(Jerusalem, Israel) – In a week in which many are celebrating Passover or Easter, it’s worth noting that Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshua, in Hebrew) is the most famous and beloved Jewish person in human history.
Jesus is certainly the most famous and beloved Israeli in human history, followed by more than 2.2 billion people around the world.
Yet few Jewish people – and even fewer Israelis – know much about Jesus.
While the New Testament is the best-selling Israeli book in human history, few Jewish people have ever read it.
Yet, all this is changing.
Over the past decade or so, more Jewish people in Israel and around the world have been reading the Gospels, reading the entire New Testament, and exploring the claims of Jesus than at any other time in the last 2,000 years.
Online short-form videos in English of Jewish people explaining the Gospels and the New Testament to other Jewish people have been watched more than 68 million times over the last several years, according to Eitan Bar, the Israeli-born Jewish director of media at One for Israel, the non-profit organization that produces the videos. [I was featured in one of these videos, which you can watch by clicking here.]
The Hebrew-language versions of these online videos in Israel have been watched more than 28 million times over the past few years, Bar tells me.
In fact, I’m astonished 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.
Consider the following:
• EXAMPLE: In this column a few years ago on the Times of Israel news site, Joshua Stanton, the Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College writes 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: CNN ran a story called, “Jews Reclaim Jesus As One Of Their Own.”
• EXAMPLE: A book was released a few years ago 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. “Why is it necessary for Jews to reclaim the Jewish Jesus and educate Christians about the source of his teachings?” Boteach wrote. “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: 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.”
• EXAMPLE: 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.
• 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.”
• 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.
• 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. 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.”
I’m encouraged by these trend lines, and during this Passover/Easter week I hope you are too.
After all, shouldn’t every Israeli — indeed, every Jewish person — read and understand the full story of Jesus, the most famous and beloved Jew in human history?
[Note: This column is adapted from one I wrote in 2017.]