United Church of Christ

Dialogika Resources

Bearing Faithful Witness: A Study Paper


Preamble: Why this Paper?

  • Because many of us grew up thinking that Jesus had invented the Last Supper;
  • Because in our churches Jesus is rarely referred to as a Jew;
  • Because there is rising anti-Judaism, antisemitism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism in Canada and other countries in the name of Jesus Christ;
  • Because we are finally understanding that Christian denial of Jesus' Jewishness contributed to pogroms, the Holocaust, the refusal to admit refugees and other horrors against Jewish people;
  • Because a Jewish friend visiting in our churches could feel attacked by some of our Scriptures and interpretation of them;
  • Because there is little general knowledge of the context in which the Scriptures were written and edited, and Bible study is not a priority for most United Church adults;
  • Because our language and interpretation of Scripture has not kept pace with our evolving faith;
  • Because there is little reaction from the Christian community when synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are desecrated;
  • Because there is a growing interest in exploring other faith traditions, and Christianity has a special relationship with Judaism;
  • Because many of us make the erroneous assumption that, having read the Bible, we know much about Judaism, both historical and contemporary;

Therefore we believe it is time to throw open the questions:

  • Is our handling of the Bible consistent with the faith of Jesus?
  • Is our handling of the New Testament consciously reflective of Christianity's Jewish roots?
  • Do our Sunday morning services bear false witness against our Jewish neighbours today?


Why This Paper?

A Look at Scripture


A Look at Scripture

The Relationship of the Two Testaments:

It was important to the early Christians to see themselves as emerging from within an historical process that was ordained by God. Thus they could see themselves as new but also as authorized from the beginning (ie. as having a longstanding heritage).

The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews, as was Jesus himself. For them, "Scripture" referred to the Torah and prophetic works that are in our Old Testament (OT), along with other writings of Judaism that were treated as authoritative. Jesus did not write any book or letter that has been discovered, and presumably for Jesus the Jewish Scriptures were sufficient. Written works that did emerge within the early church were not intended to replace Scripture or even to be added to Scripture.

They sought to interpret the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection, his life and teachings, for the day-to-day struggles of the emerging church. Their authors searched the Scriptures to find interpretive clues that made sense of this death and of the frighteningly strange event of Easter. It was only in the 4th century C.E. that the church officially expanded the compass of Scripture to include Christian writings, concluding a process that began at the end of the 2nd century C.E. From the beginning of Christianity, then, Jewish Scripture provided the natural interpretive vehicle for understanding God's intentions and acts; Jesus himself led the way in using these writings. The plan of God for Christianity was understood and affirmed as longstanding. The emerging Christian writings could focus on explaining the new things that God was doing in Christ.

Torah, Written and Oral Torah, the Mishnah, and the Talmud
The word, 'Torah', has two important meanings. Most widely, it can refer to all the teachings of Judaism; it is a legal and ethical system, a way of life, a covenant relationship, given in a narrative account, beginning with creation. More strictly, Torah refers to the first five books of the Jewish Bible, the so-called Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy as Christians name them. In these five books, the prescriptive content ("halachah" or law) is embedded within a narrative context ("aggadah") that illustrates how God and the people put the law into practice. The whole content of these books is Torah, not just the 613 laws that have been identified within them. It is not correct to say that 'Torah' is equivalent to 'law'.

The Books of Moses make up the written Torah, understood as that which was given to Moses to be written down as directed by God. The foundation of the Oral Torah is everything that God and Moses talked about while they were together for forty days on Mount Sinai. The story has it that Rabbinic teaching through the ages has simply uncovered these conversations and collected them in the Mishnah and the Talmud and in the ongoing living expansion of teaching to this day. The Mishnah gathers together teaching of the Sages concerning the Books of Moses. The Talmud includes the Mishnah and adds commentary, clarification and discussion about the Mishnah. There are two Talmuds, the Jerusalem and the Babylonian, the latter being completed by the sixth century C.E. The Babylonian Talmud is an encyclopedic compilation of the Oral Torah and is the most authoritative source for Jewish scholarship and halachah. Normative Judaism requires an intimate knowledge of the Oral Torah as a basis for understanding the Written Torah.

Over time, especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., friction grew between Christian groups and other Jews. John's Gospel reflects the bitterness of this internal struggle. Increasingly new Christian members had a non-Jewish background. Christianity changed from being a sect within Judaism to become an independent faith. The newness of Christianity was accepted as obvious. The importance of its rootedness in Judaism seemed unnecessary. To some, the Jewish texts were quite alien. Marcion's canon, for example, ca. 145 C.E., excluded the OT, and Marcion argued that Jewish and Christian writings spoke of different gods. The church rejected these ideas. Marcionism was declared a heresy. Christianity's place within the longstanding intention and action of God was again affirmed using Jewish history and Jewish texts. Even so, the passage of time and the great evangelistic success of Christianity continued to give the faith its own increasing, independent authority. Christianity had not invalidated all things Jewish. Nevertheless there was room for thinking that the new had superseded the old and that the promises of God had passed from the Jewish faith community to that of the Christians.

The Noahide Covenant
"Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not deny salvation to those outside its fold. According to Jewish law, all non-Jews who observe the Noahide laws will participate in salvation and in the rewards of the world to come." (H. Revel, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (N.Y., 1939-43), Vol. VIII, pp.227-8) The Noahide laws derive from the covenant that God made with Noah (Gen. 8:15 -9:17), a covenant that is thought by Jews to be universal in application. It requires seven things of everyone: not to worship idols, not to blaspheme God, not to kill, not to rob, not to commit adultery, not to eat flesh cut from a living animal, and to be people of law, establishing courts of justice. In this way, Judaism has always affirmed that God has a place in salvation for others: they come under the Noahide covenant. The Mosaic covenant to which the Jew adheres is simply more demanding. It is a different covenant. Both covenants serve the mysterious purposes of God for the betterment of the world in their own ways. Judaism has never had a dictum to parallel the one that the Church affirmed for centuries (now rejected): "outside the Church there is no salvation". The view was put forward within the house of R Shammai that the "goy" (non-Jews) would be cast into utter darkness, but this isolated opinion was never accepted.

Jewish Scriptures, being retained,could be interpreted in ways that supported Christian ideas. For example, the church used the "new covenant" idea in Jeremiah 31, not only for interpreting God's action in and through Jesus (the one who inaugurates a new covenant written on the heart), but also for organizing the Scriptures themselves into "old" and "new" testaments (literally, "covenants"). Again, the "Servant Songs" of Deutero-Isaiah were used to show that, contrary to Jewish expectations, since the suffering of the servant was preordained by God, the execution of Jesus did not invalidate his claims to Messiahship. The search for the right relationship between Jesus' teaching and Torah invariably drew on scriptural authority, no matter how that relationship was finally seen. Consider the sayings of Jesus about the Sabbath in Matthew 12:1-8: Matthew claims that Jesus retains the law and correctly reinterprets it rather than setting it aside; he quotes Hosea 6:6 as God's support for Jesus' view ("I desire compassion and not sacrifice"; cf. also Mt. 9:13); consistent with Mt. 5:17, Jesus is presented as a Torah-respecting and Torah-observing Jew, fulfilling the law through a true reinterpretation of it Retaining the authority of Jewish Scripture is a necessary part of Matthew's interpretation of Jesus.

The "Servant Songs" of Isaiah
Four passages in Isaiah are known as "the Servant Songs": 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13 - 53:12. The author refers elsewhere to the whole of Israel as a servant (e.g. 41:8, 42:9, etc.), but the servant of the "Songs" seems to be different. The passages could be speaking about an individual. They speak uniquely about the transformative power of suffering. Did Jesus understand his calling with reference to these passages? From early times the church interpreted Jesus' work in terms of them. Even though in Isaiah the servant is never called "messiah" (and Cyrus who is called "messiah" is not called "servant", 45:1-7), these passages were used to support the claim that Jesus was the Messiah awaited by the Jews.

  • Remembering that these passages are within Jewish Scripture and that the idea that they refer to Jesus of Nazareth is rejected by Jews, how do you think a Jew interprets them?
  • Can we affirm truth in both the Jewish and Christian interpretations, or can only one be true?

The most prominent way of using Jewish Scripture texts within Christian writings involved a promise-and-fulfillment motif. This motif also came to be the primary one for characterizing the relationship between the testaments themselves. Christian writers claimed that the Jewish Scripture texts presented promises that Jesus and Christianity fulfilled. This view was and is an interpretation of the Jewish texts.

