The Brit Chadasha (New Testament) – How to approach this Jewish writing?

The inventory of ancient Jewish writings eclipses that of other nations.  Even classical Roman and Greek writings dwarf compared to Jewish writings.  The Talmud alone (completed about 500 CE) is about 6200 printed pages long.  The website earlyjewishwritings.com also lists the Tanakh, the Maccabean writings (often called the apocrypha), the voluminous writings of Josephus (1st century CE) and the writings of Philo in their catalogue of ancient Jewish writings.  In the Middle Ages, Jewish scholars like Maimonides kept adding to this impressive list of writings.  Today Jewish writers stake out positions and forge new ground in almost every area of human thought.  They are often at odds with each other, disagreeing in heated exchange in politics, ethics, philosophy, and directions for the nation of Israel.  Apart from the sheer magnitude of the writings is the diversity of viewpoint that is passionately argued in almost every direction.

What about the Brit Chadasha?

Since Jews have this heritage of extensive and diverse writings it makes their unfamiliarity with, and distance from, the Brit Chadasha writings all the more noticeable.  Further, it is ironic that the Brit Chadasha is arguably the most read collection of writings outside the Jewish world.  What to make of this?  Before delving into this here are some facts about the Brit Chadasha – also known as the New Testament of the Bible.

Where does ‘Brit Chadasha’ come from?

The title ‘Brit Chadasha’ is a Jewish term direct from the Tanakh.  The prophet Jeremiah foresaw a day in the future of the people of Israel when G-d would establish a new covenant (Brit) which would be different than the covenant of Mt. Sinai underwhich was given the Law (Torah):

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Orthodox Jewish Bible Jeremiah 31:31-34 New International Version
Hinei, the days come, saith Hashem, that I will cut a Brit Chadasha with Bais Yisroel, and with Bais Yehudah;

32 (31) Not according to the Brit that I cut with their Avot in the day that I took hold of their yad to take them out of Eretz Mitzrayim; which My Brit they broke, although I was Ba’al (Husband) to them, saith Hashem;

33 (32) But this shall be the Brit that I will cut with Bais Yisroel; After those days, saith Hashem, I will set My Torah in them inwardly, and I will write ketuvim on their hearts; and I will be their Elohim, and they shall be My People.

34 (33) And they shall teach no more every ish his re’a (neighbor), and every ish his brother, saying, Know Hashem; for they shall all have da’as of Me, from the katon of them unto the gadol of them, saith Hashem; for I will forgive their avon, and I will remember their chattat no more.

31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel  and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant  I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant,  though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

According to this scripture (and confirmed in history compiled by Jewish writers mentioned above) the problem with the Sinai covenant (Brit) was not with the covenant itself, but the fact the law had great difficulty being internalized. So G-d promised that in the future a new covenant (Brit) would come that would be ‘in their minds’ and ‘on their hearts’ and would entail that G-d ‘forgive their iniquity and transgression’.  Since this was specifically promised by G-d for the ‘people of Israel’ it is entirely appropriate for Jews to be on the lookout for this new covenant.  The only set of writings that have appeared since Jeremiah’s prophecy was uttered (ca 590 BCE) that even claim this role is what today we know as the New Testament or Brit Chadasha.  This is:

Brit Chadasha fast facts:

  • The Brit Chadasha, like the Tanakh, is a collection of writings (27 in total) all authored by devout Jews (with the possible exception of Luke/Acts).
  • The Brit Chadasha is organized into 3 groups. As the Tanakh is grouped into the Torah, Neviim and K’tuvim, the 5 books of the Gospels and Acts correspond to Torah, the 21 letters correspond to K’tuvim, and the book of Revelation corresponds to Neviim.  They were written in the period 50-90 CE, roughly the same time as Josephus’s works.
  • The main character of the Brit Chadasha is Jesus (or Yeshua) of Nazareth, also a devout Jew.  Though he himself did not write any of the books in the Brit Chadasha, his followers did.  They presented Yeshua as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

