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 in comparison to Jewish writings.  The Talmud alone (completed about 500 CE) is about 6200 printed pages long.  The website 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.

Facts about the Brit Chadasha

It is in this context of the richly varied and extensive Jewish writings that make the Jewish 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.

  • The Brit Chadasha, like the Tanakh is a collection of writings (27 in total) all authored by devout Jews.
  • 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, contemporaneous with Josephus.
  • 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 Problems 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 by Jews.  Among the many reasons that come to mind:

  • Jesus was not 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 cultural 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 anti-Semitism is more complex than simple Christian persecution.  Almost all empires and ideologies have had episodes of anti-Semitism.  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.

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 here is 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 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, not the grave tone of G-d, 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 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)

Christians have coerced and persecuted Jews down the centuries, but 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 argument, their approach was commendable – letting each person choose by conscience according to whether they were persuaded or not.

The Torah and Jesus

And the basis of their arguments 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)

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 be solely motivated by piety regarding Jewish issues, but for insight on present-day concerns.  Since 1967 when Jerusalem was regained 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 is affecting all of our lives, it may be worthwhile to investigate further see if there are other forewarnings.  After all, this one prediction, fulfilled after almost 2000 years, does pass the Torah test for prophecy, which Moses gave 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)

This is the approach I started to take many years ago.  To examine Jesus and the New Testament in the standard of the Torah, the Nevi’im and Ketuvin, both to be informed first-hand about him 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 the Brit Chadasha in this manner.