The Jewish Jesus, the New Testament, and Christians
I’m always grateful when I get the chance to talk to people about a love of mine, the Bible. I’m usually trying to get people interested in reading the Bible, so it’s a joy when someone asks for more dialogue. It’s fun to put some of my studying to work and apply it to real people in real-time. It helps to make the work I put into seminary feel useful, too.
So, after the tragic synagogue shooting last month, many people were awoken to the flagrant and growing antisemitism that’s occurred over the last few years in the United States. Of course people have many theories as to why the U.S. has struggled with antisemitism, and why there is such targeted prejudice against Jewish people in the United States and Europe.
A friend asked me about a specific Bible passage that he had heard led people to justify antisemitism. It comes from the New Testament. It’s John 8:44: “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.”
Jesus is referring to Jewish people here and using very harsh language. So what’s the deal? Let’s unpack it a bit.
Jesus was really Jewish
I think the man Jesus is often lost when people start over-emphasizing his divine nature. We lose his humanity when we lean too much on the one side of the Chalcedonian formula. That is, the ideas born from the early church Council, that led the church to adopt some language regarding how Jesus could possibly be both human and God. Here’s some of the translated confession: “We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.”
They are trying not to divide Jesus into two persons, while acknowledging he is “perfect” in Godhead and manhood, “truly God and truly man.” That is a wonderful mystery and a delicately stated one that kept the churches in Alexandria and Antioch together in one.
Christians need to hold both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity in their hands at the same time, but it’s very likely that we move closer to one or the other as a matter of our occasions and preferences. I think you actually can observe this in the Gospels as well, but for a host of reasons, I think that Christianity has moved, in general, to making Jesus much more divine, abstract, and less relatable.
But I do think that the most relatable part of Jesus to humans is his humanity. Jesus knows how we feel and think and breathe; and in fact, his own experience of being a human makes our very humanity a little more holy too.
But more than just being a human in general, Jesus was a specific human. He was Jewish man who grew up in Palestine. He was a practicing Jew, who turned into a rabbi, who was trying to redeem the lost sheep of Israel, trying to straighten what God started. There is a specificity to Jesus that, when we overemphasize his divinity, we take away from.
N.T Wright, if you are looking for a resource, has spent his career focusing on the “Jewishness of Jesus.” And he’s sustained some criticism for his confidence in it, but I think he added a much needed voice, one that was missing throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th Century as those liberal scholars tended to emphasize the divine nature of Jesus more than they did his human nature.
The New Testament is trying to distinguish Christianity
Going back to John, however, I think we see how some people ran with a theme in the text and turned it into an undoing of Jesus’ plain identity as a Jewish person in the first century. People can make the Bible do all sorts of things, and they have. People have used it to oppress women, LGBT people, kept slaves in captivity, and apparently justifying anti-Semitism. I think that sort of thing is done in bad faith, but I think imposing a modern-day prejudice onto the text is an anachronism worth rooting out. Certainly viewpoints held by the writers then would be seen as sinful now, so I reserve the right to be critical, but not to be condemnable. That’s what we mean when we say the Bible is living. It lives and has new life. Sometimes new meanings too.
One thing the New Testament tries to do is distinguish itself from early rabbinic Judaism. Put strongly, it can be seen as a polemic, or written criticism, against early rabbinic Judaism. The early Christians are trying to make Christianity more than a sect of Judaism, in large part, to include Gentiles, or non-Jewish people, into the fold. This is a project that the Apostle Paul affects more than anyone else. The New Testament of course is written in Greek and given to Greek-speaking audiences, usually Gentiles and Hellenized Jews (that is Jews who grew up in or were influenced by Greco-Roman culture).
John is setting up a tension in the verse I began with here to continue in that tradition of polemic. If one applies that polemic to justify modern-day antisemitism, they are simply reading the text poorly. Jesus isn’t doing one thing or another, especially in the Gospels. The Gospels are telling the story of Jesus to a variety of groups of people, which is why we have four of them. Making them into one doesn’t work, and making Jesus into a monolithic prescriber of our behavior is not what the Gospel writers lead us to do either. They are united in mission and vision, but often take on different postures depending on the group of people they are talking to. Sometimes more assertively distinguishing Christianity and sometimes less so. I think this has a lot to do with the occasion of the Gospels. The pastors of Circle of Hope are not unsimilar, by the way, as we reach out to our different regions and neighborhoods.
