Jews for Jesus

Posts Tagged 'jesus'

Jesus in Jewish Art

It has become fashionable among the modern day Jewish historians to present that controversial Jew, Jesus, in a favorable light. Yet, depictions of Jesus in Jewish art and literature remain rare.

To be sure, Jewish literature has portrayed the encounter between Jews and Christians, between the world of the Jew and the foreign world of the gentiles. While this treatment of the theme usually deals with the temptations of assimilation, it rarely comes to grips wiith the person of Jesus and his meaning for the modern Jew.

In recent years, however, two renowned Jewish artists--one a painter, the other a writer--have ventured to explore the significance of Jesus for the Jewish people. While some say there has been a shift in the Jewish community's attitudes toward Jesus, the portrayal of Jesus by French painter Marc Chagall and Yiddish writer Sholem Asch forcefully brings home the need for modern Jews, as individuals, to consider Jesus (Y'shua) for themselves.

Let us then explore the world of these two 20th century artists.

Marc Chagall is perhaps best known to American Jews for his stained glass windows depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. For some, the name Chagall conjures up images of upside-down green horses or multi-hued, Picasso-like scenes of shtetl life. An overview of this master's work must take into account the diversity of themes he had handled: his own town of Vitebsk, Russia; the sufferings of the Jewish people; and an assortment of biblical motifs. In this article, however, we will concentrate on those paintings which focus on Y'shua.

Chagall's Y'shua" paintings fall into two categories. First there are the scenes of the Crucifixion. It took much courage for Chagall to deal with this theme which, in the minds of so many Jews, is associated with persecution. In these canvases, we notice from the settings that Y'shua is being portrayed as an observant Jew. But more than that, the crucified Y'shua serves as a symbol of martyred Jews everywhere, and in particular those who were victims of the Holocaust. In these paintings, there is no hint of him being anything other than the symbol par excellence of Jewish suffering.

Franz Meyer, the definitive biographer of Chagall, gives us a description of the painting White Crucifixion (see below). He calls this work "the first in a long series." Meyer writes:

Although Christ is the central figure, this is by no means a Christian picture... Round his loins Christ wears a loin cloth with two black stripes resembling the Jewish tallith, and at his feet burns the seven-branched candlestick... But, most important of all, this Christ's relation to the world differs entirely from that in all Christian representations of the Crucifixion. There... all suffering is concentrated in Christ, transferred to him in order that he may overcome it by his sacrifice. Here instead, though all the suffering of the world is mirrored in the Crucifixion, suffering remains man's fasting fate and is not abolished by Christ's death.1

The White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall

The White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

This same type of Jewish yet non-Messianic Jesus is seen in Yellow Crucifixion. Here Chagall shows us "the crucified Christ, who is explicitly characterized as a Jew by the phylacteries on his head and the prayer straps on his arms...2

In a second category of "Y'shua paintings," Chagall does add a Messianic import. Sidney Alexander contrasts this with the martyrdom imagery of earlier works:

In works of the past quarter of a century...the Crucifixion can hardly be said to stand explicitly for the martyrdom of the Jews... That Chagall considers Jesus one of the great Jewish prophets (as he has declared on many occasions, and as his son David testified to me) is perfectly coherent with history and a certain kind of liberal Jewish faith. But when he places a Crucifixion in the background of his Jacob's Ladder or Creation of Man, at Nice, he is inviting the spectator to read his iconography as Christian fulfillment of Jewish foreshadowing.3

Alexander goes on to say that Chagall only intended to "provide 'universal' symbols."4

Marc Chagall at age 75

Indeed, as far as anyone knows, Marc Chagall is not a believer in Y'shua as the Messiah. However, as one schooled in Western religious art, it is to be expected that Chagall is keenly aware of the Christian understanding of Tenach themes as foreshadowing the life of Jesus. Indeed, he seems to be sympathetic to the continuity between what is commonly called the Old and the New Testaments. Such continuity is dramatically present in paintings such as The Sacrifice of Isaac, where Y'shua, carrying the Cross, is placed in the background of the Akedah. Moreover, the red color covering Abraham streams down from the Crucifixion scene in the top right hand corner of the picture, richly suggestive of blood. In both Old and New Testaments blood is God's provision for atonement for sin. Thus not only is the Akedah joined together with the Crucifixion, but the suggestion of Jesus' death being an atonement is present as well. When one considers that the Sacrifice painting is part of a series called Biblical Messages, it becomes apparent that Chagall understood the association of the images. And, as is true in works of great art, such paintings go beyond themselves. They raise the question of the meaning of this continuity between the Testaments for Jewish people today.

This same Isaac-Christ image is employed elsewhere. So writes Ziva Amishai-Maisels concerning the tapestry Exodus, which currently hangs in the Knesset in Jerusalem:

This combination was an acceptable one within a Christian context, in which Isaac was a prefiguration of Christ and the Sacrifice a prophecy of the Crucifixion. It was not a combination which would have been acceptable in the Knesset, and Chagall was counseled against it. But the artist's personal belief in Christ as the perfect symbol of the suffering Jew could not easily be silenced.... Christ does not appear, but Isaac is placed on the altar with his arms spread wide in the shape of a cross...quite different from Isaac's previous position in similar scenes.5

But again, in such paintings Jesus must be seen as more than merely a symbol of the suffering Jew. Chagall is aware of the connection which exists between Isaac and Christ in Christian thought.(See Akedah) Such connections are apparent in the tapestry Isaiah's Prophecy in which Chagall portrays not the crucified Christ, but rather the baby Jesus:

In [certain] works he had juxtaposed the Old Testament themes, which formed his main subjects, to related episodes from the New Testament in an attempt to blend the two Testaments together by suggesting continuity between them. This had been the reason he had added Christ carrying the Cross to representations of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which in Christian's theology prefigures the Crucifixion. This is also the reason he portrayed the Madonna and Child [in the Isaiah tapestry] in the corner of the prophecy Christians relate to the birth of Jesus.6

But far from a Madonna and Child being rendered in any traditional Protestant or Catholic way, above the figure "is a man suggestive of a mohel. The addition of such a figure tends to stress the Jewish nature of the child born to the woman...as Jesus had been circumcised."7

Chagall's work has not always produced positive responses. S.L. Shneiderman, writing in Midstream magazine in 1977, was especially upset that Chagall had accepted work for stained glass windows in several cathedrals in France, utilizing some of these very motifs:

