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The Bible With and Without Jesus: Jews and Christians Reading Scripture Differently

Jews and Christians read the same stories in the Bible differently: So argues Jewish Bible scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, as the sub-title to their 2020 book, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently.

So, why would I, as an evangelical Christian, read a book like this from two Jewish scholars titled as “The Bible With and Without Jesus?” Well, both Jews and Christians have at least one thing in common: The Old Testament, or what many Jews prefer to call “the Hebrew Bible,” or “the Hebrew Scriptures.” But one group reads the Old Testament with all eyes focused on finding Jesus in the text (the Christians), whereas the other group finds it difficult to see Jesus at all in the text (the Jews….. at least the non-Messianic Jews).

What do non-Christian Jews find in the Old Testament, if they do not find Jesus there? I was on a mission to find out. Having worked previously with a Jewish colleague of mine for seven years, with many hours of spiritual conversation, this was not just an academic interest. It was personal.

As Levine and Brettler put it, wherever there are two Jews, there you will find three opinions. This is as true now as it was in the time of Jesus, and in the few centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth.

 

How Jews and Christians Read the Bible in Different Ways

Last year, I read a history of the “time between the testaments,” Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, by Philip Jenkins (see this review on Veracity). Learning about the history covering several hundreds of years before Jesus was born helped me to better understand why sometimes understanding the Old Testament can be so tricky.

By the time Jesus walked the earth, different Jewish groups all held to the Law of Moses, yet came to different conclusions on certain important theological issues. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, and the Sadducees rejected it. The Pharisees believed in an oral tradition, that had authority side by side with the written Law of Moses. The Sadducees rejected anything that was not in the written Law of Moses; that is, the first five books of the Bible. As for the rest of the books of what most Christians call the “Old Testament,” such as the Prophets (like Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.), the Sadducees were highly suspicious as to their status as Scripture.

Other complexities abound: The Pharisees believed in a world filled with angels and demons, that interact with humans. The Sadducees rejected such grand diversity of supernatural beings, and present day communication with them, as being a bunch of nonsense, that obscured the reality of there being but one and only one ultimate divine power, that of God and God alone (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees emphasized the centrality of the Temple, whereas the Essenes (think “The Dead Sea Scrolls” people at Qumran, according to at least some scholars) rejected the Temple as a completely corrupt institution. But the Essenes went beyond even the Pharisees, as they considered books like 1st Enoch as part of Scripture…. but they interestingly dismissed Esther as not part of the Bible. This can be all quite confusing.

These type of differences, some of which are recorded in the New Testament, stem back to different ways of interpreting and translating the Hebrew Scriptures. Fast forward beyond the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70 C.E., the Jews eventually settled on a basic body of Scripture, and have since figured out ways of maintaining their tradition, without a central Temple. Nevertheless, Jews still today regularly debate the interpretation of many important aspects of their faith.

So, when I saw that Levine and Brettler had written a book that tries to show how Jews (in general) read the Bible differently than Christians, my curiosity was pricked, to dig into this issue some more. After all, I have long made the assumption that some of the most basic stories we find in the Old Testament are read the same way, by Jews and Christians alike. Apparently, my assumption has been quite embarrassingly wrong.

Levine and Brettler have been intimately involved in two major projects, that serious students of the Bible have found useful, one being The Jewish Study Bible (Brettler), taking an English translation of the Old Testament and providing study notes, written from a Jewish perspective, just like you would find in a Christian Bible. The other project is the Jewish Annotated New Testament (Brettler and Levine), which is geared towards introducing Jews to the thought world of the New Testament, but which has also helped me, as an additional resource to better understand a more Jewish context in reading the New Testament (see this book review at Themelios).

In The Bible With and Without Jesus, Levine and Brettler take some of the major theological themes as found in the New Testament, to compare how Christians view the same themes as found in the Old Testament, and contrast them with how such themes have been typically interpreted by Jews, who just read the Old Testament, by itself.

Jewish vs. Christian Understanding of Biblical Prophecy??

For example, biblical prophecy, especially as Christians have thought of Jesus fulfilling certain prophecies of the Old Testament, is a big issue. Since the Reformation, particularly after the first generation of folks like Luther and Calvin, many Protestant Bible teachers have tended to dismiss allegorical-type interpretations of the Old Testament, that were common in the medieval church, as such allegorical-type readings of the Bible tended to lead to doctrines that were considered to be theologically suspect, such as the perpetual virginity of Mary. As a result, most Protestant Reformed Christians have believed that only an historical-grammatical interpretation (sometimes called a “literal interpretation”) of the Bible is permissible when studying Scripture.

