A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament
By Rabbi Samuel Sandmel
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005, 336 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin
This classic study should be read by everyone, Jew and non-Jew. It is a respectful scholarly analysis of the New Testament, first published in 1956 and republished twice, written in simple English for non-scholars. Although Rabbi Sandmel has great respect for Christians, Christianity, and the New Testament, he, like most Christian scholars, takes an historical approach to the New Testament, one that avoids theology. He focuses on what the authors of each of the twenty-seven documents believed and wanted others to believe, on how Christianity developed, and how these changes are reflected in the different approaches of each of the New Testament documents.
The letters by Paul, for example, written some three decades after the death of Jesus, are the earliest books of the New Testament. Sandmel writes that Paul had views about life and sin that are remarkably different than the views of most Jews of his time and today, such as the idea that people are born in a state of sin and need someone other than them to remove this sin and any that they subsequently commit.
Paul lived when Jews and non-Jews had many irreconcilable ideas about life and death. He rejected the theology of the Sadducees of his time. The Sadducees were a group of Jews who focused their attention on the Temple service and on the literal wording of the Bible. They believed that there is no life after death because the Bible does not mention it. In contrast, many Pharisees of his age, from whom today’s Rabbinic Judaism developed, who stressed that the “Oral Torah” must be read with the literal biblical text, asserted that the soul remains alive after the death of bodies, and bodies would later be resurrected. He rejected these views and those of some Greek philosophers, notably the Stoics, and the Jewish sage Philo, who lived during the time of Paul, that the immaterial part of a person loses its identity and is simply reabsorbed into the immaterial source out of which the person’s “soul,” or more precisely intellect, came prior to union with the body. Instead, Paul felt that a person’s spiritual entity retained the personality of the person after the person’s death. He apparently believed that the body ceased to exist and would not be resurrected. Sandmel writes that the New Testament book Acts has a totally different version of Paul’s life and teachings than Paul’s own writings.
The Gospel of Mark followed the letters of Paul and is the first attempt to offer a description of Jesus’ life. He and the writers of the other three Gospels, written long after Jesus’ life – Mark was composed around year 75 – did not quote “what Jesus himself actually said, but rather what the later church earnestly wished that he had said or piously and sincerely believed that he had.”
Sandmel states that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which follow Mark, “are implied criticisms of Mark.” They change what Mark wrote. Sandmel points out that virtually all scholars recognize that the author of Matthew took a new approach. He was trying to show that Jesus mission was foreseen by the ancient Jewish biblical prophets and that his life fulfilled these prophecies. But he apparently misunderstood the prophet Zechariah’s prediction in 9:9 that the king is coming “mounted on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” He understood that the future king would ride an ass and a colt, rather than these names describing a single animal. Thus, Matthew states that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass and a colt simultaneously.
Each of the four Gospels, Sandmel writes, has many differences from the other three and some internal inconsistencies. For example, Mark has two different dates for Jesus’ crucifixion, the fourteenth of the month Nisan and the fifteenth. Matthew and Luke have the fifteenth, and John the fourteenth. Luke describes Jesus having a short one-year career and dying at age thirty. John writes that he died when he was almost fifty years old. In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus raises three people from the dead. In John, he raises only one, Lazarus, who is not mentioned in the other Gospels among the resurrected. Also “Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is totally different from Luke’s and beyond reconciliation with it.”
Interestingly, Mathew has Jesus state that his message – read religion – should be taught without the teacher being paid for teaching. This is a sound rule that has unfortunately been violated by both Christianity and Judaism. The Christian televangelists’ accumulation of money is well-known. The Jewish rabbis, teachers, firms that oversee kosher foods, and most disturbing, the Jewish day schools, insist on large payments in violation of Jesus’ teaching, as well as the teachings of the Jewish first century sage Hillel and the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204).
Did Jesus actually exist? On the one hand, Sandmel writes, since no document during the lifetime of Jesus or shortly thereafter, Jewish and Roman, mentions him, it would seem that he never existed. On the other hand, he continues, it would seem absurd for Christianity to invent a Jew rather than a gentile as its originator, unless this is true. Also, the assertion by Jesus that a new world would appear in his disciples’ lifetime is so clearly incorrect that it must have been said by an historical figure, for if Jesus was an invention, the inventor would not have placed such an error in his mouth. Sandmel is persuaded that Jesus existed. However, he adds that since every New Testament document says something different about him, scholars – in contrast to theologians and clergy – are unable to say anything certain about him.
After examining the New Testament in a scholarly manner, Sandmel ends his book by pointing out that readers need to take a firm long step beyond the understanding of scholars about the New Testament. This is only “the beginning of understanding. A further step is to learn what one’s Christian neighbors or friends see in it.” For Christians are our fellow citizens and friends. They, like Jews, are the creations of God, people who deserve respect.