Despite some misgivings, Jews came to accept even his Christ motifs symbolic of Jewish martyrdom through the ages... However, the Jesus motifs Chagall introduced into the cathedrals show no association at all with Jewish martyrology. They are mere illustrations, as it were, of the story told in the Gospels.8

Shneiderman quotes French writer Raissa Maritain that "with a sure instinct he showed in each of his Christ paintings the indestructible link between the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament was the harbinger of the New, and the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old." Disapprovingly, Shneiderman goes on to say that "Chagall never expressed disagreement with...Mme. Maritain's interpretation; [it was] included two decades later in the catalogue of the largest retrospective exhibition of his work."9

Shneiderman then gives an anecdote of a conversation which took place between the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever and Chagall, which was published in the Tel Aviv Yiddish periodical Di Goldene Keit (No. 79-80, 1973):

Later I learned in Paris that Chagall had also asked the Chief Rabbi of France for advice [re: doing a work for a church in Venice]. The Chief Rabbi...had told Chagall, very simply: "It all depends on whether or not you believe in it."10

Unfortunately, Shneiderman is not too pleased at the prospect that Chagall just might believe it after all. And whether in fact Chagall does or not is beyond our consideration at this time. But in the kaleidoscope of his large assortment of "Y'shua paintings," his art raises the question for us, Do we believe it? And if not, why not? The traditional answer that "Jews just don't believe in Jesus" cannot be offered so glibly--not after contemplating the work of Chagall, thought by many to be the greatest Jewish artist of the 20th century.

If Chagall sttands almost alone in the field of modern Jewish painters who have explored the Y'shua theme, Sholem Asch finds himself in a large company of 20th century Yiddish and Hebrew authors. This would include poet Uri Avi Greenberg, and writers Avidgdor Hameiri, Aharon Abraham Kabak, and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Joseph Agnon. However, in the United States, Asch is the best known. There has certainly been more controversy surrounding his trilogy of "Christian" novels, The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949), than for the writings of any of the other authors mentioned. Heated debates have surrounded these works, yet they form but a small percentage of Asch's total output, most of which has to do with more traditionally Jewish themes.

The novels deal in turn with Jesus (called by his Hebrew name "Yeshua" or "Y'shua"), Paul and Mary (again, given her original name of "Miriam"). According to Ben Siegel, who has authored the only available English language biography of Asch, the controversy which erupted over the publication of The Nazarene was not due so much to the subject matter as to the timing, coming as it did in the year 1939. But in light of what Asch himself has written of his beliefs, he may well have seen the publication of a Jewish book about Jesus as a way to bridge the divisions between Jews and Christians at a time when such a bridge was needed. The popularity of The Nazarene was indisputable. Now out of print, "two million Americans may have read [it] in the two years following publication."11 Asch himself offers an explanation for writing The Nazarene:

I couldn't help writing on Jesus. Since I first met him he has held my mind and heart. I grew up, you know, on the border of Poland and Russia, which was not exactly the finest place in the world for a Jew to sit down and write a life of Jesus Christ. Yet even through these years the hope of doing just that fascinated me. For Jesus Christ is to me the outstanding personality of all time, all history, both as Son of God and as Son of Man. Everything he ever said or did has value for us today and that is something you can say of no other man, dead or alive. There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject him. You can analyze Mohammed and... Buddha, but don't try it with him. You either accept or you reject.12

Sholem Asch (1880-1957)

This remark, it should be understood, came from the mouth of someone who did not embrace the tenets of Christianity for himself. Nevertheless, his portrayal of Jesus was entirely sympathetic to the Jewish background of the Gospel message. Here is a typical passage from The Nazarene, based on a scene in the Gospel of Luke in which Y'shua is called to the bima in the Capernum synagogue read the Sabbath portion. In the interest of space, we have condensed the passage, which is actually several pages long:

Then came the unforgettable moment of our first meeting with the Rabbi of Nazareth.

The presence of the Nazarene in Jerusalem was by this time widely known, and the miracle which he had wrought by the pool was the subject of much discussion and much division of opinion, especially among the scholars; for he had cured the sick man on a Sabbath. As the news of his presence among us spread, the whispering changed to a loud murmur of curiosity. Wrapped in his tallit, as during the reading, he ascended the pulpit... His lips moved, but it was in silent prayer. Then he approached the officer who held the scroll of the Torah. He lifted it up, and seated himself on the "Chair of Messiah" which is built into the pulpit, and which is occupied by the head of the court at trials. And with the scroll of the Torah in his lap he began to preach... [He] did not do as other Rabbis did, that is, stand before the congregation while he preached. But he sat down in the seat of judgment, holding the Torah in his lap, as if he were a king...

[We] began to perceive that there sat before us a Rabbi who, was wholly different. Indeed, he was not a Rabbi, he was a thousand times higher than a Rabbi. Who could measure him? Were we, perhaps, in the presence of the highest Jewish hope? For now we heard words which had not been spoken even by Moses on Sinai. Who was this that sat before us, with the scroll of the Torah on his lap? Our hearts began to melt in terror, and our knees trembled. We looked at each other with terrified eyes. We knew not whether God was not about to lift us to the gates of heaven, and fling them open, that we might behold the shining of that power for which our hearts had so long hungered. Or were we about to be thrown into the abyss?

He began to speak of himself as if he were the carrier of the highest of all authority. He spoke of our eternal expectancy to help, he bade us stand momently with loins girt, awake at our posts. "Let your candles always be lit. It may come with the lightning of heaven, at every instant."

"Israel, are you not God's most beloved inheritance? The field which brings forth the first growth? The vine whose first fruits are brought upon the Table of the Holy House? Who, then, has sown your furrows with stones, so that the plow breaks against them and is dulled?"

Impatience seized the worshippers. They cried: "Tell us who you are!"

Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall

Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall ?by A.D.A.G.P. Paris, 1975. Used by permission

Indeed, Siegel remarks that for Asch, "Christianity was the culmination of Jewish thought, with its rituals and concepts rooted in Jewish ideas and practices."13 This viewpoint once again found expression in The Apostle, and later on in Mary. By authoring the three novels, Asch brought upon himself vilest vituperation and greatest praise. Probably the harshest criticism came from Herman (Chaim) Lieberman in The Christianity of Sholem Asch: An Appraisal from the Jewish Viewpoint published in 1953. So negative was Lieberman that he caused even those who did not care for the three novels, such as Samuel Sandmel, to come to Asch's defense. Others responded more in the vein of Yiddish critic Samuel Niger, who called The Nazarene "Asch's highest achievement."14

In reviewing all the furor, it is illuminating to consider what Asch has written of his own faith. In a 1941 volume entitled What I Believe, Asch speaks out clearly on his view of the Messiahship of Jesus:

The first coming of the Messiah was not for us but for the gentiles. Such, I believe, must be the conclusion of those who shake off the memory of the tortures which have been inflicted on us and estimate the significance of the moral contribution which Christianity brought to the world. They must feel this with Gamaliel, when he said at the trial of Simon: "If the work is the work of man, it will fall; but if it is the work of God ye cannot destroy it, lest ye find yourselves at war with God. " If the thing is of God then, I believe that it was not created with human power, but with the power of authority; and if the authority is not for us, the Jews, it is certainly for the nations of the world who have thereby been brought nearer to their Father in heaven.

And seeing him in this light, we bow our heads before him as we do before every one of our Prophets.

And for the second coming, that is to say, for the coming of the Messiah, we wait together with the rest of the tormented world.15

Interestingly, Asch's quotation of Gamaliel is taken from the New Testament book, The Acts of the Apostles. And the reason that he gives why the Jewish people cannot accept the authority of Y'shua is that "the Jews were [already] bound to the authority which had been given to Moses on Sinai."16

These two Jewish artists, Chagall and Asch, may challenge us with their respective brush and pen to consider the question, Is Y'shua the promised Messiah? And if so, what are we to do about it?

NOTES

  1. Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Word (N.Y.: Abrams). pp. 414-415. 2. Meyer, p. 446.
  2. Meyer, p. 446.
  3. Sidney Alexander, Marc Chagall: A Biography (N Y Putnam, 1978).
  4. Alexander.
  5. Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Tapestries and Mosaics of Marc Chagall at the Knesset (N.Y.: Tudor), p. 47.
  6. Amishai-Maisels, p. 79.
  7. Amishai-Maisels, p. 81.
  8. S. L. Shneiderman, "Chagall -- Torn?". Midstream. June-July. 1977. p. 49.
  9. Shneiderman, p. 53. 10.
  10. Schneiderman, p. 62.
  11. Ben Siegel. The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to His Fiction (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976), p. 143.
  12. Siegel, p. 148, quoting an interview with Asch by Frank S Mead in The Christian Herald in 1944
  13. Siegel. p. 162.
  14. Siegel, p. 150.
  15. Sholem Asch, What I Believe, tr. Maurice Samuel (N.Y.: Putnam, 1941), p. 115.
  16. Asch, p. 110.

The Authority of the Torah and the Authority of Jesus

Sholem Asch stated (see Jesus in Jewish Art) that in his view, the authority of Y'shua was only for the gentiles because the Jewish people were already under the authority of the Torah. The dogma that the Torah is unchangeable, and forever binding to the Jewish people is commonplace in Orthodox Judaism. (The doctrine is called "the immutability of the Torah.") However, a number of factors suggest that the Torah was never intended to be an unchanging monolith, and that the authority of Y'shua is therefore a live option for Jews. Consider this:

1. The Torah itself shows changes from one situation to another. For example, Leviticus 17:3-7 states:

Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or a lamb, or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood guiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut of from among his people. The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field...and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the LORD.... And they shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations.

Torah scrolls

In other words, animals which were killed to provide meat for a family had first to be brought to the tabernacle and offered as a peace offering. In this way the Israelites would not utilize them in worshipping pagan goat demons. But in the book of Deuteronomy, where the situation has changed from wandering in the wilderness to being settled in the land, a different provision exists:

However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your gates, whatever you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you....If the place which the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, then you may slaughter of your herd and flock which the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you; and you may eat within your gates whatever you desire.
Deuteronomy 12:15,21

Here, allowance is made for such animals to be killed at home, since the distance to the central sanctuary--"the place which the LORD your God chooses to put His name"--was often too great. Thus God's requirements can situationally change.

2. Sometimes it is said that the phrase "permanent statute" or the like indicates that the laws of Torah will never change. This is a misunderstanding of such expressions. The example above showed a change in a regulation--even though the Leviticus passage declared the regulation "a permanent statute to them throughout their generations" (v. 7). Another example is found in Exodus 21:16 concerning slaves: "And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently." Obviously, he was only able to serve his master for the rest of his life, not forever! The Tenach does not have a concept of "forever" as the New Testament does, and such expressions should be taken to mean "to be continually observed" and as phrases underlining the importance of the particular commandment.

3. There are suggestions in rabbinic writings that some thought the Torah would be changed or even abrogated in the Messianic Age or in the Age to Come.

The Lord permits the forbidden (Ps. 146:7). What does this mean? Some say that in the time to come all the animals which are unclean in this world God will declare to be clean, as they were in the days before Noah. And why did God forbid them [i.e. make them unclean]? To see who would accept His bidding and who would not; but in the time to come He will permit all that He has forbidden.
Midr. Ps. on CXLVI, 7(268a Sec. 4)

R. Phinehas and R. Levi and R. Johanan said in the name of R. Menahem of Gallia: In the time to come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of Thanksgiving will not be annulled, and all prayers will be annulled, but [that of] Thanksgiving will not be annulled.
Leviticus Rabbah 9:7

4. The prophet Jeremiah in particular looked to a day when aa new covenant would be observed in Israel:

"Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD, 'for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
Jeremiah 31:31-34

It would seem that Jeremiah himself did not see the Torah as an unchanging monolith.

5. At the Last Supper (a Passover seder) Y'shua said that in his death this new covenant would be ushered in:

And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood."
Luke 22:20

Jesus' crown of thorns

Moreover, Jesus, with authority, required that his disciples obey his own commandments:

"If you love Me, you will keep My commandments."
John 14:15

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another."
John 13:3

Could it be that as the Messiah, Y'shua had the authority under the "new covenant" to give a "new Torah?"

The Law of Moses itself allowed for change, "permanent" statutes notwithstanding. Jeremiah anticipated some kind of new covenant, and some rabbis also took a stand against the "immutability" of the Torah. Sholem Asch claimed too much for the authority of the Torah and not enough for the authority of Jesus. Those who believe that Jesus vindicated his claim to be the Messiah also accept his authority as binding upon Jew and gentile alike.

