Guest post by Emily Walsh
Hi, I’m Emily. I’m a senior in high school. I wrote this paper for my English class. We could write a research paper on any topic and I decided to compare Jewish and Christian faith, because I hoped it would bring greater understanding about both faiths. Hope you enjoy!
Romans 2:29 Living Bible (TLB)
29 No, a real Jew is anyone whose heart is right with God. For God is not looking for those who cut their bodies in actual body circumcision, but he is looking for those with changed hearts and minds. Whoever has that kind of change in his life will get his praise from God…
Those who are most alike are often the most likely to criticize one another. Those who should be the most capable of understanding one another are often the most prone to misjudging each other. It can happen because of pride, or it can happen because people refuse to truly listen to each other. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his book The Light That Failed, “We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.” This is true of individuals and groups. An example is Jews and Christians, who share the same origin for their beliefs but often underestimate their similarities and misunderstand their differences. The largest point of contention between these two groups is their beliefs about salvation. What are the Christian and Jewish beliefs about salvation? It is difficult to point out every detail because variations of belief and practice exist among both Jews and Christians. The one solid similarity among denominations and one difference between the religions, however, is the idea of the Messiah. Both Jews and Christians believe that the Messiah will fulfill the prophecies of Tanakh or Old Testament and bring salvation. Yet other interpretations of the Messiah cause a divergence between Judaism and Christianity. When closely examined, however, more similarities exist than the groups perceive. The content and criticisms of Jewish and Christian beliefs of salvation demonstrate not only their compatibility but their completion through Jesus as Messiah.
The first part of a dialogue between the two groups begins with the content of Jewish beliefs of salvation. Jews believe that the Messiah will be a human. This means that he does not possess a divine nature, will not perform miracles, and overall is limited in the same way that humans are in relation to God. This does not mean, however, that he will not be an instrument of God. In fact, Jews believe that someone who claims to have power apart from God cannot be the Messiah (Chilton and Neusner 27). Rather, the Messiah will submit to God’s will and God will bring about His plan of salvation through the Messiah’s submission. Also, the Messiah will be a ruler or king that will reestablish Israel. More than that, Jews believe that when the Messiah arrives, God will resurrect the dead, judge human deeds, and establish world peace (Levine 29).
On the other side of the conversation is the content of Christian beliefs of salvation. Christians generally share the same views as the Jews, but they interpret Old Testament prophecies slightly differently. This is seen first through their conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament description of the Messiah because He not only brought physical but also spiritual salvation. This salvation was not just for Israel the nation but available to all people who put their faith in Jesus. They believe that Jesus accomplished this by becoming the ultimate sacrificial atonement for sin. Christians believe He was able to do this because He was both God and man. By being God, He was able to be a sinless substitute for the sinners in their sentence of death. Hebrews 2:14b explains why it was imperative for Him to be a man, “For only as a human being could He die, and only by dying could He break the power of the devil, who had the power of death” (Bible Gateway, NLT). Thus, Jesus had to be a man to die and had to be God to die a sinless death. Christians also believe that the Messiah did not come only once but is coming back again to complete salvation physically. He will return again, destroying all the enemies of God once and for all, including death (1 Cor.15:25-26).
Jews have several criticisms of the Christian beliefs. The primary criticism Jews have of Christian belief is their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Jews concede that any person could be the Messiah, but Jesus, although affirming He is a man, does not fit the description of the Messiah. First, they argue that if Jesus was the Messiah, the world would not still be in a state of strife and turmoil, but instead, His arrival would have brought peace. Two-thousand years later, the Jews are still waiting for world peace. Not only was world peace not established, but Israel was not re-established as an autonomous nation. In Jesus’ time, not only did the Romans rule over Israel but shortly after that the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered. In 1948, Israel was recognized as a nation but is still struggling for true ownership of the land. Jews derive this requirement of peace-bringing from Jeremiah 23:5-6, which says:
For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. And this will be his name: ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’ In that day Judah will be saved, and Israel will live in safety. (NLT)
Jews assert that Jesus was not a king and He did not save Israel. Also, in order to be a descendant of King David, He needed to be a human. Although Christians say Jesus was fully human, they also say he was fully God, which Jews deny to be possible. They first believe that it is impossible for any human to be equal with God, which is what seems to be implied by the dual-nature attributed to Jesus. In a similar perspective, Jews are opposed to the triune-nature attributed to God by Christians, called the Trinity. Jews believe that dividing God into three persons seems to destroy or at least dilute the concept of the One God, which Jews consider integral to their faith (Wildstein 312). For all these reasons, Jews conclude that Jesus was not the Messiah.