Jesus and the Torah
All indications in the NT would suggest that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew. He kept the Sabbath (Luke 4:16), he fasted (Matt. 6:16), possibly he wore fringes (Mark 6:56) and phylacteries (Matt. 23:5), he affirmed Torah as needful (Luke 16:17; Matt. 5:17), and so on. Eating with sinners did not violate Torah nor cause ritual impurity; it did not make a person a sinner. If Christians are guided by an approach to spirituality that seeks to imitate Jesus and to value what Jesus would have valued, then understanding Torah must become an important undertaking for Christians, perhaps the most important biblical study. Believing that Jesus affirmed Torah would alter our interpretation of many of his teachings.

In the application of Torah, Jesus quite often makes a more rigorous demand than, on the face of it, Torah itself would seem to be making. Jesus stands within a particular Jewish tradition that would fulfill the law by going beyond its specific requirements. Jesus is confirming the Torah and its importance while at the same time, insisting upon the centrality of love, mercy and generosity. Even in this emphasis on love, Jesus is not unique (Deut. 6:4; Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:29-34, note that the scribe agrees).

1) It is not the only interpretation that is possible, credible and defendable. Many other groups within Judaism at the time also made claims to know and "fulfill" the plan and intention of God. They used the (Jewish) Scriptures to support their positions. Rabbinic scholars today continue to base their faith understanding on these Scriptures without reference to Christ as an interpretive guide.

2) It is not obvious that God's promises to the Jews need fulfillment beyond that which is given in the Jewish texts themselves. Promises to give children, generations, land, and a great heritage are all fulfilled; only the end-time (eschatological) promises of communal peace with justice and of international reconciliation are not accomplished, but neither are they fulfilled in Christianity.

3) If the Jewish testament needs "fulfillment", it is not obvious that the Christian writings properly or best accomplish this. The Jewish testament, on different interpretations, leads to the Talmuds, the Christian writings, and the Qur'an. It must be emphasized that all of these are interpretive extensions.

Promise and Fulfillment
In the birth stories of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (ch. 1-2), several times we are told that something happens "to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet". Understanding ‘fulfillment’ here as recapitulation and confirmation accords very well with the writer’s purposes: Jesus relives the history of his people. That history is remembered, re-presented, and re-affirmed in Jesus own life; Jesus is shown to be immersed in and very much a part of the experiences that have shaped Judaism. Matthew does not intend that the earlier events are to be understood as foretellings of what would happen to Jesus. Those events stand in their own right as complete happenings. But just as they are formative events of his people Israel, they are formative for Jesus too. The people were called out of Egypt by God’s grace; Jesus relived it (2:15). The people experienced the innocent suffering and death that accompanied exile; Jesus relived it (2:17-18). The people in time of hardship were told that events were already happening amongst them that would lead to deliverance; Jesus relived it (1:22-23). The past is full and complete. Jesus comes to it and it fills him full, too. He confirms his history as he recapitulates it, and he is confirmed by it. In the same way, the promises of the Old Testament are also full and complete. In the life of Jesus they are confirmed and recapitulated by God. Their benefits and blessings are made more widely applicable. The new thing that is realized is the breadth of God’s loving embrace.

The situation is complicated by the variety ofways in which "promise-and-fulfillment" language can be understood. In II Corinthians 1:18ff, Paul states, "As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been 'Yes and No'. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, . . . was not 'Yes and No'; but in him it is always 'Yes'. For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes'." Paul is saying that God's promises have found their confirmation (cf. Romans 15:8). In being confirmed, the reach of benefits of the promises has been extended to the gentiles (Romans 11:25ff). This is not the simple coming-to-pass of that which was predicted. It is not prefiguration and subsequent recognition/identification. A new thing has happened that was both within the scope of the promises and not previously known to be so. The pattern is important: the story of Christ is understood in the light of the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, but it is not that those stories were deficient or incomplete in any way, or that Christ adds something that people were missing. Rather, the story of Christ recapitulates the Hebraic stories, catching up the promises of God and newly revealing the content that God always saw was in them. "Fulfillment", then, is about revealing Torah and the content of the covenant that has been from of old. It is totally inappropriate to understand "fulfillment" in any way that would include ideas of abrogation, supersession, displacement, substitution, etc. The word, 'fulfillment', is used in absolute wonder over a God who can do old-new things! Nothing is taken away; what was always there is revealed again, and made available more widely to gentiles.

Each New Testament writer uses the "promise-and-fulfillment" motif in some way or other. It is so central to New Testament thought that it cannot be ignored. But the purpose of the motif is to push us back into the texts that the followers of Jesus knew to be Scripture and to find language there that makes sense of Jesus' story. It was not to take us out of that Scripture and into new texts that had pretensions of becoming Scripture alongside the old texts. In time, to be sure, the church came to recognize Old and New Testaments (i.e. Covenants), and to believe that there were two covenants, and that the new superseded the old. But originally the church knew that there is really only one covenant, fulfilled, "irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29), renewed, because of which the gentile "too may now receive mercy" (Rom. 11:31) having been grafted onto the rich root of Israel (Rom. 11:17).

What books were authoritative for Jesus' community?
James Charlesworth states, "the books in the Old Testament are frequently cited as inspired and authoritative to the New Testament authors, but [this fact alone] fails to do justice to the other works cited as inspired by them". In a footnote at this point, Charlesworth adds, "the New Testament authors apparently quoted from (or alluded to the inspired or authoritative nature of) the Ascension of Isaiah (Heb. 11:37), Testament of Moses (Jude 9), Baruch (1 Cor. 10:20; Rev. 8:2), 1 Enoch (Luke 16:9, 21:28; John 5:22; Col. 2:3; Heb. 11:5; 1 Pet. 1:12; Jude 14-15; Rev. 5:11, 15:3, 17:14, 19:16), 3 Maccabees (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 14:10, 17:14, 19:16, 20:10, 21:8), 4 Maccabees (Matt. 22:32; Rom. 7:7), Psalms of Solomon (Matt. 6:26; Luke 11:21-22; John 1:14; Rev. 2:26-27, 21:24,26), many documents in the Old Testament Apocrypha, Aratus's Phaenomena 5 (Acts 17:28), Cleanthes (Acts 17:28), Epimenides de Oraculis (Titus 1:12), and Menander's Thais (1 Cor. 15:33)." See "What has the Old Testament to do with the New?" in James H. Charlesworth & Walter P. Weaver (eds.), The Old and the New Testaments: Their Relationship and the "Intertestamental" Literature, Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993, pp.55-56 & p.81, n.48. A wider literature was available to NT authors than we have been accustomed to considering, and this fact is significant. E.g. when Paul says "according to the Scriptures" in I Cor. 15:3-4, what exactly does he have in mind?


The Old Testament:

Today, Christians who want to move away from all appearance or suggestion of supersessionism, and who want to respect the sensitivities of people who see pejorative valuation in words like 'old' and 'new', are trying to find another way of referring to what we have traditionally called the "Old Testament". Without solving this problem, some suggestions and comments are offerred:

  1. Referring to the OT as the "Older Testament". The NT would become the "Newer Testament". 'Older' and 'newer' are comparative terms which imply a relationship with each other. They are not pejorative in the way that the absolute terms, 'old' and 'new', seem to be. (This way of naming retains standard short forms, OT = "Older Testament" and NT = "Newer Testament".)
  2. Referring to the OT as "First Testament": The NT would become the "Second Testament". Possibly the pejoratives and supersessionist tendencies that could attach themselves to an "old/new" designation would not apply to a "first/second" designation - but then again they might.
  3. Referring to the OT as "Hebrew Scriptures" or "Hebrew Testament": The word 'Hebrew', here, must be understood to refer to the original language of composition of the designated books. To be consistent and parallel, the NT would become the "Greek Scriptures" or "Greek Testament". These designations would be non-pejorative and accurate, and since they refer only to the language of original writing, nothing is implied that limits the authority, importance and application of the books so designated. However, the impression may be created for Christians that the word 'Hebrew' refers to the Hebrew people and that these texts have a lesser authority for those who are not Hebrews (i.e. not Jews); Christian readers and speakers would need to guard against this false impression. (For this reason as well, "Christian Scriptures" and "Christian Testament", referring to the NT, are quite misleadingly, implying as they do that the other Scriptures are of lesser or of no Christian import.)
  4. Referring to the OT as "Tanakh": Tanakh (or TaNaK) is the contemporary Jewish way of referring to the Jewish biblical texts as a whole. It is descriptive of the content and of the ordering of the collection, being an acronym formed from T (Torah), N (Nevi'im = Prophets) and K (Khethuvim = Writings). It has the advantage of being non-pejorative and accurate. It has the disadvantages of being a totally foreign designation for most Christians, and of having no obvious counterpart for referring to the NT. Whereas in Judaism this designation gives the ordering of the books, in Christianity the books of Prophets and Writings are ordered differently, being interspersed with each other.
  5. Using any of the above, a Christian reader or speaker could make it a practice to refer to the text, as much as possible, by naming the book (rather than the testament) in which the text is found.

