Where Does Judaism Fit into New Testament Teaching?
by Norman S. Edwards
For centuries, there has been animosity between Christians and Jewssometimes erupting into persecution and violence. But there have also been wars and violence between Christian and Christian as well as between Jew and Jew. The problem is not that Christian and Jewish scriptures tell them to attack each otherthe problem is that both groups often fail to live by their own scriptures.
This article briefly examines the perceived differences between Christians and Jews as a whole, then goes to the personal level to cover what individual New Testament believers and Jews can hope to learn from each other.
The book of Acts and some of Pauls letters clearly state that Jews persecuted the first century Christians. Later through history, some Jews have oppressed Christians through banking and control of industries. Jews will be quick to point out that they were sometimes forced into banking by Christians whose Bible-understanding would not let them lend money at interest. On the other hand, now that most Jews have the freedom to enter into any occupation, it does not seem that they have deserted the banking profession.
Some Christians have persecuted Jews or tried to forcibly convert them. Other times, they have forced them to leave their lands, stolen from them en masse, or killed many of them in riots or pogroms. It is possible to find a major Christian persecution of Jews in almost any century. This writer concludes that the evils done to Jews by Christians far exceed the evils done to Christians by Jews.
Why Have Christians Persecuted Jews?
There are numerous reasons, but we will give the most common ones. While this may seem like an exercise in idiocy to some of our readers, it is important to understand them. Thousands, and in some cases millions of Jews have been killed due to the following erroneous myths:
Myth 1: Jesus statements about the Jews in the New Testament (Matt 12; Matt 23, John 6-9, etc.) provesthat they are evil people. What this myth fails to note is that there are numerous positive references to Jews in the scriptures (John 8:31; 12:11; Acts 6:7, etc.). It is easy to study every occurrence of the word Jew in the New Testament. It becomes very clear that the major conflict that Jesus had was not with Jews in general, but corrupt Jewish leaders (Matt 21:45-46; Mark 12:37; Luke 19:47-48, John 7:46-49).
Myth 2: Jews must be punished for killing Christ and wanting his blood to be on them and their children (Matt 27:25). While the Jewish leaders and sheep-like crowd certainly said this, there is no command for New Testament believers to try to carry out any vengeance whatever. Furthermore, the scripture commands us not to take revenge on peopleespecially for sins of past generations:
Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; Their foot shall slip in due time; For the day of their calamity is at hand, And the things to come hasten upon them (Deut 32:35).
Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin (Deut 24:16).
Myth 3: Jews are of their Father the Devil (John 8:44). Some groups actually teach that this scripture means that Jews were not physically descended from Jacob, but from some other line that includes Satan as a physical father and are therefore sub-human. It should be obvious that Jesus was not talking about literal fatherhood, but speaking in a figurative sense. A literal interpretation is false for all of these reasons:
a) The end of the verse says Satan is also the father of liarsif we accept a literal meaning above, we should also accept it here; it would mean that any one who is a liar is a physical descendent of Satan. It would also mean that those not physically descended from Satan are incapable of lying. This writers experience indicates that liars can be found in just about every culture, gender, and religion. One does not suddenly switch heredity when one tells a lie.
b) Jesus was talking specifically to scribes and Pharisees herenot to Jews as a whole.
c) In Matthew 16:23, Jesus calls Peter Satan. This is obviously not literal either.
d) In Luke 16:8 Jesus refers to children of light and children of this world. While this might make an interesting Star Trek episode, I hope no one seriously believes some children are literally procreated by the earth or by light beams.
Myth 4: Synagogues are all of Satan (Rev 2:9; 3:9). These scriptures do not say that synagogues are of Satan, but that there are some people who pretend to be Jews who are not. We will not speculate on exactly who those groups are in this article. We do not need to, because the Bible makes it clear that some believers were meeting in synagogues 30 years after Jesus death. The word in James 2:2 that is translated assembly in most Bibles is the Greek sunagoge which is translated synagogue everywhere else in the New Testament. (Literal translations like Youngs and Darby have this correct.)
Myth 5: Most Jews are part of an international conspiracy to take over the world. There is good evidence that some Jews are involved with efforts to control the economies and politics of most major nations. But there are many non-Jews involved in such activities, too. This writers experience has shown that the people who appear to be involved in global conspiracies are not the ones who are in synagogues several times each week studying Torah and Talmud. Most people who most loudly condemn Jews have never set foot in a synagogue. Most non-Jews would probably be shocked that they would be welcomed, that they would not be asked to renounce Christ, and that they would not hear one word about plans to take over the world. To the contrary, they would find most Orthodox Jewish Rabbis very concerned that Jews have departed Torah study for the pursuit of worldly riches.
Christians need to realize that nearly everything in the New Testament that is against Jews was against those corrupt within the Jewish leadership of the time. It clearly says that the common people heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37). Further more, the leaders of the time were the most corrupt of any generation (Luke 11:50-51). If we want to benefit from the many things that Jesus said about the leaders of His day, we need to look to see what applies to the religious and political leaders of our day. This writer is continually amazed at how many people seem to automatically assume that the leaders in their governments and churches are basically good people when the scripture teaches that in general, the opposite is true. This does not mean that we should fall in the other ditch and assume that all leaders must be badbut it means that we should be willing to hear and consider evidence that our leaders might be corrupt.
What Should Christians Learn from Jews?
Christians must acknowledge that they are indebted to the Jews for maintaining the Old Testament and the seventh-day Sabbath. While many societies have planned or tried to implement other calendars with different weeks, the Jews have clung to their Sabbath and prevailed for about three thousand years.
Jews believe that they have also maintained an oral lawwords that were spoken by the Eternal to Moses and other prophets that were not written down. Over time, these oral traditions have been written downand mixed in with the commentary of various rabbis. This writer prefers to look on this body of knowledge as similar to the totality of the writings of a specific church organization: some appear inspired, some appear clearly wrong, much of it is uncertain, and parts definitely contradict each other. If one is having a difficult time understanding a particular Old Testament scripture, the Jewish approach can sometimes be insightful. At other times, it appears that there is little understanding of the spirit of the law. There are several different translations of the Old Testament and also commentaries written in English, but from a Jewish perspective. Most Christian book stores will carry some of them.
Even some parts of the New Testament can be better understood in the light of Jewish tradition: naming a baby boy on his eighth day (Luke 1:59); Jesus was at the Temple for the Feast of Hanukkah or Dedication (John 10:22); Jesus used the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the day of the traditional Jewish water-pouring ceremony, to teach that he was the source of living water (John 7:37-39); the sabbath days journey is mentioned (Acts 1:12); the practice of immersion baptism for repentance and remission of sins (Mark 1:4); and using the expression fruit of the vine for religiously consumed wine (Matt 26:39). In other places, the New Testament uses Jewish phrases, or refers to Jewish ideas that can be more clearly understood from a Jewish perspective. One good source of this kind of information is Jewish New Testament and the Jewish New Testament Commentary by David H. Stern.
There seems to be two major dangers in studying the Jewish background of the Bible. One danger is simply trying to understand all of it. The Talmud is about five times the size of the Bible. If you add in all of the other important ancient Jewish writings, plus the significant commentaries, the total size is extremely large. In short, most people who are primarily occupied with earning a living will die before they are able to thoroughly understand all of the documents that make up the body of significant Jewish teaching.
The other danger that comes from overly studying Jewish writings is the tendency to be enamored with all of the wisdom of the Old Testament and all of the physical things associated with it. The New Testament clearly states that the administration under Moses was glorious (2Cor 3:7). However the entire chapter shows how the administration under Jesus was much more glorious. It is wonderful to see how many things in the Old Testament actually pointed to Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah. However, a believer must realize that the Apostle Paul was an expert in all of these things, yet he counted them as so much rubbish compared to his Savior (Phlp 3, especially v 8). Paul certainly used the knowledge he had, but he did not let it serve as a substitute for the Holy spirit and his Savior.
If Jewish study replaces spiritual growth in a believers life, he or she is in serious trouble. Brethren need to look deeply at what Paul said if they begin to feel more righteous because they have better Sabbath table cloths or candlesticks, because they start the Sabbath 20 minutes before sunset, because they say prayers in Hebrew, because they wear clothing according to Rabbinic specifications, etc.
It is very important to simply look at what the Eternal has done. Forty years after Jesus died (70 A.D.), the Jerusalem temple was destroyed and has not been rebuilt since. He has allowed the Jews to preserve most of their tradition for many years, but he has not restored the temple service, the priesthood, and so many other things necessary for the Old Testament practices. Even though it is likely that another temple will be built, one must realize that the Eternal found it unnecessary for nearly 2000 years. Both Peter and Paul clearly taught that our Saviors bodythe Churchis now the spiritual temple of God (1Pet 2; 1Cor 3:16; 6:19; 2Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22).
Should Jews Try to Convert Christians?
In general, the Jews have made very little effort to convert anyone to anything. Their own writings teach them that they should proclaim the Seven Laws of Noahbasic principles of righteousness and justiceto the Gentiles, but Jews have rarely done this in any meaningful way. The Jews do recognize a couple of categories of converts, but they do not actively pursue making them. The sheer volume of things to learn (as mentioned previously) makes conversion very difficult for older persons.
Most of the effort to convert Christians to Judaism has been from smaller quasi-Jewish groups not well accepted by mainstream Jews. How many of these groups seriously believed they were teaching truth, and how many were simply trying to promote a new religion with themselves as the head, is hard to know. Much of the conversion effort directed at Christians has been largely to teach that the Old Testament and (possibly some Jewish writings) are superior to the New Testament, and that Jesus was not who the New Testament claims He is. Some groups will say Jesus never existed, some will say that the New Testament writers greatly exaggerated His importance, and others say that later writers altered the New Testament to say Jesus was the son of God and that salvation comes through Him.
