The Jewishness of the New Testament
by Avi Brickner
Why a rabbi who considered the New Testament to be anti-Semitic changed his mind
Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein was curious when he observed one of the teachers in his school reading a book printed in German. Asking the teacher what he was reading, the book was passed to him. He leafed casually through the pages until his eye fell upon the name, “Jesus Christ”. Realizing that the little book was a New Testament, he sternly rebuked the teacher for having it in his possession. He furiously threw the book across the room. It fell behind some other books on a shelf and lay forgotten for nearly 30 years.
An outbreak of intense anti-Jewish persecution arose some years later in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s native Hungary, and he was not surprised that the attacks were carried on in the name of Christianity. In the midst of the pogroms, he was startled to read the writings of men who, in the name of Christ, sternly denounced the anti-Semites and defended the Jews. Among these were prominent figures such as the honoured Biblical scholar Franz Delitzsch, professor at the University of Leipzig. He was intrigued by statements which spoke of the message of Christ as one of love and life to all people.
At this time, the little New Testament, flung in anger into a dusty corner years ago, was found. For the aging rabbi it had been a closed and hated book which he thought to be the source of venom aimed at his people. Was it really what he had supposed it to be? He opened its pages and began to read.
Rabbi Lichtenstein later wrote in Two Letters: or What I Really Wish, describing the experience which flowed from his reading of the New Testament:
“I had thought the New Testament to be impure, a source of pride, of overweening selfishness, of hatred, of the worst kind of violence, but as I opened it, I felt myself peculiarly and wonderfully taken possession of. A sudden glory, a light, flashed through my soul. I looked for thorns and gathered roses; I discovered pearls instead of pebbles; instead of hatred, love; instead of vengeance, forgiveness; instead of bondage, freedom; instead of pride, humility; instead of enmity, reconciliation; instead of death, life, salvation, resurrection, heavenly treasure.”
A Closed Book
The story of Rabbi Lichtenstein is true. It epitomizes two poles of experience that Jewish people have had so far as the New Testament is concerned. For the majority, the New Testament is a closed and unfamiliar book because it is identified with the age-long persecution of the Jewish people in the name of Christianity. Because most Jews believe that the New Testament promotes anti-Semitism, they think there could be nothing in it which could sustain Jewish life and values.
Thus, the common Jewish assessment of the New Testament is formed by a preconditioned impression. In many ways, Jewish experience seems to support this assessment. However, the majority of the Jewish people do not feel inclined to verify the assessment by an investigation of the New Testament itself.
The Message is Jewish
The New Testament authorship and cultural background are Jewish
Yet there is a growing number of Jews who, like Rabbi Lichtenstein, have been prompted, for one reason or another, to investigate seriously what the New Testament actually contains. I am one of them. I have come to recognise through careful investigation that the New Testament is something different than I had first supposed…
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