A look at why Jews struggle to see the Jewishness of the Greek New Testament Manuscripts. Is there hope of finding common ground?
In an increasingly divided world, the range of opinion on what constitutes a divine utterance of the G-d of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob is so fractured; it has become a mosaic of beliefs. This shattered conglomerate is delicately held together by the vague agreement that we all believe in the same G-d, even if we can’t always agree about what He said, or to whom He disclosed it. Jewish people believe that Moshe heard the voice of G-d on Mt. Sinai. Christians claim it was Paul who received the purest form of revelation on the road to Damascus. Muslims came in later, declaring it was Mohammad to whom the truth was revealed deep in a cave within the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. In this article, we are going to look at the three main reasons many Jews raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that the ancient Greek texts referred to by Christians as ‘The New Testament’ are considered to be the “Word of G-d.”
- INCONSISTENCY OF MANUSCRIPTS
- IMPLIED ANTISEMITISM IN THE TEXT
- LACK OF A DEFINED MORAL CODE
Let’s break it down:
- INCONSISTENCY OF THE MANUSCRIPTS
As detailed in a lecture by Hebrew scholar Nehemia Gordon, although there are more than 5,000 ancient manuscripts of the books now canonized in the “New Testament” amazingly, no two documents are the same! This is notable and contrasts with Torah scrolls, which undergo an exceedingly rigorous copying process. If so much as a single character is miswritten, the entire Torah scroll is no longer considered Kosher. It must be repaired by a rigorous process undergone by a highly trained scribe. Because of this, the surviving ancient texts are exact copies of one another. Every yod and nikud must be in place for a Torah scroll to be considered Kosher.
Aside from this lack of a similarly careful process in the production of New Testament texts, there are blatant additions (or omissions) in some versions. There is also furious controversy which surrounds the claimed authorship of several of the books, most notably 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Peter and Titus, which many scholars believe may be forgeries. Even if one does accept the claimed authorship of the various New Testament scripts, there is one other fault, which is that nowhere do these books claim actually to be the WORD of ADONAI! Shockingly, while the phrase “And HaShem said…” occurs with regularity throughout both the Torah and the Prophets, it appears almost nowhere in the New Testament. Where it does, it is quoting (or at times misquoting) from the Tanakh.
Some of these so-called books are, upon closer inspection, letters written to various Greek individuals such as Theophilus (the book of Acts), or to Hellenized congregations that no longer exist. As codified by a takanah of Rabbi Gershom late in the first century, it is strictly forbidden to read the mail of others, and deeming such correspondence as the Word of HaShem is unthinkable. These kinds of inconsistencies in the manuscript are a significant obstacle to Jewish people taking the “New Testament” seriously in any real way.
In Christianity, every denomination has a different preferred translation of the ‘Bible,’ and the differences between versions can be dramatic. The Douay Rheims version used by the Catholic Churches contains almost ten more books than the hundreds of Protestant translations, for example. The original Hebrew is, by contrast, absolutely consistent in every synagogue even where translations may differ slightly, and interpretations may diverge.
While it is common knowledge that where there are 3 Jews in a room, there will be 4 opinions, historically Jews have never gone to war with one another over the differences they have in interpretation and application of the mitzvot. Christianity, on the other hand, has persecuted those deemed to be heretics with atrocious torture, forced conversions, and when all else fails, all-out warfare. All this infighting gives their Jesus, who they espouse to have been a pacifist himself, a bad name.
- IMPLIED ANTISEMITISM IN THE TEXT
To begin with, the title chosen by the Catholic Church to label their “Addendum” to the Tanakh is, by nature, antisemitic. Calling it the “New Testament.” thus reframing the Tanakh as the “Old Testament,” implies it has somehow replaced or superseded the Tanakh in some way, which any Jew knows is a heretical assumption.
If we can get past that, we are instantly met with these seemingly passive-aggressive barbs throughout the “Gospel,” that reveal their author’s (or later editors’) clear bias. The words “All the Jews…” occur repetitively in the New Testament. If these are Jewish authors, supposedly giving an account of the Davidic Jewish Mashiach, why are they referring to the “villains” in these stories as ‘the Jews?’ Accepting that the Catholic Church was the editor-in-chief of the Christian Cannon explains much. It makes the sympathetic portrayal of Pilate, the Roman Procurator, who was ultimately responsible for ordering Jesus’ execution, understandable. By shifting the blame from Rome to “the Jews” as a nebulous and nefarious group of bloodthirsty zealots, the later adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Rome was less problematic.
The fact that the Jewish people have been pinned with the crime of ‘deicide’ for thousands of years might be laughable, if not for this accusation inspiring bloody persecution and pogroms at various times in history. Jewish people consider the idea of G-d being a mortal that is capable of being wounded, let alone killed, preposterous. Only in ancient pagan mythology do gods become mortal or mortals slay gods. It is unfair as well since it is the Romans, not the Rabbis, who had a history and penchant for crucifixion, bloodlust, and cruelty. Romans participated in exhibitions of grotesque violence in the form of “Gladiator Games,” and it’s a historical fact that Romans crucified thousands of people, most of whom were slaves and the most pessimal criminals.
