I was at a lecture recently where New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III was talking to the audience about the formation of the New Testament canon. Ben made a comment about how important knowledge of the Old Testament and Israel’s theology is essential to understanding Jesus, to which an audience member responded with the question, “You mean we should think of Jesus as a Jew and understand Judaism in order to be clear about who we are as Christians?”
“Yes,” said Ben. “Duh!” thought I.
Growing up in the evangelical world we didn’t talk a lot about the Jewishness of Jesus. The Old Testament was primarily reserved for moralistic stories and lessons about biblical characters that we learned about it Sunday School and VBS. It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I began to see that understanding Jewish theology, practice, and worldview is essential to having a clue of what Jesus (and Paul, for that matter) was talking about and doing in the pages of the New Testament. Covenant, exodus, exile, resurrection hope, are all embedded themes that act like reflexive lenses through which to view the mission and work of Christ.
The work of N.T. Wright really influenced me in learning to use those lenses, and several trips to Israel have sharpened their focus. Opening up the Hebrew Scriptures alongside the Gospels and the Epistles was central to the early church, and it continues to be a critical need for us as well.
My Rocky Mountain United Methodist clergy colleague Rebekah Simon-Peter adds a personal story to the symbiotic connection between Jewish and Christian theology and spirituality. Her book The Jew Named Jesus is both a compelling autobiography of her journey from a Jewish upbringing to becoming a Christian pastor with Jewish roots, and a plea for Christian re-engagement of our Jewish brothers and sisters. Rebekah’s story of an early vision of Jesus coming to her on her 29th birthday is fascinating and led her to live the rest of her life in the not-so-divergent worlds of Judaism and Christianity. She now has a ministry that seeks to build bridges between the two faiths–bridges that have been there since the beginning (indeed, she changed her name to reflect this marriage of faiths).
Simon-Peter spends time dealing with the roots of Christian anti-Semitism and demonstrates correctly why that’s an unbiblical and un-Christian way of viewing those with whom we Christians share a common heritage and spiritual home. Her passion for Jewish-Christian relations shines through the book and is inspiring.
The book gets a little sideways, however, when it begins to speak about the destiny of Jews and Christians. She rightly reminds us that God has not forgotten his chosen people, as Paul states clearly in Romans, and that Christian evangelism that automatically assigns Jews to hell is misguided at best (agreed!). She does, however, begin to drift into universalism when she downplays belief in Christ as being less important than simply doing what he did (the New Testament insists that faith and works are conjoined). She sees the coming kingdom of God as a sign of universal salvation for all and quotes Jon Dominic Crossan for this view, who says that the “historical” Jesus was never interested in calling attention to himself (er, so much for the whole Gospel of John!). Crossan and his Jesus Seminar colleagues have largely deconstructed the Jesus of the Gospels into a simple Jewish wisdom teacher, so it’s not surprising that those who take that tack would downplay belief in Christ. The New Testament reminds us of God’s judgment as well as God’s grace, however, and that the key to being citizens of the kingdom is both faith and trust in Christ and doing the work he has prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Jews and Christians are both recipients of God’s grace, but it’s what we do with that grace–through faith and the work that grows out of it–that determines our ultimate relationship with God. Paul, a Jew, makes this very clear in Romans–Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith which then leads to action. Belief, trust, and devotion to Christ is the center of that faith, not an optional add-on.
Outside of that not-insignificant theological quibble, I think this book is a great primer for those who want to know about the Jewish roots of Christian faith through the eyes of one who has her feet firmly planted in both worlds. Yes, we Christians need to know about Judaism and we need to get to know our Jewish brothers and sisters! We share a common spiritual ancestry and the promise of a future in God’s kingdom, which is already here and is yet to come.