Editorial: Was Jesus a Jewish theologian?

The writer is founder and director of Christian Educational Ministries.

By Ronald Dart

TYLER, Texas--That Jesus was a Jew is a given. That He grew up in a Jewish society, that He attended synagogue on the Sabbath, that He received a Jewish education, that He spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and taught in the thought patterns of Jewish culture, all these things are a given.

But to take another step, as Brad Young does in Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Hendrickson, 1995), and to consider Jesus a Jewish theologian not at all unlike other Jewish theologians of His day, is another matter altogether. Most Christians will immediately object that Jesus is not just another rabbi but the very Son of God.

But that is not entirely the point. What Mr. Young is driving at is that Jesus is best understood in a Jewish context, not through any limitations of His own, but through the limitations of his audience.

This makes sense. Any good communicator, and Jesus certainly was that, will consider his audience carefully before he opens his mouth, and, if his goal is to communicate, he will expound in terms his audience will understand.

It is plain that Jesus did this (though not at all times), so His illustrations, His logical constructs, His explanations and His citations of sources are all much in harmony with the Jewish culture of Palestine in the first century.

Western presuppositions

His audience might, in many ways, have understood him differently from the way we would have taken Him, and that is what Brad Young wants us to think about. If we are to understand Jesus correctly, we need to sit in the audience with the people in His original audience and listen from their point of view.

This leads Mr. Young to some interesting and helpful conclusions in relation to Jesus' teachings, although I hasten to add that many of his conclusions are quite discernible in the English Bible if one can shed one's Western presuppositions.

In other words, one need not study first-century Judaic culture to understand the Bible. But that study may be helpful in breaking the bands of Western thought habits that keep leading us to wrong conclusions.

This, in part, is the idea behind Jesus the Jewish Theologian.

The difficulty I had in reading the book is that it is clearly directed at changing the minds of mainstream Christians. For anyone not in that audience, therefore, we find ourselves struggling with Mr. Young in areas where we are probably not that far apart. It is a problem not unlike modern man trying to understand Jesus from a Protestant perspective.

Judaism: a response

Take the idea of Judaism, for example. Brad Young uses the term Judaism in the broadest sense to refer to the religion of the Bible from beginning to end. I use the term Judaism in a more limited sense to refer to the response of the Jewish people to the revelation of God.

The religion of the Old Testament, to me, is not Judaism. I am not even comfortable calling it Yahwism. I don't consider the worship of the one true God as an -ism of any kind. But this leaves me quibbling with Mr. Young, and I don't want to do that.

Nevertheless, there is the potential for misunderstanding. Nowadays most people have placed at least the entire Old Testament under the rubric of Judaism. Someone even called Abraham the first Jew.

He was not, of course. A careful reader of the Bible will know that the Jews are the descendants of Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob (Israel), who was the grandson of Abraham, the Hebrew. In the united kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, the worship of God would never have been called Judaism, because Judah was only one tribe of 12. The tabernacle and temple would reside in Judah, which tended to make Judah the center of worship, but it would have been an affront to the other tribes (if not to God) to call the religion of the first temple Judaism.

Once the kingdom was divided north and south, with 10 tribes in the north and Judah, Benjamin and Levi in the south, the worship of God was even more centered in Judah, but it does not seem to have been called Judaism in those days. It was only after Judah was carried into captivity and then returned to restore worship in Jerusalem that the foundations of Judaism per se were laid.

Even then I wonder if the returning Jews would have termed their faith Judaism. It is the sort of name others give you, not the sort you take for yourself.

Brad Young says forthrightly that Jesus should be viewed as an integral part of Judaism during His day. Unfortunately, this will lead many readers to ask, Which Judaism do you mean? Do you mean Pharisaic Judaism, the Judaism of the Sadducees, the Judaism of the Essenes? But keep in mind that Mr. Young uses this term in the broadest possible sense. Insofar as Judaism was also a many-faceted culture, then, yes, Jesus swam in that ocean.

But neither Jesus Himself nor any of the evangelists uses the term Judaism. This is not to say that Jesus never addressed Judaism, because He did. But, speaking from within a Jewish culture, He would not have used that term.

It is Paul, writing to gentiles, who identifies what the reader would recognize as Judaism: "For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion [Greek ioudaismos], how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many of my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" (Galatians 1:13,14).

This is the only use of the term Judaism in the Bible, and this passage suggests two surprising things. One is that Paul places Judaism firmly in his past. Second, he identifies Judaism with the "traditions of the fathers." This is in keeping with the understanding of the Jews about their own religion.

