What Jews Can Learn from the New Testament

A rich source for understanding the history of Judaism and the history of anti-Semitism.

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It is daunting to think of the number of books a Jew "must" read in order to achieve Jewish literacy. With trepidation I suggest yet another volume to add to that list: the New Testament (NT).

Anyone who lives in a country with a Christian majority (such as the United States or Canada) should acquire basic knowledge of the foundational literature of the dominant faith. Students of the arts need to know stories like the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44), and the "passion" of Jesus (i.e. his trial, suffering, and death) or they will be at a disadvantage when studying many works of literature, art, and music. But there are also reasons why Jews, specifically, would gain from study of the New Testament. It is a rich source for a better understanding of Jewish history, Jewish thought, Jewish law, and the history of anti-Semitism.
jews and the new testament
Almost all of the books of the NT were written by Jews, many of them during one of the most eventful periods of Jewish history: just before and just after the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 C.E.). Very few Jewish writings from that century survive, and none by the rabbis, the representatives of what soon became normative Judaism, since the rabbis of that period felt that their teachings had to remain oral (a position they eventually abandoned). So really the only surviving religious books written by Jews in the first and second centuries are a few of the later Dead Sea Scrolls and the NT.

Ancient Jewish Sects

Any rabbinic text describing the factions and sects of Jews in Israel in the first century were written much later--only after groups like the Sadducees and the Essenes no longer existed.  And while biblical critics teach us that most of the NT authors never actually saw Jesus--and so their descriptions of his words and actions are at best second-hand reports--these authors definitely did record their first-hand knowledge and experience of what it was like for a Jew to live in the Land of Israel in the first century, under the oppressive Roman occupation.  They often described the old Jewish sects and the tensions between them in very realistic ways.

For example, the book of Acts (23:1-10) tells a surprising story about Paul, who realized he was in danger from a Jewish crowd because of his belief that Jesus had been resurrected and that faith in Jesus was the only way of achieving salvation. Paul figured out an ingenious way to escape their wrath:

 "When Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council (verse 6), 'Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead, I am on trial'." In other words, Paul convinced the crowd that all the opposition to him had originated from Sadducees--who did not believe in the concept of resurrection and who were angry that Paul was teaching that resurrection of the dead would occur. Once Paul made that claim, the book of Acts records that the Pharisees in the crowd rallied to Paul's defense ("We find nothing wrong with this man") and he successfully escaped the angry members of the crowd.

This text creates the impression that, in the first century, the followers of Jesus might have been very similar to the Pharisees--the faction that went on to become the dominant group of rabbinic Judaism.  And there are many other texts in the NT that support this idea.

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Martin I. Lockshin

Martin I. Lockshin, Ph.D., is a professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. He received rabbinic ordination after studying at the yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem.