Some passages in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s
epistles, reflect genuine disagreement between the theologies
of Judaism and Christianity. It would be wrong to gloss over the
conflict in the interest of Jewish-Christian rapprochement. On
the other hand, many passages, particularly in the Gospels, are
only thought to reflect Jewish-Christian conflict. Often, where
Jesus is interpreted, in current Christian teaching, as conflicting
with Pharisaic Judaism, he is in fact pursuing a Pharisaic standpoint,
or at the most, expressing an individual view which is well within
the bounds of Pharisaic thinking. It is here that Christian teachers
can do most to correct their picture of Judaism in relation to
New Testament passages. In each of these examples, an interpretation
hostile to Judaism has been imported by scholars; the text itself,
rightly understood, gives no support to an anti-Jewish interpretation.
By correcting these errors a Christian teacher will not only be
contributing to Jewish- Christian understanding, but will actually
be more faithful to the Gospel.
1. The parable of the good Samaritan
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, why did the priest and
the Lëvite go ‘past on the other side’, instead of stopping to
help the wounded man? The answer usually given is that the priest
and the Levite were concerned about the Jewish laws of ritual
impurity (e.g. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: ‘Two
representatives of Jewish law dared not aid a wounded Jew and
risk possible contamination through contact with his corpselike
This is entirely wrong. In Pharisaic Judaism (as found in Mishnah,
Tosefta and Talmud) the duty of helping a person in peril of death
is regarded as far more important than any ritual prescription.
All the laws of the Sabbath, for example, lose their force in
circum- stances of danger to life. Ritual impurity laws were regarded
as far less important than Sabbath laws. It is not regarded as
a sin at all to become ritually impure; only to enter the Temple
or eat sacred food while in a state of ritual impurity. It was
often regarded as a duty to become ritually impure. For example,
the duty of burying a neglected corpse was regarded as far more
important than the preservation of ritual purity; even a High
Priest who found an unburied corpse by the wayside was required
by law to bury the body, so incurring ritual impurity. The idea
that Jewish law, or any school of Jewish thought whatever, required,
on grounds of ritual purity, a refusal to aid a wounded man, is
preposterous. On the contrary, anyone refusing aid on such grounds
would be regarded as a sinner.
But what is even more to the point is that the Gospel passage
itself says nothing about ritual impurity. This aspect has been
imported by scholars. When I pointed this out to an audience at
a recent Shap Conference, I met with genuine puzzlement. The ‘ritual
purity’ aspect has become so ingrained that teachers simply could
not understand the story without it. Yet the point of the story
is straightforward enough: the priest and the Levite, people of
stature in society, were too selfish and fearful (the robbers
being not far away) to help their neighbour. The Samaritan, a
person of low rank, did help his neighbour. The moral is that
each person should be prized for what he does, not for what he
is or seems to be; a moral with which Rabbinic Judaism would concur
whole-heartedly. Several teachers then told me that they had always
regarded the ‘ritual purity’ aspect as an excuse for the priest
and the Levite, showing that they were conventional rather than
evil. This ‘excuse’, however, involves misrepresenting Judaism
as an inhumane religion which puts obsessional purity before human
life and the duty of helping one’s neighbour. It is a strange
form of charity which slanders a whole religion in order to excuse
two individuals, especially as the whole point of the story is
not to excuse them. It is important to note, too, that priests
and Levites were not regarded in Pharisaic Judaism as ‘representatives
of Jewish law’, but as mere hereditary ceremonial officials who
had no more spiritual authority than they would exercise in virtue
of their personal qualities. The whole parable, therefore, is
very much in the spirit of Pharisaism.
