The Jewishness of the New Testament
Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein was curious when he saw one of the teachers in his school reading a small book printed in German. When he asked about it the teacher handed it to him. Casually Rabbi Lichtenstein leafed through the pages until his gaze fell upon the name Jesus Christ. Realizing that the book was a New Testament, he sternly rebuked the teacher for having it in his possession and furiously cast it across the room. It fell behind some other books on a shelf and lay forgotten for nearly 30 years.
Some years later when intense anti-Jewish persecution broke out in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s native Hungary, he was not surprised that the attacks were carried out in the name of Christianity. Then, in the midst of the pogroms, he was startled by the writings of men who, in the name of Christ, sternly denounced the anti-Semites and defended the Jews. Among those writers were prominent figures such as the honored biblical scholar Franz Delitzsch, professor at the University of Leipzig. Rabbi Lichtenstein was further intrigued by statements that spoke of the message of Christ as one of love and life to all people.
At this time he found the little New Testament, flung in anger into a dusty corner years earlier. For the aging rabbi it had been a closed and hated book which he had regarded as the source of venom aimed at his people. Was it really what he had supposed? He opened its pages and began to read.
Later Rabbi Lichtenstein described the experience in Two Letters, or What I Really Wish:
I had thought the New Testament to be impure, a source of pride, of overweening selfishness, of hatred, of the worst kind of violence, but as I opened it, I felt myself peculiarly and wonderfully taken possession of. A sudden glory, a light, flashed through my soul. I looked for thorns and gathered roses; I discovered pearls instead of pebbles; instead of hatred, love; instead of vengeance, forgiveness; instead of bondage, freedom; instead of pride, humility, conciliation; instead of death, life, salvation, resurrection, heavenly treasure.”
A Closed Book
The story of Rabbi Lichtenstein epitomizes two poles of experience by Jewish people regarding the New Testament. For the majority, the New Testament is a closed and unfamiliar book identified with the age-long persecution of the Jewish people in the name of Christianity. Because most Jews believe that the New Testament promotes anti-Semitism, they think there could be nothing in it that could sustain Jewish life and values.
Thus, the common Jewish assessment of the New Testament is formed by a preconditioned impression. In many ways Jewish experience seems to support this assessment, and the majority of Jewish people do not feel inclined to verify it by investigating the New Testament itself.
Yet a growing number of Jews, like Rabbi Lichtenstein, have been prompted to investigate seriously what the New Testament actually contains. This writer is among them. We have come to recognize through careful investigation that the New Testament is something different than we had first supposed.
The Message is Jewish
The authorship and cultural background of the New Testament are Jewish. The beginning scenes are centered in the land of Israel at the time of the Second Temple. Even as the focus widens from the original setting, the action takes place primarily among Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The New Testament writers, with perhaps the exception of Luke, are all Jews. The early apostles and followers of Jesus are also Jewish.
Fulfillment of the Jewish Hope
The basic theme of the New Testament is uniquely Jewish: the fulfillment of the messianic hope. This expectation was peculiarly the possession of Israel. A passage early in the Gospel of Matthew portrays Gentile wise men recognizing that the promised deliverer is to be King of the Jews. In the early spreading of the good news that Messiah had come, it was only Jews and those Gentiles under the influence of Judaism who were prepared to receive and understand the message. The primary centers for the initial preaching of the message were the synagogues in the communities of the Diaspora.
In page after page of the New Testament, by direct quote, by free paraphrase and by allusion, there is one primary literary treasure that is invested with supreme authority: the Hebrew Scriptures. When Jesus or the New Testament preachers intone, “It is written,” or “Thus saith the Lord,” they rest upon Jewish Holy Writ as the final court of appeal. Jesus challenges the religious leaders with “Search the scriptures…they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). Peter proclaims to the Jewish throng, “Yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those who follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days” (Acts 3:24). The initial New Testament proclamations are laced with passages from Moses and the prophets, indicating that what is taking place is the fulfillment of the Jewish hope.
As we investigate the general content of the New Testament, if we are at all acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures we find ourselves in familiar territory. Angelic communications remind us of the experiences of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua and many other ancient Hebrews. Supernatural births recall the nativity of the patriarch Isaac. Miracles represent God’s confirming activity as he reveals himself, even as they did in the days of the patriarchs, Moses, the prophets and the kings of Israel. They are not capricious acts of arbitrary power, as in pagan mythology. Rather, they bear profound moral connections through which God trains his people in the ways of faith. Also, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is prophetic activity and inspired preaching when the Spirit of God enables men to speak his message. None of these occurrences is strange to the spiritual life and heritage of Israel.
The great themes of the New Testament are the same as those of the Hebrew Scriptures: God’s holiness, righteousness and mercy; man’s alienation and estrangement from God through disobedience; God’s seeking love, forgiveness and reconciliation. There are also the great themes of faith, sacrifice, redemption, hope, love, peace, joy, the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom and his judgment and reward. There is nothing presented in the former that is not unfolded in the latter. Only the perspective differs. In the Old Covenant the emphasis is upon promise; in the New Covenant the emphasis is upon fulfillment. One stresses preparation and the other consummation.
