will come when Jews and Christians can practice what the great Lutheran theologian and Biblical scholar Krister Stendahl called “holy envy,” the ability to be inspired by the tradition of our neighbors. Perhaps the day will come when we can both better respect our neighbor’s tradition and find deeper appreciation of what our own tradition teaches.
Most Jews do not grow up with New Testament stories. While the term “Prodigal son” may be familiar, Jewish readers may not know that this very Jewish parable, which begins “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11), evokes the Hebrew Bible stories of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Jews who attended U.S. public schools prior to 1962 likely recited the “Lord’s prayer” every morning, but not a few believed the words included “Harold be your name” and “Lead us not into Penn Station.” Most Jewish readers approach the New Testament, if they […]