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Passover and Easter are upon us, and so is a book with a fascinating title and audacious subtitle: David Klinghoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Doubleday, 2005).
On the title's crucial theological point: Mr. Klinghoffer, an orthodox Jew, rightly takes to task the "well-meaning Christian" seeking to improve Jewish-Christian relations by saying that Jesus' teaching was very close to that of the rabbis of the time. He also jumps past "New Perspective on Paul" theologians who do not find "substantial points of disagreement between Jesus and His contemporaries."
Both groups err, Mr. Klinghoffer notes, by not taking into full account the doctrine of the "oral Torah" that was sweeping through Judaism 2,000 years ago: "What Jesus rejected was the oral Torah that explains the written Torah. Essential to rabbinic Judaism, this concept of an oral Torah recognizes the Pentateuch as a cryptic document, a coded text. It posits that the Bible's first five books were revealed to Moses along with a key to unlock the code." That key was purportedly passed on orally throughout the generations.
Christians today learn that the New Testament explains certain previously mysterious Old Testament passages; proponents of the "oral Torah" (written down as the Talmud) claimed the same for their teaching. Jesus said, in essence, sola scriptura, the Bible alone: He allowed His followers to pluck grain on the Sabbath, which was perfectly fine according to the Bible but wrong according to the code. The code said that Jews should not wash their faces on fast days, but Jesus taught the opposite.
As Mr. Klinghoffer notes, "For Jesus, oral Torah was a man-made accretion without transcendent authority. He tells a group of Pharisees, 'So for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.' . . . This explains why he felt it was appropriate to teach solely on his own authority, rather than by citing previous sages." Some Christians today believe they have figured out the secret code of Revelation or other books of the Bible. Some Jews 2,000 years ago felt the same way, but Jesus flatly told them that there was no code: Just read and pray to put into practice what God's Word itself declares.
I wouldn't expect Mr. Klinghoffer to agree with Christian understandings of the Old Testament showing the need for grace and teaching about Christ's sacrifice-to-come, but his insights are still useful. For example, "The oral Torah values sociability and thus calls upon the individual to pray in company with a minimum of ten men (a minyan, or quorum). Jesus advised his followers, 'when you pray,' to pray by yourself, 'in secret.'" The New Testament, of course, also stresses the value of community worship, but Mr. Klinghoffer is right to see that Christianity does emphasize the role of the individual and not just the importance of the group.
Mr. Klinghoffer thus explains well "why the Jews rejected Jesus." But what about his subtitle, "the turning point in Western history"? He argues that "had the Jews embraced Jesus," believers would have stayed within Judaism and continued to practice "circumcision, Sabbath, kashrut (eating only Kosher food), family purity (abstaining from sex with one's wife during and for a week after menstruation), and so on . . . the Jesus movement might have remained a Jewish sect. . . . Christianity would not have spread wildly across the Roman Empire and later across Europe, as it did."
Mr. Klinghoffer continues his speculation: "No Christian Europe, and no Western civilization as we know it. Quite conceivably, Islam would have arisen more or less as it did. . . . Even with Christianity as the European faith, Islam nearly did penetrate and spread across the continent. . . . Had Christianity died as a failed Jewish sect in the year 70, Europe today might very well be Muslim. . . . If you value the great achievements of Western civilization and of American society, thank the Jews for their decision to cleave to their ancestral religion instead of embracing the rival teachings of Jesus and his followers."
Well, not exactly. Think of how much better in life and death a belief in Christ is for all people, including Jews. But God's providence does work out in surprising ways.