Is the New Testament Jewish?
When Abby had some doubts about her Jewish beliefs, she consulted a rabbi. He recommended that she read books by Jewish authors. Be an informed Jew,” he exhorted.
Abby was delighted to find a number of such books in the religion section of her local library. Since most of the titles were unfamiliar, she selected the first ten books from a row on an eye-level shelf. Settling into a comfortable chair in a quiet corner, she laid the books out on a table in front of her. She quickly determined that one of the books must have been misshelved, for it bore the title “New Testament.”
The placing of a copy of the New Testament on a shelf full of books on Jewish faith was most likely the ironic oversight of a careless library worker. Yet, in its authorship, content and focus, there is hardly a book more Jewish.
A book written by Jews
Most scholars agree that the writers of the New Testament were Jewish (with the possible exception of Luke). “Most of the writers of the various parts were Jews, and the writings were designed for Jewish readers who had embraced the Christian faith. The authors drew more or less from contemporary Jewish ideas, ethics, legends, parables and sayings.”1
The New Testament writers were not rebellious radicals bent on destroying Judaism. They worshiped regularly in the Temple.2 They were well versed in the Jewish Scriptures as demonstrated by their numerous references to the prophecies and practices of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The most prolific New Testament writer, Paul, wrote almost half of the 27 New Testament books. His Jewish background is indisputable. He was a son of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin,3 and a Pharisee.4 The Jewish scholar Professor Samuel Sandmel of Hebrew Union College observes that Paul the Jew “was at home in the Bible and in the practice of expounding it; he shared the group-feeling of Jews, and he was, from his own standpoint, unreservedly loyal to Judaism.”5
Paul boasted that prior to becoming a believer in Yeshua (Jesus), he was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of his own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers. His familiarity with Jewish tradition, thought and theology remained an integral part of his preaching. He drew heavily from the Hebrew Bible, and the audiences to whom he preached were well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jewish scholar Alan F. Segal admits, “However much I may disagree with Paul, my reading accedes to the authenticity of Paul’s conversion experience. Paul considered himself part of a new Jewish sect and hoped to convince both fellow Christians and Jews of his vision of redemption.”6
Paul’s Jewishness is evident in the focus of his writing as well. This is true of all the New Testament writers. For if the book dealt only with gentile issues, it could hardly be regarded as Jewish.
A book written for Jews
The pages of the New Testament clearly follow the framework of Judaism. The first four books, the gospels, addressed a Jewish audience. They echoed the pattern of historical narratives interspersed with instruction found in the Torah. “The controversies between Jesus and the Scribes/Pharisees have no referent outside the community of Israel; Jesus’ preaching of the coming kingdom could have had meaning only for Jews; the synagogues in which Jesus reads from the prophets, heals the sick, and forgives sins are Jewish houses of worship for believing Jews and not unconverted gentiles.…”7 The Jewish festivals that are celebrated throughout the pages of the New Testament were not feasts of interest to the gentiles but were part of the daily life of the Jewish people.
The four gospel accounts contain numerous references to the Hebrew Scriptures, references that deal with the messianic theme. This is clearly seen in the narration of the birth of Yeshua. His conception was prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 and referred to in Matthew: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’ ” (1:23).
His birth in Bethlehem was foretold by the prophet Micah in chapter 5, verse 2, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times,” and quoted in Matthew 2:6.
Matthew also relies heavily on Hebrew Scriptures. In the second chapter of his narrative, he relates the flight into Egypt of Joseph and Mary (Miriam) and the slaughter of the innocents by Herod. Harking back to the law of the Nazarite in Numbers 6:1-21, Matthew concludes this story with Joseph’s return to Israel to settle in Nazareth, “And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, ‘He will be called a Nazarene’ ” (Matthew 2:23).
A book of fulfilled prophecy
This appeal to fulfilled prophecy continues with Mark, who prefaces his gospel account with, “It is written in Isaiah the Prophet.” He cites Isaiah, “A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the Lord” (40:3), and Malachi, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me” (3:1).
“It is written” occurs time and again in the pages that follow as the New Testament writers buttress their arguments with the Hebrew Scriptures-the Law, the prophets and the writings. The two testaments fit together; one does not supersede the other. “The New Testament is regarded by Christians as the fulfillment of the prophecies and the teachings contained in the Old.”8
In Acts 2:14-28, Peter, known as “the apostle to the Jewish people,” began his ministry with a lengthy quotation from the Hebrew prophet Joel. He then affirmed that Yeshua was the Messiah, citing Psalm 16:10, “Because you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27). His hearers, with the events of the crucifixion still fresh in their memory, were “cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ “(Acts 2:37).
A book in the language of the Jews
Jewish scholar David Flusser observes how the New Testament records Jewish life in the Hellenistic Diaspora. But the writings not only give us a look into Jewish customs, thinking and beliefs; they also provide us with clues concerning the languages spoken at that time.
“The spoken languages among the Jews of that period were Hebrew, Aramaic, and to an extent Greek. Until recently, it was believed by numerous scholars that the language spoken by Jesus’ disciples was Aramaic.…But during that period Hebrew was both the daily language and the language of study.…This question of the spoken language is especially important for understanding the doctrines of Jesus. There are sayings of Jesus which can be rendered both into Hebrew and Aramaic; but there are some which can only be rendered into Hebrew, and none of them can be rendered only into Aramaic. One can thus demonstrate the Hebrew origins of the Gospels by retranslating them into Hebrew.”9
The New Testament was written by Jews, focuses on issues of interest to Jews and was strongly influenced by the Hebrew language.