The Order of books in the Jewish Bible:
(T) TORAH: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
(N) PROPHETS: Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
(K) WRITINGS: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles

How does this compare with the Table of Contents in your Bible? What do you think of the classification of I & II Kings, for example, as "prophetic"? What is so different about I & II Samuel and I & II Chronicles that they should be included in different classifications? Why is Daniel classified as a "writing" and not as "prophetic"?

The books of the Tanakh/OT are ordered differently by Jews and by Christians. The different ordering reflects important theological concerns. The Jewish order seeks to emphasize the canonical priority of Torah over all other Scripture. Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1, the first texts in the Prophets and Writings sections, respectively, stress the superior importance of the law and thus subordinate these sections to Torah. The Writings, ending with I and II Chronicles, stress the development of worship life and devotional practice in Judaism, and look forward to the true Jerusalem which will fulfill the hopes for a faithful kingdom. This ending affirms that continuing Jewish identity is located in the religious life of the people. The Christian order closes the OT with the prophetic promise and anticipation created by Zechariah/Malachi. It suggests that the Hebrew texts are all about the history of the promise of a Messiah, a promise that will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Problematic Passages:

In this paper, because we are concerned to help church members deal with anti-Judaisms in Scripture, far more space is devoted to the Second Testament texts than to those of the First. This in no way reflects a view about the relative importance of the texts. In fact, we note the suggestion of Paul van Buren that, as an interpretive guideline for the church's use of Scripture, the First Testament should actually be given priority over the Second: "in the NT, what does not fit the OT should be challenged." Use of such a principle could have saved the church from using anti-Jewish texts to construct a history of hatred toward Jews; applying it now may point a way out of the legacy formed from that hatred.

We need to know more about the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jews can help us learn. These texts are important for Judaism, and Jewish scholars through the centuries have devoted considerable effort to understanding them. It is our book too. We believe that we have been taken into the story of Israel. We are not outsiders. The story is not broken, though it has parts. Without this part of the story, we are not followers of Jesus. Jesus' people, the Jews, can help us.

The Septuagint is a translation from Hebrew into Greek of important Jewish texts. It was begun around 260 B.C.E. to serve Jews throughout the world who might have difficulty reading Hebrew. It also made Jewish texts accessible to non-Jews, and influenced a growing number of "God-fearers" who admired the ethics and teachings of Judaism (Acts 10:2,35;13:43). Legend has it that the translation was made independently by seventy translators (hence, 'septuagint'), and that their work, when compared, was found to be identical. The Septuagint is often designated by LXX.

When Jerome (d. 420 C.E.) translated the Bible into Latin, he used the Septuagint. Not all of the texts in that collection, however, had been included in Jewish Scripture when Jewish canonization took place between 75 and 130 C.E. Jerome's Vulgate contained more than the Jewish faith came to recognize as authoritative. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants accepted the authorized Jewish selection of texts in preference to the Septuagint selection. The extra texts in the Vulgate, accepted today as Scripture by Roman Catholics but not by Protestants, are known as the books of the Apocrypha.

When we turn to problem texts in the Hebrew Scriptures, we note that usually the problem is one of understanding the nature of God. These texts can be just as problematic for Jews as they are for Christians. For example, consider I Samuel 15. When God commands Saul to slaughter all the Amalekites, Saul allows Agag, the King, to live; Samuel, the prophet, acting for God, chastizes Saul and "hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal" (I Sam. 15:33). This passage marks the rejection of Saul and prepares for the emergence of David as King in Israel. The passage also remembers the unprovoked attack in the desert by the Amalekites on the vulnerable Israelite people (Exod. 17:8-16; I Sam. 15:2), and it holds the Amalekites to account for posing a genocidal threat. Kyle McCarter, (I Samuel, The Anchor Bible, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1980, p.269), wonders whether, given the language used, "Agag suffered a ritual death, . . . a punishment for covenant violation", presumably over a covenant that would have predated the desert attack (he notes "we have no knowledge" of such a covenant). From this, we might claim that we can see how this story fits into the flow of stories in the Bible. We can also see how it has functioned to warn Israel to be wary of genocidal threats and to help Jews think about what it means to retaliate in kind to such threats. What remains difficult for us is what this passage literally says about God's directive of vengeance. But this is difficult for Jews too. Jews have made the passage serve by coming to see genocide as a heinous crime for all involved, not just for its recipients but for its agents too. They have consciously rejected genocide accordingly. Maybe this is enough, in the wisdom of God, for the passage to help accomplish.

The Ineffable Name: A note about YHWH
This combination of four Hebrew consonants is the name of God (Exod. 3:14; called the "tetragrammaton" meaning "four-lettered name"). It is not to be said under any circumstances today by Jews. How exactly it is to be pronounced is not known anymore. In pointed Hebrew texts (i.e. ones to which vowels have been added), the vowels of 'Adonai' (= 'Lord') have been included with these consonants in order to remind the Jewish reader to say "Adonai" in preference to anything else. From this combination of consonants and vowels, Christians have produced 'Jehovah' as a divine name. Many English translations still follow the King James Version in rendering YHWH by "the LORD" (i.e. with all letters capitalized), thus allowing English Bible readers to know when the four consonants appear and also to respect their special sacredness. Increasingly today Christians are using the word, 'Yahweh', and even pretending to know that this formulation from YHWH is the correct one. It cannot be known whether it is correct. Whether correct or not, Jews believe that to use it is disrespectful and disobedient to God. Be that as it may, if we respect Jews, both 'Jehovah' and 'Yahweh' should be avoided. Even in Jesus' time, YHWH was only pronounced once a year on the Day of Atonement within the Most Holy place. Jesus probably never said the name. Today, without the Temple, it is not pronounced at all.

A different "god of wrath"
from the Christian "God of love"?

Consider the following quotation from Jewish scholar Claude Montefiore's 1909 commentary, The Synoptic Gospels (rev. 1927). It is cited from James Parkes, Prelude To Dialogue (New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp.170-72). Parkes says, "Examining a description of the Day of Judgement put into the mouth of Jesus, and particularly the verse, 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels' [Matt. 25:41], [Montefiore] wrote:
Such passages as Matt. xxv,41 should make theologians excessively careful of drawing beloved contrasts between Old Testament and New. We find even the liberal theologian, Dr. Fosdick, saying: "From Sinai to Calvary - was ever a record of progressive revelation more plain or more convincing? The development begins with Jehovah disclosed in a thunderstorm on a desert mountain, and it ends with Christ saying 'God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and truth'; it begins with a war-god leading his partisans to victory, and it ends with men saying 'God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him'; it begins with a provincial deity loving his tribe and hating its enemies, and it ends with the God of the whole earth worshipped by 'a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues'; it begins with a God who commands the slaying of the Amalekites, 'both man and woman, infant and suckling', and it ends with a Father whose will it is that not 'one of these little ones should perish'; it begins with God's people standing afar off from His lightnings and praying that He might not speak to them lest they die, and it ends with men going into their inner chambers and, having shut the door, praying to their Father who is in secret" (Christianity and Progress, 1922, p.209). Very good. No doubt such a series can be arranged. Let me now arrange a similar series. "From Old Testament to New Testament - was ever a record of retrogression more plain or more convincing? It begins with 'Have I any pleasure at all in the death of him that dieth?'; it ends with 'Begone from me, ye doers of wickedness.' It begins with 'The Lord is slow to anger and plenteous in mercy'; it ends with 'Fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in gehenna.' It begins with 'I dwell with him that is of a contrite spirit to revive it'; it ends with 'Narrow is the way which leads to life, and few there be who find it.' It begins with 'I will not contend forever; I will not be always wrath'; it ends with 'Depart, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire.' It begins with 'Should not I have pity upon Nineveh, that great city?'; it ends with 'It will be more endurable for Sodom on the day of Judgement than for that town.' It begins with 'The Lord is good to all, and near to all who call upon Him'; it ends with 'Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, there is no forgiveness for him whether in this world or the next.' It begins with 'The Lord will wipe away tears from off all faces; He will destroy death forever'; it ends with 'They will throw them into the furnace of fire; there is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.'" And the one series would be as misleading as the other."

