What Jews (and Christians too) Should Know About the New Testament
By Amy-Jill Levine
Most Jews do not grow up with New Testament stories. While the term “Prodigal son” may be familiar, Jewish readers may not know that this very Jewish parable, which begins “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11), evokes the Hebrew Bible stories of Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Jews who attended U.S. public schools prior to 1962 likely recited the “Lord’s prayer” every morning, but not a few believed the words included “Harold be your name” and “Lead us not into Penn Station.”
Most Jewish readers approach the New Testament, if they approach it at all, with at best a certain unfamiliarity. This is unfortunate, for much if not all of the New Testament is Jewish literature. Jesus himself was a Jew; he is, in terms of dates of documents, the first person in history to be called “Rabbi” (John 1:38, 49, 3:2, 6:25). Paul is a Jew; he describes himself as “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). Indeed, Paul is the only undisputed first-century Pharisee from whom we have written records (a case can also be made for Josephus). Most Biblical scholars think that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and John were Jews. (The earliest manuscripts as well as references to them do not attach the names “Matthew” and “John”; the original Gospel texts were anonymous.) The author of the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse of John) thinks in Jewish terms, as does the author of the Epistle of James.
Jews, especially those who come to the New Testament unaware of how its interpretation has been used to denigrate Judaism, will find much to appreciate. Some will be pleased to find that the opening line, Matthew 1:1, connects Jesus to Abraham and to David. Some will celebrate the morality of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7); others will find in the parables of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30–37) and the “Sheep and the Goats” (Matthew 25:31–46) timeless, universal messages or deem 1 Corinthians 13 a perfect description of love.
But for most Jews, especially those aware of the difficult history of Christian-Jewish relations, the dominant first impression may well be one of dismay, if not worse. Some will conclude the text is a message of hatred for Jews and Judaism. Others will find blasphemous the announcement of Jesus’ divinity. Still others will find illegitimate the assertions that Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy.
For these dismayed readers, a second look is advisable. When the New Testament is understood within its own historical contexts, not only can Jews recover part of Jewish history, but also the polemics, the assertions of Jesus’ divinity and the claims of fulfilled prophecy become comprehensible…
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