Christianity vs. Judaism: A False Dichotomy
Of course she was reflecting the cultural tradition, “I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew.” She was also making the important point that accepting Jesus in no way contradicts Judaism. She had recognized the need to articulate that she intended no disloyalty to, nor departure from, her personal heritage. The reason for this needed articulation is a longstanding false dichotomy.
We recall one of the stories in the Gospels that shows Jesus speaking to a group of Israel’s religious elite, who were trying to belittle and confound Him. In so doing they cited their lineage from Abraham in an argumentative way. He replied that if Abraham was their “father,” as they said, they would have a different attitude toward Him – because “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced.” If this didn’t sufficiently confound them, His next statement surely did. “Before Abraham was – I Am.”
Christian and Jewish Origins of the False Dichotomy
As we read conversations like this in the Gospel accounts we can see the beginnings of the false dichotomy. The “us and them” mentality that has resulted in alienation between some who would become Christians and their Jewish elder brothers in the faith. This divisive spirit has also resulted in the longest-standing racial and religious prejudices in human history – anti-semitism and anti-Judaism.
Some leaders of the early Christian church made a concerted effort to reject the religious and cultural practices of the Jewish people – the people who had been given and entrusted to preserve the sacred text. These church leaders required that the church calendar be different from the Jewish or biblical calendar, robbing Christendom of the richness that comes from knowing even a little about Judaism’s holy days – the Feasts of the LORD. Men like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Chrysostom contributed to this anti-Judaism, not to mention the anti-semitism that would later follow.
The Roman emperor Constantine would later work to incorporate pagan dates and practices into early Christianity for political reasons. This early Christianity had of course originated among men and women who were Jewish Christians. To this day the term “Christian” causes stumbling for many Jewish people because of these practices, and it has contributed to the creation of this longstanding false dichotomy.
In his waning days, apparently because Jewish people had not chosen to convert to the religious walk that he had shaped, Martin Luther gave voice to inflammatory anti-semitism. His dark utterances didn’t go unnoticed or unused by Adolph Hitler.
Like many others who had leveled the charge “Christ-killers” at Jewish people – often even at Jewish children – apparently Hitler’s henchmen leveled the old, wrong-minded charge yet another time as the excuse for their barbarism. Over and over down the centuries, when economic conditions became difficult or the “Black Death” became an epidemic, for example, Jewish people would be wrongly blamed, isolated, made to wear yellow stars, tortured, and killed.
One of the most outrageous false accusations that was trumped up against them was that Jewish people needed Christian children’s blood to make matzoh, the unleavened bread that is associated with the Passover celebration. This allegation, known as “the blood libel,” resulted in torturous suffering and death.
For those who have the stamina to wade through a well-researched study of this dark part of human history, Our Hands are Stained with Blood by Dr. Michael L. Brown provides the details.
Most of us have heard the descriptive phrase “Judeo-Christian,” referring to beliefs, traditions, or culture. It underscores the true unity between the people described in the earlier books of the Bible, or the “Old Testament,” and the Jewish Christians who would take the Gospel out to the larger world, as seen in The Book of Acts in the New Covenant. But taking even a cursory look at the history of anti-semitism and anti-Judaism within the Christian Church, one ultimately has to consider what has been the crux of the false dichotomy between Christians and Jews. And by no means does all of the responsibility lie on the side of Christians or the early church.
We’ve briefly touched on the “Christ-killer” accusation that has often been leveled at Jewish children by other children who had been told not to play with them. Not to mention the way the Holocaust revived this wrong-minded charge.
As one reads the story of the Gospel, one could come away with the sense that Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. But Jesus Himself, “knowing the end from the beginning,” tried to defuse this wrong-minded charge. “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down…” And even though we see the Jewish religious elite of His time being outraged by Jesus’ acknowledgment of His identity and characterizing it as the capital offense of “blasphemy,” we must recognize that among the common Jewish people He was the most-popular Rabbi of all time. The many people who had gathered when he miraculously fed thousands and the 500 people who saw Him at one time after the resurrection are cases in point.
The religious elite did of course hold illegal trials. They even went so far as to seek false witnesses – even though the Law of God and Jewish legal tradition required that those involved in judging legal matters bend over backward to protect the rights of the accused. These men in positions of authority seriously violated the central provisions of their own Law and tradition. No question.
And Pilate didn’t help things from the Jewish “PR” perspective by trying to let Jesus go free by offering the worked-up crowd a choice to free Him or Barabbas. Pilate clearly stated that he could find no culpability in Jesus, and to provide an object lesson, he “washed his hands” of the proceedings. We well remember that at least one of the Gospels reveals that these same religious elites appeared to welcome responsibility for the crucifixion they sought. “His blood be on us and our children,” they said.
Here again, we need to recall Jesus’ own words to the effect that “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down; and if I lay it down I can take it up again, because this is what I’ve been commanded by my Father.”