When Rabbi Gunther Plaut (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, pp.416-17) looks at the repeated hardening of Pharaoh's heart (Exod. 4:21 to 11:10; 14:17), he acknowledges the problem of Pharaoh's apparent lack of freedom. He tells us, "The Midrash asks, 'Does this not afford an opening to heretics?'", i.e. by bringing God into disrepute. This is a serious problem for Jews, just as it is for Christians. Plaut notes the easy solution that "God merely informs Moses of what God knows is bound to happen"; he leaves this statement for those who will be satisfied by it, but he does not accept it himself. He states that the will of God is "pivotal to the story, . . . all explanations attempting to 'absolve' God will remain forced." But he also states his firm conviction that "Free will is never at issue, for to deny man his ability to make moral decisions would be wholly at variance with all biblical thought." What then can we finally say about God's action here in hardening Pharaoh's heart? The story presents repeated occasions for showing God's glory and reinforcing God's redemptive power. Plaut suggests the story is "not concerned with theological contradictions", but only with making God's faithfulness to declared promises abundantly clear to everyone, especially to the people of Israel. "God's freedom prevails over [human freedom]." Does this "solve" the problem? Probably not. Christian interpreters have had no easier time coming up with a solution. For Jews and Christians alike, God remains God, both with us and beyond us. (Maimonides in the 12th century noted that between the fourth and fifth plagues Pharaoh ceases to harden his own heart (Exod. 8:32) and God takes over (Exod. 9:12). According to Maimonides the loss of free will becomes part of the punishment and not the crime. But already at Exod. 4:21, God is intent on hardening Pharaoh's heart and is resolute about how the drama will unfold. Maimonides' suggestion did not end the search for understanding.)

We note the discomfort of Jews over the harsh treatment of Egypt in this story in spite of the claim that Egypt only received her due punishment. Despite all the oracles against the nations, calling for judgement for crimes committed, Isaiah's vision of redemption in the day of the Lord embraces the greatest of Israel's enemies, past (Egypt) and present (Assyria). "In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, 'Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage." (Isa. 19:24-25)

Often, Jewish reflection on problem texts provides very helpful assistance for coming to terms with them. Jewish faithfulness to God, whether or not there is understanding, can be a marvellous example for Christians. We remember Elie Wiesel's story from the death camps about Jewish inmates putting God on trial for what was happening there, finding God guilty, and then joining in the daily prayers. There is not rejection of God here, but there certainly is questioning.


The New Testament:

Some scholars have claimed that the theological antisemitism of the church has no basis in the New Testament itself. Others have tried to prove the exact opposite. The debate between these opposing standpoints is not resolved. Both sides agree that the church has used conflict between Jesus and his followers and the Jewish leaders of the time to form its language and to justify its historical anti-Judaism.

In the section that follows (and indeed throughout this paper), a fundamental guideline for us is that we intend neither to censure biblical authors nor to censor biblical texts. Rather, we seek to identify anti-Judaic moments in the text and, through encouraging contextual understanding, to move Church members toward a more respectful and informed exposition of the Bible. We note the comment of William Nicholls that "on the very central issue of the relationship of Jesus and Judaism, all but the most recent New Testament scholarship is out of date" (Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, Norvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993, p.10). This comment provides a warning and an encouragement to all Christians to investigate the new scholarship.

By the same token, it is not our intent to deny Jewish animosity toward the Jesus movement. Paul says, "Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received stoning." (II Cor. 11:24-25) The anger of particular Jewish individuals and communities toward the followers of Jesus must have been real and intense. It is not unlikely that some followers died at the hands of some Jews (e.g. Acts 7:58,60). In no way, however, does this justify hatred or balance the scales of injustice. To indulge ourselves in vengeance against Jews blocks Christians both from understanding our own texts and from following Jesus who would have us respond to opposition with love.
Back to Content

The Gospel according to Matthew

Matthew is so deeply rooted in Judaism that the author has been called a "Christian Pharisee". Some scholars believe that his Jewish-Christian community is in conflict of interpretation with other Jewish groups, possibly strongly led by Pharisees. Having refused to participate in the disasterous war with Rome (66-73 C.E.) and angry toward those responsible for it, Matthew's community believes it possesses interpretive insights that are superior to those of other Jewish survivors. The author's major concern seems to be: what is the correct interpretation of Jewish teaching and tradition? He believes that Jesus is the right interpreter, authorized by God, and that in Jesus the promises of the Jewish Scriptures are fulfilled.

Problematic Passages:

According to Matthew, Jesus is sent to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:6). If we took this seriously as one interpretive key for the Gospel, then it might alter our understanding of some of the texts. Consider, for example, the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16). One interpretation would see the Jews, represented by the workers hired first, as grumbling about getting the same reward as the gentiles, represented by the workers hired later in the day. But if Jesus' concern really is for "the lost sheep of the house of Israel", then the workers hired early might better represent Jews who readily see the importance of devotion to Torah, and the workers hired late as those who come late to this awareness. The point might be the same: neither group is condemned or cut off by the householder who represents God; both are drawn into God's loving bounty. But the text is no longer seen as being against Jews per se.

An Eye for an Eye
(Exodus 21:23-25) How often have we heard Christians say that "The Jewish God calls for revenge: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!"
Many of us have interpreted "an eye for an eye" as meaning God wants us to knock out someone's eye if that person is responsible for knocking our eye out. The passage actually means "don't kill him if he knocks out your eye. You can't take any more than his one eye." It is preventative. It puts a ceiling on revenge. If an injured person can be more gracious than this, so much the better. This law was prescribed during the tribal era when extended families were responsible for maintaining just relations between themselves. No more hurt could be exacted in penalty than had been suffered. People were not to be vengeful; they were not to allow conflicts to escalate. Over time, the Rabbis came to interpret this directive as referring to monetary compensation.
Jesus understands the Exodus passage very well. When discussing it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5:38-42), he encourages us to lower the ceilings of retribution that we seek. "Do not resist evil." "Turn the other cheek." Jesus knows that God alone claims the right of vengeance (Deut. 32:35), does not give it to others (nor to us), and exercises it with forgiveness and extreme restraint.
In the Tanakh, there are many, many passages emphasizing the compassion and love of God. It is curious that this "eye" passage is so often quoted; it even has its own name: lex talionis (literally, the law of retaliation). What does it mean that Christians are so hung up on it?

Is Jesus the Messiah?
We believe that the right answer is: for Jews, no; for many Christians, yes. Explaining how it can be so has been problematic.

There is a considerable variation of opinion about what would identify and verify the coming of the Messiah in Judaism. For most Jews, "Messiah" means a human figure who will start to bring in the reign of God. For many, a double transformation will provide evidence of this coming: there will be a new world order and a new natural order; peace will prevail (see Isaiah 65:17-25; also 11:7). There have been many messianic claimants before and after the time of Jesus. When they died without bringing the expected changes to the world, their claims were dismissed. Jesus fits into this category. He could not and cannot be the Messiah of Jewish expectation because the world did not change. The Romans knew the political implications of messianic fervour and undoubtedly considered all messianic claimants to be revolutionary insurgents. They probably killed Jesus simply to be rid of him. Crucifixion was Rome's designated mode of death for such people. The inscription on the cross, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", probably gives the reason for the execution as well as expressing Pilate's derision toward Jesus.

'Mashiach' (in English, 'messiah') is the Hebrew word for "the anointed". It is a title or designation like "king". In the New Testament it is transliterated only twice (John 1:41 and 4:25). The word 'christos' (i.e. 'Christ') is used instead, and it always refers to Jesus. 'Christos' is not a title. In the whole history of the church, only in our century have some theologians begun to speak of "Christ" as a title. In Paul's letters, the word 'kurios' (i.e. 'Lord') is his title for Jesus. He uses 'Christ' in the manner of a name, either alone or in combination with 'Jesus' (as in "Christ Jesus" or "Jesus Christ"). He never uses "Jesus the Christ". The significance of this is that the words 'mashiach' and 'christos', although being counterparts for each other, already function differently as we move from the OT to the NT. It is not surprising that the ideas they express came to be different as well. In spite of this, some modern translations of the NT into English have rendered the Greek word 'christos' as "Messiah". This creates confusion by implying that the Christian concept is the same as the Jewish one, and this is not at all clear.

