You won’t believe what this 18th century rabbi said about Christianity

You won’t believe what this 18th century rabbi said about Christianity September 6, 2018

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.”

That quote pretty clearly indicates that Rabbi Emden thinks later Christians got the message of Jesus backwards. Instead of coming to end Judaism, Jesus came to bring Biblical law to the gentiles! And Rabbi Emden thought that was a very good thing:

“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.

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  • Christine

    As someone raised catholic, I found NT Hebrews chapter 9 interesting in view of your post.

    The catholic commentary at writes that Jesus *had* to die in order for the new covenant to take effect, and interestingly compares Jesus to a “testator.” But if Jesus is testator and the new covenant is between god and his people, then god and Jesus must be one and the same, at least for those who believe in Jesus as son of god (Thinking about the monotheism issue).

    But as to who is the intended audience for Jesus’s teaching, the further comments say this:
    “His death has effected deliverance from transgressions, i.e., deliverance from sins committed under the old covenant, which the Mosaic sacrifices were incapable of effacing.”

    it’s explained elsewhere in the comments that those sins that were incapable of being effaced by the Mosaic sacrifices were those of the people who were not priests and not permitted to enter the sanctuary:

    “so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many,* will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.u
    * [9:1–10] The regulations for worship under the old covenant permitted all the priests to enter the Holy Place (Heb 2:6), but only the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies and then only once a year (Heb 9:3–5, 7). The description of the sanctuary and its furnishings is taken essentially from Ex 25–26. This exclusion of the people from the Holy of Holies signified that they were not allowed to stand in God’s presence (Heb 9:8) because their offerings and sacrifices, which were merely symbols of their need of spiritual renewal (Heb 9:10), could not obtain forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:9).”

    Coincidentally, I think Holy of Holies refers to the annual Day of Atonement described in Sirach (?)

    Other Citations:

    * [9:15–22] Jesus’ role as mediator of the new covenant is based upon his sacrificial death (cf. Heb 8:6). His death has effected deliverance from transgressions, i.e., deliverance from sins committed under the old covenant, which the Mosaic sacrifices were incapable of effacing. Until this happened, the eternal inheritance promised by God could not be obtained (Heb 9:15). This effect of his work follows the human pattern by which a last will and testament becomes effective only with the death of the testator (Heb 9:16–17). The Mosaic covenant was also associated with death, for Moses made use of blood to seal the pact between God and the people (Heb 9:18–21). In Old Testament tradition, guilt could normally not be remitted without the use of blood (Heb 9:22; cf. Lv 17:11).

    * [9:16–17] A will…death of the testator: the same Greek word diathēkē, meaning “covenant” in Heb 9:15, 18, is used here with the meaning will. The new covenant, unlike the old, is at the same time a will that requires the death of the testator. Jesus as eternal Son is the one who established the new covenant together with his Father, author of both covenants; at the same time he is the testator whose death puts his will into effect.

    >>>>> So if the new covenant is a will, then the beneficiaries are those who follow Jesus. Nowhere does it say that the old covenant is revoked. In fact, since the old covenant is not a will, then Jesus’s death has no effect on the old covenant.

    This seems consistent with the view that both the new covenant and the old covenant coexist and have different constituents.

  • Christine

    L’Shanah Tova,btw!

  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for sharing these interesting references. Re the monotheism point, there does seem to be enough ambiguity in NT texts about Jesus’s ontology for fancy words like hypostatic union and consubstantiality to be invented.

    Regarding the sin and repentance in the Old Covenant, I need to look at the text from Hebrews more. Leviticus Ch. 16 is pretty clear that the Day of Atonement offers atonement for all sins–“because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.”

    Additionally, sacrifices as a means of repentance only work for sins committed unintentionally (see Numbers 15:27-30). For intentional sins, you don’t bring a sacrifice, but have to actually repent. Hence the prophets (Ezekiel Ch. 18, Hosea Ch. 14, Isaiah Ch. 56, etc) are always railing at the Israelites to repent from their evil ways, and God will forgive them. No mention of sacrifices, because their sins were intentional.

    Do you see where my confusion is?

  • Christine

    Fancy words, indeed!

    Thanks for pointing out the distinction between intentional and unintentional sins. I see the procedure laid out in Leviticus 16:29-34.

    There is a somewhat analogous procedure in catholicism, thru the sacrament of reconciliation…

    when I read the Hebrews passages earlier, I interpreted it as excluding certain classes of people from the ability to worship or seek redemption for sins. But is confusing now, given the context you provided.

  • Christine
  • Michael Weiner

    Thanks for the link. I imagine some Christians would admit that the death as atonement theory isn’t clearly found in the OT, and is instead an innovation of the NT. That article is spot on with regard to the OT prophetic texts that say prayer and repentance will become substitutes for animal sacrifice in the absence of the temple.

  • Barros Serrano

    I think too much theology and philosophy in pondering certain aspects of Christianity are missing the point.

    The Trinity is not the result of some theological mediation; it was simply a device to make the new Roman Imperial cult concocted by constantine appealing to the pagan masses of the Empire, most of whom believed in some form of trinity.

    Likewise death for atonement is a pagan notion. Communion, particularly transubstantiation, is also pagan.

    Judaism is also rife with pagan influences, but they are far older and not generally discussed.

  • Bonny Grosz

    I have to admit that I didn’t even read your article as the picture you displayed was not even the of the rabbi that you are discussing. I hope that the rest of your research is more reliable. Please be respectful and authentic in your research – even if it is a portrait/photo. The rabbi portrayed in the portrait is Rabbi Hayyim Vital – 16th-17th centuries.