The Jewishness of The New Testament

My Journal: I have great satisfaction at having been able to convince Rabbi Epstein that the New Testament is essentially a Jewish book. His comments about my journey appear on my website,

Pockets of thought in ancient Jewish sources, that never became a part of mainstream Judaism, show remarkable similarity to New Testament interpretation. The rabbis’ writings on key psalms, prophecies, tell me that on a certain level my beliefs are Jewish in origin.

      I’ve benefitted from Michael Browns books and tapes regarding the connection between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. He has several doctorates in Semitic languages and is uniquely qualified to the task.
Though I disagree with N.T. Wright’s belief that the Church has replaced Judaism, his research on the grace elements in second Temple Judaism help Christians to understand that the Pharisees have gotten a bad rap.

The U.S. Catholic bishops stated that a process of de-Judaization of Christianity started very early. Elements of the Hellenistic thought world were introduced, and in many cases Christian theological expression became dependent on Greek metaphysical categories. This process aided in communicating the gospel to the Greco-Roman world. But we also know that the process of de-Judaization eventually became a handy tool in the hands of those who advocated an anti-Judaic theology. After all, the biblical revelation came to humanity in a Hebrew context.

In The Misunderstood Jew, Levine points out areas where Christian readers divorce Jesus from Judaism. Jesus was a Jew by practice, belief, culture, and sensibility. He is not the only Jew who ever proclaimed love of God and love of neighbor. The love commands, already in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, are at the heart of Judaism. Recognizing in Jesus’ words the Jewish concerns for the poor, for social justice, for compassion, as already stated in the Torah and the Prophets, helps Christians recover the Scriptures of Israel. Christians mistakenly refer to the God of the Jews as a wrathful God and the God of the New Testament as loving.

Another problem is the common Christian view that the Old Testament is about Law and the New Testament is about Grace. The Torah—better translated as “Instruction” rather than “Law”—is itself premised on grace. N.T. Wright has written extensively about the grace aspects inherent in second Temple. Over the centuries they have served to soften its more legalistic tendencies. Jews do not follow Torah to earn God’s love; they follow it out of gratitude for the love already given. In both Judaism and Christianity, brace is balanced with “works.” Jesus himself notes that he will acknowledge “not those who say ‘lord lord’ but those who do the will of the Father.”

Many have not clearly understood that Jesus identifies with and is the representation of the Jewish people. The corporate aspects of the gospel apply to the nation of Israel as well as to the church. The theology that the church has become “New Israel” has had disastrous consequences for the Jewish people. Because God has not annulled His promises to Jews, Israel’s national calling is still in effect.


While the apocalyptic inter-Testamental literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls emphasize the Messiah’s supernatural, priestly qualities, the writings of the Rabbis in the Talmud focus on a practical warrior king who will liberate Israel and restore Jews to observance. The set of Christian prophecies predicting Jesus’ triumphant second coming basically parallel the current Jewish expectation of the Messiah. To incorporate the prophecies that also predicted his suffering role, the ancient Rabbis conceived of two Messiahs—a priestly one and a royal one. Interestingly, the two Messiahs were to come in stages that resemble the first and second comings of Christ. However, it is clear the rabbis never put the two concepts together in one person.

Adapted from Jay Michaelson’s review of Shaul Maggid’s Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism

In some ways, the boundary between Judaism and Christianity is a boundary about boundaries—specifically, what separates humanity from God, and whether it is ever possible to bridge the gap. Christianity, of course, has among its cardinal principles that God became man, and that Christ is both fully human and fully divine. Mainstream Judaism holds that such a crossing of boundaries is impossible. Humans are mortal, flawed, frail; the Jewish God is omnipotent. The two cannot be reconciled.

Shaul Maggid is one of several scholars of Judaism—Elliot Wolfson is another—who have disputed this boundary about boundaries. In his previous work, “From Metaphysics to Midrash,” he argued that … Rabbinic and later forms of Judaism developed under the “Christian gaze,” and thus had to differentiate themselves from Christianity. But incarnation never went away. Judaism was as shaped by Christianity as Christianity was by Judaism.