Further, we also recall His weeping over Jerusalem only days before the crucifixion and His foretelling the destruction of the temple with complete accuracy. He continued to link this judgment to Israel’s not having known “the time of your visitation.” During Israel’s long history, after a series of acts of disobedience and resulting judgments over centuries, as described in the Old Testament, prophets were sent by God to foretell Jesus’ coming. Some of the Psalms are clearly messianic; notably Psalm 22. Isaiah 53 (actually 52:13 through the end of 53) is unmistakably and undeniably a description of Jesus. So Israel had been blessed with every help that God could provide to enable her to recognize Jesus, or in Hebrew, Yeshua.
But as we consider this history, we remember the apostle Paul’s admonishing us not to “boast against the [natural] branches,” clearly a reference to ethnic Israel. For those who have questions about these things, Romans 9 through 11 are important chapters; particularly Romans 11. We learn that Israel has suffered a partial “blindness” regarding her Messiah, and a hardening of the heart.
But as always, God works these dark occurrences for a wider good, and we see that ultimately ethnic Israel as a whole will turn to share in the blessing of grace through Jesus.
Taking a brief look at the Jewish side of the false dichotomy, we need to acknowledge that despite the popularity of Yeshua among common Jews in the first century, the nature of the interactions between the religious elite of His day and Yeshua was highly adversarial. Not to mention the part these men played in maneuvering Pilate. Ultimately they resorted to politics, telling Pilate that their only “king” was Caesar and that “Any friend of this man is no friend of Caesar.” We don’t know whether Pilate suffered from job insecurity, but this last maneuver on the part of the Jewish religious elite seems to have turned the tide against Jesus that day.
The voices of rejection of Jesus can be heard to this day in places like Brooklyn and Jerusalem. Many orthodox rabbis continue to work for darkness in this most misguided way. They speak blasphemously of their own Messiah, the very charge that their ancestors leveled at Yeshua two millennia ago. Apparently some rabbis have even gone so far as to remove Isaiah 53 from the sacred text because of its unmistakable description of Jesus. The longstanding Jewish tradition in some, perhaps many, Jewish households that is expressed in the byword, “Ask the rabbi,” has also been a factor. Many Jewish people have not read their own Tanach or Bible for themselves – much less the Apostolic Scriptures. They have entrusted this vital responsibility to rabbinical sources.
Having touched briefly on the long, sad history of anti-semitism and anti-Judaism within the Christian church, we can understand the enormous distrust of Christians that began to grow within Jewish culture. To this day the Holocaust is often brought up when Jewish people learn that yet another young member of their ethnicity has recognized Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Bewildered Jewish parents often describe this choice as a betrayal of those who died at the hands of the Nazis and others like them. These parents feel that their cultural heritage is being betrayed as well. Parents have often disowned children over their “conversion.”
Resolving the Dichotomy: Jewish Roots and Christian Branches
The very word “conversion” reflects the false dichotomy. The tree of life has Jewish roots and Christian branches. The Word of God, first in the form of the Scriptures and later as Yeshua, came first to the Jewish people. They were the recipients and guardians of the sacred text. The first Christians were Jewish Christians.
The Feasts of the LORD, long an important part of observant Jewish culture, are festivals that were ordained at times appointed by God. During Jesus’ walk with us here, He fulfilled the spring feasts, the first four feasts on the ancient Jewish calendar, symbolized by the four candles on the left side of the menorah.
These are Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Pentecost, in English. Those remaining to be fulfilled are the “fall feasts,” or as Jewish people refer to them, the “High Holy Days.” These include Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles. Many people anticipate that Jesus will return in the autumn because He has yet to fulfill these high holy days.
So from the very beginning, in the creative mind of God, the tree of life has had Jewish roots and Christian branches.
My mother was a minister. I remember her talking about Jesus. “He had no thought of starting a new religion,” she said. How right she was! Jesus explained that He had not come to destroy the Law (Torah) or the Prophets – but to fulfill them. He observed the Jewish feasts, or more accurately, the Feasts of God. He alone kept the Torah perfectly. He fulfilled the Passover as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” He was and is in every sense Jewish.
So while we can catch a sense of the pathos that has long contributed to this grievous false dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity, we see in the story of Jacob’s son, Joseph, a picture that gives us a glimpse of how eager Jesus is for the division to be over. Because Joseph’s brothers initially despised and rejected him, Joseph was eventually “hidden” from them – and at the appointed time, Joseph’s brothers finally came to him, asking for forgiveness. Joseph’s forgiveness toward his “brethren” – as Jesus would later speak of Israel – provides a “type” or foreshadowing of Jesus’ deep love and forgiveness toward His own Jewish people. And of His brethren’s ultimate salvation through Him.
A time of remorse and acknowledgment preceded the joy for Joseph and his brothers. And as with Joseph and his remorseful brothers, a joyous reunion of Jesus and His Jewish brethren lies ahead. The Book of Zechariah speaks of the larger reunion.
I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. – Zechariah 12:10 (NASB)
The false dichotomy that Jewish and Christian cultures have both contributed to is a lie – and it has to go.