A book about Jews dealing with Jews
For the most part, the New Testament depicts Jews dealing with other Jews on questions of importance to the Jewish people. Alan Segal says, “Study of the New Testament, undeniably a first-century source, has proven to be quite useful for validating mishnaic recollections of first-century Jewish life, but such comparisons are in their infancy. The New Testament is also better evidence for Hellenistic Judaism than is the Mishnah for first-century rabbinism.”10
In the Sermon on the Mount,11 Jesus the Jew tells his followers, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles run after all these things.” Yeshua goes on to encourage his followers to “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The heavenly kingdom and God’s righteousness were familiar concepts to Yeshua’s Jewish followers.
Likewise, when Jesus sent out his disciples, he told them, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”12
The Book of Acts tells how Stephen, the first Jesus-believing Jewish martyr, stood before his accusers and cited the history of his people. This Jewish man spoke before a Jewish crowd, about their Jewish ancestors. And, not unlike many of the Jewish prophets of old, Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned.
A book about Jewish history
The book of Hebrews begins with: “In the past God spoke to our fathers through the prophets.…” The writer then refers to passage upon passage from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Hebrews 11 has been called “The Roll Call of Faith.” It honors Abel, Enoch and Noah for their faith and goes on to commend the patriarchs, Moses and Joshua, as well as Rahab. It then follows with the heroes Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah and concludes by touching on the many unnamed heroes in Israel’s history. Verse 34 and following speak of those who “quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” The unnamed martyrs, those who were tortured, mocked, scourged and who suffered affliction and torment for the sake of the God in whom they believed are all cited. These men and women gave themselves as a part of Israel’s bloody legacy-Jewish martyrs, dying in the name of the God of their Jewish ancestors.
The whole chapter is a summary of Jewish history, not Babylonian, not Egyptian, not Roman history. The book of Hebrews lives up to its name. It was written by a Hebrew to persons of Hebrew descent who were well acquainted with their Scriptures.
Other New Testament writers concern themselves with Israel and with Jewish matters. James addressed “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). Peter addressed “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered.…” (1 Peter 1:1).
Jude, in his brief letter, speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah, Michael the archangel, Moses, Cain, Balaam and Korah. These references would be baffling to anyone lacking knowledge of the Torah.
In the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, we see God’s continual care for his people Israel. It is written that the tribes of Israel will one day be revived and identified (Revelation 7) and that a glorious New Jerusalem will have twelve gates inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel (21:9-27).
Is the New Testament anti-Semitic?
Some attention must be given to what many mistakenly consider anti-Semitic overtones in the New Testament. John’s gospel often refers to Jewish opposition to Jesus, but this is mainly conflict between Jews who accept Jesus’ claims of messiahship and those who don’t. In John 7:12-13, a dispute among the people is described, with some saying, “He is a good man,” and others saying, “No, he deceives the people.” But “no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.” The term the Jews, in context, is often used to represent the coalition of the Jewish leadership. Not only that, but it becomes obvious that Jesus was so popular with the Jewish people that his opposers had to operate in secret. The term the Jews, therefore, could not refer to the general populace.
John relates the story of a man blind from birth who was healed by Jesus. When Jewish leaders asked the man’s parents about their son’s healing, the parents feared to give a direct answer because, the story goes, they feared “the Jews” (John 9:22). Again, these were Jewish people who feared the Jewish opposition leadership.
The specific Jews who opposed Yeshua, and later opposed the apostles, were Jewish leaders who feared loss of their power as much as they feared increased oppression at the hands of Rome.
There may also have been among them sincere persons who were zealous for Judaism (Paul was one of them, before he accepted Yeshua) and who wanted to stamp out all that they perceived to be deviation from their faith.
A Jewish book worth reading
Yet Israel’s religious establishment did not understand the meaning of their own Scriptures. Jesus claimed that these leaders had emphasized their own interpretations to the point of obscuring the actual Hebrew Scriptures. His anger was not based on the Jewishness of these leaders but on their failure to be faithful to the Jewish Scriptures and the God of Israel. People who attended synagogue every Sabbath heard but understood little of the Scriptures that were read. The apostles studied for three years with Yeshua. It is said of him that, even at a young age, “everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and at his answers.”13
To the Sadducees who had come to him with a foolish question about the resurrection, Jesus said, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”14
Perhaps the Sadducees would have done well to heed the type of advice our modern-day rabbi gave to the inquisitive Abby: “Be informed. Read books by Jewish authors.”
In its authorship, content and focus there is hardly a book more Jewish than the New Testament. Would it not be worthy of reading?
- The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 8 (New York: Ktav, 1969), p. 174.
- Acts 3:1. All Scriptures are quoted from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984).
- Romans 11:1.
- Acts 23:6.
- Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament (New York: Ktav, 1974), p. 44.
- Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert (New Haven: Yale University, 1990), p. xiv.
- Sandmel, p. 90.
- The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 8, p. 174.
- David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (Tel Aviv: Mod, 1989), p. 11.
- Segal, p. xiv.
- Matthew 6:31-33.
- Matthew 10:5, 6.
- Luke 2:46, 47.
- Matthew 22:29.