By Bishop Michael Rinehart

As I am writing this, we are in the midst of the Jewish high holidays. Rosh Hashanah has just ended, and we are now in year 5782 of the Jewish calendar. Next week is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This holy season seems like a good time to talk about the way Christians talk Judaism when teaching the New Testament or preaching from the pulpit each Sunday.

The only thing many Christians know about Judaism is what they learned from the Bible in church. This leaves us the impression that Judaism was sectarian, with Pharisees and Saducees fighting amongst themselves. Pastors and Deacons have had some introduction to Early Judaism, but even so, we forget, and old impressions run deep. Even though the New Testament consists predominantly of Jewish literature (Jews writing to Jews), the disagreements lead to a negative impression of Judaism, and have even been used to promote tropes, myths and outright lies about Jews. How we preach can either reinforce misconceptions or correct them.

ELCA Lutherans have some guidance in the form of a 33 year old document entitled Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations, 1988. Especially given Luther’s anti-Jewish views (repudiated in the ELCA’s 1994 Declaration to the Jewish Community) we have a responsibility to dispel myths and represent our Jewish friends in an accurate and generous light.

Frequent readers of my blog know that I recommend and often quote Vanderbilt scholar Amy-Jill Levine’s work, the Jewish Annotated New Testament. In that work (page 501), she has an article entitled “Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism.”

If you would like an easy-to-read book on modern Judaism for lay people, Sidney and Betty Jacobs wrote Clues About Jews for People Who Aren’t, in a fun question and answer format. What makes food kosher? Should I convert to Judaism for my Jewish spouse? Questions like these help people understand modern Judaism.

One more reference before I jump in. Dr. Matthias Henze, professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism, and Director of Rice University’s Judaism Studies Program in Houston, has written extensively on Second Temple Judaism. Perhaps the most accessible is his book, Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us, shows how we cannot fully understand the gospels without understanding these apocryphal writings, because they help us understand the early rabbinic Judaism of the first century in which the events occur, a Judaism which is far removed from the ancient religion of Israel we know from the Old Testament, which knows nothing of rabbis, synagogues, Pharisees, Sadducees, demons, or resurrection.

  1. We think Early Judaism was sectarian.

We read about Pharisees and Sadducees. We have learned about Essenes, Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. We may even think John the Baptist was an Essene. Dr. Malka Simkovich, the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago reminds us that Josephus (who is known to inflate numbers), says there were 6,000 Pharisees, 4,000 Sadducees and 3,000 Essenes. That’s a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in first century Palestine. Most Jews were not part of a sect, and practiced what scholars call “Common Judaism.” The various sects existed, and had their differences, but the vast majority of Jews were not impacted by these polarities.

  1. We insinuate, especially during Holy Week, that the “Jews” were responsible for the death of Jesus.

Even if we don’t say it, many assume it. The gospel writers, in their attempt to portray Christians as no threat to the Roman Empire, downplay the Roman involvement in the death of Jesus. The fact remains, crucifixion was a Roman form of execution, not a Jewish one. We have no historical examples of Jewish crucifixions. Jesus’ crime was written on the plaque above his head. “King of the Jews.” Jesus was suspected of drawing large crowds, inciting riots, and insurrection. Passages like Matthew 27:25 are so inflammatory and misinterpreted, if they cannot be avoided, they must be carefully explained: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” The same goes for the worst Anti-Jewish passage in the New Testament, John 8:44a, which says, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” This passage has cost thousands of lives. When people hear these passages, they forget that everyone in this debate is Jewish. The passage has to be explained or not used at all.

The ELCA’s Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations says,

Lutheran pastors should make it clear in their preaching and teaching that although the New Testament reflects early conflicts, it must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews. Blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people, and stereotypes of Judaism as a legalistic religion should be avoided. Lutheran curricular materials should exercise the same care.

  1. Preachers portray Judaism as legalistic and Christianity as graceful.

Amy-Jill Levine lifts this up. We preach that the Torah is hard to follow, but Jesus’ yoke is easy. We forget that Jesus upped the ante into the law with his antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said, ‘Do not murder,’ but I say to you, ‘Do not be angry…’ You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, “Do not look at another with lust in your heart…’”

Jews do not follow Torah to earn salvation. My Old Testament professor Ron Hals wrote Grace and Faith in the Old Testament to debunk this myth. In fact, this is Paul’s point in Romans and Galatians. Justification by grace through faith was God’s plan all along. He shows how Abram believed God’s promises and it was reckoned to him as righteousness 500 years before the law came along.

  1. We sometimes teach that Jews oppressed women and Jesus liberated them.

I’ve been guilty of this one myself. Certainly Jesus, especially in Luke, shows great concern for women, but we must be careful not to insinuate that Early Judaism was like the Taliban. Jewish women were not required to wear burqas. Levine says Early Judaism was not an exemplary form of an egalitarian society, but neither was it starkly misogynistic. Women travelled, owned property and businesses, as the Bible itself attests. We don’t need to malign the Jewish tradition to make Jesus a superhero. 

  1. We are not careful when talking about outcasts.

When we speak of Jesus ministering to outcasts, we include women, children and tax collectors. Levine asks, “Cast out of what?” Luke tells the story of a tax collector in the Temple. Women could go into (parts of) the Temple. People brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. Certainly, Jesus ministered to quarantined lepers and those with physical deformities who could not enter the Temple, but it would be a mistake to superimpose our 21st century sensibilities about “the marginalized” on the gospel writers’ concept of “outcasts.”

  1. We teach that Jews wanted a militant messiah.

There were many ideas of the messiah in Jesus’ day. Some wanted a military leader. No question. Some wanted a priestly messiah. Some believed John the Baptist was the messiah. Levine reminds us that the disciples were armed. Peter even tried to attack the Temple guard to keep Jesus from getting arrested. There is no question that Jesus chose not to lead armies, but we should not assume that the Jewish community did not also have many pacifists among them.

Conclusion 

There are many more myths we promote and assumptions we make. Above all, we think the Israelite faith of the Old Testament is the Rabbinic Judaism of the first century. Judaism in the New Testament consists of things not mentioned in the Old Testament: rabbis, synagogues, Pharisees, Sadducees and much more. We cannot really understand the New Testament without a working understanding of 2nd Temple Judaism. A lack of this understanding has led to tragic interpretations. Let us not make sermons that exalt Bible heroes by creating a straw dog of Judaism. Instead, let’s immerse ourselves in the Jewishness of Jesus, his teaching about Torah, his wearing of the tzitzit and his keeping of Sabbath. The more we understand the Jewishness of Jesus and his community, the better we will understand the New Testament.