But this strict approach becomes a problem when trying to handle certain elements of biblical prophecy. For example, in Isaiah 7:14, we find the famous Christmas prophecy for the virgin birth of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Matthew. The immediate historical-grammatical context shows that the prophecy was originally fulfilled in the birth of the prophet Isaiah’s son, in Isaiah 8. But many Jews acknowledge that there is an additional, deeper meaning of the prophecy, that finds its fulfillment in the birth of King Hezekiah. Christian scholars, even Protestant Reformed scholars, typically refer to this interpretive method as typology (or as many Roman Catholic apologists frame it, in terms of a somewhat different hermeneutical method called sensus plenior, or the “fuller sense” of the text). C.S. Lewis called this interpretive characteristic of the Old Testament to be the second meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Levine and Brettler note Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, where the early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, engages in a debate with Trypho in the 2nd century C.E. As a Jew, unconvinced by the Christian message, Trypho was emphatic in insisting that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had King Hezekiah in mind back in the 6th century B.C.E, and not Jesus of Nazareth, centuries later. In other words, Isaiah 7:14 does not prophecy the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Justin Martyr, as a Christian, took a different approach, contending for the Gospel of Matthew’s claim that Jesus was the real reason and ultimate fulfillment for Isaiah’s prophecy.

The ESV translation reads Isaiah 7:14 as follows, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  For most Jews, the “virgin” is said to be a mistranslation of the ancient Hebrew, since the translation of “virgin” comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, favored by Greek-speaking Jews, including the earliest Christians, in the first century. However, the Septuagint’s translation may indicate an older, more authentic Hebrew tradition, that is currently lost. Or it may indicate some special insight that the Septuagint translators had, which was not made clear in the ancient Hebrew tradition, preserved by the Masoretic text. This Masoretic text, that most orthodox Jews believe to be authoritative, translates “virgin” simply as “young maiden.”

When the verse talks about “give you a sign,” Levine and Brettler note that the “you” is plural, which might suggest that the prophecy does, in fact, have a plural meaning, which might allow for one of the “you” to refer to the time of Joseph, the betrothed husband of Mary, in addition to the original reference to the time of Isaiah, through the birth of Isaiah’s son, or even the prophetic prediction of Hezekiah’s birth. Levine and Brettler’s discussion of this controversial passage reveals the complexities that show why Jews and Christians have differed in their interpretation of certain key texts of the Bible.

Psalm 22 provides another famous example of how New Testament writers used this Old Testament psalm to speak of Jesus, according to Levine and Brettler. In Matthew 27:46, we have Jesus’ well-known cry upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” which is a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1. But certain Jewish traditions extending back to the time just before Christ treat Psalm 22 differently. In the Apocrypha version of the Book of Esther, part of what Roman Catholics call the deuterocanonical writings, we have a Greek commentary to the Hebrew version of the Book of Esther. The Hebrew version of Esther, commonly found in Protestant Bibles, has no reference to God found in the text. So, the Greek version offers a theological interpretation of Esther’s story, running throughout the text. But many Jews have noted that some significant parts of Esther contain direction allusions to Psalm 22, leading many Jews, even today, to say that Psalm 22 is not about Jesus, but rather, is about Esther.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) can only be appreciated in a postmodern way; that is, by admitting that the original meaning intended by the original author has very little bearing on what the text says to us today. In postmodernism, what really matters is the reception history of the text; that is, how different reading communities over the centuries have articulated the meaning of the text, for themselves. Yet this would not be consistent with how Jews and Christians have understood the inspiration of Scripture, over thousands of years. Instead, the Bible has a progressive character of revelation to it, where God continues to unfold its meaning and the reading communities develop in their understanding of the text, as God intended it to be understood. In the case of the Christian, the culmination of this progressive revelation is the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah, whereas a non-Christian Jew sees the culmination of the message differently.

