Monday, June 22, 2009

Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus

By Brad H. Young, 265 pages, $16.95, Hendrickson.

Meet the Rabbis does more than show the Jewish roots of the gospels. The book claims that Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were all that remained of the varied and rich ancient Jewish religious culture after the Romans had battered the Jewish community in 70 AD (when the Romans destroyed the Temple) and 135 AD when the Romans kicked the Jews out of their land).

Young shows how the gospels have many parallels in the teachings of the pharisees, who were the precursors to the rabbis. Even centuries after the ministry of Jesus, the writings of Jewish rabbis continued to share much with what Jesus taught.

The author points out the deep Jewishness of the Sermon on the Mount: “What is the ultimate concern of these Jewish teachings and the Sermon on the Mount? They both seek to interpret biblical revelation and apply it in practical ways. There is a theological connection.” Both seek right relationship between the individual and God, and between rightly-believing individuals.

When placed side by side with writings from rabbinic literature, gospel texts show the Jewishness of Jesus' teaching. Jesus and the pharisees / rabbis were concerned with spiritual poverty, good works, the real understanding of Torah, anger and murder, sexuality, and forgiveness.

One part of the great division between Christians and Jews arises from a Christian misreading of the gospel where Jesus sharply criticizes the pharisees. Gospel readers have long forgotten that this represented an inner-Jewish argument.

Making matters worse, the Christian tradition has, according to Young, greatly misunderstood the pharisees' role in the crucifixion of Jesus. “New Testament scholars,” Young notes, “have been slow to recognize how the Pharisees at times supported the community of believers against the persecution of the Sadducees.”

Moreover, Christians fail to realize just how typically Jewish Jesus was, as exemplified by his master-student relationship with his disciples, something that was commonplace between pharisees and their students. Young explains that this master-disciple relationship was the core of the Jewish tradition, the thing that made the tradition come alive and guarantee its passage from one generation to another.

Because of the close parallels between Judaism and Jesus' teachings, Young spends a great deal of time discussing rabbinic writings such as the Mishnah, which is the “tradition of oral teachings.” It is largely a rabbinic commentary on the Bible, including “a specific canon or collection of legal opinions compiled under the direction of Rabbi Judah HaNasi.”

Through his discussion on Jesus' teachings and on such writings as the Mishnah, Young calls Christians to understand that the Jewish “law” does not mean law in our understanding. Torah refers to God's revelation, including the right way to live when confronted with this revelation. Christianity doesn't negate Judaism.

In addition, Young argues that Jesus did not come to replace the law but to fulfill it. Believers come to Jesus, in other words, through a full understanding of the Hebrew writings – the Old Testament – rather than through forgetting about Jesus' Jewishness.

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