One example of this type of teaching is that of Darrell Conder (Commonwealth Publications) who teaches many doctrines common to Judaism and Christ ianity, but believes that the Gospels are largely forgeries. A more deceptive example is the teaching by Rabbi Harvey Falk in his book, Jesus the Pharisee. While the book is not openly critical of the accuracy of the New Testament, it quietly makes numerous claims about New Testament teaching that simply are not there. For example, Falk concludes that Jesus mission was to create a new religion for Gentiles (ignoring verses like (Matthew 15:24: I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel). Also, Falk concludes that Jesus statement, No one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14:6) must have been to Gentilesthough the Bible context is clearly to the Jewish Apostles. In general, the book ignores the message of salvation through Jesus and presents Him as a man who came to teach Torah and support the opinions of Hillel against those of Shammai (two famous Jewish teachers). Without stating it, the book clearly valued Talmudic writings over the New Testament.
Most importantly, Christians, who have an understanding of the Salvation that is available through Jesus (or Yeshua, if you prefer) are strictly instructed not to give Him up:
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father's, and of the holy angels (Luke 9:26).
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction (2Pet 2:1).
Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1Jn 2:23).
Should Christians Try to Convert Jews?
Throughout history, Jews have greatly resisted conversion to Christianitywhether such conversion be forced or friendly. In 1997, an evangelical Christian group created quite a stir by sending religious literature to a large percentage of homes in the country of Israel. Legislation was introduced to make Christian proselyting a crime. One can understand why the Jews are so against losing converts to another religion: 1) They have suffered terrible treatment at the hands of those trying to convert them in the past. 2) Jews are scattered throughout the world, and it has been their religion that has preserved their identity as a people. 3) Most Christians have tried to teach Jews things that contradict the Old Testament:
1) God is a trinity.
2) People should keep Sunday, Christmas, and Easter, not the Sabbath and the biblical Holy Days.
3) Salvation is dependent upon accepting an effeminate Jesus that had no apparent regard for the Torahthe law of God.
4) Converted Jews must begin meeting in churches, not synagogues.
5) Jews must give up all of their tradition to be converted.
Almost none of these things are necessary for Jews to gain salvation through Yeshua their Savior. Christ did show how some Jewish tradition made the law of none effect, but he apparently kept much of it. James 2:2 shows that converted brethren continued to meet in synagogues, though it is likely they had their own synagogues. Jews often object strenuously to a human sacrifice for sinclaiming that is pagan. However, when we read Genesis 22, where the Eternal asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, we see that it is something the Eternal thought of for years.
Sabbatarians should be able to lead Jews to Yeshua better than any other Christian group. They should show how Yeshua was a largely observant Jew and how he was the sacrifice for sin, making all of the other Temple sacrifices no longer necessary. A Sabbatarian who has learned parts of the Talmud can show how even non-Biblical Jewish tradition points to Yeshua as Messiah.
Amazingly, Jews teach that some of their most dedicated, righteous men, who go above and beyond the law, are chosen by the Eternal to receive the ruach hakodesh. This is Hebrew for the Holy Spirit. This understanding is confirmed by the New Testament. Luke records five people who had the Holy Spirit before Yeshuas death: John the Baptist, Mary (Jesus' Mother), Elizabeth (John's mother), Zacharias (John's Father), and Simeon (a devout old man) (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-26). What Jews need to understand, is that through Yeshua ha Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah) everyone is offered the Holy Spirit!
The first century church was originally composed of nearly all Jews. The Gospel Paul preached was for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Rom 1:16). There was clearly a strong attempt made to teach Jews. It is also clear that the Jews were upset by such teaching. Similarly, today, Christians can expect persecution by Jews for teaching them about Jesus. Even though we bring a message much more compatible to their way of life, it will be seen by some Jews as more dangerousbecause it will be hard to tell who is converted and who is notjust as it was in the first and second century. However, if such teaching of Jews is done in the spirit of love and with the blessing of the Eternal, it need not be continually contentious.
Believers, today, should be certain that it is the Eternals will before they begin to preach the Gospel to any people. It is clear from Pauls epistles that he understood the customs and beliefs of the people to whom he was preaching. We should do the same. We do not have to understand every detail of Jewish custom to teach them, but it would certainly help to understand the basicsand to be able to use the Hebrew terms for Christian concepts. Whoever preaches to Jews must do it with knowledge and patience. The ideal person would be one like the Apostles: raised in Judaism, but full of the Holy Spirit and in a close relationship with Yeshua his Messiah.
Christians and Jews ought not to fight with each other. Christians can learn many things about both Testaments of the Bible from retained Jewish knowledge and tradition. However, if such study causes them to abandon or ignore Jesus, then they would have been better to never have begun such study. Jews should be able to learn about Yeshua (Jesus) as their Messiah from New Testament believers without having to accept any of the false customs that have heavily infiltrated Christianity.
Both people would be so much better off if they would live by the clear instructions that they share in common:
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Lev 19:18).
Norman S. Edwards