In addition to Jesus’ lack of prophecy fulfillment, Jews argue that His teaching contradicts the Torah’s teaching. Faith is prioritized over obedience, and Jesus no longer requires all the commandments to be obeyed. As Carol Osiek contends, “Christianity might have remained a sect within Judaism had it revolved only around a belief that Jesus was the Messiah.” In other words, it was not the belief that Jesus was the Messiah that was revolutionary. After all, although some disbelieved in His Messiahship, the Messiah was a Jewish concept that could be applied to any person. Osiek also states that the concept of a relationship with God for Gentiles was not the novel or heretic point of divergence. After all, Osiek states, anyone could enter into the covenant with God by converting to Judaism. Rather, it was the inclusion of Gentiles into sanctification without the need to follow all the requirements of the Law, such as circumcision. God would not change like that.
Christians, in turn, have criticisms against Jewish faith. Christians argue that the Jewish concept of the Messiah fails to provide necessary spiritual salvation for all people. He is a Messiah that supposedly brings world peace and physical salvation to Israel but nothing is mentioned about atonement for either the Jews’ or Gentiles’ sin. The Old Testament made clear that such atonement is necessary. Leviticus 16:34 says, “This [offering for sin] is a permanent law for you, to purify the people of Israel from their sins, making them right with the Lord once each year (NLT).” Though God commanded this sacrifice of atonement to be a “permanent law”, Jews have ceased to perform it for over two-thousand years. Jews uphold adherence to the commandments, or the mitzvot, but without the sacrificial system, they have ceased to follow 443 out of the 613 mitzvot (Robinson 204). Therefore, the means by which spiritual salvation is procured for Jews has ceased, or else it seems as if the Jews have changed or reinterpreted God’s covenant.
To perceive the compatibility of the belief systems, each side’s counter arguments must be presented, starting with the Jews. Donaldson summarizes the main Jewish response to Christian criticism of Jewish legalistic mindset: “Judaism [is] not the legalistic religion of meritorious achievement that it had often been made out to be.” He then argues that Jews acknowledge the primacy of the covenant God gave to Abraham by grace, viewing the observance of the Law not as atonement but acknowledgment of God’s gracious choice of Israel as His people. Jews concede that they will not always keep the mitzvot perfectly, but that is acceptable. God provides atonement through grace. Yet Jews still should strive to obey all the commands out of love and fear of God.
The other part of Jewish response is their view of the command sacrifices, which vary between Jewish groups, but all address Christian critique. All of them acknowledge that such sacrifices are unable to be performed with the state that Israel is in now; God’s commands concerning such sacrifices were specifically designed to operate within God’s Temple in Jerusalem. When Roman forces destroyed the Temple in 66 AD, these priestly and sacrificial commands became limp (Woods 126). Thus, a shift began from a sacrificial system to a rabbinical system; Jewish devotion to God transitioned from sacrifices and offerings to prayer and scriptural study (Robinson 301). Most Jews today view atonement of sin available through prayer to God, who is merciful and gracious to forgive a truly repentant heart. However, division remains on the status of sacrifices. Some Jews believe that sacrifices should and will continue with the reconstruction of the Temple, and that God will accept and forgive the cessation in the interim, as long as Jews strive to follow all the other mitzvot. After all, that is what happened after the first destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. Other Jews believe that sacrifices are antiquated, meant only for paganistic times. Either way, modern Jews view forgiveness as coming from repentant prayer.
Christians response to Jewish criticism starts with the affirmation that Jesus fulfills the role of the Messiah, even from the Jewish perspective. He brought physical redemption through His miracles, and He brings physical healing now. Also, in His second coming, He will execute all the expectations the Jews have of the Messiah; He will bring resurrection of the dead, judgment of the righteous and wicked, and physical redemption. Yet it was necessary for Him to first come as an atonement for sin. Like Jews, Christians believe in the grace of God, but they also believe in His justice. God was holy and clearly required holiness as well as separation from sin. All people sinned, so God in His holiness would have to punish them for their sins or provide a means of atonement for their sin. Sacrifice was crucial to atone for sin, demonstrated not only in specific command (Leviticus 16:34) but through the vast number of commands dealing with the sacrificial process. Since Jesus was a perfect sinless sacrifice, the “permanent law” of atonement was permanently satisfied for all who put their faith in Him. In this way, Jesus exceeds the expectation of the Messiah. Hebrews 9:28 explains it well, “so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him.”
Christians also argue that the Jewish belief of Christian abandonment of the Law is untrue. This is seen first in the words of Jesus himself, in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Bible Gateway, NIV).” Jesus encouraged the true purpose of the Law, which was to love God and others (Matt. 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31). Jewish Bible scholar Amy-Jill Levine supports this thesis maintaining that Jesus did not reinvent Judaism but reminded people of its principles (26). When it seemed like He was contradicting the Law, as when His disciples were not keeping the Sabbath (Matthew 12:2), He was not defying the Law but defying false interpretations of the Law. The Jewish religious leaders accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath because they had interpreted the Scripture (Exodus 20:6) to not allow any sort of work on the Sabbath. But Jesus replies with examples from Scripture to show God’s true intentions in creating the Sabbath law was to rest from work, not rest from following God and doing good. After all, the latter exemplifies loving God and others. While God did intend a rest from physical work, God never intended that physical rest would interfere with His work.
