Columnists > Voices

Christians & Pharisees

Bridging Easter and Passover calls for grace and patience

Issue: "Street warfare," April 7, 2007

At Passover/Easter I think a lot about Christ's sacrifice but also the state of Jewish-Christian relations. That's a subject near and dear to me since I'm a Jewish Christian-and it's a particularly good topic for discussion this year because two new, good books examine aspects of it.

One of them, The Christian and the Pharisee (FaithWords, 2006), features a thoughtful exchange of letters between evangelical pastor R.T. Kendall and Jewish rabbi David Rosen. Note: "Pharisee" is an honorable descriptive in Judaism, and Rosen ably defends the Pharisee-led Judaism that developed around the time of Jesus and has been the Orthodox standard for 2,000 years.

Kendall is particularly good at pointing out the differences between relying on faith and on works. For example, he notes that "since the covenant with Abraham-which was ratified by his faith-was in operation when the Law was given, this means that belief is prior to behavior." He then summarizes how this leads to a difference between Rosen and himself: "You say a person is a sinner because he sins; I say he sins because he was already a sinner . . . his heart was prone to sin from birth."

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Rosen's responses are so irenic that Kendall asks him why he does not become a Christian. Rosen graciously turns down the invitation to join hundreds of brilliant rabbis who have converted over the years, but in doing so praises scholars like Rabbi Moses Rivkes who "in the seventeenth century affirmed the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism," and Rabbi Jacob Emden a little later who called Christianity "a church for the sake of heaven, of lasting validity."

Rosen concludes that "one might speak of Judaism and Christianity as two different models," and acknowledges that each religion has strengths: "Christianity may provide a better response for individual alienation in the modern world." That's helpful, and far better than the hostile gaze of early rabbis that Peter Schaefer portrays in his scholarly work, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Schaefer shows "the threat that the Palestinian rabbis must have felt, their fear, but also the mechanisms of their defense" during the first two centuries of Christianity. He shows that rabbis, simultaneously attracted to and repelled by Jesus' teaching, fought Christianity by drafting a "counter-narrative that was meant to shake the foundations of the Christian message: for, according to them, Jesus was not born from a virgin, as his followers claim, but out of wedlock."

Schaefer points out that the writers of the Babylonian Talmud went further: Those rabbis from around a.d. 200 to 500 depicted Jesus as a bad son and sexually promiscuous disciple who practiced magic, become an idolater, received a deserved execution, and finally suffered (and will suffer for all time) a particularly nasty punishment in hell. That libel is still current in some circles: Asher Norman's Twenty-Six Reasons Why Jews Don't Believe in Jesus (Black White & Read Publishing, 2007) complains about Christ's purported "tale bearing, hating his brother in his heart, bearing a grudge against fellow Jews, and not loving his fellow (Jew) as himself."

Would that Norman might understand what Rosen writes: "I often echo the words of the late brilliant Orthodox Jewish scholar David Flusser who declared that when the Messiah arrives (tomorrow, we pray!), he will approach him with his Christian friends and say, 'Excuse me, sir, have you been here before?' And if he responds affirmatively we will know that Christians were right all along!"

I pray that others among the people I was born into would at least echo those words of uncertainty, instead of calling down curses on those who come to think independently. Given the high incidence of atheism among ethnic Jews, shouldn't there be rejoicing rather than sadness when one turns from a God-hater to a Bible-reader, even if that reading includes not only the Hebrew Scriptures but the New Testament?

We can be certain that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Paul will be merciful. Will we be as well? Let's pray that more Jews will be like Rabbi Rosen and that many through God's grace will cross over. Let's also pray that all who have already received the blessing of grace through Christ will be kind and patient on the model of Pastor Kendall.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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