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Here Comes the New Wave

The Latest Generation of Jewish Scholars Give Us Their Take on Jesus and Jewishness

If you could go back a few centuries to a shtetl in Eastern Europe—or even to the early 1900s in the Lower East Side of New York City—and ask, Who do you think Jesus is?, you might receive a response like the following.You would probably be told that “Yoshke” was an illegitimate child, a sorcerer who led the Jewish people astray, a bad man who stole the name of God in order to work his deceptive miracles. Perhaps you would also hear him referred to as Yeshu, standing for the Hebrew phrase, “May his name and memory be blotted out.” Those ideas about Jesus go back at least as far as the middle ages.

But starting around 1750, the Enlightenment (in Hebrew, Haskalah) swept through Western Europe and North America. Secularism moved in and religion moved out. Many now felt free to look at Jesus apart from traditional religious teachings. In this new climate, a fresh Jewish appraisal of Jesus began to emerge. Jewish writers began to speak of him as a fellow-Jew and a teacher of Jewish ethics. While authors such as Claude Montefiore, Joseph Klausner, and Samuel Sandmel didn’t always see eye to eye about Jesus on all points, their re-evaluation filtered down into the Jewish consciousness. That is why the question Who do you think Jesus is? is now often answered with, “A good teacher”—even by those who have never read his teaching!

Riding the New Wave

The past several years have seen a “new wave” of Jewish publications about Jesus, the New Testament, and even Paul. In contrast with earlier times, today “proselytism” (the term some use in place of “evangelism”) is off the agenda for many Christians. Churches have repudiated a history of anti-Semitism while the dialogue movement has stressed the commonalities between Jews and Christians. The upshot is that Jews are more open to learning about Jesus as someone who is part of Jewish history without feeling uncomfortable about doing so. While Jewish believers in Jesus might wish that this new open-mindedness went further, we can be glad for the positive aspect: Our people are exploring Jesus’ Jewishness more than ever before.

Jewish writers of the new wave* have focused on several areas. Following is an overview of three of these areas, which I have placed in order from the least to the most surprising (ranked according to the Robinson Scale of Surprise).

By understanding the Jewishness of Jesus, Jews and Christians can better understand one another.

Amy-Jill Levine teaches at Vanderbilt University. (See our interview with her here.) Her 2006 volume The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus has a bridge-building focus. “If the church and synagogue both could recognize their connection to Jesus, a Jewish prophet who spoke to Jews, perhaps we’d be in a better place for understanding” (p. 228). With humor and winsomeness, Levine takes the reader on a tour of ways in which Jesus’ Jewishness has been misapprehended. En route, she goes beyond American evangelical Christianity to find examples of misunderstandings about the Jewish people in such diverse places as the World Council of Churches (a mainstream Christian ecumenical organization) and in African Christianity. Negative portrayals of Judaism as “legalistic, purity obsessed, Temple dominated, bellicose, greedy, anything distasteful to Christians” remain frequent in Christian preaching and teaching. Nor are Jews free of their own biases. To the end of mutual understanding, Levine concludes with a chapter of practical suggestions on how Jews and Christians can avoid pitfalls in communicating with and about one another. In the end, she is hopeful that better understanding will lead some to make a course correction and more accurately speak and teach about Jesus and Judaism—whether they are Jews or Christians.

Jews should read the New Testament.

In his book Opening the Covenant, Michael Kogan (Montclair State University) recounts how he taught a class on Paul to a study group of Jewish doctors in the early 1980s. Kogan’s approach to the New Testament literature was sympathetic and irenic, not surprising given his pluralistic tendencies. But Kogan was an exception—until recently.

It happened last year: The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT) was published, the first time the entire New Testament was being presented to Jews and Christians by a group of mainstream Jewish scholars. Under the editorship of Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, some 50 top-tier Jewish contributors wrote notes to the New Testament in the style of a study Bible. They added essays and introductions. The editors explained the rationale behind JANT:

“Many Jews are unfamiliar with, or even afraid of reading, the New Testament. Its content and genres are foreign, and they need notes to guide their reading. Other Jews may think that the New Testament writings are irrelevant to their lives, or that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion. This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion. Our intention is not to convert... . Rather, this book is designed to allow all readers to understand what the texts of the New Testament meant within their own social, historical, and religious context ...” (p. xii).

Other Jewish treatments of the New Testament have appeared from divergent viewpoints. Rabbi Michael Cook (who also contributed to JANT) teaches at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the training school for Reform rabbis. In 2008 he brought out Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment. For Cook, the gospels do not show us the real Jesus. Rather, he claims that the gospel writers changed the story to reflect the increasing anti-Jewishness of the later church, an approach long followed by many mainstream and liberal Christian scholars. Cook has simply branded it with his own term, “Gospel Dynamics.” He takes a more defensive approach than JANT: Jews should read the New Testament so they can think intelligently about those parts that have been used to foment anti-Semitism.

Herbert Basser of Queens University in Canada (another JANT contributor) has given us The Mind Behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew 1–14. Like Cook, he too believes that Matthew reflects a later anti-Jewish, pro-Roman stance. More positively, the author of Matthew—whom Basser asserts was not Jewish—was a preserver of traditions that he himself did not often understand. Yet while that gospel preserves Jewish traditional rhetoric and thought, Basser also finds the history and theology in Matthew to be anti-Jewish in the extreme. Some will find his uneasy juxtaposition of the positive and the negative to be lacking cohesion.

Some Christian doctrines are actually Jewish.

This may be the most surprising conclusion to emerge from the “new wave” of Jewish scholarship concerning Jesus. Benjamin Sommer is professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where Conservative rabbis are ordained. In 2009 he wrote a book with the strange and somewhat disturbing title, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. “The startling or bizarre idea in the Hebrew Bible,” he says, “is ... not that God has a body—that is the standard notion of ancient Israelite theology—but rather that God has many bodies located in sundry places in the world that God created.” When he invokes his ideas to explain Genesis 18—where one of the three visitors to Abraham appears to shift between being a man and being God—we find an unexpected affinity with those who appeal to this passage to demonstrate the biblical roots of the Trinity and Incarnation.

Significantly, Sommer concludes:

This study forces a reevaluation of a common Jewish attitude toward Christianity. Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with grave suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. What I have attempted to point out here is that biblical Israel knew very similar doctrines, and these doctrines did not disappear from Judaism after the biblical period... . The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects (pp. 135-36; italics added).

