The New Testament: A Pro-Jewish Book

by Maurice Bowler M.A., B.D., M.Phil.

There are about 1,000 million people in the world who profess to be Christian and who therefore owe some allegiance to the teaching of the New Testament, which is the major source book for Christian thought. As the New Testament was written almost entirely by Jews and has as its central figure a Jew, it is also of great importance to Jewish people. But what is its significance for Jews? Is its influence beneficial or harmful? Does it encourage anti-Semitism? No scholar who wants to be taken seriously can say that anti-Semitism arose for the first time as a result of the emergence of Christianity. Jewish as well as Christian scholars have pointed to Pharaoh and Haman as pre-Christian enemies of the Jews who sought to wipe out the Jews when all Jews were in one political territory at the same time. Antiochus Epiphanes showed the same Judeophobia and many pagan classical writers were quite explicit in their antipathy towards the Jews. Later on in the Christian era there were Church fathers who were quite virulent in their attacks on the Jews, but many of them were also very hostile towards those they considered Christian heretics.

But if it can be shown from the New Testament itself that Christians should treat Jews with respect, and even love, then this book becomes an extremely valuable tool and weapon for the Jewish cause. It is true that the New Testament has been used by anti-Semites against the Jews, but this does not prove that the New Testament itself is hostile to the Jews. Unfortunately, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) has also been used against the Jews because certain statements, taken out of context, have appeared to be very critical of the Jewish people. Even the Talmud has been searched for damaging material. So the misuse of a book is not the final indication of its anti-Semitic character. This can only be assessed by examining the book itself to see whether its basic thrust is for or against the Jews. So we must concentrate on the New Testament itself and not on any construction placed on it in ancient or modern times.

Jewish. Very Jewish

No intelligent reader of the New Testament would say that the purpose for which it was written was to attack the Jews. It is a book of salvation that is concerned to present Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world. The four books which are the heart of the New Testament are called “Gospels”, from a word meaning “good news”, so their basic aim must be positive. The book of Acts records the moving out of the apostles into the wider Roman Empire with this message, and their epistles, or letters, continue the teaching with which they founded the churches. One letter ” ” the Epistle to the Hebrews ” ” is specifically addressed to Jews. The first Gospel begins with a Jewish genealogy, tracing the family of Jesus to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. All the New Testament books were written by Jews except the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the book of Acts. Even these two books are full of Jewish quotations and Jewish thought-forms. The New Testament makes it clear that the founding of the Christian religion and its promotion throughout the world was a Jewish operation at the start and during the vital formative years. The central figure of Christianity was, and is, a Jew: Jesus of Nazareth. The apostles he sent out into the world were all Jews. The basis of their message was the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, which was given to the Jewish people and preserved by them down through the centuries. The full Christian message was first proclaimed in Jerusalem at the Jewish pilgrim festival of Shavuot or Pentecost. The many thousand believers in those early days were all Jews; not peripheral, nominal Jews but Jews zealous enough to traverse the Roman world of that day to be at Jerusalem for a Jewish festival. The New Testament records that in a short time there were thousands of Hebrew Christians, including Jews “zealous for the Law”, temple priests and Pharisees and at least two members of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Even the leading persecutor of the Christians, authorised by the High Priest, and said by some to have been himself a member of the Sanhedrin, Saul of Tarsus, embraced Christianity.

Avraham avinu

Now some might think that this change of direction on the part of Saul and other former enemies of Christianity would have caused them to turn against their own people, attack them bitterly, and seek to ingratiate themselves with the Gentiles in order to win their support? These Jewish apostles certainly won Gentile support but they did it in a very novel way. They did it by condemning Gentile idolatry and immorality. They did it by calling on the Gentiles to repent of their corruption and put away all their pagan idolatries. They offered them the great privilege of becoming spiritual sons of Abraham. They held before them the great prospect of sitting down in God’s kingdom with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the Jewish people. They warned them not to be conceited in their attitude towards the Jewish people and told them not to forget that they had been grafted, contrary to nature, into the good Olive Tree of God’s people, which belonged by nature to the Jewish people. They presented to them a Saviour they said had come out of the tribe of Judah: a Saviour who told a Samaritan woman, “You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we [Jews] know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews”. They told the Gentiles that there was great advantage in being Jewish because it was to the Jews that the oracles of God were committed. The greatest compliment they could pay to Gentile beleivers was to tell them that they had been brought out of pagan darkness into a covenant relationship with the God of Israel and had been made fellow-citizens with the Jewish saints. And these Gentile hearers of the Jewish apostles came in their thousands, with great joy, to the feet of the Jewish Messiah.

