Judaism & the New Testament

by Jonathan Vankin, studioD

Jews wrote the books of the New Testament. When they were first written, Jews read the books of the New Testament. And then, those same books became the basis for a new religion, Christianity, that broke from Judaism entirely. In fact, over the centuries, some Christians even turned the New Testament against Judaism. They cite certain passages to justify their own hatred of Jews.

Origins of the New Testament

When the New Testament was compiled, Jesus was dead for over 300 years.

Almost 400 years after Jesus died, a group of Christian bishops formed a kind of editorial board. Their job was to assemble a collection of writings into a new holy book for Christians, a single source for authorized information about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. It was a painstaking task. They read carefully through dozens of old documents. In the end, they accepted 27. The rest, they tossed onto the “reject” pile. The books that survived the cut were already about 300 years old, but even the bishops didn’t know exactly when they were written. Even today, no one does. Best estimates put the earliest Gospel, Matthew, somewhere around A.D. 50 and the latest, John, perhaps 50 years after that. None of the books give any dates for when Jesus lived or died. What the books do provide are accurate descriptions of Jewish life in their era. Because of course, the authors were all Jews.

The Jewishness of Jesus

Jesus is the hero of the New Testament and the very reason the books exist. The authors make clear that Jesus believed that he was the messiah as prophesied in the sacred Jewish text, the Torah. But the books never suggest that Jesus was anything other than a traditional, observant Jew. He does not claim to be a divine being. That would be unthinkable for a Jew such as Jesus. There is only one God in Judaism. Some theologians point to an incident in which Jesus appears to reject the Torah laws regarding how food must be consumed. They say that episode proves that Jesus broke from traditional Judaism. But a closer reading reveals that he rejected only the way religious authorities of his day, whom Jesus regarded as pompous fools, interpreted those laws.

Don’t the Gospels Say That the Jews Killed Jesus?

The Roman military occupation government of Jerusalem executed Jesus by crucifixion, on charges of political insurrection. However, for centuries, Christians blamed “the Jews” for the death of Jesus. They cite a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, in which a Jewish mob declares, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” They also point to the Gospel of John which contains seemingly vitriolic accusations against “the Jews.” As for the Matthew passage, no less an authority than Pope Benedict XVI rejected the old misreading. The infamous passage is actually a blessing, he said, a plea for purification in the messiah’s symbolic blood. And the John accusations? Bible scholars note that, at the time the gospel was written, Judaism was split into bitterly opposed sects. When the author says “the Jews,” he’s talking about a rival sect, not the Jewish people in their entirety.

The Book of Revelation and the Synagogue of Satan

The Revelation of St. John the Divine closes out the New Testament. And what a conclusion -- a thunderous tale of an apocalyptic war between Jesus and the anti-Christ. The author issues repeated anti-Jewish broadsides, at one point referring to Jews as “the synagogue of Satan.” But what is the context? Reading that passage, Revelation 3:9, reveals that the narrator speaks not about Jews as a people but about a specific group of his own enemies who aren’t really Jews at all, in his opinion. They “pass as Jews, but show by their blasphemy and licentiousness that they are the synagogue of Satan.” Who were these mysterious bad guys? According to historian Elaine Pagels, Revelation’s author was himself a Jew who believed Jesus was the messiah of Torah prophecy. But he was surrounded by new cults who worshipped the long-dead Jesus as a god. That was nothing short of Satanic, as far as the traditionally Jewish author of Revelation was concerned. The “synagogue of Satan” was not “the Jews,” but the early Christians.

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About the Author

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.

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