While Sommer rejects Jesus as Messiah on other grounds, his linkage of the Hebrew Bible with the Trinity and Incarnation cuts across the grain of traditional Jewish thought.

Across the country in Berkeley, California, Daniel Boyarin teaches Talmudic Culture and Rhetoric. In his latest book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, Boyarin says, “While by now almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, is happy enough to refer to Jesus, the human, as a Jew, I want to go a step beyond that. I wish us to see that Christ too—the divine Messiah—is a Jew. Christology, or the early ideas about Christ, is also a Jewish discourse” (pp. 5-6).

The idea of a human-divine Messiah, he says, is not a later pagan addition but was part of the early Jewish Jesus-movement.

[According to an older view,] which has been popular among liberal Protestants for over a century, the idea of the divinity of Christ could only have been a relatively late and “Gentile” development that marks a decisive break with anything that could reasonably be called Jewish.... A second approach, currently enjoying ascendance especially among New Testament scholars, sees the earliest versions of high Christology as emerging within a Jewish religious context (pp. 54-55).

Boyarin also maintains that the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is not a later Christian distortion of its true meaning.

This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that—indeed, well into the early modern period. The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish ... (pp 132-133).

As the New Wave Arrives on Shore...

So where will this new wave of Jewish writing on Jesus take us? Clearly, it does not mean that Jews are rushing to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. What it does mean is that not only is Jesus’ ethical teaching recognized as Jewish—Jews were saying that 150 years ago—but increasingly, so are other aspects of the New Testament and Christian theology. What then is Jewish about Jesus? Is it the “original” Rabbi Y’shua, only discovered when we peel away layers of later anti-Jewish invention? Or is it the whole megillah, so to speak, right down to Christian doctrines once thought to be pagan to the core? The Jewish jury is still out.

And it is a long way from the scholar’s study to the average Jewish man or woman on the street. But as the earlier wave of Jewish “Jesus-thinking” eventually filtered down to the pews, we may see a time when it will be axiomatic that Jesus was Jewish and that faith in him as Messiah is a Jewish belief.

At that point, the discussion may move from “Is it Jewish to believe in Jesus?” to “Is it true?” That will bring its own challenges, for our postmodern society does not comfortably address issues of truth, preferring to see the Jewish and Christian communities as each possessed of their own truth. But it will be an interesting time indeed if the tide of Jewish thinking takes that turn. Until then, scholars like Levine, Sommer and Boyarin have provided some substantial food for thought ... and hopefully, for discourse with our unbelieving family and friends.

Note: All books mentioned in this article can be found at amazon.com.

End Note

Many more writers could have been included; the selection is representative only.

The Suffering of Jesus and the Suffering of Israel A Reflection on Isaiah 53

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:10-11)

Perhaps no text in the Hebrew Scriptures is as contentiously debated between Jews and Christians as Isaiah 53.[ 1 ] Who is God's servant who is mentioned there? The debate over this passage has produced a litany of polemical arguments. Christians use it as as evidence of Jesus' role as the Jewish Messiah, and Jewish scholars argue fervently that it refers to the nation of Israel. Christians read Isaiah's gripping depiction of undue suffering and see Jesus on the cross, atoning for the sins of mankind. Jewish readers see an equally gripping depiction of the undue suffering of Israel in diaspora at the hands of the Gentiles. Christians see their Messiah, while Jewish people see their family tree.

A while back, a friend of mine, who also happens to be the director of Jews for Judaism Australia, posted this question on Facebook: "If it became clear to you that Jesus was not and could not be the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, would that automatically bring you to give up your belief in Jesus as your messiah?" In less than three days, that 34-word post prompted 476 comments, equivalent to 68 pages of discussion!

Most responses didn't really engage with the question but were simple rhetoric from Christians to prove that Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah. The Christian rhetoric prompted Jewish rhetoric, and the cycle repeated itself over and over.

A Bit of History

The debate over Isaiah 53 is intense, but it isn't a new one. In 248 a.d., the Christian church father Origen recorded the earliest example of such debate in his seminal work Contra Celsum:

Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations.[ 2 ]

Origen gives no indication that the debate convinced his Jewish audience about the Messiahship of Jesus. But I find it interesting to note, from this nearly 1800-year-old source, that the connection between Isaiah 53 and the suffering of the Jewish people in dispersion was already fixed firmly in Jewish minds.

Perhaps this makes sense, since Origen wrote just 112 years after the traumatic end of the Bar Kokhba revolt, in which 580,000 Jewish men, women, and children were slain,[ 3 ] and the majority of surviving Jews were expelled from Judea. After all, Isaiah 53 is a vivid depiction of unjust suffering, and certainly the Jewish people had suffered unjustly only recently .

Ironically, debates over Isaiah 53 have been used at different times as vehicles for anti-Semitism, most famously at the Disputation of Barcelona. This public debate occurred in 1263 between Rabbi Nachmanides and a Jewish convert to Catholicism named Pablo Christiani. Despite a good showing from Nachmanides, he was afterwards exiled from Spain by the Dominican Order (which had organized the debate), which claimed that Nachmanides had blasphemed against Christianity.

Beyond Polemics?

Perhaps the conversation about Isaiah 53 is so turbulent because it's been approached as polemic since the time of the early church. A polemic by definition is "a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something." Polemics don't engage topics holistically. They don't appreciate the different facets of complex issues, and they don't seek conversation. Instead, polemical arguments reduce issues to one-sided, black-and-white rhetoric.

Our conversations about Isaiah 53 might be better aided by abandoning our polemics and engaging in dialogue—dialogue that not only recognizes Jesus as the suffering servant-Messiah that he is, but also recognizes and appreciates the suffering of our own people as connected to the passage. Perhaps we shouldn't approach Isaiah 53 as an either/or but as a both/and: the Suffering Servant is both the nation of Israel, and the Messiah. (For a theological elaboration of this idea, see the accompanying article.)

Is this a legitimate reading of Isaiah 53? Compare Matthew's usage of Hosea 11:1, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." Matthew uses this verse to refer to Jesus' early life in Egypt, writing that "this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I called my son' " (Matthew 2:15). No one argues that Matthew's use of the verse negates the fact that Hosea originally referred to the nation of Israel. Jesus is God's son who was called out of Egypt and Israel is God's son who was called out of Egypt: one is a type or prefigurement of the other.

