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Confronting the Charge that the Gospels are Anti-Semitic

A review of Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-being in a Christian Environment (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008) by Michael J. Cook.

Jews often follow the Christian practice of referring to the Hebrew scriptures as the Old Testament, but this is not a reflection of Jewish views of the bible. For Jews, the Christian scriptures are not sacred–they are not even relevant. Indeed, most Jews have not read the New Testament beyond perhaps having mastered a few quotable phrases that are part of popular culture. The idea of reading the Christian gospels is somehow intimidating or wrong to many Jews. Rabbi Michael Cook thinks this is a mistake and that knowing the New Testament will empower Jews as a minority in a predominantly Christian society.

Cook, who is professor of intertestamental and early Christian literatures at Hebrew Union College, thinks of this general Jewish lack of knowledge of the basic texts of Christianity as a sort of blindness. He first came upon the image of Jewish blindness in an art history context. In Christian art the synagogue (“Synagoga”) is personified as a woman wearing a blindfold, which symbolizes “Judaism’s opaqueness to the truths of Christianity.” Cook found another sort of blindness in the Jewish community today: completely overlooking the Gospels. “Although the New Testament has exerted the most harmful impact on the Jewish people’s history, Jews have always opted to remain ignorant about it,” Cook writes. “This is the glaring exception to the time-honored Jewish approach to problem-solving, which is to amass–not shun–knowledge.”

Negative images of Judaism in medieval European church art included the blindfolded Synagoga. This photo of a Synagoga figure from 1250 from the Strasbourg Cathedral is by Mary Ann Sullivan.

Cook’s technique for helping Jews remove the blindfold involves exposing what he calls “Gospel Dynamics.” He defines these dynamics as “problem-solving techniques,” with which early Christians “molded their traditions to address their needs decades after Jesus died.” Thus, in Cook’s estimation, words attributed to Jesus or even to God in the New Testament might in fact belong to later figures and might be propagandistic rather than archival. Readers should respond to Jesus as they do to Platonic quotes of Socrates; rather than Jesus speaking, there are Mark’s, Matthew’s, John’s, and Luke’s adaptations of Jesus’ remarks.

Cook uses Gospel dynamics to reinterpret the aspects of the New Testament that seem anti-Semitic. Where Mark records three of Jesus’ prophecies–each one along the lines that the Son of Man will suffer extensively, will be rejected by Jews, will be killed and will rise from the dead three days later–Cook sees not successful forecasts that show Jesus to be a miracle-worker but hindsight predictions of the past. “These predictions correspond so precisely to the ensuing story line as to suggest their composition after the fact and their retrojection (backdating) to Jesus personally,” writes Cook. “Were the predictions verbalized not by Jesus to his disciples but by the Evangelist Mark to his later audience?” If Jews learn to identify these sorts of dynamics, Cook suggests, they will be better equipped to reject problematic New Testament statements and also to debate missionaries.

In another dynamic, the earliest Gospels, Mark and Matthew (circa 72 CE and 85 CE respectively according to Cook), record Jesus’ final words on the cross as Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The two later texts, Luke and John, change Jesus’ last words. In Luke, Jesus cries out Psalm 31:5, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” while John records no cry at all, but just the pronouncement, “It is finished.” Cook explains the dynamic present. “In a moment of such physical duress, would Jesus quote Jewish scripture, or was it only the developing Christian tradition that first supplied such ‘last words’?” Further, Luke’s introduction of Psalm 31 requires explanation. “Does he find that the original set of Jesus’ last words–a lament at being forsaken–broadcasts gloom so severe as to undermine Christian faith rather than to solidify it,” Cook wonders, “for it appears to show that, in Jesus’ own estimation, his crucifixion signaled rejection?”

Jewish readers anxious to acquit the New Testament might accept Cook’s notion of Gospel dynamics. But this line of argument, that the New Testament is only a historical artifact, will no doubt carry limited appeal among religious Christians. Asking Christians to be skeptical of their own scripture and to read it academically so that Jews will not be offended will not help settle Jewish-Christian disputes, any more than it would help to convince religious Jews that they should read Hebrew scriptures as a mere historical text that doesn’t attest to their special relationship with God. Readings that deconstruct a sacred text do not necessarily work for people who want to keep their faith intact.

Another of Cook’s arguments carries a bit wider appeal. The New Testament, rather than being anti-Semitic, which implies a racial judgment, is anti-Jewish. “This is evident since as soon as Jews underwent the requisite change–accepting Christianity–they ceased to be targets of New Testament criticism,” Cook writes. Some will see this distinction as mere semantics and wonder why it matters whether Christians denounce Jews for their religious choices or for their race. But it is important to recognize that Jews are technically anti-Christian along the same lines insofar as they reject the New Testament and its theological implications. It is to be expected for religions to uphold their own narratives as truthful and the competition as misdirected; the question is how religious people apply that necessarily close-minded perspective to the real world.

Many Christians and Jews do not have a problem keeping the picture of the other they get from scripture and sermons separate from their friendships and professional interactions with members of other faiths. Others crave an intellectual approach to the New and Old Testaments, and it is this audience that Cook addresses. Particularly, he hopes that Jews’ ability to explain “Gospel Dynamics” to their children and to Christians will help them “exchange their sense of victimization by the New Testament for a strong sense of confidence that they now knowledgably control this literature and are thereby free from it.”

Cook does not suggest it, but it follows that Christians could afford to better study the Old Testament and to learn more about Jewish views of the Messiah and God’s covenant with the Chosen People. Christians often only know areas of Jewish scripture that they feel apply to Jesus, and ignore the rest of the bible. If Jews and Christians become diligent scholars of not only their own faith but also the other faith, they will find themselves in a far better position to get along and understand each other.

Menachem Wecker