How not to read the Bible anti-Semitically

Three guards against anti-Semitic readings of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament

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Before the Church can speak out against anti-Semitism without, we must correct the anti-Semitism within. We must acknowledge that some of our theological heroes––from Chrysostom to Martin Luther––were anti-Semites, and we must be careful to separate their anti-Jewish teachings from their important theological contributions. We also must examine our exegetical methods for faulty assumptions that (perhaps unconsciously) lead us to anti-Jewish interpretations. We must repent but we also must rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). Here are three guards against anti-Semitic readings of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

First, we must see the story of the Bible as that of God consummating, completing, creation rather than merely redeeming what Adam and Eve spoiled. R. Kendall Soulen, in The God of Israel and Christian Theology, notes that the ancient Christian creeds, by focusing on the fall of humanity and then Messiah’s redemptive work, leapfrog over the bulk of the biblical narrative so that God’s history with Israel recedes into mere New Testament background.1 This can lead to triumphalism toward Jews2 (see Rom 11:17-24).

If we take seriously that the Lamb of God––Jesus Messiah–– was slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8), then redemption was won before God said “Let there be light,” before Adam and Eve rebelled. God created humanity to bless it; God chose Abraham and created Israel to bless the nations (Gen 12:1-3). This is why Paul, in Romans 11, can say that Israel’s partial hardening toward the Messiah is “reconciliation of the world” (Rom 11:15 RSV). God is still at work in unbelieving Israel. That the creation story is still unfolding and that the Jewish people are still playing a part requires us to read the Hebrew Scriptures as still unfolding in Jesus the Messiah.

Image by Lawrence Lew via Flickr (cc)

Lamb of God - Agnus Dei - by Lawrence Lew

Next, we must read the New Testament writers from within Judaism, especially Paul. This rabbinic Jew who could quote Greek texts to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:28)3 must be read “as a Jew within Judaism, practicing and promoting a Torah-defined Jewish way of life for followers of Christ”––Jew and Gentile–– as it “is historically more probable and therefore more authentic”4 than reading Paul as primarily Hellenistic. Otherwise, we end up with a duplicitous Paul who only pretends to be Torah-observant when he is evangelizing Jews.5 Biblical scholar Brad Young reminds us that “Paul calls himself a Pharisee. We should listen to what Paul tells us about himself.”6

The third guard against supersessionist and anti-Semitic readings of the Christian canon is to consult Jewish sources, including Messianic Jewish writers, recent Jewish scholars, and even rabbinical commentary past and present. How can Christians justify the use of Jewish sources when mainstream Judaism, nearly 2,000 years after the first advent, continues to reject the messiahship and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth? Unbelieving Jews may still be enemies of the Gospel (to the benefit of the Gentiles!), but God continues to love them “for the sake of the fathers” (Rom 11:28 NASB).

God has sustained the Jews so that they have survived all manner of exile, persecution, and genocide. How has Judaism and Jewish identity survived? Through faithfulness to the Torah. Only Torah obedience “can and does hold the lineage of Abraham and Sarah together during the time” between the two advents of the Messiah.7 The law does not save anyone, but Messiah does. Who is Messiah, that is Christ? Christ is the Word of God made flesh, “the Word called ‘Torah.’” 8

So, when devout Jews read and contemplate the Torah and the Prophets, they are peering at Messiah, though they do not yet know it.9 They have been contemplating God’s Word far longer than we Christians have. Because of this, Judaism has theological insights we have failed to consider.

torah scroll

The combination of these three interpretive tools teaches Christians to show respect for Judaism and to acknowledge that the long Jewish tradition is the root that supports the olive tree into which we are grafted. This show of respect creates an atmosphere that can foster dialogue. Open dialogue offers an opportunity to testify to Jewish people that Jesus is the Messiah.

                                         

1 R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 32.
2
Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 109.

3 Charles K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apos- tles: (Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 2004), 848ff.
4 Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism, Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), xiii.
5 Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism, 9.
6 Brad H. Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian: A Pharisee among Christians, Jews, and Gentiles, 2nd ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1997), 1–2.
7 Robert W. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism,” in Jews and Christians: People of God, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003), 9.
8 Jenson, “Christian Theology of Judaism,” 11–12.
9 Mark Kinzer, in his book Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism, shows that the New Testament does not invalidate Jewish practice. Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press, 2005), 49–96.

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