Could the suffering of Israel be a type of the suffering of Jesus—or vice-versa? This topic has been explored through the amazing works of many Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Mark Antokolsky, and Moses Jacob Ezekiel, to name just a few. The Jewish Museum in New York recently had an exhibit titled "Chagall: Love, War, and Exile," which included an essay by New York University art history professor Kenneth E. Silver.[ 4 ] Silver noted that Chagall "could demonstrate not only to Jews but also—perhaps primarily—to Gentiles that what was being done to modern Jews had a direct parallel in the fate of Jesus, cruelly misunderstood and executed for his outsider status."[ 5 ] And further, "Perhaps more than anything else, it was the image of Jesus Christ as a Man of Sorrows—a sufferer—that made him the exemplary Jew."

I find Chagall's work fascinating because he mixes images of Jesus' suffering and Jewish suffering, both of which connect with traditional understandings of Isaiah 53. And yet, given the historically conflicting interpretations of this passage, it's startling to see them juxtaposed.

I've found it incredibly helpful in my evangelistic work to allow these two seemingly contradictory interpretations to collide and yet coexist. We need to recognize that the topic of Jewish suffering is emotionally volatile. In claiming Isaiah 53's fulfillment in the suffering of Yeshua, we must not undermine or devalue the real and painful truth of Jewish suffering throughout the ages.

Furthermore, acknowledging both interpretations is the historically honest thing to do. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Luke 24 because it captures the doubts, misgivings, and belief—or lack of belief—of Jesus' disciples immediately after the resurrection. Within the chapter, this passage occurs immediately following the narrative about the disciples on the road to Emmaus:

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." (Luke 24:44-47)

It wasn't until Jesus "opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" that they understood the need for the Messiah to suffer and die. Even his first disciples didn't understand or accept his suffering until Jesus explained it to them (see also Matthew 16:21-23). How does this square with our insistence that Isaiah 53 clearly and irrefutably refers to the sufferings of the Messiah and only to that?

Yet Isaiah 53 is a compelling passage for Jewish seekers who are looking for answers, as demonstrated through the many testimonies of Jewish people who were convinced and convicted by the description of God's Suffering Servant. Jesus himself claimed to fulfill verse 12 of Isaiah 53: "For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors.' For what is written about me has its fulfillment" (Luke 22:37; similarly, Matthew and 1 Peter speak of Jesus in relation to the passage and there are many other allusions to Isaiah 53 in the New Testament). This fulfillment was indeed intended by God, the divine author who inspired the words of Isaiah. Nevertheless, the notion that Isaiah 53 so clearly points to Jesus to the exclusion of the Jewish people is in my view incorrect.

Moving Forward

So how should we approach Isaiah 53 in witnessing to our Jewish friends and family?

First, I recommend we begin with honest discussion regarding the history of its interpretation, moving away from polemics and towards meaningful dialogue. Perhaps you've already talked about Isaiah 53 with friends or family. Try revisiting the passage with a different approach. Go through the chapter verse by verse, admitting freely where the suffering of Israel can be seen in the passage, while continuing to point out where Jesus' suffering can also be seen. Look for the similarities between Jewish suffering and Jesus' suffering instead of looking only for the differences.

Second, when we claim, with scriptural warrant, that Isaiah 53 is fulfilled in the suffering of Yeshua, we must not do so in a way that undermines or devalues the real and painful truth of Jewish suffering throughout the ages.

Third, we need to pray that God will "open their minds to understand the Scriptures," just as he did for Yeshua's own disciples. We must recognize that no one will grasp the truth unless God first opens their minds.

Finally, we need to approach this passage as Philip did in Acts 8:35: "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus." Philip began with Isaiah 53 because that was the topic at hand, but he didn't end there. Instead he followed Jesus' example from Luke 24:27, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Isaiah 53 must live within its whole context: we can't use it as a isolated "prooftext," nor should we.

For past related articles, see www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/v11-n02


[ 1 ] The passage is actually Isaiah 52:13–53:12, but for convenience is often referred to simply as "Isaiah 53."

[ 2 ] www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf04.vi.ix.i.lvi.html

[ 3 ] According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio; http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/69*.html

[ 4 ] www.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/chagall-love-war-exile

[ 5 ] www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/marc-chagalls-jesus-paintings-focus-of-jewish-museum-exhibit/2014/01/17/b56e3738-7fb7-11e3-97d3-b9925ce2c57b_story.html

Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History by David Klinghoffer

Why The Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History, by David Klinghoffer, Doubleday, 2005.

Several years ago I was talking to a Jewish man about Jesus' claims to be Messiah of Israel. After awhile, this man said, Look, we Jews reject Jesus because we are Jews, and being Jewish means that we reject Jesus." As I read David Klinghoffer's newest book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, I was reminded of this encounter and I'm left with the same question: How is it that Judaism has become merely an affirmation of a rejection?

Klinghoffer starts with the presupposition that Jews rejected Jesus (which isn't true; actually all the first followers of Jesus were Jews). Then spends much of his time trying to show how Jesus didn't fulfill Jewish messianic expectations. According to Klinghoffer, when Paul, the Jewish New Testament writer, accepted Jesus, he radically rejected Torah Judaism and invented a new missionary religion:

We arrive here at the very heart of the difference between Judaism and the religion that Paul originated. The difference is still observable in the faith of Christians, as compared with that of Jews, down to our own time. Followers of Paul read and understand the Hebrew Bible through a certain philosophical lens they bring to it the premise that Jesus is the savior that salvation is from him. They read the Old Testament from the perspective of the New. They prioritize the New over the Old.

Klinghoffer fails to appreciate the fact that Paul wrote before the accounts of the life of Jesus (the gospels) were codified. Also, Paul was not easily convinced that Jesus was who he claimed to be; in fact, he initially rejected Jesus' claims. Eventually, Paul recognized Jesus was the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel. When God made his covenant promises to Abraham in Genesis, he promised to bless him and his descendants. The ultimate realization of that blessing, in Paul's understanding, is Jesus. For the early Christians (many of whom were Jewish), and for Christians today (some of whom are Jewish), Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture?not an idea superimposed on our sacred texts.

Klinghoffer's writing is open and heartfelt, but his reasoning is flawed. He concludes that if first-century Jews had believed Jesus was Messiah, then Christianity would have merely remained a sect within Judaism rather than becoming the world-changing force that gave us Western culture and civilization. In fact, he says that the Christian world should be thankful to Jews for rejecting Jesus. It is illogical to say this whilst trying to prove that Jesus wasn't the Messiah. For according to Klinghoffer's reasoning, western civilization, for all of its advancements and achievements, is built on a lie.