I referred to this matter once when I was visiting an orthodox rabbi. I used the Hebrew expression “Avraham avinu”” ””Abraham our father”” ”and he tried to correct me. He said, “You should say, ” ˜Avraham avichem’ because Abraham is the father of the Jewish people and not your father”. I didn’t agree, and I told him so. I explained that because I believed in the God of Abraham, a God who could raise the dead and because I shared Abraham’s faith, I accepted the teaching of the New Testament, which tells me that this makes me a spiritual son of Abraham. But ben Avraham is not a good name for an anti-Semite. In fact, one leader of the former USSR told the ruler of one of the Russian satellites, “You have too many Abramovitches in your government!” He used the Russian term for “son of Abraham” as an insult because of his anti-Semitic prejudice. The New Testament uses it as a glorious title of honour, one I was proud to claim when the rabbi tried to deny it to me. Certainly I am from the nations outside Israel; but Abraham was sent to be a blessing to all nations and I am eternally grateful that this blessing has come into my life.

Look at Luke

Luke, who was a man of some standing in the Gentile world, an educated man, a physician, came completely under the influence of the Jewish culture, to the extent that scholars reading his two New Testament books find them full of Hebrew allusions and Semitic turns of phrase.

What is the purpose of Luke’s gospel? Does Luke make any clear statement about his aim in writing this gospel? Yes, he does. He addresses his book to a man he calls “Theophilus”, or “Lover of God”, and says he has made a careful study in preparation for his Gospel and intends that it should give a clear outline of the teachings and events which constitute the agreed basis of the Christian faith. His purpose throughout is to promote faith and help that faith to come to an understanding of itself. The central theme is Jesus and the salvation he came to impart. The writer Luke was a Gentile and might be expected to write differently from all the other New Testament writers who were Jews. He does, in fact, emphasise the childhood experiences of Jesus and the thoughts and conversations of women such as Mary and Elizabeth in a way that Matthew the Jew, for instance, does not. But as a faithful narrator he records the very Jewish sentiments of Mary’s hymn, which is often known as the Magnificat. Any sensitive and educated person reading this passage would tend to admire the very high tone of this piece of poetry. But it is so Jewish!

My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour…

He has helped his servant Israel,

In remembrance of His mercy

As He spoke to our fathers,

To Abraham and to his seed forever. (Luke 1:46-55)

Luke is leading his readers into an admiration of the Jewish people and their literary style. Why does he do this? He is not merely copying the Jewish Gospel writers, because they don’t have this passage. Luke must have sought out this poem. Did he record this material to boost the cultural image of the Jews? Why should he? He is apparently writing to a Gentile, with a specific didactic aim in view, so the favourable impression he is creating is a by-product, something fortuitous (if anything in the inspired Scriptures can be said to be fortuitous). What must be accepted, however, is that Luke is not out to vilify or denigrate the Jews. Any writer with this purpose would have censored this beautiful and moving passage, which gives such a favourable picture of Jewish literary culture and piety.

Paul ” ” setting the record straight

What about Luke’s mentor, the apostle Paul? Surely he was a sharp critic of the Jewish people, whose writings have been very severely dealt with by champions of the Jewish cause. Travers Herford, a Gentile champion of the Pharisees, said that Paul was ignorant of Pharisaism and had no real understanding of the Pharisees. But Paul lived in the first century, when the Pharisees were flourishing. But Travers Herford, the Gentile Unitarian, lived nineteen centuries after Paul and knew of them only from books. One leading Jewish scholar in England has even alleged that Paul was not a Jew at all. But Paul could put on record not only his earlier status as a Pharisee but that he came of Pharisaic stock. He could even claim to be of the tribe of Benjamin at a time when anyone could check out the genealogical records in the temple. What Jew today could do the same?

There are Cohanim and Leviim, Segals and Katzes and Kahanas and others whose names proclaim their priestly or Levitical descent; but there is now no unbroken written record of any genealogy of a living Jew going back to the time of the Second Temple except that of Jesus. Josephus records the destruction of the records by the Zealots in AD70 and from then on genealogical claims were based on what is called Hazakah, or Presumption, without any indisputable proof. Whatever else he was, whether we agree with his writings or not, Paul was a Jew.

Does the New Testament, which contains so much of Paul’s teaching, criticise the Jewish people? It certainly does, just as Moses did, just as the prophets did, just as the Talmud did, and just as The Jewish Chronicle does today. The Jews are a self-critical people who demand a high standard of themselves and are very severe on members of their own people who bring disgrace on the community. When I was doing research on the work of the outstanding Jewish philanthropist Claude Montefiore, I had to refer to his great efforts in the fight against the 19th century white slave trade. I wrote that Montefiore was concerned about an “unfortunate” Jewish involvement in this evil business. The Jewish professor who was supervising my work told me not to write “unfortunate” but to say “disgraceful” or some such word. As a Gentile I was very hesitant to seem over-critical, but the Jewish professor had no such scruples. And Paul could be just as forthright and critical of the unbelieving opposition of so many of his fellow-Jews in the First Century. But his response to their unbelief was not to call down fire from heaven on them. Rather, he said, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved”. He could even go so far as to say, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Epistle to the Romans 9:3-4). In being prepared to accept doom for himself rather than see his people perish Paul was echoing the words of Moses who would rather have himself blotted out than see his people destroyed. How did Paul teach his Roman readers to treat the Jews? He said, “They [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28). He tells his Gentile readers that, even though the Jews are enemies because of their opposition to the gospel, they should look beyond this enmity to the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, their forefathers, and be grateful for the great blessings they enjoy because of this people.