Jesus’ disciples and apostles also continued the conviction that the New Testament does not supersede the Law. The apostle James asserts, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (Jas. 2:26, NIV). Thus, even though Christians believe faith brings salvation, they believe that this faith includes active obedience to God’s commands. The point is not that law abidance should stop; the point is that it should not be considered a means of salvation. John McRay points out that, “It must be considered highly significant that the New Testament contains nothing comparable to the Pentateuch . . . [containing] no Leviticus or Deuteronomy” (10). Essentially, if the New Testament’s purpose was to supersede the Old Testament, then it would offer new commands to replace the Mosaic Law. The New Testament does have commands, but not any command that cannot be derived from Old Testament commands, implying that Christians must obey God’s commands to the Israelites.
When this dialogue is closely examined, more compatibility, although not complete, exists between the two sides. Compatibility is first seen through the Jewish and Christian view of the Law. Though a Jew or Christian may behave legalistically or with disregard for the Law, in the end, the reason true Christians and Jews both strive to follow the law is love for God. In the words of Peter Kreeft, they both believe that, “Faith means not just belief but fidelity to the covenant, like a marriage covenant. Sin is the opposite of faith, for sin means not just vice but divorce, breaking the covenant.” Jews and Christians both agree that no person can be a perfect law-keeper, and that is acceptable. As long as they are repentant and responsive to God, and continue to try to please and follow him, they can receive forgiveness by asking. They both recognize the need for God’s justice and mercy, how God requires and offers rectification for human sin. In this way, the conclusion for both Jews and Christians is that people are saved not through observance of Jewish mitzvot or Old Testament Law but through the righteousness that comes by faith.
Finally, the most compatible part of each faith is the completion of each through Jesus being named Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of not only Christian but also Jewish expectations. He is a descendant of David. He brought physical redemption through healing and miracles and spiritual redemption through His teaching and death. He brought peace which is available worldwide to all who put their faith in Him. His teaching was not unique or novel, but a revival and renewal of God’s original Law. His death fulfilled the requirement of the sacrificial law for sin once and for all, eliminating the need for both Jews and Gentiles to perform such sacrifices for salvation. And one day, he will come, ending the reign of the prince of this world and establishing His own kingdom of peace that will last forever.
Jews and Christians will continue to have their differences, and little matters will continue to be debated among the groups. Yet when it comes to salvation, only one answer exists for both groups and for all mankind: Jesus. He is the fulfilment of God’s promises and the hope of all the nations of the world. Christians did not invent a new religion but became recipients of Jewish promises; Jewish promises have been completed through the one true Jew, Jesus. Neither group is complete without him. As Jennifer Koshner says, “Yeshua [Jesus] is the essential link between Judaism and Christianity, rather than their fundamental distinguishing factor,” (qtd. in Kinzer, x). Although Jesus is not the answer the Jews were looking for, He is the answer.
The Bible. New Living Translation and New International Version. Bible Gateway, Bible Gateway / Zondervan, 2019.
Chilton, Bruce and Jacob Neusner. Jewish and Christian Doctrines: The Classics Compared. Routledge, 2000. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/vfcc-ebooks/detail.action?docID=168993.
Donaldson, Terence L. “Introduction to the Pauline Corpus.” The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780198755005/obso-9780198755005-div1-420. Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.
Kreeft, Peter John. “Why Be a Christian?: Comparing Christianity & Judaism.” National Catholic Register, vol. 63, May 1987, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=CPLI0000137203&site=ehost-live.
Kinzer, Mark S. Israel’s Messiah and the People of God, The Lutterworth Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/vfcc-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3328474.
Levine, Amy-Jill. “Listening to Jesus as a Jew: Bible Scholar Amy-Jill Levine.” Interview by Elizabeth Palmer, The Christian Century, vol. 136, no. 7, Mar. 2019, pp. 26–29. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAiFZK190430001325&site=ehost-live.
Osiek, Carolyn. “Galatians.” The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-chapter-63>. Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.
Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
McRay, John. “Christianity: Judaism Internationalized.” Restoration Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 1990, pp. 1–10. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000824691&site=ehost-live.
Wildstein, Jeffery. Judaism. Penguin Random House, 2015.
Woods, Len. Handbook of World Religions: A Bible-Based Review of 50 World Faiths. Barbour Publishing Inc, 2008.