Look for more on this controversial book in future editions of ISSUES.

Resurrection

Trojan horse triumph of history
Innocence murdered to end tyranny
Living Word silenced without a remark
Sunlight extinguished to kindle a spark
Freedom sold to end slavery
Man fed to Death to set mankind free
Lamb bred for slaughter; Babe born to die
Devourer poisoned by Bread of Life.

Articles tagged

Two Pictures of Messiah

Suffering Messiah
Victorious Messiah
Bethlehem
Heaven
Origin
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2) In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of days and was led into his presence. (Daniel 7:13)
On a Donkey
In the Clouds
Appearance
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9) In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of days and was led into his presence. (Daniel 7:13)
Ministry
Judgment
Purpose
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2a) (See also Isaiah 11:1-3 and Isaiah 49:6) …but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:4-5) (See also Isaiah 61:2)
Suffering/Rejection
Victory Over Enemies
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed We all, like sheep, have gone astray. . . and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:2b-6) (See also Psalm 118:22) A day of the LORD is coming when your plunder will be divided among you. I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it…Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south. You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him…On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zechariah 14:1-9) (See also Isaiah 11:6-9 and Ezekiel 31:24)
Atoning Death
Eternal Dominion
After the sixty-two "sevens," the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end,and desolations have been decreed. (Daniel 9:26) (See also Psalm 22:14-18 and Isaiah 53:7-9) He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14) (See also Isaiah 9:6-7)
Suffering and Victorious Messiah
Resurrection
…because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Psalm 16:10-11)

Akedah

In the painting of The Sacrifice of Isaac, Marc Chagall draws a parallel between the story of Isaac and that of Y'shua. In doing so, he is going back to the biblical account which has occupied a substantial place in Jewish thought: the Akedah, or Binding of Isaac.

In Genesis 22, we read that God commands Abraham to offer up his only son Isaac upon an altar. Abraham, together with Isaac, makes the journey to Mount Moriah. There he binds his apparently uncomplaining son upon the wood, raising his knife to slay him as though he were an animal sacrifice. But at the last moment, an angel calls out to Abraham to stay his hand and not kill his son. At that moment God commends Abraham for his willingness to obey Him even to the point of giving up his son, then provides a ram for the actual sacrifice.

This story has been elaborated in Jewish lore with a multitude of moral applications. At times, Isaac has served as the symbol of Jewish martyrs. In other contexts, the account has been used to demonstrate that God does not require a human sacrifice. Even the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is said to be based on the Akedah.

One of the most intriguing commentaries on the Akedah sees the sacrifice as actually having been consummated, and as effecting atonement for Israel in the same manner as animal sacrifices:

There was...a remarkable tradition that insisted that Abraham completed the sacrifice and that afterward Isaac was miraculously revived.... According to this haggadah, Abraham slew his son, burnt his victim, and the ashes remain as a stored-up merit and atonement for Israel in all generations ....
The Torah: A Modern Commentary (UAHC, 1981), p. 151, n.5

It appears that this notion was widespread in medieval times:

Ibn Ezra (commentary on Gen. 22:19) also quotes an opinion that Abraham actually did kill Isaac...and he was later resurrected from the dead. Ibn Ezra rejects this as completely contrary to the biblical text. Shalom Spiegel has demonstrated, however, that such views enjoyed a wide circulation and occasionally found expression in medieval writings.
Encyclopedia Judaica, 2:482, Akedah" ?1972

The idea of Isaac's dying as an atonement on the altar actually precedes medieval times in some rabbinic writings. One can find a variety of such passages:

'A bundle of myrrh (kofer) is my well-beloved' (Cant. I, 14). This refers to Isaac, who was tied up like a bundle upon the altar. Kofer, because he atones for the sins of Israel.
Cant. R. I, Sec 14,I, on I, 14; f. 12b

If then Isaac's descendants fall into sin and evil deeds, do thou make mention of the binding of Isaac, and get up from the throne of judgment, and sit down upon the throne of compassion, and be filled with pity, and turn the attribute of judgement into the attribute of mercy.
Lev.R. 29:9

R. Judah says: When the sword touched Isaac's throat his soul flew clean out of him. And when He let his voice be heard from between the two cherubim, 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, 'the lad's soul returned to his body. Then his father unbound him, and Isaac rose, knowing that in this way the dead would come back to life in the future; whereupon he began to recite, Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who quickens the dead.
Pirkei de-Rav Eliezer 31

When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast onto Mount Moriah...
Shibbole ha-Leket

How did this idea ever get started, especially considering that in the Genesis account we are specifically told that Isaac did not die? No one is sure, but some surmise that it arose in reaction to Christian teaching. Otherwise, the sacrifice of Isaac would be less effective than that of Y'shua. The parallel between these stories and the death and resurrection of Jesus is obvious. Others speculate that the story is a reflection of medieval Jewish life, when Isaac served as a model for those who would kill their children and themselves rather than submit to forced conversions and torture.

It is interesting that believers in Y'shua found parallels between these two Jews long before medieval times. The story of the Akedah has been seen as a graphic picture of a greater Akedah which occurred some 1800 years after Abraham and Isaac. What Chagall's The Sacrifice of Isaac only hints at, the Scripture spells out more plainly:

And He said, "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you." Genesis 22:2

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

And walk in love, just as Messiah also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Ephesians 5:2

Abraham so loved God that he was willing to offer up his only son as a sacrifice. And Isaac--is it because he too loved God and his father that he did not complain but willingly went to the altar?

More than Abraham loved God, God loves us. More than Isaac was willing, Jesus willingly submitted to die as an atoning sacrifice for us, so that we might be reconciled in peace to God.

Articles tagged

Shalom: One Man's Search for Peace; A Filmmaker's Autobiography

Warren Marcus. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993. 275 pages. $9.99, paper.

Every testimony book by a Jewish believer in Jesus gives the lie to the unspoken assumption in the Jewish community that Jews don't believe in Jesus. Shalom, by award-winning filmmaker Warren Marcus, is a welcome addition to a growing body of such testimonies. The author, head of New Day Pictures International, has worked in video and film in the secular world and then in the ministries of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and Liberty Broadcasting Network.