The saviour of Jewish identity

Paul changed his name, like most Jewish people in the world, who usually have Russian, German, Polish or other Gentile names in place of the Hebrew names of their forefathers. But Paul did not change his ethnic identity. He said of himself, after committing himself to Christ, “I am a Jew” (Acts 22:3). In saying this he was in line with rabbinic teaching which declares, in Sanhedrin 44a that Jewishness is indelible, even for initiates into other religions: “R[abbi]. Abba b[en]. Zabda said: Even though [the people] have sinned, they are [called] Israel. R[abbi] Abba said: Thus people say, a myrtle, though it stands among reeds, is still a myrtle, and it is still so called”.

But Paul did not accept that he had changed his religion. He said, “According to the Way, which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers” (Acts 24:14). He saw faith in Jesus Christ as the legitimate continuation of his ancestral faith. Did Paul do harm to the Jewish people? If you study the New Testament carefully, you will find that he actually saved the Jewish people! If it had not been for Paul’s actions there would be no Jewish people in existence today. In Acts 15 the believing Pharisees wanted all Gentile Christians to become full converts to Judaism. In verse 5 we read, “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed stood up, saying, ” ˜It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Law of Moses’ “. What would have happened to the ethnic Jews if all the Gentile beleivers had come into the Jewish community? What would happen to the fourteen million Jews of today if 1,000 million Gentiles suddenly came in to dilute the Jewish stock? Paul fought almost single-handedly to prevent that.

Although he was convinced that Gentile followers of Jesus were the spiritual brothers of Jewish believers, he did not believe that they should be asked to take up the yoke of the Jewish food laws and other ethnic and cultural features of Jewish identity. Nowadays, any rabbi would tell you the same thing and would say that Gentiles need only keep the Seven Commands of Noah. But in those days, when the tide of opinion demanded an all-or-nothing approach, Paul insisted on a spiritual, not an ethnic, identity for Gentile followers of Messiah to Christ. So when the vast tide of Gentile converts began to flood in, they were able to retain their ethnic identity, thus allowing the Jews to retain theirs. It wasn’t the Sanhedrin, or the believing priests, or Pharisees, or even James or the apostle Peter who preserved Jewish identity. First century Jews were not as opposed to receiving converts to Judaism as Jews are today. If Paul had not stood in the way, the Jewish establishment would have tried to swallow those thousands of Gentile believers, so long as they would accept Shabbat, kashrut and the rest of the written and oral laws. And Israel would have been completely incapable of absorbing the influx. Scattered by the Diaspora, swamped by the tide of Gentile converts, the Jews would have gone the way of the Incas and the Mayas. But they didn’t; Paul saved Israel’s identity and yet has never been appreciated by the people whose interests he served.

The Jews and Jesus

But what about Jesus, the person around whom the whole New Testament revolves? Was he opposed to the Jews? He was a Jew and still is a Jew, and it was he who said, “Salvation is of the Jews”, and who wept as he looked over the city of Jerusalem which he knew was soon to be devastated. But weren’t his enemies called “the Jews”? As all the first Christians were Jews, as Jesus was a Jew, and as the vast crowds that followed him were also Jews, this term must have a special meaning if it is to have any meaning at all. Recent scholarship suggests that the term has a sectional use to indicate Judean and, perhaps, establishment interests that were opposed to Jesus in a way that the common people, and especially the Galileans were not.

But don’t the four Gospels blame the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus? The Gospels make it clear that Roman soldiers carried out the execution but they also show that the initiative that prompted the action of the Roman authorities came from the Sanhedrin. The Gospels, however, are not alone in this assertion. The great medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides, or Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, in his code Hilkoth Melakim 11:1-4 says: “… the one [i.e. Jesus] who thought he would be Messiah … was slain by the Sanhedrin…”

I once asked a Jewish professor about this quotation and he looked it up in his copy of the original and he was surprised to read that Maimonides had actually used the title “Beth Din. Maimonides chose to identify himself with the Beth Din in their rejection of Jesus and, as he lived in a Muslim milieu, this would not have caused him any problems. But thousands of first-century Jews did not, and they accepted Jesus as their Messiah and Lord. They took advantage of those words of Jesus from the Cross, recorded in Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.