For Christians, the word 'Christ' has taken on new and cosmic meanings that do not attach to 'mashiach'. Jesus is the risen Christ of Christian faith. The transformation that he effected is spiritual. It is amongst us. It is revelatory of the being, nature and intention of God, of the compass of God's grace and the mode of God's acting to achieve God's purposes. "Christ died for our sins" (I Cor. 15:3), something that a Jewish Messiah does not do nor need to do. Christ has brought gentiles into covenant with the God of Israel and thereby effected a transformation in understanding and in reality that is monumental. In this sense, Christians speak of Jesus as "the Messiah", and look forward to the accomplishment, through Christ, of the other transformations on earth that Jews, as well, expect. With these qualifications, neither Jewish denial nor Christian affirmation of the messiahship of Jesus invalidates the other.

Did Jesus think of himself as Messiah? Probably not. Mark's treatment of the discussion at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-33; followed by Luke, see 9:18-22) could be understood as Jesus' horrified denial of messianic claims and directive to the disciples not to promote such an idea. It could only lead to his death. Matthew expands this discussion to explicitly include an affirmation by Jesus of messiahship (Matt. 16:13-23). Of course, the texts we consult here are Christian post-resurrection texts that serve the interests of the church. To use them to go behind the church's affirmation of Christ, seeking to discern the mind of Jesus, is perhaps expecting too much. It makes sense, however, given Jesus' Jewishness, to imagine that he thought of himself as a prophet but not as Messiah. He would know the diverse meanings of 'mashiach' and know that this was not what he was about. Perhaps the disciples interpreted Jesus' life in the way that they did because he died under the charge of messianic pretensions and was vindicated in all things by being raised by God. Perhaps they thought that God was doing more than even Jesus knew, that Jesus had been the Messiah in quite unexpected ways.

Towards the end of Matthew's Gospel bitterness against Pharisees and other Jews seems to heighten. While Jesus is said to approve of the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees (23:2-3), immediately afterward he accuses them harshly in a very generalizing way for their practices (23:13-35). But perhaps it is some group of them and not all Pharisees nor all Jews who are criticized. To see Jesus' critique as internal to Judaism, one Jew to others, changes our understanding of particular texts. Jesus, then, is very critical of those in the Jewish community who are invited guests but do not come to God's banquet (22:1-13), i.e. they do not want to associate with the "lost sheep". Jesus is very critical of those without an active compassion for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, those in prison, and so on (25:31ff). Even the parable of "the wicked tenants" takes on a different slant (21:33-43): following Isaiah 5:1-7, the vineyard is probably the whole of Judaism and the tenants are the Romans or the Roman-collaborating Jews; the tenants probably do not personify Judaism nor the vineyard the gentile church. We must be very careful with these texts because we live in a time when Christians do not have the Jewish background that Matthew presupposes.

In the Sermon on the Mount Matthew shows his mastery of Jewish thought and Scripture (chapters 5-7). When one considers that Jesus' audience would have been Jewish, references to Jewish symbols (light of the world, salt of the earth) and interpretation of Torah (5:17-19) would not be a problem. Elsewhere, too, Matthew's criticism of Jewish leadership uses Jewish images (e.g. 9:36; compare Ezekiel 34, Jeremiah 23:1-14, Zechariah 10:2-3). Debate internal to Judaism is healthy ("you have heard it said and I say . . . "). Matthew wants his community to be better at being faithful Jews than those that surround them (6:3,6,9,17). This is not a concern that gentiles be better than Jews. However, once the Sermon on the Mount is taken to be an address to Christians, these very Jewish symbols and Scriptures give the Sermon an air of being confrontational toward Judaism. We must remember that Matthew's (and Jesus') concern is for community faithfulness. The teaching to "love your enemies" is startling, unique, important, consistent with Jesus' understanding of God, and expressive of that faithfulness. In fact, "love for the enemy" is another major interpretive key to the Matthean community's understanding of Jesus' teaching. This, together with its expectation of final (apocalyptic) vindication by God, led the community to be nonviolent and to oppose war with Rome, a stance that set it at odds with other Jews. (Note that Jesus is represented as setting "love your enemies" beside the statement, "you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy". This latter statement nowhere appears in Torah and has not been recommended by Jews. It is not being recommended by Jesus here either and should not be done. Quite possibly, the "wedding garment" that even some of the people of the streets lack as they come to the great banquet is this clothing of love for the enemy, cf. Mt. 22:1-14; it is that important.)

Matthew's treatment of the passion story provides the highest potential for anti-Judaism in the whole of his Gospel. The Jewish high priests and elders conspire to have Jesus killed (26:3-4,47,57-68; 27:1,20-25; note however that the Pharisees are not included!). Pilate is portrayed as being weak and almost in sympathy with Jesus. Pilate washes his hands, a Jewish symbolic act, to declare his innocence (27:24). Blame is shifted to the Jewish crowd, the Jewish people. They shout, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (27:25) This horrible saying, undoubtedly a creation of the writer, repeated in thousands of Christian passion plays, sermons and anti-Judaic propaganda throughout history, has been used to justify the murder of countless Jewish men, women and children. In all probability, it was an attempt to make some sense out of the overwhelming devastation that had already befallen Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Jewish people in the Roman war; it was not intended to apply to future generations of Jews as an open-ended curse.

It is hard to imagine that Jews, who hated the Romans and the cruel Roman punishment of crucifixion, would mock one of their own hanging in agony on a cross. We are told that the high priests and elders did this (27:41). Their antagonism is said to have continued even after the resurrection (28:11-15). Perhaps Matthew told the story in this way out of anger over leadership that he perceived as misguided; he hoped that more Jews would adopt his interpretation of events. He was deeply committed to his vision of a renewed Judaism through Jesus. He would be surprised and hurt by the anti-Judaic sentiment inspired by his Gospel. He stresses the importance of forgiveness, of living by an honourable code, and of love even for the enemy (5:21-26; 18:10-35).

Back to Contents

2. The Gospel according to Mark

Most scholars (not all) believe that Mark's Gospel was the first of the canonical gospels to be written. Matthew and Luke probably used Mark as a source in formulating their Gospels. Mark does not know the Jewish Scriptures as well as Matthew; he makes some mistakes in attributing passages to the prophets, for example. In the main, Matthew and Luke follow Mark's chronology and itinerary for Jesus' movements; the odd twists and turns of Jesus' travels suggest that no one really knows the correct chronology of events for Jesus' life. Mark's Gospel is important in shaping the literary form of story telling known as "gospel". He presents Jesus as a courageous and charismatic "son of man", a purposely elusive way of referring to Jesus' humanity (as in Ezekiel 2:1) while suggesting more than humanity (as in Daniel 7:13). Jesus' importance is recognized by metaphysical beings and guessed at by humans. Mark's Gospel as a whole presents "the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God", and leaves it to Jesus' followers to become the next part of the story with the same courage, charisma, and awareness of the new age that Jesus showed.

Problematic Passages:

There are different ways of reading Mark's Gospel. In The United Church of Canada, we tend to downplay references to the demonic. We think that the "unforgivable sin" (3:28-30) cannot be clearly identified. We believe that the opposition to Jesus serves as a foil to raise the question for us, "how strong is our commitment, how courageous our discipleship?"

Another way of reading Mark, one that has a more anti-Judaic tone and history, would begin by noting that in Mark's Gospel history is divided. The old age, ruled by Satan and demons is invaded by Jesus, who announces the new age, the kingdom of God. The Jews and especially their leaders seem to belong to the old age and are therefore under the influence of demons.

The stories of Jesus' conflict with the Jewish leaders begin very early in the Gospel (2:6-3:6). Already Jesus has been in conflict with demons; this conflict has been linked to the synagogue so as to suggest that the synagogue is a place that is full of demons (1:21-27; 1:39). The authority and new teaching of Jesus defeats these foes. We are prepared for a confrontational presentation of the relationship between Jesus and other prominent Jews. Jesus is accused of being, himself, possessed by demons (3:22). In response, he indirectly charges the Jews with being a house of Satan, divided and coming to an end (3:23-27). He declares the accusation about him to be a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and an unforgivable, eternal sin.

The Jews are already "outside", not able to understand Jesus' message (4:11-12). Jewish traditions and practices are declared obsolete (7:1-23). When the Pharisees "tempt" Jesus (8:11; 10:2), the same Greek word is used as in the story of Jesus' temptations by Satan (1:13). He warns his disciples against "the leaven of the Pharisees" (8:15) and predicts his rejection and death by the Jewish elders and high priests (8:31; 10:33).