Adin Steinsaltz has this to say about the Talmud, the repository of the traditions of Judaism: "If the Bible is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is the central pillar . . . In many ways the Talmud is the most important book in the Jewish culture" (The Essential Talmud, by Adin Steinsaltz, translated from the Hebrew by Chaya Galai, Best Books, 1976. p. 3).

In the New Testament no mention is made of the Jewish Talmud, the Mishnah or even the oral law. But Jesus spoke often of the traditions of the elders, which seems to be His expression for the oral law, and He did not always speak of it in complimentary terms. Presumably the oral law finds expression in the traditions of the fathers or traditions of the elders of Judah and forms the "central pillar" of what we call Judaism.

But that is not what Brad Young means when he speaks of Judaism: "For Jesus, Judaism was a vibrant belief in the true God." Yet that is not what Paul means by the term, and it is not what most English readers mean either. Judaism, both as religion and culture, is a late development. What do you call the pre-Judaism faith in the one true God? The Bible gives no name to it.

Christian vs. Jew

In his introduction Mr. Young cites A.J. Heschel: "The Christian message, which in its origins intended to be an affirmation and culmination of Judaism, became very early diverted into a repudiation and negation of Judaism; obsolescence and abrogation of Jewish faith became conviction and doctrine; the new covenant was conceived not as a new phase of disclosure, but as abolition and replacement of the ancient one; theological thinking fashioned its terms in a spirit of antitheses to Judaism."

Mr. Young's best motives in the book probably lead him to his weakest conclusions. He is at some pains to bridge this age-old gap between Christian and Jew, to clarify old misunderstandings and misconceptions, to lower barriers, to eliminate the perception of Jews as "Christ killers" and to make everyone aware of the unjust persecution of Jews by Christians. In all this, his cause is just.

He is anxious to acquit the Jews in general and the Pharisees in particular relative to the death of Jesus, and he ardently wants to substitute a better reputation for the Pharisees, who have long been painted in villainous tones by Christian theologians. The Pharisees, he tells us, were the good guys. The Sadducees were bad, and the Romans were the real villains.

A part of me wants to agree with him. For much too long, Christianity has indulged itself in anti-Judaic actions and polemics and has ignored important teachings of Jesus that are reflected in Judaism. Mr. Young wants us to think better of the Pharisees and Jewish people, and he is right. But, in his efforts to set the record straight, I think he goes beyond the record and gets it wrong.

Here is what he has to say about Jesus and the Pharisees: "Mistakenly it has been taught that Jesus' theological teachings challenged the Pharisees, and, therefore, they wanted him to die. This popular approach has deep roots in Christian hostility toward ancient Jewish thought and ignores the great similarity between the teachings of Jesus and those of the Pharisees. The theology of Jesus was almost identical to that of the Pharisees . . . While Jesus criticized the hypocritical practices of some Pharisees, he never uttered a negative word about the teachings of the Pharisees" (p. 228).

I regret that I have to disagree, because the record demands it. In the Sermon on the Mount alone, Jesus disagreed with prevailing Jewish tradition on the commandments against murder and adultery, swearing oaths, revenge and retaliation, loving one's enemies and prayer (Matthew 5-7). Later He casts the Jews' tradition, which in their eyes formed part of the oral law, as a direct transgression of the commandment of God (Matthew 15:3).

The issue was corban, by which a man could declare himself free of the obligation to support aging parents, thus negating the Fifth Commandment. Jesus then cites Isaiah as a prophecy against the Pharisees: "Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (verses 7-9).

This is a plain rejection of the doctrines, the teachings, of the Pharisees--not merely the doctrine on corban, but their doctrines in general.

Later He will tell His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. His disciples, puzzled at first, finally realize He is warning them against the doctrines of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6,12).

On another occasion Jesus calls the Pharisees "blind leaders of the blind," saying that those who followed them would end up in the ditch with them (Matthew 15:12). And the Pharisees were in adamant disagreement with Jesus on questions of how to observe the Sabbath day.

I find it hard to agree with Brad Young that Jesus "never uttered a negative word about the teachings of the Pharisees." To say with him that "the theology of Jesus was almost identical to that of the Pharisees" is simply something I cannot do.

But did that mean the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead?

Who killed Christ?

