Misconceptions of Jewish Teachings

  • PASSAGE “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies…” MATTHEW 5:43

PERILOUS: What’s wrong in this passage is that nowhere in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is there a teaching or command to “hate” one’s enemies.  Here and there (e.g., in the Psalms) someone spontaneously, humanly, expresses what might be construed as “hatred” for an enemy or an oppressor, but no one is taught or commanded to hate –neither by God nor by Israel’s understanding of what God wanted.

The problematic dimension is not simply the inaccuracy, but the implication, sometimes actually drawn by preachers and others, that Judaism, or the earlier religion of Israel, was  (at least in part) a religion of hatred, in contrast to Christianity, “the religion of love.”  This conclusion is clearly untrue.

Jesus’ foretells his own suffering; blames the elders, chief priests and scribes

  • PASSAGE: Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Matthew 16:21

PERILOUS:  This wording implies that all the elders, chief priests and scribes will be responsible for Jesus’ suffering and death.  These horrors are attributed, not to the Romans who actually beat up, whipped and crucified Jesus, but to Jews in leadership positions.

It is important to remember when reading this passage that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death when his followers were having some success in spreading their beliefs among Gentiles, and far less success among Jews.  One way to explain the rejection of Jesus by the Jews (especially given that Jesus himself was a Jew) was to blame “the Jews” or, in this case, their leaders, for his death.  Blaming “the Jews” also bolstered the argument that the followers of Jesus had “replaced” the Jews as God’s people.

That’s why it is dangerous to read this passage without further interpretation.  Failure to consider the historic facts associated with passages like this can –and has– generated and strengthened anti-pathetical attitudes toward Jews throughout history.  This cannot have been Jesus’ intention.

Angry exchanges between the Pharisees and Jesus

  • PASSAGE: When the Pharisees heard it [Jesus curing a mute person], they said, “This man [Jesus] drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” [In saying this, they are making the claim that Jesus gets his powers from Satan.] MATTHEW 12:24
  • PASSAGE: The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
    MATTHEW 22:15
  • PASSAGE:  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” MATTHEW 23:1-4
  • PASSAGE:  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! [says Jesus] For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”  MATTHEW 23:13-15

PERILOUS:  The term “Pharisees” refers one of the major Jewish parties at the time of Jesus. This group assumed a leadership role after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, and thus became a prime opponent of the followers of Jesus.  In reading passages like these, some Christians have associated this term with Jews in general and attributed their negative depiction to the Jews of their own time, including modern-day Jews.

To interpret these passages correctly, one must understand that the reason for the disputes depicted between Jesus and the Pharisees –to the extent that there were disputes – was their broadly different visions and programs for what Judaism should be.  These differences would likely have led to heated exchanges –using the highly inflated language which was the style of argument in those days.  The passages above are examples of these exchanges.  They range from the Pharisees accusing Jesus of getting his powers from the devil (Matthew 12:24) to Jesus claiming that not only were the Jewish leaders not going to heaven, they were stopping others from going by “making converts” [to Judaism] (Matthew 23:15)

However, it is important to note that the Gospel texts were written years after Jesus’ death.  Therefore, they are more likely to reflect the friction between the Pharisees, who were by now in a leadership position, and the followers of Jesus rather than with Jesus himself.  Also, discrediting “the Jews” bolstered their argument to Gentiles that they had “replaced” the Jews as God’s people.  Without considering these facts it is easy to form stereotypes that justify discrimination – or worse.

Expressing a severe decree through parable

  • PASSAGE: [Matthew relays a parable attributed to Jesus.] “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.  Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.  When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  …Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. MATTHEW 21:33-41, 43
  • PASSAGE: When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his [Jesus’] parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they [the crowds regarded him as a prophet. MATTHEW 21:45-46   

PERILOUS: The Gospel passage has a severe ending, with Jesus warning (verse 43):  “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”  The key question is: to whom, or against whom, is Jesus reported as speaking?  The passage has, through most of Christian history, been taken to mean that the kingdom  (symbolized by the vineyard) has been taken away from Israel and given to the Christians.

However, if one notes verse 45, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew he was speaking about them,” it may be understood that the decree was only against the leaders of that time and not about Israel in general.

The passage also suggests Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, as the “wicked tenants” are easily read as “Jews,” and the “son of the owner of the vineyard” easily suggests Jesus.

That’s why one must consider these passages in the context of history.  For one thing, we know that attributing Jesus’ crucifixion to the Jews is historically inaccurate.  Additionally, the Gospels were written a generation or more after Jesus’ death, when the followers of Jesus were spreading the message of their faith among the Gentiles.  It clearly bolstered their argument for Christianity by showing that the followers of Jesus had “replaced” the Jews as God’s people.

Passages on the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus  (Passion Narratives)

  • PASSAGE: So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”  Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” MARK 27:24-25   
  • PASSAGE: [Chief priests, scribes and elders mock Jesus as he hangs in agony on the cross:]  He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’”  MARK 27:42-43

PERILOUS:  Verses 24 and especially 25 above are considered as among the most dangerous passages in the New Testament, as it is often read as though Matthew intended the self-imposed curse to be on all Jews, forever.  However, contemporary scholarship (both Christian and Jewish) has pointed out that the issue behind the text was rather the specific question of why God had allowed or decreed the suffering of those Jews in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE.  The Jews who followed Jesus, (at least those behind Matthew’s gospel), wanted to argue that it was the rejection of Jesus by other Jews that led to the destruction (as punishment).  The “children” in question were, according to Matthew, the generation of the destruction, not all Jews forever.   It is also worth noting that idea of a “self-curse,” as described in this text, is hardly historically credible, and may not have happened at all.

Additionally, it is historically certain that Jesus died by crucifixion, and that crucifixion was a Roman form of execution.  Some Jewish leaders/officials may well have collaborated with the Romans at the time.  Any claim that “the Jews” crucified Jesus is historically inaccurate and to be attributed to the followers of Jesus, decades after the fact, wanting to believe that “the Jews” had been responsible.  The emphasis in the gospels on the (relative) “innocence” of Pilate, the Roman governor depicted as offering to release Jesus, served that end.  Blaming “the Jews” contributed to the “case” that the followers of Jesus had “replaced” the Jews as God’s people.