The cursing and withering of the fig tree (a Jewish symbol) has been interpreted as symbolizing that the Temple and Israel are under God's curse (11:12-14 and 20-21). In the parable of the vineyard the former tenants (Israel?) will be destroyed and the vineyard given to others (the church?) (12:1-12).

In the passion stories the Jews and their leaders are painted as urgently seeking the death of Jesus (14:1,43 - 15:38). Mark uses the same Greek word for the "shouts" of the crowds as he used for the cries of the people possessed by demons, indicating that Satan has control over them (compare 15:13,14 with 1:24,26; 3:11; 5:5,7; 9:26; for other "cries" Mark uses another word: 6:49; 9:24; 10:48). In Mark, as in the other gospels, the chief priests and scribes mock Jesus at the cross (15:31) and the final blow to Judaism seems to be given by the rending of the veil in the Temple (15:38). Again in this gospel, however, Pharisees have no role in the passion of Jesus.
Back to Content

3. The Gospel according to Luke and Luke's Acts of the Apostles

Luke's Gospel and Acts are two parts of one work by one author. According to Luke, Christianity and its mission clearly originated within the Jewish community. God's plan called for the message of Jesus Christ to be taken to the ends of the world before Christ would come again. This delay gave time for mission to Jew and gentile alike, seeking their conversion. Because the Jews did not accept and continued to not accept Jesus, and later rejected Paul's message, Luke sees them finally as rejected by God.

The Gospel

Luke is familiar and in sympathy with the Jewish tradition. Mary, a young Jewish woman, and several other Jewish figures at the beginning of the story, faithfully respond to God's intentions (Mary or Miriam 1:38; Elizabeth 1:42ff; Zechariah 1:67; the Jewish shepherds 2:8ff; Simeon 1:27; Anna 2:36). Jewish teachers in the temple are presented in a positive light (2:46).

Problematic Passages:

The purpose of Jesus' mission shines through when he participates in the synagogue service in Nazareth (4:14-30): He applies the word of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 60:1-2) to gentiles, and he uses gentiles as examples - one gentile is a woman and a widow(!) (4:25ff.) and another is a Syrian soldier (4:27). Luke lets the wrathful crowd foretell the conclusion of his story: Jesus is rejected by the Jewish community, driven out of the city and almost killed (4:28-30).

Luke accuses the Jewish leaders of rejecting God's initiatives, not allowing themselves to be baptized by John (7:30). In Luke's account, Jewish leaders become more hostile to Jesus when he comes to Jerusalem. According to one interpretive approach, many parables seem to extend this accusation and rejection to the whole of the Jewish people, contrasted with gentiles who accept Jesus (the prodigal son 15:11-32; Lazarus and the rich man 16:19-31; the Pharisee and the tax collector 18:9-14; the talents 19:11ff. esp. 27; the tenants of the vineyard 20:9-19). However, there is another way of understanding these parables. Take the prodigal son, for example: the amazing father is God, the elder son is the Torah-respecting and Torah-observing Jewish community, the younger son represents those Jews who have not respected Torah; God still cares deeply about the whole of the Jewish community and wants to hold together the beloved family, the Jewish people. The word of Jesus from the cross is forgiveness: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." (23:34) This word gives us Luke's vision of the gospel; it is a word addressed both within the Jewish community and then to the world.

In comparing the passion stories scholars have observed that Luke lessens Jewish participation in Jesus' death. Again, the Pharisees take no part. The assembly trial is abbreviated (22:66-71). Herod, who is disliked by most Jews, including the Pharisees (13:31), plays a larger part in causing the death (23:6-12). Though the Jews still participate in the actions that lead to Jesus' death (chapters 19-20, 22-23), Luke offers the least anti-Judaic passion story in the Gospels.


In Acts anti-Jewish expressions occur in two ways: in speeches of the apostles and other Christians, and through narrations of adverse Jewish responses to Christian preaching and life.

As in his Gospel so also in Acts, Luke starts out with a typical Jewish concern: the disciples ask Jesus about the time of the restoration of Israel (1:6-7). The founding of the church on the day of Pentecost is portrayed as a renewed offer to the Jews to accept Jesus (2:1-13). In the beginning thousands of Jews join the Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem (2:41). They do not "convert" to a new religion; they join a renewal movement within Judaism. This new community has the respect of the population (2:47).

When the gospel is carried from Jerusalem to "all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the [gentile] world" (1:8), Luke shows that the offer to join the Christian communion is always made first to the Jews in each new city. Although it is accepted by some individuals, it is mainly rejected by the Jewish communities. Church membership comes to be made up mostly of gentile Christians.

Problematic Passages:

The strongest anti-Jewish expressions in Acts are found in the sermons. Peter declares the people of Israel to be responsible for crucifying and killing Jesus, even if "by the hands of those outside the law" (2:23,36). Later, Peter accuses all Jews of killing Jesus, "the Author of life" (3:15), allowing that they did it in ignorance (3:17). After having been imprisoned together with John and defending himself before the family of the high priest, Peter again declares that "the rulers of the people and elders" crucified Jesus (4:9-10). He repeats the same thing at a later trial: "the God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree" (5:30).

These sermons admit that the Jewish authorities did not have the power to kill Jesus. However, they claim that all Jews are responsible because they wanted it done and got others "outside the law" (i.e. the Romans) to do it for them. They seek to impose guilt on Jewish people to move them to become Jewish-Christians. This whole representation of the case is not credible with regard to the Roman motivation for killing Jesus; it serves the self-interest of the Christian church which wants to be on the good side of Rome; and it is eventually anti-Judaic in its effect when the accusations remain and the church is no longer Jewish in its membership. The Jews did not kill Jesus and we must point that out when we read these texts. This concern applies also to the impression created by other speeches in Acts such as those of Stephen and of Paul.

Another statement ascribed to Peter about Jesus requires comment: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (4:12). Is this so? Our understanding of the nature and being of God is the fundamental doctrine of faith to which all other doctrines relate. Christians claim that Christ shows us what God is like in the clearest way possible for us to grasp. What Christ shows us is a God who desires fullness of life for all. The core of our faith is that "Christ died for our sins . . . and was raised", revealing God's triumph over all sin and failure (I Cor. 15:3-4). If Peter's statement means that God rejects all humans except for professing Christians, then it seems to contradict the fundamental understanding of God that Christ reveals. Instead, we should see it as the speech of an enthusiastic preacher claiming the specialness of God's self-revelation in Christ and speaking out of the depth of his devotion to Christ.

Shifting to Paul, the picture we get of him from Acts differs from the Paul of the letters in many respects. To cite only one here, we note that Paul always claims to be the apostle to the gentiles; Acts portrays him as adding gentiles to his churches only after trying to attract all the Jews in whatever city he visits. Once the church has separated from the synagogue, the lesson from Acts for Christians is that the relationship with Judaism is one of rivalry, animosity and conversion. Acts never mentions Paul's conviction that God's covenant with Israel continues unbroken (Rom. 11). Acts presents a different picture of Paul than his self-presentation in the Letters.

On the positive side, when Peter through his vision comes in conflict with Jewish dietary laws (chapters 10-11), no negative word is said against these laws. The validity of Jewish practices is recognized when the apostles meet to discuss Jewish-gentile relations (15:1-35).
Back to Contents

4. The Gospel according to John

The world-view of John's Gospel is similar to that of Mark: the cosmos is divided into heavenly and earthly spheres that are opposed to each other. Heaven is ruled by God and earth by Satan. There are elements in the spheres that contrast: grace to law, spirit to flesh, truth to falsehood, light to darkness, belief to unbelief, the church to "the Jews". Judaism belongs to the earthly sphere and to the rule of Satan.

The Jewish-Christian community which is addressed by this Gospel almost certainly had been expelled from the synagogue. This seems to be implied in the story of the man born blind but healed by Jesus (chapter 9), who was formally excommunicated (9:34). Others around Jesus feared the same fate.

The Gospel sees the Jewish-Christian community that it addresses as the true Judaism. Jewish spiritual life has been passed on to the (Jewish) believers in Jesus: "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God" (1:11-13). Moses is the greatest person in Jewish history, but Jesus is greater: "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (1:17). "No one [not even Moses] has seen God", but Jesus has made God known (1:18). In fact, Jesus Christ is the Word that, in the beginning, "was with God and . . . was God" (1:1); the divine claim is extended through use of the divine name, "I AM", beenlied repeatedly by Jesus to himself (6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1).