Helping Christians and Jews Understand Why They Read the Bible Differently

Levine and Brettler admit that their project is two-fold, to help Christians better understand how Jews approach the Bible, and to help Jews better understand how Christians read the Bible. As a Christian, I would say that both Levine and Brettler are to be warmly commended for treating the Christian tradition fairly.  I was won over by their effort, not to try to get everyone to agree on “the” interpretation of particular passages, but rather to encourage sympathy as to why Jews and Christians do indeed differ, in their reading of the text. Nevertheless, there is a polemic edge that pokes through in some spots The Bible With and Without Jesus. Their project is not an apologetic for any sort of relativism. Rather, their work is still an apologetic for their approach to Judaism.

For example, in their chapter on supersessionism in the Book of Hebrews, they correctly note the New Testament claim that the revelation of Jesus does supersede other Jewish interpretations of the Jewish Scriptural tradition. The author of Hebrews repeatedly tries to show how Jesus is better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, and better than the ancient Jewish sacrificial system. Levine and Brettler reject such a claim, as they consider themselves to be faithful Jews, unconvinced that the Christian message, that asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, is really true. In other words, Levine and Brettler are convinced that the Jewish tradition is still doing pretty well as it is, thank you very much, without having to make an appeal of accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Furthermore, Levine and Brettler would not fit into a purely “conservative” category of scholarship, and this might bother some Jews, in addition to some conservative evangelical Christians who might read their work. For example, Levine and Brettler find a plethora of evidence in the Book of Jonah, that would indicate to them, that this short, popular story from the Old Testament is a work of historical fiction. A few conservative Christians scholars might agree with them, but a vast majority of Christians, and many Jews as well, will probably find such an idea difficult to swallow. But unlike other prophetic books, like Nahum, Hosea, and Haggai, the Book of Jonah has a completely different look and feel to it, which raises questions, both today and in the long history of Judaism and Christianity, as to what is really supposed to be going on in the Book of Jonah. Is it an allegory, a report of factual history, or something more complicated than that? While Levine and Brettler affirm that Jonah was a genuinely historical prophet, in Israelite history, they conclude that the story of Jonah and the big “whale” (thanks to William Tyndale’s translation of Matthew 12:40, that made its way into the King James Version of the Bible), and subsequent repentance of Nineveh was originally meant as a theological message, describing the merciful and compassionate character of God, and not as observable history.

Levine and Brettler happily argue that the Bible is ambiguous, or “slippery,” in its very nature. They would contend that such ambiguity is a virtue. To a certain degree, such ambiguity should cause Christians to embrace a kind of hermeneutical humility, particularly when Christians are unable to agree with one another, on certain Scriptural passages, involving non-essential matters of faith. Fair enough. However, there are limitations to this. Such limitations are found on both the Jewish and Christian sides of the discussion. But I will only focus on a Christian critique here.

For while The Bible With and Without Jesus succeeds in helping the reader to better appreciate why people can read the Bible so differently, thus creating a pathway for better conversation, it still can not get beyond the fact that the fundamental New Testament claim, that Jesus is the Messiah, stands in stark contrast with any other Jewish reading of the Old Testament. Effectively, the New Testament seeks to set forth the definitive commentary and critique challenging other (competitive?? for lack of a better term?) Jewish readings of the Old Testament. After all, Jesus, Paul, and many of the key figures in the early Jesus movement were all Jewish themselves. Yet the scandal of the New Testament is the claim, drawing on the testimony of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Messiah, that the teachings of Jesus seek to properly interpret the true meaning of Israel’s Scriptures.

Applying this to the example of Isaiah’s prophecy noted above, Christians believe that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had Jesus in mind, despite how other Jews might interpret it. Why? Because the New Testament teaches that the birth of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of what is preserved in the Book of Isaiah.

Critics will indeed dispute this. The claim that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Jewish Messiah is stilly a gutsy bold claim. Grounded in the resurrection narrative, the claim of a once-died but now Risen Messiah still offends the sensibilities of most Jews.

Sadly, Christians like me, for the past 2,000 years, have at times assumed the worst about the Jews. After all, Christians over the centuries have sometimes settled for some rather odd, at best, or even conspiratorial, at worst, understandings of what Jews really think. In response, a number of Jewish critics have charged that it is the Christians who have been the ones to twist the Old Testament Scriptures to serve Christian purposes, thereby obscuring the message of the Torah.