John and “the Jews”

But what about the controversial fourth Gospel? The use of the phrase “the Jews” in the Gospel of John has been used to stigmatise the book as being anti-Jewish. Although John uses the phrase “the Jews” several times as a general term, there are occasions when it is used specifically of the opponents of Jesus. One such occasion is recorded in John 2:13-20 where we read of Jesus casting out the money-changers and cattle dealers who were desecrating the Court of the Gentiles, where they were hindering non-Jewish worshippers from praying to the God of Israel. The people who challenged Jesus about this action and who were obviously incensed at his action are called “the Jews”. But in what sense were they “the Jews”? Why were they so angry about the correction of something which is described even in rabbinic sources as a scandal and a disgrace to the Second Temple? It seems fairly obvious that they represented the priestly authorities who were deriving benefit from this unlawful and sacrilegious trafficking in the Temple precincts. Jesus demanded a high standard of behaviour form those who used the Temple courts. Is this anti-Jewish? Surely it was in the best interests of the whole Jewish people that the national shrine should be treated with respect, especially in the one area where non-Jews could see how the Jewish people behaved in the House of the God of Israel. Jesus was not attacking the Jewish people” ”he was not even attacking the Jewish religion as if he were the first Reform Jew, as some people have seen him. He was defending the national shrine and the honour of the Jewish people. What he was attacking was the vested interests of the Jerusalem establishment” ”people who would see themselves as the Jews “par excellence”, the elite who would consider themselves guardians of the holy city, especially when dealing with out-of-town visitors with Galilean accents.

Common people

There is a term which reflects this elitist attitude towards those outside the charmed circle. The term is am ha’aretz. It means literally, “people of the land” and would seem to indicate an unlearned peasant type, although some Jewish scholars would see it as referring to a worldly and affluent boor who had no time for Jewish learning. It is reflected in the New Testament account of a phrase used by the Jewish establishment against the common people: “… this crowd that does not know the law is cursed” (John 7:49). Is this an unfair account in the New Testament? No” ”it is paralleled by the rabbinic statement that an ignorant man cannot be a pious man. And there are many other rabbinic comments about the am ha’aretz, comparing him to an animal and saying that he is worthy of death. This elitist attitude of a religious caste is a common fault throughout mankind, but the point I am making is that it was not absent from first-century Israel.

One of the great criticisms of Jesus was that he didn’t keep himself sufficiently aloof from ordinary people. In fact he even used a title which, although it had eschatological overtones, was also the title of an ordinary person: “Son of Man”” ”Ben Adam/Bar Enosh” ”a representative man, one who was identified with the people, who had no desire to be numbered with the elite who felt that the honour and prestige of the Jewish people rested on their shoulders. The famous interpreter of the Pharisees, Travers Herford, saw them in this light and he had the temerity to call Jesus an am ha’aretz, knowing that his Jewish and scholarly readers would see this as an insult to the Jesus he professed to follow. But in a remarkable way it is appropriate because Jesus, in a wonderful way, represented the people of the land, even to the point of being willing to die on their behalf.

A Pro-Jewish book

But it is ridiculous to call John’s Gospel an anti-Jewish book when it begins by saying that the Christian Saviour, seen as God, chose to become flesh as a Jew in Judea. Also, to tie him in with Jewish prophecy by establishing a link with John the Baptist, the last of the old prophets, would be pointless for anti-Jewish purposes when this Gospel was written. Many place the writing of this Gospel at the end of the first century when the Jewish Temple and priesthood and nation had been overthrown and the people scattered and discredited in the eyes of Imperial Rome. If John wrote his Gospel in Ephesus, in a Gentile milieu, as is usually held, why should he tie a new religion to an old and unpopular one? Why would he tell Gentiles that the Saviour he proclaimed considered that “salvation is from the Jews”?

The Jews of today have to decide what they are going to do about the New Testament. They can call it an anti-Semitic book and imply that all true Christians who want to live according to its teaching must necessarily become anti-Semites. This would give the world 1,000 million anti-Semites and would make America, Europe and the whole western world virtually uninhabitable for Jews. Or they could open their eyes to the basically positive New Testament attitude to the Jews and insist that all Christians everywhere live up to the principle that the Jews are, so far as Christians are concerned “beloved for the Fathers’ sakes”. I would like to end with a quotation from Thomas Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia, which I found in a book written by Rabbi Solomon Rappaport entitled “Jew & Gentile”. He quotes Masaryk as saying: “If I accept Jesus, I cannot be an anti-Semite. I can only be one or the other, Christian or anti-Semite”.

How true those words are; and how faithfully they reflect the message of the New Testament.

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