In Hasidism Incarnate, Maggid takes the argument one step further. He argues that the divine/human boundary was permeable, and sometimes crossed. In fact, he claims, in Hasidism we have the resurgence of the very incarnational theology that mainstream Judaism had rejected. In Hasidic thought, God and human are reunited.
In a sense, the quasi-Christological nature of Hasidism is already familiar to us. Both scholarly and popular responses to the messianism of Chabad, for example, have alleged that the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson has been deified. Clearly, there is something Christian-like about the notion of a messiah who will rise from the dead, and seems to have powers well beyond the human.

Maggid, however, is not interested in the excesses of latter-day Chabad. His sources include Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. Maggid views their conceptions of the Tzaddik, the charismatic leader of the Hasidic sect who intercedes between humanity and God, as incarnational theology reborn.

Adapted from Peter Schafer’s review of Daniel Boyardin in Tablet Magazine

The Gospels as well as the letters written by the apostle Paul are firmly embedded in first century C.E. Judaism. The binitarian idea of two divine powers is part of the pre-Christian Jewish tradition. This is seen in the Wisdom and Logos traditions, Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and certain Qumran texts. The Self-Glorification Hymn in Qumran texts has a hero elevated among and above the angels in heaven. That this is a direct forerunner of Jesus noted by Israel Knohl in The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In The Prayer of Joseph, quoted by Origen and dated to the first century C.E., the archangel Jacob-Israel, created before the work of creation, and “the firstborn of every living,” descends to earth.

Jonathan Z. Smith, who published an English translation of the Prayer, aptly summarized its theological importance: “Rather than the Jews imitating Christological titles, it would appear that the Christians borrowed already existing Jewish terminology … The Son of Man of the Similitudes is obviously a major source for the conception of the New Testament’s Son of Man.

Second Temple Judaism offers a much more complex and multifaceted fabric of ideas than many Christians and Jews are prepared to acknowledge. The late books of the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, and indeed the New Testament—are overlapping, competing, but legitimate parts of a teeming Jewish culture.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., a process was set in motion that defined what is “in” and what is “out.” It eliminated trends and directions that were regarded as unwelcome or dangerous. At this point, Judaism drew lines and boundaries between what was orthodox and what was heretical. There can be no doubt that the Christianity that was emerging was one Jewish faction among many.

It turns out that the old binitarian idea of two divine figures, presaged in Second Temple Judaism, was adopted by the New Testament. It lived on in certain circles of rabbinic Judaism, despite its subsequent formulation in Christian theology as the doctrine of  the Trinity.

The most prominent example of rabbinic Judaism’s ongoing preoccupation with binitarian ideas is the elevation of the patriarch Enoch to the highest angel Metatron, enthroned in heaven next to God and granted the title “Lesser God.” This concept seems to come directly out of the New Testament playbook.

Scholars have long tried to dismiss such ideas as the products of some crazy heretics and to relegate them to the fringes of normative Judaism. Because research indicates they were taken seriously by certain rabbis, mainstream Judaism has attacked them. If we wish to evaluate “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the first centuries C.E. from a historian’s point of view, we need to stay away from the dogmatic notion of two firmly established religions. There is no single line or single point in the first centuries of the Christian era that distinguished Judaism and Christianity once and forever. The binitarian idea of two divine powers does not constitute a definite line of demarcation between the faiths—but the Trinitarian idea of three divine powers does. The vicarious suffering of the Messiah, or even his death, does not constitute an impassable boundary—but the scandal of his death on the cross, so much emphasized by Paul, does.

Scholars and educated Jews and Christians have much to gain from this loss of simplicity. Ironically, these “heretical” ideas, suppressed by Talmudic Judaism, have returned to Judaism in what is commonly called Kabbalah.