A Suffering Messiah
At this point some might object that there are non-Jewish themes central to the New Testament. Many contend that the idea of a suffering, dying and resurrected Messiah who is at the same time divine is alien to Jewish belief. It is supposedly traced to pagan Egyptian and Greek sources. In addition, it is alleged that the manner in which the New Testament traces the rise and spread of the messianic community remolds it into a Gentile phenomenon, ripping it from the Jewish context.
The ancient rabbis wrestled with evidence in the Tenach (Hebrew Scriptures) that Messiah was both to suffer and die and to reign as a triumphant and glorious king. Because of this problem, they developed the idea that there would be two messiahs—Ben Joseph who would suffer and die, and Ben David who would triumph and reign. In the Talmud (Sukkah 52, a and b) there is the suggestion that the passage in Zechariah 12:10 which speaks of a pierced one gave rise to this explanation.
The Jewish Musaf prayer service for the Day of Atonement contains an ancient section that refers to Messiah our Righteousness who is wounded for our transgressions. The concept of a suffering and dying Messiah is not strange to Jewish lore.
While the resurrection of the Messiah, as declared in the New Testament, seemed to take everyone by surprise, there are passages in Holy Writ which are seen as promising Messiah’s resurrection. Psalm 16:10 declares that God will not abandon his Holy One to the grave. Isaiah 53:10, 12 portrays the Lord as prolonging the days of the Suffering Servant and causing God’s good pleasure to prosper in his hand because he has willingly poured out his soul unto death.
There are passages in the prophetic writings that give evidence that the Messiah is to be divine. In Isaiah 9:6, the messianic King is called by the awesome names: “Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” In Jeremiah 23:6 the Righteous Branch to be raised to David is called “The Lord Our Righteousness.” In Micah 5:2, which announces Messiah’s birthplace, he is spoken of as coming from eternity. In Daniel 7:13-14, Messiah is seen coming in the clouds of heaven and receiving an eternal dominion over all peoples. Observing these and other passages, the rabbis who developed mystical lore, such as the Zohar, speculated that the Messiah was to be divine.
Though Jesus himself declared that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), he also declared that other sheep not of the Jewish fold would be added to the flock of the messianic Shepherd (John 10:16). This vision is not strange to Jewish expectation. God declared through Isaiah (49:6) that Messiah would be a light to the Gentiles, and his salvation would spread to the ends of the earth. Isaiah 60:1-3 proclaims that Gentiles shall come to the light that spreads from Israel through the Messiah.
We see then that the New Testament vision is not a Gentile aberration. Rather, it is the vision of the ancient Hebrew prophets who proclaimed that God would bring the Gentiles into the blessings of Israel through the Messiah.
In all of these ways, we Jews who have been prompted to investigate the New Testament carefully have come to recognize its basically Jewish character. But we have also discovered something else. Upon closer investigation, those passages which allegedly promote anti-Jewish sentiment are not really anti-Jewish at all.
There is conflict in the New Testament over the messianic claims of Jesus, but it is mainly conflict between Jews who accept those claims and Jews who do not. In other words, it is a family dispute. If we examine the ways in which the term “the Jews” is used, especially in the Gospel of John, as well as in other New Testament writings, we can see that it is often used to represent the coalition among the Jewish leadership that had purposed to oppose Jesus. In passages where this conflict is in view, the term refers to these opposing leaders. The New Testament reveals that Jesus was so popular with the common Jewish people that his opposers had to operate in secret. This clearly indicates that the term “the Jews” did not refer to the general populace.
Certain harsh statements pronounced by Jesus and the New Testament preachers are not vindictive but prophetic rebukes, in the same vein as the words of Isaiah when he calls Israel “a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters” (Isaiah 1:4). Though anti-Semites who professed to be Christians have used those seemingly harsh statements as a pretext to persecute Jews, they did so in contradiction to the express teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem and lamented her coming destruction at the hands of the Romans, which he announced prophetically (Matthew 23:37-39). He taught his followers to love those who opposed them and to pray for those who shamefully treated them (Matthew 5:43-44).
The writings of Paul are often cited to show the anti-Semitic nature of the New Testament. How can this be, in light of the fact that Paul taught Gentile believers at Rome that though many Jews opposed the gospel, they were loved by God for the sake of the forefathers (Romans 11:28)? Believers are not to be boastful or arrogant against the natural branches (the Jewish people), but they are to make them envious of the messianic blessings by showing them compassion and kindness (Romans 11:11-12, 17-18, 30-31). Jesus taught that only the merciful were to receive mercy, that only the forgiving could expect forgiveness and that love would be the hallmark of his true disciples.
Is It True?
We see nothing in the New Testament that is non-Jewish or anti-Jewish. To the contrary, it is interwoven with Jewish hope and prophetic promise. If one can accept the revelation of Moses and the prophets with utter seriousness, there should be nothing really strange in the New Testament. The real challenge of the New Testament, as we see it, is not about Jewishness, but about faith. It is not a question of “Is it Jewish?” We believe that careful investigation will verify its Jewishness. The real question is, “Is it true?” That is really a question of faith, and it holds a challenge for all people, Jewish and Gentile alike.
Revised from ISSUES Volume 1:3.