Every so often, just to be ornery, I take the risk of telling some fellow Christian that I’m into the study of the Jewish roots of the Church, just to see his or her reaction.
The most common one is a slight wrinkling of the nose, and words like, “Eeuuw, why would you want to study that?” The wrinkling speaks louder than the words. There seems to be a natural distaste in the Church for all things Jewish. After all, weren’t the Jews “Christ killers”? Didn’t they make the Temple a “den of thieves”? Didn’t Jesus constantly rebuke them for their legalism and unspirituality? Why then study anything that has to do with the Jews? Do you want to take us back to Jewish legalism?
This reaction, not all that uncommon, is born of ignorance. It is an ignorance that is at once saddening and dangerous. The study of the Jewish roots of the Church and the New Testament does not imply a return to “works righteousness” or legalism. Furthermore, the relationship between Jesus and his fellow Jews is grossly misunderstood in Christian circles. Thirdly, Paul’s relationship to Judaism is also generally miscast.
When many, though not all, modern gentiles think of Jews a whole panoply of images comes forth on their mental monitors: the Israel-Palestine conflict, the steady stream of cinematic sewage pumped out by “Hollywood’s Jews,” the socialistic and leftist politics of “liberal Jews,” “Jewish banking conspiracies,” “Jewish ideas” like communism and Freudian psychology, and the “scribes and Pharisees” of Jesus day who “bound heavy burdens grievous to be born” etc. etc. etc. Anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are alive and thriving in some Christian circles, not to mention in the rest of the world.
Secular Europe today is more anti-Semitic than it has been at any time since World War II. The militant Islamic world in general is anti-Semitic, actively seeking the total annihilation of tiny Israel. Russia is still not a place where Jews are welcomed. It is a place from which they continue to flee. In fact there are few places in the world where the Jew is embraced with open arms.
In many parts of the world, even in our supposedly enlightened 21st century, a Jew must still look back over his shoulder to see who might be pursuing him. He can never fully relax, knowing that he is safe, accepted and comfortable in a world of unbiased and welcoming gentiles. He is always conscious of his “otherness.”
Much of this is the unfortunate outgrowth of a deleterious teaching know as “the Replacement Doctrine.” It is the idea that the Church replaced the rejected, “Christ-killing,” Jews in the divine economy. It is an ugly doctrine, embraced by many from Patristic to modern times. Christians used the replacement idea down through he ages to justify no end of persecution of the Jewish people. Thankfully, the Roman Church officially repudiated it at Vatican II. Sadly, the toxic residue of this ugly teaching lingers on, contaminating many. It was a doctrine spawned in the dark heart of Hell.
Ignorance is not bliss – it is dangerous and a source of unending pain in the world. The antidotes to ignorance are knowledge and understanding. When a Christian commits to the study of the Jewish roots of the Church, ignorance begins to exit by the back door as knowledge comes in the front door.
Roots Studies the “In Thing”
Professor Richard B. Hays, professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, and by no means a backwater scholar, has written, “The most important advance of New Testament scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century has been its dramatic reframing of the relationship between early Christianity and formative Judaism. This hard-won new understanding of the relation between these movements is foundational to understanding the New Testament’s theological comments on Jews and Judaism” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 409).
Hays like many other New Testament and Jewish scholars, has come to see that “First-century Judaism was diverse, not monolithic” (ibid.).
He also recognizes the fact that, “Earliest Christianity began as a Jewish sectarian movement. Jesus himself was a Jew who observed Torah, participated in Israel’s festivals, and – in the tradition of Israel’s prophets – called for reform and renewal within Judaism” (ibid.).
Continues Hays, “The first Christians, all of whom were Jews, did not believe that they had converted to another religion, or that they were starting a new one. They understood themselves as Jews offering a new construal of God’s dealing with Israel” (ibid.).
These understandings are foundational to a comprehension of the message points of the so-called New Testament.
Paul Not the Founder of Christianity
It is commonly taught in Christian circles, and in some Jewish ones, that the apostle Paul was the founder of what came to be known as “New Testament Christianity.” Paul, according to this approach, repudiated the Law of Moses in favor of a grace-based faith. As scholar Peter Tomson points out, there are three erroneous assumptions upon which many Christian scholars proceed: “(1) the center of his [Paul’s] thought is a polemic against the Law; (2) the Law for him no longer had a practical meaning; and (3) ancient Jewish literature is no source for explaining his letters” (Paul and the Jewish Law by Peter J. Tomson, p. 1).
These erroneous presuppositions give rise to a swarm of theological errors when it comes to interpreting Paul. Dr. Brad Young, a leading Jewish roots scholar, sets the record about Paul straight: “Paul calls himself a Pharisee. We should listen to what Paul tells us about himself. In fact, there is no evidence anywhere in the New Testament that he departed from his firm convictions as a Pharisee…He is a Hebrew of the Hebrews rather than a Hellenist of the Greeks. Fresh evidence from the literary discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as renewed interest in the analysis of rabbinic literature place the apostle Paul squarely within the Judaism of the land of Israel and not the Hellenism of Asia Minor…Paul is a Pharisee who has been rejected by the synagogue and misunderstood by the church…Paul however, considered himself to be a Pharisee throughout his entire life…By rejecting the Judaism of the Apostle Paul, unwittingly the Church has adopted an anti-Semitism that echoes the teachings of Marcion, the second century heretic who rejected the Old Testament for his interpretation of Paul’s writings” (Paul the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young, excerpts, pp. 1-3).
Dr. Young then asserts that Paul’s theology was “rooted in Torah true Judaism” (ibid. p. 3).
If we accept all these propositions, we shall have to rethink our Christian faith. Whether we are members of the one of the Churches of God, or Evangelicals in the neo-Worldwide Church of God, this understanding implies revised thinking. If we don’t understand Paul, we won’t fully grasp what it means to be a Christian, especially when it comes to the non-Jewish Christian’s relationship to Torah. Dr. Young summarizes it this way: “…the major difficulty in grasping Paul’s thought is really context. We misunderstand Paul because we do not understand his Jewish faith. Without esteeming Paul’s Judaism, we cannot comprehend his message” (Young, p. 9).
The study of the Jewish origins of what we now call “The Church,” and of the first century documents of the original believing community, is an endlessly fascinating one. It frequently yields up rich nuggets of understanding. It has the effect of regularly revising one’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the modern world. It dispels many false notions about Judaism. It draws Christian and Jew closer together, breaking down mutual misunderstandings and hostilities. It does not lead to Judaizing – quite the opposite. It helps those of us who are non-Jews to understand our own options as believers. As Dr. Young expresses it: “Paul never cancelled Torah, but made the necessary distinctions between Jews and Gentiles in the mysterious plan of God. He taught that the Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree of Israel, and he never intended for a replacement theology to take root in the Christian Church” (Young, p. 10).
I expect that some will continue to wrinkle their noses when I tell them I’m studying Jewish roots, but it’s their loss, my gain. As we read in Proverbs: “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver!”