Three facts every Israeli should know about Good Friday and Easter.


Jesus-onthecross(Central Israel) — It is fascinating to live in Israel and discover how little Israelis know about Easter and the impact of the Easter story on humanity.

Whether Israelis choose to believe the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah or not, it would certainly behoove all Israelis to read and to know the Messianic prophecies laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures, the basic New Testament story of Jesus’ life, and to better understand how the story of the most famous and beloved Jewish man in human history continues to impact the world.

To that end, here are three specific facts that every Israeli — and every Jewish person around the world — ought to know.

  1. An Israeli scholar from Hebrew University says First Century Jews awaited a Messiah who would die and rise again from the dead, and argues that “third day resurrection” is a Jewish concept that pre-dates Christianity.
  2. More former Muslims are celebrating Easter this year as devout followers of Jesus than at any other time in human history.
  3. Despite historic reticence to read the New Testament, what’s newsworthy is that more Jewish people in Israel, North America and around the world are, in fact, reading the Gospels, reading the entire New Testament, and exploring the claims of Jesus to be Messiah in recent years than at any other time in the last 2,000 years.

Let me take a few moments to explain in more detail.

  1. An Israeli scholar from Hebrew University says First Century Jews awaited a Messiah who would die and rise again from the dead, and argues that “third day resurrection” is a Jewish concept that pre-dates Christianity. 
    • Dr. Israel Knohl asserts that the notion that God can and does raise people from the dead is a concept founded in the Hebrew (Old Testament) Scriptures.
    • He further argues that the Hebrew Scriptures foretell the coming of a “Suffering Servant” Messiah who will die as an atonement for the sins of the people, and then rise from the dead to reign as a kingly Messiah.
    • What’s more, he argues that “third day resurrection” is a pre-Christian concept that dates back to before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem Ephratah.
    • Dr. Knohl has based on his conclusions on many years of research of the Hebrew Scriptures, ancient Jewish writings, and recently analyzed archaeological evidence, including a previously unstudied Dead Sea Scroll.
    • He points to Isaiah 53, Psalm 22 and the story of Josephy as examples of a “Suffering Servant” Messiah.
    • Regarding resurrection, there are many Old Testament examples, including Ezekiel 37 — but one particularly notable example is from the Book of Job: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes will see.” (Job 19:25-27)
    • Regarding “third day resurrection,” one example comes from the Hebrew prophet Hosea: “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us…He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him.” (Hosea 6:1-3)
    • I had the opportunity to sit and discuss these and other elements of his research with Dr. Knohl at length a few years ago and it was an absolutely fascinating conversation.
    • Here is an article I wrote on the topic several years ago, with links to articles in the New York Times, Biblical Archaeology Review, and other publications that have covered Knohl’s dramatic and controversial findings.
  2. More former Muslims will celebrate Easter this year as devout followers of Jesus than at any other time in human history.
    • An unprecedented spiritual revolution is underway in the Islamic world.From 1960 to 2010, the number of Muslims who have converted away from Islam and become true followers of Jesus Christ has skyrocketed, from fewer than 200,000 to some 10 million people.
    • Amidst persecution and even genocide, the Church in the Middle East is growing in ways never seen in fourteen centuries of Islam — and
    • There is now scholarly documentation backing up these numbers.
    • I commend to your attention the following: “Believers In Christ From A Muslim Background: A Global Census” is a 19 page peer-reviewed article written by two respected Christian scholars, Dr. Duane Alexander Miller, a professor at St. Mary’s University in Texas, and Patrick Johnstone, the long-time editor of Operation World (a series of books that carefully documented the state of Christianity in every country on a planet and which sold more than 2.5 million copies.)
    • Their study, published 2015 in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion (out of Baylor University) examined all the research that has been done on Muslim conversions to Christianity from 1960 to 2010.
    • They carefully analyzed country-by-country data and tried to take special care to weed out double-counting, possible exaggerations, and a range of other issues and variables. Their conclusions were stunning.
    • Here is an article I wrote on the subject last year.
    • Here are several other articles I have written or been quoted in in recent years ago with stories of former Muslims who now follow Jesus and are celebrating His death and resurrection on Easter and every day. (see here, here and here.
  3.  Despite historic reticence to read the New Testament, more Jewish people in Israel, North America and around the world are, in fact, reading the Gospels, reading the entire New Testament, and exploring the claims of Jesus to be Messiah in recent years than at any other time in the last 2,000 years — and this is a very good thing.