Jewish Problemds with Yeshua (Jesus)

Of course, once the person of Yeshua, or Jesus, is raised, we understand why the Jewish writings about him, the Brit Chadasha, are overlooked and often ignored by Jews.  Among the reasons that come up:

  • Jesus was not able to be the Messiah, so was a pretender and false.
  • Doctrines associated with Christian followers of Jesus, such as the divinity of the Messiah and the Trinity of G-d are incompatible with Judaism.
  • The followers of Jesus, Christians, have persecuted Jews since they viewed Jews as guilty in the execution of the innocent Jesus.
  • There is such an incompatibility between the Brit Chadasha and Jews that the very essence of Jewishness is threatened by it – so best to shun it.
  • Whether we are observant Jews or not, the issues surrounding Jesus happened so long ago, and Jews have so moved on, that there is no use in opening up old scars.

It may well be that Yeshua was a false Messiah.  But Wikipedia reports a long list of Jews who have claimed to be Messiah down through history, including Bar Kochba, whose rebellion against Rome in 132-135 CE was a Jewish disaster; the Roman Emperor Vespasian (who led the war that destroyed the 2nd Temple) claimed as Messiah by the Jewish Josephus; down to the 20th century Schneerson (died 1994) in Chabad Messianism.  Though we probably reject these (and the many others) claims as false, the claimants are not rejected as un-Jewish.  Wrong yes, but within the Jewish family still.

It is true that Christians have persecuted Jews down the centuries.  But this persecution was not rooted in the Brit Chadasha.  On the contrary, as shown below, both Yeshua and Saul of Tarsus (Apostle Paul) spoke favorably and kindly towards the Jewish people, even though there was disagreement between them and the Jewish religious leaders of their day.  Because of the long history of Christian persecution of Jews, modern-day Jews often forget that their people have faced persecution from many other sources as well.  Almost all empires and ideologies have had episodes of Jewish persecution.  The anti-Semitism reported in the Tanakh (Egyptian infanticide in time of Moses, Assyrian obliteration of Samaria, Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Persian persecution under Haman), the violent Greek wars of the Maccabean period, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (66 – 135 CE), Islamic rivalry with Israel today especially over the Kotel, reveal a more complex root of anti-Semitism than simply Christianity.

Brit Chadasha: Jewish lens on Yeshua (Jesus)

Two thousand years of Christianity has also created a heavy non-Jewish footprint on Yeshua and the Christian church has filtered him so that most Jews can hardly recognize his Jewishness.  But herein lies the advantage of the Brit Chadasha.  They are first and foremost Jewish writings.  The word ‘Christian’ appears only 3 times in the whole Brit Chadasha – and 2 of those times the words are simply recorded from pagan Gentiles.  The Brit Chadasha provides the reader with first-hand access to Yeshua and his immediate Jewish followers so we need not view him second-hand through the Christian filter.

It is also true that Jesus, through the pens of the Brit Chadasha writers, is especially critical of the Jewish leaders of his day, and that there is a sharp conflict between them, culminating in his death.  But does this make the Brit Chadasha anti-Semitic or un-Jewish?  The prophets are also at times critical of the Jewish people.  For example, note the censure of G-d, through the pens of Moses and Jeremiah, towards the Jewish people in these passages.

I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. …

21 “‘If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. (Leviticus 26:19, 21)

The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him. (Deuteronomy 28:20)

But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,” declares the Lord.   (Jeremiah 3: 20)

The criticisms of the Jews in both the Tanakh and the Brit Chadasha have been used by anti-Semites as pretexts to rouse hatred against Jews.  But that does not make these writings in themselves anti-Jewish or un-Jewish.  Note the heartfelt longing for the Jews expressed by both Jesus and by Paul in these passages from the Brit Chadasha

As he (Jesus) approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. (Luke 19:41-42)

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—  I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. (Paul in Romans 9:1-4)

Christendom has persecuted Jews down the centuries, but the incitement was not prescribed in the Brit Chadasha.  Jesus and the authors of the New Testament took a very Jewish approach – they argued, debated, wrote and expressed their viewpoint.  Even if we do not accept their arguments, their approach was commendable – letting each person choose by conscience according to whether they were persuaded or not.

