Christians Should Learn From The Jews

Christians Should Learn From The Jews April 14, 2021

Catholic Church England and Wales: Pope Francis with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis / flickr

Jesus, talking to St. Photina, was clear: God had a special relationship, not only with all the people of Israel, but with the Jews in specific. They were  chosen by God to bring salvation to the world. To fulfill that task, they were guided by God, giving them knowledge which others did not possess: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22 RSV).

We should never forget what Jesus told the Samaritan woman. They tell us that there is something special about the Jews. Jesus didn’t say it was limited to a particular time or place, but rather, because they held a key position in salvation history, they were given a special understanding about God which others did not receive. This means that their history and experience is important for all humanity. “The God of all chose the nation of Jews with the intention of bringing benefits through them to all people; hence he gave them a Law, which marked them off from all others, so that in this respect they might be conspicuous.” [1] Because the incarnation took place in and amongst the Jews, the Jews and their history have universal importance.

Sadly, many Christians, far from respecting the Jews, have grown to hate them, demonizing and abusing them throughout history. It is not surprising that, after listening to and heeding such hate, many Christians ended up following Marcion, rejecting the ties which exist between Christianity and the Jews. Others, realizing this is wrong, have regulated the place of the Jews in salvation history as only being a thing of the distant past, so that the special knowledge and experience of God they possessed was theirs only in pre-Christian times.

Neither of these responses truly appreciate what was indicated by Christ’s words. Jesus did not regulate the value of the Jews to what happened before his birth; instead he indicated that value remained with them so that he could point to it during his own earthly ministry and say salvation is of the Jews. What they had been given in their relationship with God was true in the past and is true today. We need to be willing to listen to them and learn from them as they recount their experience with God. This is not to say that their knowledge of God is exhaustive – it isn’t, but then who but God alone can have such comprehensive knowledge about God?

Christians certainly have their own experience and knowledge of God. It comes to them in and through Jesus. Nonetheless, we must remember, Jesus’ own heritage was Jewish, and he lived and acted as a Jew. He imparted revelation in and through his Jewish heritage, not apart from it, using it to reveal the truth about God to the whole world. Christians must not ignore the experience of the Jews if they are to understand and appreciate the Christian message. This is why it is invaluable for Christians to study and learn from the Jewish experience, not only from the literature of its past sages, but from those Jews today who are currently living out the reality of their faith. Christians must not ridicule and despise the Jews but rather they should appreciate and respect them.

God had a special relationship with the people of Israel, but among them, there were those who took  that experience further, the prophets. God came to them in various forms, so that each prophet had their own special experience of God, their own special realization which we can and should learn from:

That no one of these prophets saw God’s essence in its pure state is clear from the fact that each one of them saw him in a different way. God is a simple being; he is not composed of parts; he is without form or figure. God proved this very thing through the mouth of another prophet. And he persuaded these other prophets that they did not see his essence in its exact nature when he said: “I have multiplied visions, and by the ministries of the prophets I was represented.” What God was saying was: “I did not show my very essence but I came down in condescension and accommodated myself to the weakness of their eyes.”[2]

We, too, do not see what God is by nature, so by saying this, we must recognize that we are not to think that the prophets were in some way inferior to us. They experienced God in a way few of us do in our lifetimes. They experienced the glory of God. They received revelation in a form which transcends what we learn from our own experiences with God. They followed and lived the reality of revelation in a way which few can ever achieve in temporal existence. This knowledge and wisdom of theirs came, in part, because of God’s covenantal relationship with the people of Israel, and with the Jews in particular. This relationship lifted up the Jewish people; God has granted them a special, indeed, central role, in human history. What they knew and understood from their experience with God was not exhausted at the birth of Jesus. They continued to explore what God had given to them, and as a people, came to understand greater and greater insights from it. Their experience with God is a source of grace to the world, a grace which  continues to inspire them and all those who would listen to them to this day. Not only does this mean we can learn from them if we want to, it means we should learn from them. Their wisdom, their experience, their history is tied to the God-man; and while Christians have their own wisdom and understanding thanks to Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in them, Christians must not think of this in an exclusive experience which undermines the relationship God had and continues to have with the Jews.

[1] Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentaries on the Prophets. Volume Two: Commentary on the Prophet Ezekiel. Trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2006), 60-1.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God. Trans. Paul W. Harkins (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1982), 122-3 [Homily 4].


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