    • Just as all Christians should read and understand the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in full, I believe all Jews should read and understand the New Testament in full.
    • Jewish-Christian relations would be significantly enhanced if we would all read and study the Holy Scriptures that are so important to the faith and culture of the other.
    • To that end, I’m actually astounded by the growing interest Jews have in understanding the New Testament, and by how many Rabbis and Jewish scholars are encouraging their fellow Jews to read the New Testament in full.
    • Online short-form videos in English explaining the Gospels and the New Testament to Jewish people have been watched more than 23 million times over the last several years, as I reported in December 2016.
    • The Hebrew-language versions of these online videos in Israel have been watched more than 9 million times over the past few years.
    • What’s more, there is a remarkable — if largely unnoticed — movement among Rabbis and Jewish scholars in recent years encouraging Jewish people to read the New Testament to learn more about ancient Judaism and to better understand the life and teachings of Jesus.
    • EXAMPLE: Consider this column on the Times of Israel news site by Joshua Stanton, the Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and founding co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. The article was about three American Rabbis who were competing on the “American Bible Challenge” TV quiz show. Stanton found it interesting (and good) that these Rabbis were competing in an environment that requires them to know the New Testament in great detail, not just the Hebrew Scriptures. He noted:  The presence of the new rabbinical team might point to a different phenomenon altogether: an interest on the part of some Jews to read the Christian bible. Far from an exercise in assimilation, it stems from the increased recognition that embedded within Christian texts are kernels of wisdom about early rabbinic Judaism. If Jesus was a rabbi, then he and his followers would likely exhibit traits similar to those of other rabbis and their discipleship circles. In learning about one early rabbi (albeit a unique one, whose followers eventually split from the rabbinic tradition), we as Jews might gain insight into our own tradition.” He also noted that “while some of us still experience surface tension in reading the sacred texts of other traditions, the concern associated with reading the Christian Bible may be decreasing. With animosity quite low between Jews and Christians in the United States, and differences clearly defined, Jews may grow increasingly comfortable with the insights they gain from Christian texts, even as they recognize the differences inherent to them.”
    • EXAMPLE: Consider this story that CNN ran a story called, “Jews Reclaim Jesus As One Of Their Own.”
    • EXAMPLE: Consider a recent book — written by a prominent American Rabbi named Shmuley Boteach — called, Kosher Jesus. The Rabbi argued that while Jesus is not the Messiah, he was Jewish, was a Rabbi, was a great teacher, and that Jews should read the New Testament and learn from this remarkable “brother” of theirs. The book has sparked widespread discussion and controversy, arguably more than any book of its kind. Rabbi Boteach noted in a column he wrote for Jewish Week that “the ferocious battle that has been waged in the press and blogosphere over my new book, Kosher Jesus (Gefen Publishing House), in the weeks leading up to its publication…has obscured both its message and the reason for its publication. The book goes back to the original gospel source materials to uncover the true story of Jesus and portray him for who he was prior to later Christian editors significantly modifying the story to accommodate the Romans. Jesus was a Torah-committed Jew whose mission was to restore Jewish observance fully among his Jewish brethren and fight Roman persecution. For doing so he was turned over by the Roman collaborator, High Priest Caiaphas, who owed his office to the Romans, and was murdered by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate….Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the book as an ‘informed and cogent primer on Jesus of Nazareth…a brave stab at re-evaluating Jesus through an intensive look at the New Testament and historical documents…and a well-researched analysis that will certainly reopen intra-faith and interfaith dialogue.’….Why is it necessary for Jews to reclaim the Jewish Jesus and educate Christians about the source of his teachings? First, virtually all Jewish ideas that have shaped the world have been taken from our people without attribution so that Judaism is treated today as a discarded relic with little contemporary relevance. We gave the world God. Today his name is Jesus. We gave the world the Sabbath. Today it’s called Sunday. We gave the world the Ten Commandments. Today it’s called morality. And we gave the world the biblical insistence that all humans are created equally in the image of God. Today it’s called democracy. As a result, young Jews are not even aware of the transformative ideas of their own faith, which might explain their lack of attachment to it….”
    • EXAMPLE: Several American Rabbis and Jewish writers have been discussing the trend of Jews talking more about Jesus.
