Wednesday, May 17, 2023

But the Jews …

“Out of all major world religions, Christianity and Judaism are typically regarded as the most similar.”

— Nixie Adams, Interfaith Now

“In spite of their differences, Jews [and] Christians … worship the same God.”

— Jo Adetunji, The Conversation UK

Such sentiments were common in the media during the last half of the twentieth century. You can still find them today, though not anywhere near so frequently.

Similarities and Differences

Now, there’s no denying the similarities between Judaism and Christianity. Both came out of the Middle East. Both were originally based on the Old Testament. Both are monotheistic, and both claim to worship a God who identified himself to mankind by the personal name YHWH. Both view his Ten Commandments as shorthand for moral human behavior.

However, the New Testament paints a starkly different picture of the relationship between these two so-called “Abrahamic religions”. You cannot read the book of Acts without noticing the repeated phrase “But the Jews” and variations on it, followed by a description of their frantic efforts to silence, gainsay, persecute and even exterminate every representative of this new “way” to which modern pundits allege Judaism is so very, very similar.

First century Jews did not like any suggestion that their religion and Christianity were “similar”, let alone “most similar”. Not one bit.

Stonings, Stirrings, Plots and Attacks

When the apostles preached Christ raised from the dead, this was the consistent response of Judaism:

“When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him.” (Acts 9:23)

“[Herod] killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” (Acts 12:2-3)

“But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.” (Acts 13:45)

“But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.” (Acts 13:50)

“But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” (Acts 14:2)

“But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city.” (Acts 14:19)

“But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.” (Acts 17:5)

“But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.” (Acts 17:13)

“But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal.” (Acts 18:12)

“When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him.” (Acts 21:27)

Similar religions? These folks didn’t think so.

Jews and Christians Today

So then, what might account for the comparative Jewish indifference to the preaching of the gospel anywhere but Israel today?

  • The modern secularization of Judaism. The first century knew no secular Jews. If any existed, they kept a remarkably low profile. Like Islam, the Judaism of the first century was not just a private religious system but also a way of ordering society. It had political as well as personal implications, even though, as a majority in only two of forty-something Roman provinces, Judaism’s practitioners were in no position to implement their theocratic aspirations. That is not to say that every Jew of the first century was personally devout, but that far more Jews than today had a major stake in promoting Judaism for one reason or another. Today, 65% of Israelis say they are either “not religious” or “convinced atheists”. This being the case, it would be awfully hard to stir up the level of antipathy to the Christian faith that gripped Judaism in the latter half of the first century.
  • Erosion of first century Jewish beliefs. Even the character of Jewish orthodoxy has changed radically since the first century. Modern Rabbinic or Talmudic Judaism bears little or no resemblance to the New Testament worship of God based on the Law of Moses. It’s not just the abandonment of the mandated sacrifices and the centrality of the temple. The Interactive Bible says: “Modern Judaism has little place for heaven or hell, as these have become metaphors for spiritual fulfillment or the lack of it, and nobody believes in the devil or angels either. What’s left are the basic ideals of humanism in a monotheistic package.” As to the kind of Messiah most Jews expect, in The Way of the Torah: An Introduction to Judaism, Jacob Neusner writes, “The Messiah became the ‘messianic hope’ and Jews talked about a ‘messianic age’ rather than a single, wonderful man.” In short, no Messiah at all. Though there are more differences between Judaism and Christianity today than in the first century, even religious Jews today possess little of the fervor of their first century counterparts. Who can be bothered to get into pitched battle over metaphors and abstractions?
  • Self-preservation. The term Judeo-Christian was deliberately popularized by a coalition of rabbis, Catholic priests and evangelicals in the early 1940s US in order to defuse American antipathy to Jewish immigration from Europe. One understands the motivation; the situation was life and death for Jews under the Nazi regime. After the establishment of Israel as a sovereign nation, ongoing evangelical goodwill toward Jews in the later years of the twentieth century buttressed the Neocon movement in the US and provided the impetus for endless foreign wars and more subtle American interference in Middle Eastern politics. For decades, Jews in Israel felt free to call for, and were more than happy to accept, untold billions of dollars in American financial and military aid. But the attempt to conflate two very different belief systems and to maintain the windfall that resulted from it were essentially cynical exercises. They involved a shift in thinking for Christians rather than a shift in thinking for Jews. Today, most Jews would tell you “Judeo-Christian is not a thing.” Those who make such bold statements understand the real differences between Christians and Jews much better than most Christians do.
  • Decline in Bible literacy among Christians. Modern Christendom is largely unoffended by comparisons to Judaism. Those believers who might be inclined to note for the record the striking differences between the two, especially concerning the person of Christ, are quickly shushed by accusations of promoting anti-Semitic thinking. It is only when you go back and look closely at the book of Acts that the degree to which first century Jews viewed Christianity as an appalling heresy and existential threat to their own belief system becomes apparent. Even when Jewish antipathy is open expressed to Christians today, we tend not to notice.

First century Christians knew what they were up against, and exactly how it differed from their own beliefs. We should be so attentive.


  1. A fair summary of key differences. I have found the same distinctions are recognized by modern Jews generally. But I would say that people who talk about the Jewish roots of Christianity are of two types: one would be the kind of misguided folks you’re identifying, Tom, and the other would be people who are trying to point out the essential connection between OT Judaism, as understood accurately, and Christianity. Undoubtedly, OT Judaism does furnish the setting within which Christianity can be properly understood, if one wished to grasp things like creation, redemption, messiah, Law, and covenants, all these things being “written for our instruction.” So long as we do not lose that awareness, and so long as we don’t start to imagine a kind of Christianity that needs no explanation with reference to OT Judaism, I think we’re not in trouble. Unfortunately, one reason for de-emphasizing the role of Israel in relation to Christianity has been the opposite of what you identify — that is, the desire to convince Christians that Jews should NOT be regarded or invited to our shores. And I think we must resist that latter strategy even more vigorously than the strategy used by the proponents of “Judeo-Christianity” to sell people on a pro-Jewish attitude. No doubt you see the wisdom of caution on both sides.

    1. Excellent question. I'll do an Inbox on that, as my thoughts are probably too lengthy to deal with in the comments of a single post.