What was first-century Judaism like? How did first-century Judaism help people approach God and draw holiness into their lives? When Jesus, a Jew, thought of God and Scripture and prayer, what kinds of things was he thinking about? By looking at the life of Jesus as a Jewish life, this book seeks to uncover the Jewish roots of Christianity. I want to hear Jesus the way his contemporaries—Jews in first-century Israel and Galilee—would have heard him. I want to understand him the way his Jewish contemporaries understood him. And I want to bring that understanding to twenty-first-century Christians and Jews. – Rabbi Evan Moffic
For far too long, far too few Christians gave much serious thought to the Jewishness of Jesus. As a result, the last 2,000 years have been difficult at best, disastrous at worst for my fellow Jews. And the Church has often functioned as though Jesus was the first President of Christianity, severing him from his Jewishness and starving themselves of a full appreciation of his words and works.
Two different but related trends have begun to change the way in which these two communities relate. The first is the substantial increase in the last two generations in the number of Jewish followers of the Jewish Jesus. Jesus’ first disciples and the bulk of the early church were Jewish. Despite the pressures of persecution and assimilation, there have always been Jewish followers of Jesus, but in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967 and the Jesus Movement that erupted shortly thereafter, the numbers of Messianic Jews grew from tiny trickle to measurable community.
The second trend changing relationships between the two communities is a diplomatic one. Ecumenical dialogue efforts between various segments of the Jewish community and the certain sectors of the Church – typically Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some mainline Protestants – have served to address shared social justice, moral, or cultural concerns while attempting to build bridges across spiritual divides. Jewish scholars like Amy Jill Levine have made great contributions enriching the study of Jesus from a Jewish perspective, and New Perspective Christian scholars like N.T. Wright have worked to anchor Jesus in his Jewish context.
Rabbi Evan Moffic attempts to do this kind of bridge-building from a Jewish perspective for popular audiences. His deep commitment to interfaith work led him to begin exploring the central figure dividing his Jewish community and the Church. What he learned about Jesus the Jew inspired him to begin writing for the Church. His first book, What Every Christian Needs To Know About Passover (Abingdon, 2015), offers Gentile readers helpful background on the Jewish feast probably most familiar to most churchgoers. The book is a helpful companion read for Christians who may be attending a Seder as part of Holy Week observance or who are interested in hearing from a Jewish teacher about the feast from which Jesus instituted communion.
Moffic has a new book in this series. What Every Christian Needs To Know About The Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way Of Seeing The Most Influential Rabbi In History offers readers a thoughtful exploration of the story in which Jesus is rooted. The Old Testament fills 2/3 of the Christian Bible, but many Christians are far better acquainted with the Gospels and Paul’s letters than the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, the three traditional Jewish divisions of the Old Testament. Moffic wants readers to see Jesus as he was, a Jew – and what that Jewishness looked like in the first century.
Moffic’s chapters on the Shema, the foundational Jewish prayer reciting Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) are alone worth the price of the book. He explains the monotheism embedded in Judaism while honoring the trinitarian unity of Christianity in helpful ways. The Rabbi has done his homework, and understands well the questions Christians may have about Jewish belief. He notes that the Lord’s Prayer is a Jewish prayer, and honors the way in which Jesus anchors his words in ancient covenant relationship with God:
The shift in metaphor from God as ruler to God as father changes the responsibilities of the relationship. The people still serve God, but they also love God, and they love in a way a child loves a parent. And more importantly, God also loves the people. A midrash likely composed around the time Jesus lived introduces this idea into Jewish literature. It is taken from the book of legends about Exodus known as the Mekhilta. Commenting on the verse from Exodus, “‘And God goes before them during the day,’ R. Yosse the Galilean taught: Were it not written in scripture one could not say it—like a father carrying a lantern before his son, and like a master carrying a lantern before his servant.” In other words, God does the opposite of what a father or master typically does. Instead of having the servant carry the lamp to light the way on a walk, God the master carries the lamp to light the way for the servant. Instead of a son carrying the light for his father, God the father carries the light for His son, to the people of Israel. What is the justifcation for this deviation from normal social structures? Love. In the midrash, it is God’s love that leads God to alter normal behavior and serve his children. Jesus draws from this new emphasis on the centrality of filial love in the opening line of the prayer.
Christians will find points of division with What Every Christian Needs To Know About The Jewishness of Jesus. Moffic esteems Jesus as a Rabbi, but can’t embrace him as Messiah. However, he honors those of us, Jew and Gentile alike, who do. His excellent scholarship and kind, accessible writing style is meant to be a blessing to Christians, enriching their faith and connecting them to their spiritual roots.