But once we dive into the world of the New Testament, peeling back layers of tradition, we can see the essential Jewish character of the earliest Jesus movement. Far from being a Hellenized (Greek-influenced) heretical spin-off from Judaism, as popularly believed by some in modern times, or even more so by certain extreme skeptics, that Christianity was simply a “copy-cat” religion of other pagan faiths, the early Christian movement was rooted in the central debates of Jewish thought, that were alive and well in first century Palestine, and other surrounding Jewish communities.

The New Testament as Authoritative Commentary on the Old Testament (…. and Not Some Attempt to Paganize/Hellenize Judaism)

Contrary to many critics of Christianity today, there are good reasons to believe that the Christian faith is thoroughly rooted in a first century, Jewish theological context. Here is a good example of this, that blows my mind, every time I think of it, with respect to the work of Dr. Michael Heiser (see my review of Heiser’s groundbreaking book, Angels). Dr. Michael Heiser teaches about how Jesus uses the reference to the “cloud rider” and “one like a son of man,” in Daniel 7:13-14, to refer to himself, in his defense before Caiphas, the High Priest, in Matthew 26:62-65. For years, it really puzzled me as to why Caiphas immediately charged Jesus with uttering blasphemy, because of this statement by Jesus. However, during the inter-testamental period (that time between when the Old Testament and the New Testament were written), some Jews were actively thinking about how to best interpret Daniel’s mystifying statement.

It was as though Daniel was suggesting that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was giving a prophecy regarding the coming of Yahweh, in human-flesh form (“one like a son of man”). Does this mean that there were somehow “two Yahwehs,” one who was not like “a son of man,” and another who was? According to one Second Temple Judaism tradition, this is exactly what they believed.

This “two-Yahwehs” (or “two-powers”) theology was alive and well in the days of Jesus, which is really the reason why Caiphas freaked out, over Jesus’ claim made before the Sanhedrin. Interestingly though, the mainstream of Jewish thought eventually abandoned this interpretation of Daniel, during the early Christian era. Christians, in turn, found in this Jewish strand of thinking, the basis for affirming the divine nature of God the Son, simultaneously with the divine nature of the Father, thus serving as the Old Testament basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. If you have about 10-minutes, it is worth hearing Dr. Heiser summarize the whole thing:

For a 7-minute exploration of the topic at a deeper level, follow this link to YouTube. If both Christians and Jews are “people of the book,” what really separates them, when it comes to how they interpret Scripture? It is worth now taking a stab at an answer.

Whereas Jews can suffer through having multiple interpretations of their sacred texts, but still remain Jews together, due to their ethnic identities and traditions, this can not be said so easily of Christianity. Christianity is not about embracing a particular ethnic identity, rooted in tradition, as in Judaism. Rather, Christianity has an essential universal claim to truth that demands a response from any and all peoples, not just those who share a Jewish tradition. The Christian faith is ultimately bound up in its unified affirmation of fundamental Christian doctrinal teachings, primarily focused around the proclamation of a crucified Jesus as the Risen Messiah.

We Christians still have much to learn from our Jewish friends, in that many Christians still divide over and against one another, in non-essential areas of Christian doctrine. Many of these disputes have been ongoing for centuries, where it is unlikely that there will be any clear resolution to such controversies, prior to Christ’s final return. We can learn more than a few tips from our Jewish friends, in learning how to still view one another as fellow Christians, when we have disagreements with one another over non-essential matters of the faith. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Levine and Brettler’s book.

At the same time, there are essentials to the Christian faith that can not, and need not, be compromised. If you try to take away an essential to the Christian faith, you no longer have a Christian faith. Either Jesus is the crucified Messiah, Risen from the dead, or he is not. Either Jesus is the unique Son of God, or he is not. Either God has revealed himself  in the pages of the New Testament, thus completing what was started in the Old Testament, or he has not.

And so, this means, that Jews and Christian still have much to think about and talk about. Let the conversation continue.

 

The following 4-minute video clip is from an interview with Brettler and Levin about how Christians and Jews interpret the Sabbath commands of the Bible differently. I am not necessarily endorsing the video, but this section of the interview is surely food for thought.

 

How can a Christian worship Jesus, and still be a monotheist? For a more in-depth examination of the “two-Yahwehs” or “two-powers” theology, which was an important component of some Jewish thinking, during the time of Jesus, that prefigured the development of the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarian thinking in Christianity, please spend some time considering the following teaching by Dr. Michael Heiser:

For a longer and earlier version of this lecture (with somewhat inferior audio-quality), please consider this presentation of Dr. Heiser’s teaching:


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