According to Mr. Young, it was the Romans who killed Christ, not the Jews. "Pilate gave out the death sentence," he concludes. "Roman soldiers carried it out" (p. 236).

True enough. But is that enough to exculpate the Jews in general and the Pharisees in particular?

Mr. Young is dead right about the reprehensible behavior of Christians toward Jews. He is right in reminding us that the death of Jesus was a necessary part of God's plan. But nobody is innocent: neither Jew nor Roman nor Pharisee.

The Pharisees did want Jesus dead. Jesus developed a parable about a householder (God) who planted a vineyard and let it out to husbandmen (the Jewish leaders including the Pharisees). When the harvest came, the householder (God) sent servants (prophets) to get his share of the crop.

"And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another" (Matthew 21:35).

Then the householder said, "I will send them my Son [Jesus]; they will reverence my son."

But, no, when the husbandmen (the Jewish leaders and Pharisees) saw the son (Jesus), "they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him" (verse 39).

In this parable Jesus Himself identifies those who would eventually kill Him, and they were not the Romans.

In the end the Jewish leaders knew who Jesus was talking about: "And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet" (v. 45).

One of the most dramatic encounters Jesus had with the Pharisees took place in a synagogue on the Sabbath. There was in the synagogue a man with a withered hand, and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely to see whether he would heal the man on the Sabbath day. They taught that it was wrong to heal on the Sabbath.

Jesus asked them: "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?"

They wouldn't answer. Jesus looked at them in anger and then told the man to stretch out his hand. When he did, it was restored like the other. Were the Pharisees thrilled at the miracle? Hardly.

"The Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him" (Mark 3:6).

Yes, Pilate condemned Jesus, and the Roman soldiers carried out the condemnation. But who arrested Jesus?

Mr. Young seems to want to blame the Sadducean leadership. But John has a different view.

"Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons" (John 18:3).

In Mr. Young's view, the Pharisees were friends of Jesus who tried to protect Him from the wicked rulers of the Jews who toadied to the Romans. John doesn't see it that way.

"Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue" (John 12:42).

Who delivered Jesus to Pilate on false charges? When Pilate tried to let Jesus go, who demanded he release Barabbas instead?

Mr. Young notes that on one occasion the Pharisees were so concerned about Jesus' well-being that they warned Him of a death threat: "The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee" (Luke 13:31, KJV).

In view of what has gone before, this can be described only as a form of intimidation designed to get Jesus to go away. The Pharisees were no friends of Jesus.

Moses' seat

Jesus seems, at least superficially, to offer a kind of endorsement of the Pharisees' teachings right at the beginning of His most scathing indictment of their hypocrisy: "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not" (Matthew 23:1-3).

It would be strange indeed if, in the face of what we have read before, Jesus were endorsing the doctrines and teachings of the Pharisees. No one in Jesus' audience would have imagined for a moment that He was establishing the Pharisees as the normative authority for Judaism, much less for His church.

Why not? Well, first of all it was because everyone in Jesus' audience was well aware of the debates that raged from Moses' seat in the synagogue.

I had previously thought that "Moses' seat" was a seat of judgment from which the Pharisees heard and dispensed legal decisions that had binding force for those who had come before the court. I am indebted to Brad Young for correcting that misapprehension of the concept. He points out that the "Jewish culture of the period encouraged free thinking, creativity, and innovative methods of studying the deep meaning of Torah" (p. 185).

Adin Steinsaltz observes that "the Talmud is perhaps the only sacred book in all of world culture that permits and even encourages the student to question it" (The Essential Talmud, p. 5).

The seat of Moses in the synagogue was the seat from which the law of Moses was taught. The law of Moses was normative for Judaism and would remain normative for the church, but in the synagogue great debates raged from the seat of Moses as rabbis differed on the interpretation of Moses.

It is a measure of how Roman we have become in our thought processes that we think of the seat of Moses as a seat of authority that must be obeyed as opposed to a seat of learning. Roman thought encouraged obedience while Jewish thought encouraged dialogue, rational thought and disagreements.

Not every Pharisee who sat in the seat of Moses taught the same thing. Members of Jesus' audience knew this well enough, and they understood Jesus to be drawing a distinction between what people taught and what they practiced.

The teachings from Moses' seat were to be heeded, but the behavior of those doing the teachings was another matter. Jesus was not establishing the Pharisees as the authority for the practice of Judaism. He was condemning their hypocrisy.

