A Jew looks at Christian Biblical Studies

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 figure’).

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.

Similar examples

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 Press, 1927—30.
  • 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.
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