      • Josh Fleet, the associate religion editor at the Huffington Post, wrote an article entitled, The J-Word: Why Jesus Is Taboo in Polite Jewish Conversation.”  Excerpt: “[T]he topic of Jesus should not be a Jewish taboo. If we believe so much that our relationship with Christianity is based on deceit, tragedy and senseless hatred — that it has broken us — then we are obligated to believe it can be based on trust, opportunity and boundless love — that it can be fixed….Though we may not admit it, we are fascinated by Jesus. The latest trend has some reclaiming him as a devoutly Jewish sage — or at least someone Jews can learn from today. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, published in November 2011 and written from a Jewish perspective, re-contextualizes Christian Scripture and provides an opening for increased Jewish-Christian communion. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus…argues that Jesus never claimed that high celestial throne and seeks to give Jews foolproof, text-based responses to “Jews for Jesus” and other Christian missionaries with conversion on the mind. The debate aroused by Boteach’s book — responses range from positive to reasonable to overblown and sensational — shows that old wounds aren’t healed by a couple generations of cultural acceptance. In Orthodox circles, some rabbis have called for Kosher Jesus to be banned, with at least one rabbi asserting that Boteach should be excommunicated.”
      • Rabbi Jason Miller, an American Rabbi based in Michigan, posted a blog with this headline:Jesus, We Can Finally Talk About Jesus.”  
        • Excerpt: “I’ve always said that the only times Jewish people mention Jesus are when they stub their toe, miss the bus, or tell you about their theater tickets to a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera. Two new books will change that. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (edited by Marc Z. Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine). The former discusses the Jewish life of Jesus of Nazareth and the latter is a newly revised edition of the Christian Scriptures with notes and essays from Jewish scholars in the hope of making the “New Testament” accessible to Jews.
        • Excerpt: “As I have been reading the many criticisms of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his Kosher Jesus, one thing that I’ve noticed is the strong discomfort his attackers have with even mentioning Jesus. As Josh Fleet mentioned in his Huffington Post article, some of Boteach’s critics refuse to even type out the name Jesus. Instead they refer to Boteach’s book as Kosher J. abbreviating the name of Jesus in a way that is reminiscent of how they refuse to spell out the word “God” or “Lord” choosing instead to use “G-d” or “L-rd”. This struck me as odd as it seems to put Jesus in the same category as God whose name must not be rendered in print (even though the English words “God” and “Lord” are not actual names for the Jewish deity and I’ve never understood a ban on spelling out God’s name in Latin characters). In any event, it is similarly odd that many of Boteach’s critics who are eager to put him in herem (excommunication) for having the chutzpah to publish a book about Jesus of Nazareth are the same Chabad Lubavitch members who seem to be placing their bets that the late Lubavitch rebbe is the messiah. One man’s false messiah is another man’s god. One man’s spiritual leader is another man’s messiah.”
        • Excerpt: “When you consider how little most Jews know about Jesus from a historical perspective, it is actually an exciting time when this discussion will no longer be taboo. While some religious Jews will claim it is dangerous to read books like Kosher Jesus or to have Brettler and Levine’s commentary of the “New Testament” on your bookshelf for reference, I actually think that this will lead to better Jewish-Christian dialogue. It will also alleviate so much of the misinformation and ignorance that many Jews have about Christianity and its roots. I’m eager to see where this leads and I’m grateful to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for having the conviction to publish Kosher Jesus, and to Profs. Brettler and Levine for using their scholarship to educate us on a religion about which we have been hesitant to learn more.”
    • EXAMPLE: Several years ago, the New York Times ran an intriguing article headlined, “Focusing on the Jewish story of the New Testament.” It was about two professors – Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt, and Marc Zvi Brettler of Brandeis – both practicing Jews, who had just released The Jewish Annotated New Testament (through Oxford University Press) in hopes of encouraging more Jews to read the New Testament and learn more about their own Jewish history and the Jewish roots of Christianity. Levine told the Times, “The more I study the New Testament, the better a Jew I become.” The release of their version prompted much news coverage (though for space I won’t link to the articles here.)