2. Jesus eating with sinners
Why did the Pharisees object to Jesus’ practice of eating with
sinners and publicans? The explanation usually given is that they
objected on grounds of ritual purity. The Gospels, however, do
not mention ritual purity in this context. There was, in fact,
nothing in the ritual purity laws to prevent Jews from associating
with sinners and publicans. The objection was not that they were
unwashed, but that they were real sinners, i.e. murderers, gangsters
and torturers (see Philo’s description of the activities of the
publicans in Egypt). Jesus, in his campaign of repentance, believed
that he could reclaim even such people from sin. Some of the Pharisees
who questioned him evidently regarded them as hopeless cases.
The idea that Jesus condoned the sins of the publicans, who all
really had hearts of gold, is mere 19th century sentimentality.
But he thought he could induce them to repent. Here he agreed
with the mainstream of Pharisee thought, for the Mishnah and Tosefta
both envisage the possibility of repentance on the part of publicans.
Ritual purity does not come into the matter at all. All Pharisees
agreed that ritual purity was of no importance compared with the
chance of reclaiming a sinner.
3. Jesus as Messiah
Christian textbooks often say that Jews could not accept Jesus
as Messiah because he had been crucified, and was thus under a
curse, because of Deuteronomy 21:23. This is wrong. Thousands
of Jews were crucified by the Romans. Such victims were not regarded
as being under a curse, but on the contrary, as saints and martyrs.
The Rabbis understand the verse in Deuteronomy to mean that it
was an accursed deed to leave a corpse (of an executed man) to
hang overnight. Such a curse applied to the executioners, not
to the executed man. Execution itself was regarded as an expiation
of all the man’s sins, not as saddling him with a curse in the
next world. Paul, in Galatians 3, does adopt this bizarre interpretation,
but this has nothing to do with the Jewish tradition of interpretation,
and is his own idea, as is clear from the context. Paul does not
suggest that his interpretation is that of traditional Jewish
exegesis, any more than his very individual interpretation of
Deut. 27:26 just before. Teachers should excise altogether from
their teaching the idea that Jews would regard Jesus as accursed
because of the manner of his death. Judaism would be a poor religion
indeed if it regarded God as so unreasonable that he would curse
someone simply because he had been the unfortunate victim of a
cruel form of Roman execution.
Many similar examples could be taken from current Christian teaching
and textbooks. On the broader areas of misrepresentation of Judaism,
I recommend all teachers to read Paul and Palestinian Judaism,
by E. P. Sanders (SCM Press, 1977). This epoch-making book is
a welcome antidote to the usual picture of Pharisaic Judaism as
an arid legalism, concerned only with external observances, and
unacquainted with the concept of God’s grace. Earlier books by
English speaking authors, such as Travers Herford and George Foot
Moore, did much to correct the Christian picture of Pharisees,
but unfortunately, their work was nullified by the authority of
German scholars, particularly Schurer, Billerbeck, Bultmann and
Jeremias. Sanders, with his profound scholarship, explodes the
myth of German accuracy, and presents Palestinian Judaism as it
really was, making particular use of the Pharisaic liturgy. Sanders
shows how a Christian teacher can respect the Jewish pattern of
religion (which he calls covenantal nomism) while contrasting
it clearly with the very different pattern of religion found in
Paul’s epistles (which Sanders calls participationist eschatology).
The recognition should surely be possible without the denigration
of Judaism which has so disfigured Christian teaching on Judaism
in the past, and which, unfortunately, still remains with us to
a disconcerting extent.
- Herford, Travers, The Pharisees, George Allen
& Unwin, London 1924.
- Maccoby, Hyam, Early Rabbinic Writings, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, 1988.
- Maccoby, Hyam, Judaism in the First Century,
Sheldon Press, 1989.
- Moore, George Foot, Judaism in the First
Centuries of the Christian Era, 3 vols., Harvard University
- Parkes, J., The Foundations of Judaism and
Christian- ity, Valentine Mitchell, London, 1960.
- Sanders, E. P., Paul and Palestinian Judaism,
SCM Press, London, 1977.
- Urbach, E. E., The Sages: their Concepts
and Beliefs, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1975.