The oral law

I do not think of Judaism--that is, the post-exile Judaism that Jesus came into--as a revealed religion. I think of it as the response of the Jewish people to the revelation of God. To whatever extent Judaism is a faithful response, it deserves our respect. No people has ever given the reverence and careful thought to the revealed law of God that the Jewish sages have given it. For the Jews, the oral law is just as important as the written law, though not for the reasons that some Western thinkers might suppose.

Oral law works in Judaism because it does not carry an external binding force. Adin Steinsaltz says: "And although the Talmud is, to this day, the primary source of Jewish law, it cannot be cited as an authority for the purposes of ruling" (The Essential Talmud, p. 4). This is even though he argues that the oral law is as ancient and significant as the written law. It is, in a strange sort of way, authoritative, but not controlling.

One of the revealing sections in Steinsaltz's presentation is the explanation of the need for an oral law. "It is clear in principle that every written code of law must be accompanied by an oral tradition" (p. 11).

One example he cites is that the oral tradition maintains the meaning of words. Even the names of some animals were unknown to early Jewish sages, which inspired study and research. Then there are simple words like those found in the Fourth Commandment. How is work to be defined? In the Feast of Booths, how is booth to be defined? The purpose of the oral law, then, was to maintain the meaning of the written text.

The oral law is summarized in the Talmud. According to Steinsaltz: "The formal definition of the Talmud is the summary of oral law that evolved after centuries of scholarly effort by sages who lived in Palestine and Babylonia until the beginning of the middle ages" (pp. 3-4).

Furthermore: "If the Bible is the cornerstone of Judaism, then the Talmud is the central pillar . . . In many ways the Talmud is the most important book in the Jewish culture."

Again: "The Talmud is the repository of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom, and the oral law, which is as ancient and significant as the written law (the Torah), finds expression therein."

Some Jews believe God handed down the oral law from Mount Sinai at the same time He gave the written law. Other Jews do not believe that, but in any case the claim is made that the Mishnah and Talmud only contain the oral law, not that they are the oral law.

It is also helpful if we keep in mind the synonym for the oral law most commonly used: tradition. It is the word Jesus used to describe it (and the word used in Fiddler on the Roof). In English, tradition is the more accurate term for the oral law.

The oral law is teaching, and teachers are often contradictory and sometimes wrong. I said that, to whatever extent Judaism is a faithful response, it deserves our respect. To whatever extent we believe it is wrong, we have an obligation to argue with it--which is, after all, in the best tradition of Judaism.

Judaism is not a religion in which someone rules and everyone else follows. In Judaism, intelligent and well-read scholars talk about the revealed Word of God and its application in the real world. For them Torah is not merely the written law; it embodies the ongoing discussion including the tradition of the fathers.

One of the greatest historical controversies was that between the methods of the houses (schools) of Shammai and Hillel. It was eventually resolved in the famous dictum: "Both are the words of the living God, and the decision is in accordance with the house of Hillel."

For the Western mind this is an intolerable contradiction. For the Jewish mind it is tradition.

Steinsaltz is right when he says any written law requires an oral law. But the oral law is not written because it must adapt to changing times and circumstances. You might conclude that the Jews made a break with tradition when they allowed the oral law to be written down, but you would be wrong. The Mishnah and Talmud are not the oral law, but they are entirely about the oral law. That is why they can be internally contradictory without offending Jewish sensibilities in the least.

East vs. West

One of the strongest contributions made by Brad Young is the distinction between the Eastern, Jewish mind-set and that of the West. It will be the hardest for many of us to accept because we think West, not East.

"The two great commandments," Mr. Young says, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart' and 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' characterize the primary Jewish theological orientation to a living faith tradition . . . Judaism has no creed, but Torah is the fact of divine revelation. So the theology of many Jewish scholars is not to have a theology."

I can imagine how hard that would be for a Christian theologian. But, in truth, one finds no "creed" in the Old Testament, nor does one find Jesus stating a creed or Paul publishing a doctrinal statement. Why should it be so?

"God is too vast," observes Mr. Young. "Mystery and wonder must pervade human perception of God's goodness. Contradictions and inconsistencies are part and parcel of God and His mysteries. One learns by doing. The Eastern mind loves riddles and is fond of mystery. The Western theologian explains much and understands little."

I know people who will strenuously disagree with Brad Young at this point, but the last sentence is undoubtedly true. The Eastern mind accepts mystery. The Western mind has an explanation for everything. But that does not mean he understands it any better than the man who leaves a mystery as a mystery. Mr. Young is undoubtedly correct when he says: "All attempts to systematize God will fall short. Stand in amazement. Wonder in awe."

