What Jews Can Learn from the New Testament

A rich source for understanding the history of Judaism and the history of anti-Semitism.

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In fact, the more a modern Jewish reader is acquainted with rabbinic literature, the more he or she is likely to find texts of interest in the NT, and to notice just how similar many NT teachings are to those of the rabbis. For example, Jesus is quoted in Mark as coming to the defense of some of his disciples who had been criticized by the Pharisees for breaking the laws of the Sabbath. Jesus said that they had done no wrong since "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).

Some readers over the years have concluded that Jesus was making an antinomian statement, devaluing the Sabbath.  But students of rabbinic literature will recognize that Jesus' words sound very similar to those of Rabbi Yonatan b. Yosef in the Talmud,  explaining why the Sabbath may be desecrated to save a human life (Yoma 85b): "'It [= the Sabbath] is holy for you' means that the Sabbath was handed over to you and you were not handed over to it."  This is not to say that Jesus and Rabbi Yonatan would necessarily agree about the criteria that justify breaking the Sabbath.  But Jesus' remarks appear much more orthodox when read beside those of Rabbi Yonatan.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) reads, on a rhetorical level, like an anti-rabbinic text. In it Jesus argues that the righteousness of "the Scribes and the Pharisees" (= the rabbis) is insufficient and he challenges his followers to strive for what he considered a higher level of morality. The "Lord's prayer" (Matthew 6:9-13) is introduced by Jesus with a charge to his followers not to pray the way the hypocrites pray in synagogue.

But, in fact, every phrase in the prayer can be found in rabbinic literature.  For example the opening phrase, "Our father who art in heaven" is simply the Hebrew phrase avinu she-ba-shamayim, found in the beginning of many rabbinic prayers.  And the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are, on most points, very similar to those of the rabbis. Books like The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount, by Gerald Friedlander, show just how many teachings of the NT, particularly those found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), are parallel and sometimes even identical to the teachings of the rabbis. 

For example, Jesus claims in Matthew (19:9) that divorce is permitted only in a case of adultery and his position is presented there as being in stark opposition to that of the Pharisees.  Students of Mishnah know that a great rabbi in the generation before Jesus said the same thing (the opinion of the house of Shamai in Gitin 9:10). 

Both Jews and Christians ought to understand that most of Jesus' reported teachings are, from a rabbinic perspective, not particularly revolutionary or even new, and that the rift between Judaism and Christianity is a function of what was said about Jesus after his death.  

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Martin I. Lockshin

Martin I. Lockshin, Ph.D., is a professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. He received rabbinic ordination after studying at the yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem.