Historic Jewish Views on Christianity

Theological attitudes toward Christianity have changed over time in response to social and political developments.

In its very earliest days, Christianity was seen by the Jewish teachers as a Jewish heresy; its adherents were Jews who believed in the divinity of Christ [and considered Christianity a Jewish sect]. But when Christianity spread and became a world religion, with numerous converts from the Gentile world, it became a rival religion to Judaism. Christians were then seen as Gentiles not because they were Christians but because, in the main, they were, in fact, Gentiles (i.e. not Jewish).

Rabbinic Attitudes Toward Christianity

In the Talmud and Midrash, the comparatively few references to Christianity (these only appear in uncensored versions) are to this religion as a heretical sect believing in a form of dualism, God the Father and God the Son.

Typical is the comment of the late third‑century Palestinian teacher, Rabbi Abbahu, on the verse (Isaiah 44:6): “I am the first, and I am the last, and beside Me there is no God.” As Rabbi Abbahu spells it out: “‘I am the first,’ for I have no father; ‘and I am the last,’ for I have no son, ‘and beside Me there is no God,’ for I have no brother.” Since the doctrine of the Trinity did not emerge fully until a later period, there are no references to this doctrine in the Talmud or midrash, despite far‑fetched attempts to find hints of it in these sources.

It was not until the Middle Ages that the status of Christianity (and of Islam) as a rival religion was considered from the Jewish point of view.

Medieval Attitudes Toward Christianity

Attacks on Christian dogma are found in medieval Jewish writings from the biblical commentaries of Rashi and [David] Kimhi, refuting the Christian claim that the Old Testament contains prophesies anticipating the coming of Jesus, through works of apologetics such as the Kuzari of Judah Halevi and the Faith Strengthened of [the Karaite] Isaac of Troki (d. 1593), to the records drawn up by Jews of the various disputations they had with Christians [perhaps the most famous being the disputation about the nature of the Messiah between the apostate Pablo Christiani and Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, Nahmanides, in 1263].

In these and similar works the main thrust was to deny that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus (the world gave no evidence that this glorious age had arrived, it was frequently protested) and especially to take issue with the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

As [the Venetian rabbi] Leon da Modena noted, it was not the doctrine of the Trinity in itself that was objectionable (after all, in the kabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot there is much talk of three, and more, aspects of [the] Deity) but its elaboration, in which the Trinity is composed of three divine Persons, one of which became incarnate in a human being. The medieval thinkers who held Christianity but not Islam to be an idolatrous faith did so particularly because of the worship of the Cross; to bow before an icon or a crucifix was held to be akin to bowing to idols.

The basic question in practice was whether the older talmudic regulations against social intercourse and business dealings with pagans on the days of their festivals (because they might offer praise to their gods at the successful outcome of the deal) applied to Christians. With Jews living among Christians to apply these regulations would have been catastrophic, if not impossible.

The French scholars [such as Menahem Meiri, discussed below] tended to adopt casuistic arguments in order to circumvent some of the more onerous rules; they argued, for instance, that any money given by Christians to the Church is largely for the benefit of the clergy, and there are certainly no actual sacrifices of animals or birds to idols as there were in talmudic times.

Menahem Meiri [a thirteenth-century talmudist] went much further to argue that the references to pagans in the talmudic literature could not apply to what he called “people whose lives are governed by religion.” Eventually, a distinction was made, unknown in the talmudic sources, according to which Christianity did constitute idolatry for Jews but not “for them” (i.e. Christians). A Christian did not offend against the Noahide laws [the seven principles, including the rejection of idolatry, by which Judaism expects non-Jews to live] since the Torah allows a Gentile, but not a Jew, to worship another being in addition to God.

This concept was known as shittuf (“association,” of another together with God) and the oft‑quoted legal maxim, allowing for a more liberal attitude towards Christians, is: “A Noahide is not enjoined to reject shittuf.”

Social needs obviously called forth this artificial distinction which was by no means universally accepted. As late as the end of the eighteenth century, Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, ruled that, since it is forbidden to mention the name of an idol, a Jew may refer to Jesus but never use the name Christ.

In the twentieth century, the halakhic authorities debated whether it is permitted to use an abandoned church as a synagogue, or for a Jew to give a donation to a church or even enter a church, or wear a medal in the shape of a cross. In the last instance, permission was given, on the grounds that the medal is a decoration, not an object of worship. Some authorities permitted a Jew to trade in the sale of crosses to Christians, provided these were to be worn not for purposes of worship but simply as decorations.

Modern Attitudes Toward Christianity

In modern times there has been far greater cooperation between Jews and Christians, many Jews welcoming Jewish‑Christian dialogues in which the aim of each side is to understand the position of the other, and even learn from it, without in any way moving from its own.

Some Jews believe that Judaism and Christianity have so much in common that it is permissible to speak of a Jewish-Christian tradition. But there is the strongest opposition on the part of all Jews, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, to the attempts by Christian missionary groups to convert Jews to Christianity. The Jews for Jesus movement is very much a fringe phenomenon and has justly been condemned by all faithful Jews as trying to introduce Christianity to Jews through the back door, so to speak.

A single contemporary Orthodox Jewish theologian in the US has argued that Judaism does not oblige Jews to reject the doctrine of the incarnation as impossible in itself. For him, Jews reject Christianity not because God could not have become incarnate in a human being, since that would compromise God’s omnipotence, but because, in fact, He did not do so in the person of Jesus.

This eccentric view is rejected by all other Jewish theologians on the grounds that God, being God, can as little become human as He can wish Himself out of existence. As Aquinas said–and he was anticipated by Jewish thinkers–it is no compromise of God’s omnipotence that He cannot do the absolutely impossible.

[British Jewish theologian] C. G. Montefiore, while insisting that a Jew cannot be at the same time a Christian, argues that some aspects of the Christian ethic are superior to the Jewish, for which he was attacked by [Zionist thinker] Ahad Ha‑Am. On the scholarly level, there have been Jewish investigations into the Jewish background of Christianity, but in a purely objective way with the theological questions seen as irrelevant to scholarship.

It would certainly be incorrect to say that the suspicions of the two religions of one another are a thing of the past. What can be said is that, in an age of greater religious tolerance, there has been a growing realization that the two have enough in common to enable them to work in harmony for human betterment.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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