"The Woman Taken in Adultery"
(See John 7:53-8:11; manuscript evidence shows that this story is a late addition to the text; it is sometimes printed as a sub-text (NRSV, TEV) or as a footnote (RSV) or even as an appendix (NEB) to the Gospel of John.) In the story, a woman adulteress (but no adulterer) is brought to Jesus by scribes and Pharisees; should she be stoned? is the question they ask; Jesus is compassionate; no one presses the case; the woman finds new life where life could have been denied.

Christians must guard against anti-Judaism in interpreting this story. It is easy to make the scribes and the Pharisees the bad guys, the poor woman the victim, and Jesus the rescuer. But we do not know what the scribes and Pharisees intend to do with the woman; they only cite what the law allows, not what they intend (8:5; see Lev. 20:10); in the end, they do not stone her, presumably because they agree with Jesus' position; maybe they "are dissuaded from stoning the woman, having made Jesus' position their own" (so Luise Schottroff, Lydia's Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity, Louisville: Wesminster John Knox Press, 1995, p.266, n.19; also see pp.180ff. and 267, n.32.); or maybe that was also their position all along; maybe the woman knows this. We are told only that they want to "test" Jesus (8:6) and, it seems, he passes the test. Christian feminists and others sometimes exhibit anti-Judaic interpretations of this passage by claiming that Jesus is presented in radical discontinuity with his Jewish roots. But everyone in the story is Jewish; Jesus is a Jew. His attitude to the woman in the passage represents the possibility of renewal within Judaism, and this is recognized by everyone in the story. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, talking about what became Talmudic teaching on Leviticus 20:10, says: The talmudic rabbis, with their great concern for the sanctity of human life, were openly opposed to capital punishment. But, since they had to recognize the letter of the Torah law, they sought a variety of means to render these penal laws inoperative. Thus, in some instances, they held that the Torah referred to death by divine intervention, not to death imposed by a court. They further devised a system of technicalities to prevent the conviction of a defendant for a capital crime. This somewhat offhand approach was relatively easy for them, since the Roman government denied Jewish courts jurisdiction over capital cases. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, p.907.)

As one reads from Plaut, one remembers again the popular Biblical story of Esther which celebrates finding creative space for humanity in the midst of irrevocable (Persian) law. Feminist scholar Danna Fewell states, "This text [Esther], like rabbinic commentary [itself], keeps the canon from becoming a law that cannot change; it helps to keep the canon alive and talking." (Quoted in Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, p.215; see the whole discussion pp.215-16.) This "finding of space" for life has traditionally been a Jewish endeavour in the attempt to understand and apply Torah. Perhaps that is what the "testing" of Jesus is all about. At any rate, Plaut's comments on capital punishment surely help us "Judaize" the story of the "woman taken in adultery". (They also give us additional perspective on the death of Jesus itself.)

Problematic Passages:

Jesus enters into conflict with "the Jews" almost immediately: at the beginning of the story he drives the merchants and money changers out of the Temple (2:13-21). The signs of Jesus signify the powerful presence of God which changes Judaism and overturns the old practices. In place of the old water of purification (Judaism) there is substituted the new, best wine kept until the last (Christ, possibly meaning the wine of the eucharist) (2:1-11). This portrayal of Judaism is superficial, argumentative and denigrating; it is not likely that it represents the view of the historical Jesus.

While the other Gospels distinguish between different Jewish groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, elders, scribes etc., the Fourth Gospel eliminates all the historical distinctions and uses the phrase "the Jews" about 60 times in a generalizing way. Many of the occurrences depict Jews very negatively. Was the writer of the Gospel not a Jew? Was his community not Jewish? "The Jews" persecute Jesus (5:16), disapprove of him (6:41), and seek to kill him (7:1). They are blind to his teaching (7:35), guilty of unbelief (8:24) and even accused of being the offspring of the devil:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies (8:43-44).

Because of this some Jews in dialogue with Christians have called John's Gospel, "the gospel of Christian love and Jewish hatred".

Commentators have pointed out that the term, "the Jews", could have a variety of meanings: it could mean the people of Judea (7:1) or the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (7:13); perhaps it described things unfamiliar to gentiles (7:2) or was used as a cipher for all who did not believe in Jesus (8:22ff.). We know that these passages reflect an intra-Jewish struggle, a family feud in very difficult times. The frustration and antagonism that they express should not be carried on beyond this time of struggle and separation, i.e. we cannot read "the Jews" uncritically and without comment once John's community has ceased to be Jewish; to do so gives new, anti-Judaic meaning to texts in which the designation appears.

John's Gospel contains wonderful confessional passages. Jesus says, for example, "the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth." Here the hope of Jeremiah is renewed; John sees a new day when the new covenant, new in that it is now written on the heart, issues forth out of human truthfulness and spirit beyond all liturgical forms and places in praise to God. How can a writer with such a hope be so narrowly exclusive in other passages?

Consider another important confessional passage found in John's Gospel: Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (14:6). This passage is not anti-Jewish per se, but it can be used to insinuate the exclusiveness of Christianity and the rejection of all who do not believe in Jesus, including Jews (see comments on Acts 4:12, above). The context suggests that Jesus wants the disciples to remember that he and the Father are together always; where one is, the other is. It is a matter of fact, not of necessity, that finding the way to the one means finding the way to the other. Some Christians, citing this passage, claim that God does not hear and answer the prayers of a Jew who comes to God through God's revelation of Torah. The Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (The Star of Redemption, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970), a pioneer of Jewish-Christian dialogue in the 20th century, pointed out that Jews are already with the Father; they don't have to come through Jesus. Jesus is God's way for Christians. Finding our way to God, we will also find the Jew there.

To emphasize believing in Jesus in order to be saved is reassuring for Christians. It does not necessarily imply the exclusive claim that not believing in Jesus prevents a person from being saved, whole, or "good". Perhaps we are being encouraged to come into Jesus' way of being, thinking and acting, i.e. to come into Jesus' model of living as the guide for our lives. If this is what believing in Jesus means, then it might be that people can be this way and be saved, regardless of what they know or think about Jesus. Knowing Jesus helps us find this way of being. Jesus comes to us as a gracious and loving presence from God to help us. "God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (3:16)

Turning to the passion story, we find that John's Gospel states the historically accurate fact that Jews did not have the legal authority to kill Jesus (18:31). However, John again presents "the Jews" as pressuring Pilate for execution (19:1-15). Pilate is shown as an incompetent and weak administrator, manipulated by "the Jews". The chief priests even claim, "We have no king but Caesar" (19:15). "The Jews" alone are made responsible for the death of Jesus. Pilate identifies Jesus correctly, albeit mockingly, as the King (19:15) and stands by the title that he writes to hang over Jesus on the cross (19:21-22). The picture painted of Pontius Pilate is historically incorrect. He was in fact a ruthless murderer of thousands of Jews.

The Letters of the Apostle Paul

For the churches that have grown out of the Reformation the doctrine of "justification by grace through faith alone" formed the central part of the gospel. The opposing position is "salvation through works of the law". This position was often seen to be represented by Jews and Paul's judaizing opponents, which in turn led to accusations of Jews as advocating legalism and self-righteousness.

Through a better knowledge of Judaism, through scholarly Jewish-Christian dialogue and a new understanding of Paul, the simple polarization between Christianity's grace and Judaism's law can no longer be defended. For Jews the Torah is supremely the gracious gift of God. To keep the law is not a burden but a delight.

A Christian theology after the Holocaust points to chapters 9 to 11 of Paul's letter to the Romans, where he clearly states that God's covenant with Israel has not been abrogated (Rom. 11:1-2) and that the church continues to be in relationship with Israel.

Paul was never "converted" from Judaism to Christianity; he was called to be the apostle to the gentiles (Gal. 1:11-17). He first served God within Judaism and after his call he served the same God among the gentiles. He was proud of being Jewish (Philippians 3:4-6) and he understood the significance of the Torah for Judaism. This Jewish background undergirded his understanding of God's purpose for gentiles.

Since Paul did not see himself as a teacher to Jews (Galatians 2:1-9), the opponents with whom he struggled cannot have been Jews or Judaism. His writings about Jewish matters are directed largely or even completely to gentile congregations, assuring them of their acceptance by God without adhering to the Torah of Israel. Jews come to God through Torah, gentiles through Christ. Paul claims that in Christ the "goal" (not end) of Torah is reached (Romans 10:4) by bringing the gentiles to the God of Israel (Romans 15:8-12). God is righteous and faithful to his promise in a new act, by bringing gentiles to God through Christ, apart from Torah, but not in contradiction to it (Romans 3:21).

