David H. Stern. Clarkesville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992. xxi, 927 pages. $34.95, cloth; $29.95, paper.
David Stern’s massive Jewish New Testament Commentary follows through on his Jewish New Testament. It represents a Herculean effort to provide a commentary of the New Testament that works with the original Greek text and also attempts to demonstrate the first-century cultural background among the people of Israel.
As long ago as the 1930s, the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch and the Israeli scholar Joseph Klausner already broke ground when they wrote about Jesus from a Jewish perspective. Since then, the old approach of seeing the New Testament as completely Greek, divorced from any Jewish background, has largely been set aside in the thinking of many writers and scholars. But the task has not been easy. It is now time for Messianic Jews themselves to deal theologically with the issues concerning not only Jesus but Paul as well.
Stern has provided us with a great deal of Jewish background to the New Testament. For example, many of the lessons that Yeshua taught find background in the common cultural and religious pool from which he as well as the rabbis drew. The teaching of acts of righteousness” (Matthew 6:1) finds a background in the Sayings of the Fathers 2:13. The saying in Matthew 6:7 that our words be few is also found in B’rakhot 61a (pp. 30-31). The same would be true of the Lord’s Prayer, all of which is at home in the Judaism of Yeshua’s day (p. 32). Similarly, the Golden Rule that Yeshua cited already had an accepted part in Jewish writings, even as early as the third century b.c. book of Tobit (pp. 33-34). The citation from Yoma 39a-39b that in the forty years prior to the destruction of the temple, the scarlet cloth never turned white again is an interesting comment on the rending of the temple curtain in Matthew 27:51 (p. 84).
One cannot begin to mention the great number of passages for which Stern provides interesting supporting evidence from various facets of Jewish materials. He demonstrates adequately that the New Testament is set in a specific cultural context of the people of Israel and not in a foreign Greek context.
The development of a theology of Messianic faith is extremely important. One does not write theology in a day and perhaps not even in fifty years. We need to work at it until many of us can agree on an expression of what we believe and how we are to live our beliefs. Among the key theological questions are these:
1. The use of the term “Messianic Judaism.” In explaining Messianic Judaism, Stern defines it as: “100% Jewish and 100% Messianic” (p. xv). “Messianic” draws our focus to Yeshua as the Messiah, but what does it mean to be “100% Jewish”? Is it what the traditional Jew would describe as Jewish, or is it what the Reform Jew would want to define as Jewish? Of course, Stern does make a distinction between Messianic Judaism and “non-Messianic Judaism,” where the latter refers to any form of expression of Judaism that does not acknowledge Yeshua as the Messiah and Redeemer. This still leaves us with a problem concerning the term “Judaism.” Perhaps, rather than trying to use the word “Judaism” and then going into a long explanation as to how one should define it, it would be best to simply speak in terms of the Messianic Jew and “Messianic faith.”
2. The question of Torah. Stern insists that “Messianic Judaism recognizes that the Torah is eternal, and Yeshua did not abrogate it” (p. 240, on Acts 6:13-14; see also his comments on Acts 2:42, 12:12, 15:2-3 and Matthew 5:17). But what does he mean by Torah? He explains that by Torah, he means the written Torah, commonly known as the Old Testament, not any legalistic system (pp. 344-346, on Romans 3:20b).
Discussing Galatians, Stern writes that “some branches of Christianity teach that the ethical Law remains, while the civil and ceremonial statutes have been done away with. For Gentiles, this may seem a satisfactory solution to the problem of the Torah, but for Jewish believers it isn’t so simple as that.” Instead, he draws our attention to the fact that “some rules [in the Torah] were transformed by their fulfillment; this is a process found already in the Tanakh, for example, when the Tabernacle was superseded by the Temple.” He relates this to the New Testament, in which the death of the Messiah fulfills the “function of the temple sacrifice for sin and either superseded it or changed it into a memorial, as explained in Messianic Jews [his name for the Book of Hebrews] 7-10” (p. 568).
Moreover, Stern tells us that the New Testament is really the Torah of the Messiah and has been incorporated into the Torah as a whole, that is, into the written Torah; the Torah of the Messiah explains fully and more completely what the written Torah hints at as a pointer to the day when Messiah will finally appear. He even translates Hebrews 8:6b as “[The New Covenant] has been given as Torah on the basis of better promises” (compare the NIV, “and it is founded upon better promises”). Indeed, Stern is quite clear on the difference between Messianic Jews and the Judaism espoused by other Jewish people when he declares that the New Testament is Torah and that there is no such person as a Torah-observant Jew unless he or she accepts the New Testament (p. 687)!
The point is that there is something about the Mosaic Covenant that is changed, but there is something of it that still remains, further explained, indeed, by the “Torah of Messiah” as Stern defines it. His observation serves notice on the rest of us that we need to wrestle with these concepts to produce a better Messianic Jewish theology.
3. Original sin. Stern offers a lengthy and valuable comment on this topic, taking some fourteen pages to discuss it (pp. 359-373), concluding, “I do not propose to construct a Messianic Jewish theology of sin in this note!” He points out a number of instances where the issue of sin is discussed in the Tanakh (p. 368) and makes a case for what is wrong with people and why they need to be justified by God or declared righteous, in order to have a new life and be one with the Lord.
As Stern suggests, perhaps the “sins of ignorance” (Leviticus 4:2) can shed light on the question. These sins are those that provide the context for the sin offering. Sins of ignorance are not those of commission or omission and they force us to ask why a person can sin and not be aware of it. Could it be that something is wrong with the inner being of a person whereby he or she can sin in such a way? Could it be that Moses provided the sin offering in order to care for the question of “who we are” (justification), in contrast to the guilt offering, which takes care of “what we do” (sanctification)? The issue of justification forces us to deal with who we are, a most important question, because of non-Messianic Jewish opposition to this doctrine and their insistence that people through their free will can achieve righteousness.
It might be mentioned that the use of Hebrew for the various New Covenant names may be baffling to Americans in general and Jewish believers in particular. For example, in Matthew 5:21 (p. 27), the Hebrew for the “Ten Commandments” is a case in point. Perhaps a glossary of how Hebrew and Greek words are pronounced might have been helpful.
A final word concerning the readability of this commentary. In general, it seems best geared to someone with formal exposure to the Bible and to theology. For instance, in discussing Matthew 23:37-39 (p. 71), Stern refers briefly to “the theology, developed later by the Church,” an issue that not all readers would be conversant with.
All in all, Stern has provided us with a work that will provide a distinctive contribution to the beliefs of Messianic Jews. It will, no doubt, be the springboard for further meaningful discussions between Jewish believers in the Messiah, as well as for the Church at large.
The late Louis Goldberg was for many years the chairman of the Jewish Studies department at Moody Bible Institute. He afterwards served as Scholar-in-Residence at the New York City branch of Jews for Jesus.