Christians have extended polemic to hatred
In my opinion, this polemic, as I mentioned above, has opened up a can of worms that led people to do and say decidedly antisemitic things even shortly after the Gospels were written. The early church fathers continued to distinguish themselves from the early rabbinic Judaism sometimes with overly harsh language, even in their contemporary setting. Judaism was declared a heresy as a part of this polemic. The fathers weren’t monolithic, of course, Eusebius of Caesarea called the Hrebews “honored among all [people].”
As we moved further from the source, I think there appeared more antisemitism in the Middle Ages, some that stayed in Europe for a long time, and others that was combated by legal protection of Jewish people. During the Renaissance, antisemitism as well. Martin Luther, for example, failing to convert Jews to Christianity, developed more hostility for them, and infamously published a book called On the Jews and Their Lies. I do think some of these more radically hateful tendencies are rooted in a misuse of the Bible and overstatement of what I would call a necessary polemic against early rabbinic Jews in the New Testament.
By the time we get to 19th Century Europe, Enlightenment-based Christianity make Jesus so high, distant, and cosmic, there was barely a notion of his Jewishness at all. Craig Keener even argues that interpretations of the Gospel of John, for example, among 19th Continental scholars, underminded the apparent Judaism and Jewishness in the fourth Gospel and favored naming its gnostic qualities.
The Gospels are polemics that exist in a time and place. Their polemic nature ceases to be useful today since the traditions are so distinct at this point. Christians today don’t need to maintain the New Testament’s polemic posture.
Falsely separating “God” of the Old and New Testament too much
One way that this antisemitic thread has expressed itself today is in an oddly aggressive differentiation between the so-called God of the Old and the New Testament. Most Christians do not think of God as different in the Old or New Testament, but I think sometimes we act like it accidentally. I think we see this when we simplistically call the God of the Old Testament “wrathful” and the one of the New Testament “compassionate.” Like the one of the Old is just violent, and the New one is just peaceful. I think you can read those things into the Bible, but I think God’s love endures forever, much longer than God’s anger. And the grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation that is characteristically associated with Jesus is also in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers go to great pains to say that.
Furthermore, the idea that the Old Testament is just a series of laws that oppress people with demands in order for them to find salvation isn’t really true either. God consistently offers grace to the decidedly disobedient people of Israel. The same trend happens in the New Testament; the biggest difference between them isn’t a change in character, but a change in ontology. Jesus becomes a human in the New Testament. God sends God’s begotten son, never created; the word was always with God.
Finally, the Old and the New Testament aren’t just one thing or another, as I said above. The Old Testament is not coherently theologically as a corpus (although we often try to make it that way). It has many many ways it describes who God is and how God relates to the world and humanity. And honestly, the New Testament writers are free to extend the dialogue and commentary then too, just as the Old Testament writers were. Hellenism influenced Judaism and Christianity as much as other Ancient Near East cultures influenced the varieties of Judaism we find in the Old Testament.
In my view, what unites the Jewish people is their national identity and the particularist covenant God made with them, not some theological consensus found in the text. The Old Testament is dialogical. What holds them together is their identity. That’s why they can talk.
Christians should learn from them. The New Testament doesn’t work because it adds up into some perfect formula. It is not necessarily coherent theologically. But what unites us is also our identity. I think Christians have largely failed at embracing a common identity. I think we can do something better now.
Holding on to our identity
There’s no question that Judaism and Christianity are connected intimately. They do come from similar traditions, and the New Testament makes it clear that Christianity is an offshoot or an outgrowth of Judaism. Paul says that the Gentiles are grafted onto the promise of God to Abraham. So there is a lot of love and connection between the two.
I’m most comfortable sharing a mutual appreciation for each other, but acknowledging we are also different things. The New Testament writers go to great lengths to distinguish the faiths. Jewish people have their own tradition and culture that I think Christians should value and respect. Some Jewish people will be moved to follow Jesus, and I think that is wonderful. I think that too much talk of Christianity being a fulfillment of Judaism does a disservice to how Jesus “happens” to the Old Testament. I read the Old Testament much differently than a Jewish person might because of my faith. Thus I distinguish our faiths far before Jesus comes to fulfill them.
I think then we should embrace our identity as followers of Jesus, set to do a unique thing today, that is different from Judaism. We should learn, respect, and grow from other traditions, but also know that God gave us a specific one. I care about that. We have lots of traditions to grow from and learn from. We don’t need to appropriate Jewish ones to find our home in history and in our time and place. That sort of respect seems to be much more honoring, than, for example, hosting a Seder dinner or appropriate Jewish customs as if they were Christian to show appreciation. I hope what holds us together then is a common identity in Jesus, and not a set of immutable doctrines. That are dialogue holds us together, like it has God’s people for a long time.
 Craig S. Keener, “ The Gospel of John: A Commentary,” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 163.