There is a natural ambivalence in allegory, and I think that is the reason Jesus and the rabbis used parables. As Mr. Young says, the Western theologian explains everything and understands little. A parable is intended to be ambiguous because, when you explain too much, you close out the question and block out the possibility of deeper understanding.

Becoming Roman

Western thought, once it has discovered Judaism and the Hebrew roots of Christianity, still has a hard time getting it right. We fail to get it right because we try to apply it in Western terms. Christians who adopt Jewish culture including yarmulkes and prayer shawls are a caricature of Judaism. Real Jews are not impressed by such efforts, for they realize that Judaism is for Jews. As Christians, we have no obligation to imitate Jewish custom and culture, only to learn from it.

Mr. Young notes that the massive influx of gentiles in the last half of the first century and beyond swamped the infant church. Rather, it swamped the Judaism in the church. As the church moved west, it lost touch with the ancient religion of the Bible and, in a reaction against Judaism, divorced itself from the Old Testament at the same time.

Samuele Bacchiocchi arrives at much the same conclusion in his landmark work From Sabbath to Sunday. As the Jews began to be increasingly persecuted by Rome, the Roman church began to separate itself more and more from things Jewish, including the Sabbath. They were getting things Jewish out of the church.

Then, when Constantine endowed the Roman church with wealth and power, the church became a clone of Imperial Rome. Later the Protestant Reformation, while objecting to Roman abuse of power, still thought in Roman patterns. To this day even the Sabbatarian churches still think and follow the pattern of the Reformation and Rome. This is why, when turning to the law of God at last, Western Christians also turn to legalistic and literalistic interpretations of Scripture. This explains in large part why Christians have so much trouble with Paul.

New wine, old wineskins.

"Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved" (Matthew 9:17).

Jesus brought a new tradition, a new interpretation of the law of Moses, that stood in striking conflict with existing tradition. One of the examples of this concerns fasting. Jesus and His disciples were not following the custom of frequent fasting as epitomized by the Pharisee who boasted, "I fast twice in the week."

When they challenged him on it, Jesus replied: "Can ye make the children of the bride chamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days" (Luke 5:34).

Then Jesus gave a parable to the Pharisees concerning things old and new: "No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better" (Luke 5:36-39).

Brad Young's interpretation of this parable was new to me. He sees the old wine as emblematic of the old practices, the old ways of the law of Moses, with a fast only on the Day of Atonement. The new wine, he concludes, was the new fasts introduced by various sects in an attempt to become more spiritual. Jesus, he concluded, wanted people to revitalize their faith in God.

"New fast days," Mr. Young said, "may not be the best way to pursue the path leading back to the old wine. [Jesus] wanted to see fresh wineskins for old wine." He quotes Jesus as saying, "The old wine is better."

I have to disagree with Mr. Young on this in that Jesus did not suggest new wineskins for old wine, although that would fit better with Mr. Young's thesis. What Jesus said doesn't fit it at all. Jesus said, "New wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved."

A rereading of the account makes it plain enough that the Pharisees were challenging Jesus because His disciples were not following the old tradition. The old wine and the old wineskins have to represent Jewish tradition.

Although Jesus and His disciples followed the law of Moses well enough, Jesus brought an entirely new interpretation of that law. We can argue that it was a restoration of the right approach to the law, but it was certainly new to the Pharisees. Jesus' teaching was new wine, and it would surely burst the old wineskins of Pharisaic tradition.

Older is better

Mr. Young quotes Jesus directly, though, as saying, "The old wine is better." But Jesus does not quite say that. Here is the quote: "No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better."

Jesus' point in the parable is not the relative quality of wine but the obvious fact that we do not change our tastes readily.

"I understand," Jesus said, "that you are not going to initially prefer the new wine. It won't taste like the old wine, and it can't be put in your old wineskins. We have to make a fresh start."

Brad Young makes an important contribution when he says we need to break with the Western mind-set and listen to the words of Jesus in a Jewish context. Some light can be shed on the Gospels from understanding Jewish tradition and culture, and there is no doubt that the law of Moses formed the basis for all of Jesus' teaching.

But Jesus did not found his teachings on Jewish tradition. Jewish tradition, the oral law of the first century, was old wine in old wineskins. Jesus brought new wine and new wineskins, an entirely new tradition for applying the law of God to life.

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