Scholars have pointed out that Paul uses 'law' in two ways: positively as the Jewish covenantal relationship with God (Gal. 6:2; the Torah of Christ) and negatively as the 'condemnation', under which the gentile world lives in a condition of disobedience to God (Romans 6:14; not under law [= condemnation] but under grace). Gentiles (non-Jews) live under condemnation until, in Christ, they are set free to do God's will.

Problematic Passages:

In the first letter Paul wrote, he accuses the Jews of killing Jesus, opposing the church, and opposing God. He encourages church members by telling them that they are not alone in suffering for the faith:

For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God's wrath has overtaken them at last. (I Thessalonians 2:14-16)

Paul's Letters and Scripture
Paul did not intend to write deathless "Scripture". The Hebrew Scriptures were sufficient for him. He wrote letters that dealt with specific concerns arising in specific churches. Sometimes the church felt the strong presence of the Holy Spirit in Paul's writings (e.g. I Cor. 13) but Paul did not always feel it (e.g. I Cor. 7:25).

  • Does this tell us something about the nature of Scripture?
  • If someone told Paul that they were going to take his letters, written to support, guide and encourage churches, and give them the designation "Scripture", what do you suppose his reaction would have been? Would he rewrite them? Would he allow some to be included but not others? Would he write something else?

This statement is unique in Paul's letters for its vindictiveness. We leave it to scholars to explain, noting only that some scholars are convinced, on purely linguistic grounds, that this has been added by a later editor.

It is certainly true that Paul was a creative thinker. His innovations sometimes change the meaning of concepts that are basic to Judaism (e.g. Paul expands the Jewish notion of sin beyond that for which one is personally responsible through action or inaction; in "saving" us from this sin, Christ does something that Jews see as unnecessary). Paul's argumentative style includes playing with the old biblical stories, a Jewish technique called "midrash". Some Jewish commentators are sometimes exasperated by Paul's arguments, but as Jewish scholar Jon Levenson says, "It is no small irony that to argue [his positions], Paul had no alternative but to rely on the Jewish Scriptures - the only Bible he knew or could imagine - and to utilize exegetical [i.e. interpretative] procedures that the rabbis would use, with at least equal dexterity." (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, p.219) Paul often reshapes stories to present conventional Judaism as a foil for Christ (e.g. Gal. 3:21ff re Hagar and Sarah; II Cor. 3:12ff re the veiling of Moses). Although Paul understands God as having a joint purpose in working through Judaism and the church, at times he seems to forget the connection and his style of argument becomes confrontational and divisive. Over all, Paul thought that God was using the church to fulfill the promise to Abraham that lies at the root of Judaism's reason for being: "through you all nations of the earth shall bless themselves" (Gen. 12:3); Judaism may not think that this is necessary, but the truth of the claim resides with God and the clues to its truth or falsehood reside in the degree of blessing that Judaism and Christianity actually are to the nations of the world. Back to Content

6. The Letter to the Hebrews

Reading the letter or sermon to the Hebrews one cannot avoid getting the impression that the Christian faith supersedes the Jewish faith. Jewish matters are here mentioned more than in any other of the Christian writings. However, Jewish scholars have pointed out that Hebrews deals with Judaism as it was before the Temple was destroyed. Many Jewish groups of the time would have agreed with the things said about the Judaism of the Temple (e.g. the Jewish commentator and philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Samaritans, the people of Northern Galilee, the Essenes, and some Pharisees).

Hebrews was perhaps written to a Jewish-Christian community greatly threatened in their faith and hope (as were all Jews) by the destruction of the Temple. Jesus and the Christian faith are constantly compared with parts of the Jewish religious system. Judaism is not vilified, but it is presented as inferior to Christianity.

Problematic Passages:

Perfection, the goal of life, is not possible through the law or Torah (7:19; 9:9; 10:1), but only through Christ. Even for Christians it is only possible because Christ has entered upon his high priestly work of conveying the prayers of the church to God and interceding on its behalf.

Comparisons are made throughout Hebrews between heavenly things that are perfect and real and earthly things that are only the shadow of the heavenly. (Heavenly: Jesus Christ as mediator; perfection; immediate presence of God. Earthly: the things pertaining to Judaism and lesser intermediaries; imperfection; question of whether there is any way into God's presence).

Jesus' ministry is more excellent than that of the priests. He is the mediator of a better covenant with better promises than that of Israel (8:6). The first covenant of God with Israel is faulty (8:7-8). Therefore God has established a second or a new covenant (8:8). Jeremiah 31:31-34 is quoted and given a supersessionist interpretation, typical of the way Christians treat the covenant of Israel: "In speaking of 'a new covenant', he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear." (8:13)

Christians have come "to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant" (12:24). This is the only place in the Christian writings where, referring to a new covenant, a Greek word is used for 'new' that cannot be translated as 'renewed'.
Back to Content

7. Revelation or the Apocalypse

The seven churches that are the recipients of this document suffered terrible persecution by the Roman authorities. Under the emperor Domitian, Jews as an established religious group, were exempted from emperor worship, while Christians, as a new minority, had to choose between bowing to every statue on the street or suffering cruel persecution.

In Revelation, Christians are in conflict mainly with the emperor (13:1-18) and with rival Christian teachers (2:20-23). In two of the letters, however, opponents include "the synagogue of Satan". This may refer to Christians who were regarded as hypocritical by the author because they claimed Jewish identity in order to avoid persecution by the Romans; in this case they are not Jews at all. Or it may refer to some particular Jews, known to those receiving the letter, who have denounced Christians to the authorities and have thereby shown that they are not true Jews. In either case, the intent of the author does not seem to be to attack Jews. The author's choice of the phrase, "synagogue of Satan" (as opposed to, say, "church of Satan" or "following of Satan"), is perverse and reflects a residual animosity to and suspicion of the synagogue and Jews. We should be careful not to subconsciously imbibe this attitude.

The passages in question are the following:

"I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." (2:9-10; letter to the church in Smyrna)

"I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying -I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you." (3:9; letter to the church in Philadelphia).


1. The anti-Judaic language in NT texts is mixed with the gospel message and with pro-Jewish expressions. Jesus is often shown as a true Torah-believing and observing Jew, and sometimes as detrimentally opposed to Judaism. The same applies to Paul. Whichever picture of Jesus or Paul we choose is interpretive; the best data that we have today suggests that neither rejected Judaism or their own Jewishness, quite the opposite. We should choose to interpret on that side of the dichotomy.

2. Most biblical scholars agree that the Gospels and Acts, which were written at least a generation after Jesus' death, are not biographies of Jesus and Paul. They are comprehensive sermons or narrative theologies that tell the Christian story to the churches for whom they were written. They address the concerns and circumstances of their time. They reflect the growing enmity between the early Christian and the Jewish communities in the late first century. As such they are argumentative and often present a skewed picture of Judaism as a foil for the positive things they want to say about Jesus and his movement. We must adjust the picture of Judaism that they present with information from the Hebrew Scriptures, from other sources of the time, from discussions with modern Jews, by whatever means we can. To do so is respectful of these texts in their role as Scripture; it clears away potential cause for disrespect.

3. The apostle Paul hinted that God may have used the estrangement between synagogue and church to initially protect the Jewish community from abandoning its own covenant. Paul struggled to define the relationship between church and Israel: "I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the gentiles has come in" (Romans. 11:25). Be this as it may, the development of anti-Judaism could not have been in the purpose of God. It certainly has no place in the church more than fifty years after the Holocaust.

4. This paper recommends leaving Scripture texts intact, not censoring them, and speaking to the issue of anti-Judaism when the texts raise the concern. Many passages need not be anti-Jewish when interpreted with understanding. Those passages that are definitely so (e.g. John 8:43-44) should be used to teach the damage that Christians have done to Jews over the centuries. Such passages can help us to appreciate problems of understanding the authority and interpretation of Scripture. We affirm that God's guiding wisdom and grace enables us to do justice and to reject the language and practice of anti-Judaism.

The following people were part of the task group/writing team who produced this study document, which was accepted by the 36th General Council (1997) of The United Church of Canada.

  • The Rev. Don Koots (Chair)
  • The Rev. Clint Mooney
  • Ms. Linda Payne
  • The Rev. Bill Phipps
  • Ms. Carolyn Pogue Phipps
  • Mr. Fritz Voll