What Jews Should Know About Christianity

It's time to clear up Jewish misconceptions about Christians.

That many Christians have misperceptions about Judaism — views rang­ing from the slightly humorous (all Jews are smart, all Jews can read Hebrew) to the blatantly obscene (Jews are children of the devil, Jews seek world domination) is common knowledge to us Jews. We would like our Christian neighbors to appreciate Judaism as a tradition of spiritual depth, profound practice, rich culture, and moral emphasis, and we would also like them to know that we Jews do not have horns, do not worship a God of wrath and law as opposed to a God of love and compassion, and do not spend much time worrying about the state of our immortal soul.

But ignorance cuts both ways. It’s time for us to learn more about Christianity: not just its history of anti-Semitism, but also its theological depth and system of morality.

Why Learn More?

Most Jews know little about Christianity, and what we know — impressions often gleaned from benign mall decorations of elves and bun­nies to the spoutings of narrow-minded ministers convinced that they have a lock on heaven’s doors — is likewise often mistaken. Our errors range also from the harmless (thinking that “Christ” is a last name) to the horrifying (thinking that all Christians are anti-Semites).

Yet, in fact, since the birth of the Christian church, we have been ask­ing questions about this moment. Today, with the rise in Christian missionary efforts to convert Jews, on the one hand, and with the current congeniality of interfaith dialogue on the other, it’s time to revisit these questions.

Learning more about Christianity helps us in at least two ways. Not only does this type of inquiry tell us how anti-Jewish attitudes developed within the church, but also, informed historical discussion enables us both to appreciate the traditions of our Christian neighbors and to en­hance our appreciation for the choices Judaism made.

Mistaken Notions

As a professor of the New Testament at a predominantly Christian di­vinity school, I do get a lot of questions from Jews interested in what their Christian neighbors are thinking. Here are some of the issues (and attitudes) I am most frequently confronted with:

• Jesus was a Jewish man who after his death was proclaimed to be divine. The whole megillah — virgin birth, walking on water, resurrection from the dead, ascending to heaven — is nonsense that no intelligent person could possibly believe.

• Christianity is primarily a pagan religion: Although they have the “Old Testament,” they dumped all the laws; instead of recognizing that God is “One” (as expressed, for example, in the statement “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”), they wor­ship three gods, a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit (who used to be called the “Holy Ghost”), and some worship the Virgin Mary. They are also idolators because they worship statues and paintings.

• Christians believe they eat the real body and the real blood of Jesus when they “take communion” and are thus engaged in some sort of cannibalism.

• Christians are necessarily anti-Jewish, think all Jews are going to hell, and therefore the proclamations of the church lead directly to the ovens of Auschwitz.

Each of these positions, however, is based on partial evidence only, and that evidence has been sifted through centuries of Christian persecution of Jews.

What Christians Believe

What do Christians really believe? The response begins with a word of warning. We can no more claim that “all Christians believe” something than we can claim that all Jews hold to a particular view. There are numerous groups within what is broadly called the “church”: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant; some churches are organized according to a particular system of leadership (popes or patriarchs, bishops, deacons, elders, etc.); some are independent. Some ordain women, and some do not; some approve of birth control and abortion, and some do not; some think that all Jews are going to hell, and some do not.

And not all church members agree with the official teachings of their church: Some Roman Catholics favor birth control, but the church’s official line condemns it; some Presbyterians and United Methodists favor the or­dination of gays and lesbians, but the official teaching of their denomina­tions still forbids this. A few years ago, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention proclaimed that “God does not hear the prayers of the Jews”; numerous Baptists disagreed.

In other words, Christianity in terms of its di­versity looks very much like Judaism. Thus, any comments that might be made about “what Christians think” are true only in a general sense.

Is the whole system nonsense? No, it actually makes a great deal of sense when seen in its historical context. The Christian proclamation was both developed and accepted by a number of Jews, so it must have made sense to them, and it clearly made sense to the greater number of pagans who joined the church. The reason many of the claims of the church ap­pear so alien to Jews today is the passing of time; to understand how the church could begin within Judaism, we need to go back several genera­tions before Jesus.

This essay first appeared in Moment magazine and was also published in Best Spiritual Writing 2003(Jossey-Bass). Reprinted with permission of the author.

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