My apologies for the clickbait title. But, for once, it’s actually true! You legitimately would not believe what Rabbi Jacob Emden—one of the most famous and influential Western European rabbis of the 1700s—had to say about Christianity and Jesus in the first chapter of a book he wrote about Jewish history, entitled Seder Olam Raba Vezuta .
For those who were eagerly anticipating another post about traditional Jewish approaches to controversial Bible verses, I’m sorry for this interruption in our regular scheduled programming. I will definitely return to that topic soon, but as it happened, I stumbled across this fascinating chapter by Rabbi Emden earlier today and just had to write about it.
In this brief chapter of a much longer book, Rabbi Emden manages to make a number of strikingly new and surprising comments about the development of Christianity and the message of Jesus.
Firstly, he begins by asserting the earliest Christian writers, including Paul, never wanted Jews to stop following the Old Testament, even though gentiles are exempted from its laws:
“But truly even according to the writers of the Gospels, a Jew is not permitted to leave his Torah, for Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 5) “I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, the Messiah will do you no good at all. You can take it from me that every man who receives circumcision is under obligation to keep the entire Torah.
“Therefore you must realize–and accept the truth from him who speaks it– that we see clearly here that the Nazarene and his Apostles did not wish to destroy the Torah from Israel, God forbid; for it is written so in Matthew (Mt. 5), the Nazarene having said, “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Torah. I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
It’s already pretty interesting that an early modern traditional rabbi seems to have been very familiar with the New Testament. Additionally, he disagrees with centuries of Christian thought about supersessionism, and insists that Jesus wouldn’t agree. Following from that bold assertion, Rabbi Emden explains his understanding of Jesus’s core teaching to both Jews and gentiles:
“The writers of the Gospels never meant to say that the Nazarene came to abolish Judaism, but only that he came to establish a religion for the Gentiles from that time onward. Nor was it new, but actually ancient; they being the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah, which were forgotten. The Apostles of the Nazarene then established them anew. However, those born as Jews, or circumcised as converts to Judaism are obligated to observe all commandments of the Torah without exception.”
“It is therefore a habitual saying of mine that the Nazarene brought about a double kindness in the world. On the one hand, he strengthened the Torah of Moses majestically, as mentioned earlier, and not one of our Sages spoke out more emphatically concerning the immutability of the Torah. And on the other hand, he did much good for the Gentiles by doing away with idolatry and removing the images from their midst.”
There are so many important points made in this chapter.
For one, Rabbi Emden insists that Jesus and the NT writers never wanted Jews to abandon their covenant. That view was flatly rejected by Christians for hundreds of years, only to be picked up by Catholics in the last 50 years since Vatican II, as I wrote about so recently.
Secondly, he turns the project of Jesus on its head: most traditional Jewish commentators saw Jesus as an archetypal evildoer who enticed people to practice idolatry. But Rabbi Emden says that Jesus’s actual mission was to get gentiles to observe the seven commandments of Noah—a covenant that God made with the whole world in Genesis 9, in which he commanded all people to observe a number of basic ethical precepts that might possibly correspond to what some Christians call “natural law.”
Finally, Rabbi Emden sneaks in a crucial line, which says that Jesus “did away with idolatry.” There is a huge debate in Jewish literature over the past 1,000 years about how to classify the Christian belief in the trinity. Can it really be considered pure monotheism? Alternatively, can it really be thrown in the same boat as idolatrous polytheism? I hope to write more about this topic at a later date, but suffice it to say that Rabbi Emden goes against the mainstream opinion in Jewish law in claiming that Jesus did away with idolatry, and that by implication, trinitarianism is not idolatrous.
That’s all for now.