    • EXAMPLE: The Jewish Chronicle published an article headlined, “We Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of Saying ‘Rabbi Jesus.”   Excerpt: “In a recent YouTube video, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat in the West Bank, Shlomo Riskin, praised Jesus and referred to him as “Rabbi Jesus”. Riskin is the charismatic founder of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Co-operation, which engages in dialogue primarily with evangelical Christians. The video was clearly posted for a Christian audience but it has caused shock waves among Orthodox Jews and especially the Charedi community. Rabbi Riskin stated on the video that Jesus was a model rabbi who ‘lived the life of a Jewish rabbi in Israel.’….Accusations of heresy are now being thrown at Rabbi Riskin, who had to offer a retraction in another YouTube video where he expressed remorse at describing Jesus as a rabbi stating it was an “unfortunate” term. It is a great shame that Rabbi Riskin was forced to backtrack because there has been a significant change in Jewish attitudes towards Christianity….Jewish education today should include learning that Jesus and his family would have been Torah observant, kept Shabbat, circumcised their males, attended synagogue, observed purity laws in relation to childbirth and menstruation, kept kosher, and so on. While the Gospels record disputes about Jesus’s interpretation of a few of these, the notion of a Christian Jesus, who did not live by Torah or only by its ethical values, does not fit historical reality….Geza Vermes and Ed Sanders are two scholars who in recent years have drawn wide attention among Christians to Jesus’s Jewish origins. Jesus was a Jew, not an alien intruder in first-century Palestine….Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, a conservative Jew in California, wrote a blog headlined, “Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s bold acknowledgement of Jesus as a 1st century Sage and ‘Rabbi’”
    • EXAMPLE: Benyamin Cohen, the son of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, published a book entitled, My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith. Excerpt: “One day a Georgia-born son of an Orthodox rabbi discovers that his enthusiasm for Judaism is flagging. He observes the Sabbath, he goes to synagogue, and he even flies to New York on weekends for a series of “speed dates” with nice, eligible Jewish girls. But, something is missing. Looking out of his window and across the street at one of the hundreds of churches in Atlanta, he asks, ‘What would it be like to be a Christian?’ So begins Benyamin Cohen’s hilarious journey that is My Jesus Year—part memoir, part spiritual quest, and part anthropologist’s mission. Among Cohen’s many adventures (and misadventures), he finds himself in some rather unlikely places: jumping into the mosh-pit at a Christian rock concert, seeing his face projected on the giant JumboTron of an African-American megachurch, visiting a potential convert with two young Mormon missionaries, attending a Christian ‘professional wrestling’ match, and waking up early for a sunrise Easter service on top of Stone Mountain—a Confederate memorial and former base of operations for the KKK. During his year-long exploration, Cohen sees the best and the worst of Christianity— from megachurches to storefront churches; from crass commercialization of religion to the simple, moving faith of the humble believer; from the profound to the profane to the just plain laughable. Throughout, he keeps an open heart and mind, a good sense of humor, and takes what he learns from Christianity to reflect on his own faith and relationship to God. By year’s end, to Cohen’s surprise, his search for universal answers and truths in the Bible Belt actually make him a better Jew.”
    • EXAMPLE: Rabbi Michael J. Cook, an American Reform Jewish leader, published a book nearly a decade ago titled, Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment.
      • Publishers Weekly wrote:This arcane treatise aims to familiarize Jews with the New Testament. According to Cook, Jews shortchange themselves by failing to learn about the New Testament since they live in a Christian environment where their ignorance is a handicap. He wrote this manual to help Jews overcome this limitation, which he contends is a departure from the value Jews place on knowledge. At Hebrew Union College, where Cook teaches Judeo-Christian studies, rabbinical students have to learn the New Testament, a requirement that he feels should be mandated for all Jewish seminarians and college students. His handbook lays out the content for such courses for the benefit of non-Jews and secularists as well as Jews. Unfortunately, instead of presenting a primer, Cook offers a complicated text, replete with esoteric diagrams. His assumption of a base of knowledge contradicts his assertion that Jews know little about the New Testament. He examines the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation, discussing their abstruse and often contradictory meanings. Most beginning readers will get lost in Cook’s perplexing consideration of minutiae, despite his comprehensive expertise.”
      • This was a topic Rabbi Cook had been discussing for several years. In April 2006, Ynet News published this story: “Rabbi: Jews should know New Testament — Reform rabbi says time has come to break ‘self-imposed ignorance’ about Christian bible; conservative and orthodox movements: matter so simple.”

While far too many in Israel and the Jewish world don’t yet know these facts, I will say I’m encouraged by the trend lines.

After all, shouldn’t every Israeli — indeed, every Jew — read and understand the full story of Jesus, the most famous and beloved Jew in human history?


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