The Torah and Jesus

And their debates were also very Jewish.  The Gospels record Jesus as saying:

If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. (John 5:46)

Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his day debated interpretations of the Torah. That approach allows us even today to examine his life and claims against the standard of the Torah – if nothing else, a very Jewish standard.

One need not solely be motivated by piety regarding Jewish issues, but also for insight on present-day concerns.  Since 1967 when Jerusalem was regained by Israel it has become a focal point for all sorts of tension.  The words of Jesus, penned somewhat before the Roman legions first destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE are pertinent and implicate all of us today, whether orthodox, conservative or secular.  In the Gospels Jesus predicts the coming Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but also looks far beyond when he said

They (i.e. Jews) will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:24)

Jesus predicted that the time for the Gentiles to ‘trample’ Jerusalem would one day end, indicating that Jews would one day regain it.  Since this happened in 1967, and the impact of this affects all of our lives, it may be worthwhile to digest his further teachings.  After all, this one prediction, fulfilled after almost 2000 years, does pass the Torah test for prophecy, given to separate the false from the true.

You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)

Brit Chadasha and Jews today

Now think back to that original prophecy in Jeremiah quoted above which foresaw the coming of the ‘Brit Chadasha’.  Just prior to those verses, Jeremiah foresaw ‘when’ the Brit Chadasha would take its place within Israel

Jeremiah 31:27-28 Orthodox Jewish Bible Jeremiah 31:27-28 New International Version
27 (26) Hinei, the days are coming, saith Hashem, that I will sow again Bais Yisroel and Bais Yehudah with the zera adam (human seed, i.e., repopulation), and also with the zera behemah (animal seed, i.e., replenishing livestock).

28 (27) And it shall come to pass, that just as I watched over them, to uproot, and to tear down, and to overthrow, and to destroy, and to bring catastrophe; so will I watch over them, to build, and to plant, saith Hashem.

27 The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will plant the kingdoms of Israel and Judah with the offspring of people and of animals. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.

Then just after the promise of the Brit Chadasha, the following….

Jeremiah 31:38-39 Orthodox Jewish Bible Jeremiah 31:38-39 New International Version
38 (37) Hinei, the days are coming, saith Hashem, that the Ir shall be built unto Hashem from the Migdal Chananel unto the Sha’ar HaPinnah (Corner Gate).

39 (38) And the measuring line shall yet go forth straight ahead to Garev Hill, and around to Goah.

38 The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah.

Three “the days are coming…” given in quick succession.  The first (population, building and agricultural production of Israel rekindled) and the third (the city of Jerusalem rebuilt and expanded) after two thousand five hundred years are happening right now.  Surely then this is the time for Jews to examine the specific ‘the days are coming…’ announced by G-d sandwiched right between these two – the promise of the establishment of the Brit Chadasha.

This is the approach I started to take many years ago.  To examine Jesus and the Brit Chadasha in the standard of the Torah, the Nevi’im and Ketuvin, both to be informed and also to be like the tribe of Issachar who in the last book of Tanakh were described as

…men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do (1 Chronicles 12:32)

Surely we have nothing to lose and only to gain if we approach taboo topics in this manner.  A good place to start is to learn where the term ‘Messiah’ comes from.

2 thoughts on “The Brit Chadasha (New Testament) – How to approach this Jewish writing?”

  1. Very interesting approach to an explanation of the New Testmrnt an the person of Jesus.
    Is there more of/like this? If so, please provide the sources.
    Thanks.

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