In contrast, imagine a council of Rabbis hosting a “Gladiator Game” or a public execution!? Jewish law has historically been loathe to apply the death penalty. While there are 36 specific transgressions which call for capital punishment in Jewish Halacha, there long have been so many barriers to obtaining an actual conviction that it is practically impossible to do so. This is borne out also in modern times. In the 71 years the nation of Israel has been recognized as a sovereign nation, I know of only a single documented case of capital punishment and that for a Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. This was not your run-of-the-mill bad guy, he took a leading role in the Holocaust. Compared to the frequency of capital punishment, and even public beheadings, prevalent in some of the neighboring Islamic countries that surround Israel, this is remarkable, and attests to the peaceful nature of Judaism as a creed.
- LACK OF A DEFINED MORAL CODE
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to Jews jumping on the Jesus wagon en masse is found in the fundamental divide between Jewish doctrine of any sect, and Christianity. The Torah lays out a well-defined set of commandments for all who seek to be servants of the One true Elohim. It is by this moral code we believe all will be judged and will receive the reward or punishment due to them for their adherence (or lack thereof) to His mitzvot. Reform Judaism skirts the issue of Torah observance, by casting it more as good advice than as a set of absolute morals. The killing blow to Jewish scholars taking the New Testament seriously as an ancient Jewish text is the anti-Torah bias it espouses. Paul, whose Hebrew name was Sha’ul seems to have been the true founder of modern Christianity and his continual anti-Torah bias is profound if, at times, conflicted. This is one of the main reasons Jews have long rejected Jesus, one of the most notable Jews in history, from being considered a serious contender for the title of Mashiach. What Jew can accept a ‘Messiah’ who tells them the Instructions G-d gave us are no longer relevant?
Christianity demands only one thing, believing that the man Jesus Christ is G-d and that his perfection covers all our sins (without accepting a clear definition of what sin even is). Through personal belief in his Godhood, Christians are effortlessly transformed from sinners into saints. It is this effortlessness that they wear as a badge of holiness. Furthermore, their conception of Heaven and Hell in the afterlife is all or nothing. You are in or out, and there is no chance for learning or reform in the life to come for those who have not embraced the ‘Jesus as G-d’ model. When push comes to shove, this belief in assured salvation leaves the Christian with no real impetus to strive for holiness or moral purity and provides a welcome reprieve from the obligation of actually obeying the G-d they claim to serve.
This is an alien idea to Judaism, which embraces the concept of grace in an entirely different way. In Judaism, chesed is not seen as a license to ignore Torah, achieved by the martyrdom of a ‘godman.’ Instead, it is viewed as an attribute of Adonai, who extends His kindness and mercy perpetually to us. In fact, it is part of the title HaShem reveals to Moshe in Sh’ mot when he places him within the cleft of a rock to announce his glory.
And HaShem passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘HaShem, Adonai, HaElohim, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping chesed unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…yet not leaving entirely unpunished. Sh’ mot 34:6-7
Christians who try to divorce Grace from Torah and claim it as a doctrine unique to Christianity are either ignorant or confused, most often the latter. Grace is integral to Torah and is displayed in the Tanakh countless times. Noah found grace in the eyes of Adonai, as did Abraham. Even Hagar, an Egyptian concubine of dubious moral character, found chesed in the eyes of Hashem. In each instance, both obedience and t’ shuvah is expected. It is that last part which says, “yet not leaving entirely unpunished,” which Christians appear to miss. That grace and mercy demand t’ shuvah, or active repentance, is not a question of ‘earning salvation’ in Judaic thought, though Christians try to frame it that way. It is more a matter of paying a debt.
One notable example is high on the craggy peak of Mt Sinai in Sh’ mot 32. Here, HaShem is conveying His Torah to Moshe amid smoke, fire, and the sounding of shofarot. Meanwhile, the freshly emancipated Hebrew people, having grown weary of waiting for Moshe to return, are jumping around topless in front of a golden image of Apis and declaring it a feast to HaShem! Even in the face of this blatant disrespect HaShem, who wants to obliterate the rebels and start over with Moshe, extends grace. For those familiar with the story, it is also apparent that the sins committed that day did not go entirely unpunished.
In contrast to Christianity, Judaism does not have a strictly black and white concept of the afterlife. Heaven and Hell are not seen as permanent destinations, so much as a rubric for where you will find yourself in HaOlam HaBa (the world to come). While transgression is necessarily punished, in Judaic thought, that punishment is mostly not considered to be eternal. For all but the most wicked, who will never leave She’ol, not because they cannot, but because they will not repent, beyond the process of chastisement, there is a sort of divine re-education like entering an eternal Yeshiva.
Given the inconsistencies, antisemitism, in-fighting, and the lack of clearly defined morals that characterize Christianity, is it really any wonder that the apparent confusion and lawlessness of Christianity are a significant turnoff to the Jewish people as a whole? My own experience reflects this conflict clearly. It is what led me to seek out Judaism as the true faith, one that offers absolute consistency in what constitutes the Word of G-d and a clear definition of moral right and wrong spoken by the mouth of G-d Himself. Unless modern Christians and Jews can begin from the foundational agreement that the Tanakh is the everlasting Word of G-d and His Torah, therefore, the moral code toward which we all must strive, we will never have common ground to stand on with one another.