c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Last month in Israel, a group of Christian missionaries distributed copies of the New Testament to Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in the city of Or Yehuda, a center of Orthodox Judaism near Tel Aviv.
In response, some enraged Jewish seminary students burned copies of the New Testament.
The Israeli government denounced the book-burning as a “despicable act” and called for a police investigation. Or Yehuda’s mayor condemned the incident and said his city had no connection with the obscene action.
Major American Jewish organizations were highly critical and noted that many times in the past _ including the Nazi period, the Spanish Inquisition and 13th century Paris _ copies of the Torah, Talmud and books by Jewish authors were publicly burned.
The Or Yehuda incident highlights a sad recurring feature of history: for 20 centuries, Christian missionaries have thrust the New Testament into the collective face of Jews in largely unsuccessful efforts of conversion.
It has been a tragic zero sum game for both faith communities.
Frustrated by the Jewish people’s continuing refusal to abandon their faith, Christians frequently used the New Testament as a bludgeon in their ugly campaigns of coercion and proselytizing. In turn, Jews reacted negatively toward the dreaded New Testament, even though it was written mostly by Jews for Jews about a Jew who lived in ancient Israel. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Jews have little or no knowledge of the text used by their tormentors.
But during the same week as the Or Yehuda incident, an important new book with a radically different perspective on the New Testament was published by Michael J. Cook, a world-class scholar of Christianity at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform Jewish Seminary) in Cincinnati, Ohio.
His book has an intriguing title: “Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment.” In the interests of full disclosure, I wrote a dust jacket endorsement for the book.
Cook, a superb teacher, has crammed his book with helpful diagrams, charts and other tools that will benefit readers no matter how little knowledge they may have of the subject.
Instead of “knowing” the New Testament, Cook offers something new: “Gospel Dynamics.” This approach emphasizes how “the time frame producing a Gospel may have influenced how its subject matter came to be cast.”
Cook believes that only a few decades after the Roman crucifixion of Jesus, an enormous and permanent anti-Jewish “spin” was created because Jesus’ early followers feared the punishing power of the Roman Empire and desperately wanted to divorce themselves from the “great Jewish revolt” against Rome between A.D. 66 and 73. That revolt, incidentally, resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Cook shows how “Rome’s obvious responsibility” for Jesus’ death was deliberately shifted to “the Jews” with horrific results. The lethal anti-Jewish “Christ-killer” charge leveled for centuries was “sealed by traditions bearing no genuine connection to the historical Jesus at all.”
Instead, Cook makes the case that Jesus the Jew was a Pharisee, the group that initiated what we today call rabbinic Judaism. But Cook is also quick to point out that “there are too many variables at play for anyone to define the historical Jesus with confidence.”
Each generation, indeed each person, defines Jesus to fit their own needs. The Gospels present a “smorgasbord” of conflicting data: Jesus was “a pacifist or a militant, a prophet, reformer, liberator, Pharisee, Essene, magician, charismatic, healer/exorcist, cynic-philosopher, savior, or even pure myth,” as Cook puts it.
The book is a groundbreaking study that is essential reading in Jewish and Christian seminaries, university religion courses and, above all, in synagogue and church study classes.
Cook has provided healing therapy: Jews no longer need to fear the New Testament, and Christians are freed from using it as an odious justification for anti-Jewish beliefs and actions.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, wrote the book “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)
KRE/PH END RUDIN750 words
A photo of Rabbi Rudin is available via https://religionnews.com.