The narrative begins with Marcus' New York City upbringing and establishes his Jewishness early on. Many Jewish readers will immediately relate to the various facets of life the author recounts. Like him, I too recall annual Passover seders at which a family member would surreptitiously shake the table, so that young eyes thought the prophet Elijah was drinking from the cup. Some readers may have had similar childhood discussions with Catholic friends in which they asked for an explanation of the Trinity, only to find that their gentile friends didn't understand the Trinity any better than they did! Many will relate to the twice-weekly attendance at Hebrew school after regular school was dismissed, and of course, the ceremony of bar mitzvah at age thirteen, viewed by many contemporary Jewish teens not as a transition to religious responsibilities but as a graduation ceremony from Hebrew school and the synagogue. Other aspects of the author's early life were perhaps not as typical, such as an alcoholic father who loved to hobnob with powerful figures, including members of the Mafia.

A notable aspect of this book is that the story is not the typical" Jewish believer's testimony. Marcus did not first confront Y'shua as a teenager or adult. Rather, his coming to the Messiah was a long journey of discovery, a growth in faith that began when he was a child. From an early age, he recalls, he had a hunger for God that was inspired by visual imagery and films. First there was a dream, in retrospect eerily reminiscent of a scene in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Later, a viewing of Ben Hur instilled a desire to know more about Jesus. Many times over Marcus tells us how, while not yet a believer in Jesus, he prayed that God would help him through one crisis or another—including those that involved sparing him the hard results of unethical decisions!

En route to his discovery of Y'shua, the author points to several obstacles that he describes as the work of Satan, seeking to keep him from coming to faith. I was reminded that the theme of spiritual obstacles is often found in Scripture. Abraham encountered one hurdle after another as he awaited God's fulfillment of the promises He gave in Genesis 12:1-3. On the level of our individual lives many of us are Abraham.

Marcus recounts the roadblocks that threatened his own coming to faith: atheism, pornography, sexual abuse, career sidetracking, drugs, and even the objections of his own wife (but we note that his marriage never broke up and in fact his wife came to faith). Marcus' journey included this discovery: that life is a spiritual battle but that God is a God who can overcome all.

Another notable theme of the book is how God used film and visual media to reach out to the author. As a filmmaker, Marcus points out time and again the amazing power of the media in influencing his life. (I did not notice until halfway through the book that each chapter title is actually the name of a well-known movie.) Even Jesus Christ Superstar, a film many Christians decried for its unscriptural portrayal of Jesus, somehow resonated with Marcus in his spiritual search. And who is to say that God cannot use such things?

There are other lessons incorporated into the fabric of the narrative—not through sermons but through descriptions of genuine life situations. This is the filmmaker's art: to tell truth through story. For example, take the message of Deuteronomy 6:6-7: "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." It is a lesson about how we come to learn by family influence. Marcus shows the truth of this through an anecdote: at three years old, he observed his older siblings smoking cigarettes in a movie theater and proceeded to scream until they finally gave him one too. When they left the theater, bystanders were startled by the spectacle of a three-year-old sauntering down the streets of New York with cigarette in mouth, blowing puffs of smoke. And so it was that through the influence of family members, Marcus briefly took up smoking, at least until his father shortly afterward found out what had happened! Family is a powerful educational environment, whether for good or ill.

Other lessons are similarly conveyed through narrative Marcus states one lesson outright as well as narrating it: the importance of sharing our faith. In spite of contact with Christians nominal and genuine over many years, he writes, "To this day I cannot understand why not even one Christian ever told me why I should believe in Jesus as my Messiah" (p. 53). Nevertheless, God brought Marcus and many of his family members to faith in Jesus.

Shalom encourages us to witness to Jewish people, to be aware that we are in a spiritual battle and to see how spiritual influence is conveyed through the media of modern life. The author is always gracious in his portrayal of other people and candid about himself. This is a refreshing, honest book that should be on your bookshelf of Jewish testimonies.

Letters from a Skeptic

Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1994. 264 Pages. $9.99, cloth.

This is a book for those looking for answers to life's tough questions. These might be the issues of suffering and pain: Where was God when the six million died? Or they might be issues of philosophy: What room is there for God in a scientific worldview? Letters from a Skeptic is not for people who prefer to be like ostriches with their heads in the ground. It is for those who genuinely want to know, who are willing to look honestly at the world—in short, for those who are honest skeptics."

The dishonest skeptic is really nothing more than a cynic. Cynics say, "Here are all the reasons why I won't believe. I won't listen to answers even if they are reasonably given." In contrast, an honest skeptic is one who says, "I would like to believe, and if you can show me enough information that is reasonable and satisfies my natural curiosity, then I will truly consider it." That is the kind of person for whom Gregory Boyd has published this three-years' worth of correspondence between him and his father.

The father, Edward Boyd, is a skeptical seventy-year-old former Catholic. His son Gregory is a thirty-something associate professor of theology at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some may think that they will encounter stuffy, intellectual answers in these pages. In fact, this book is heartfelt and allows us to see an honest conversation between a father and son, where life's most difficult questions are handled with truth and integrity. Gregory Boyd is not didactic, arrogant, or academic; rather he squares off with the issues raised. Similarly, Edward Boyd is genuinely seeking real answers to questions that have been on his mind for most of his seventy years.

A single question, honestly and reasonably answered, often sparks another query. So it is with Letters from a Skeptic. The series of thirty back-and-forth letters unveils the family concerns of the Boyds even as it leads from one set of questions and answers to another.

Does a book like this have any special value for Jewish believers in Jesus? Indeed it does, because it provides a wealth of answers to some of the very questions Jewish followers of Y'shua have asked. Even though these men are both Gentiles, the questions are answered from a very Jewish cultural worldview. In fact, there are so many references to the Holocaust that one would think this was written by Jewish people. Most of the father's theology is post-Holocaust, and his complaints about God are laced with Auschwitz orientation. What makes the book of value for Jewish believers is that many of the arguments the skeptical father puts forth are not typical of "Catholic vs. Protestant" debates but are the kinds of issues about which Jews are thinking.

Letters from a Skeptic may be especially good to give to a Jewish family member who does not yet believe. One reason is that it comes in the back door, so to speak. Some who would find it difficult to read something directed specifically at Jews will find it easier to listen in on someone else's conversation. Here they can overhear as others converse about religion and faith, about objections and answers.


Bob Mendelsohn directs the Sydney, Australia branch of Jews for Jesus.

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