The Story of the Jews

One of the things which interests me about modern-day Judaism is how different it is from my understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. the Jewish Bible or the Christian Old Testament). Given that Christians and Jews have so much shared Scripture (most of the Bible – 75% or thereabouts – is the Hebrew Scriptures) – how have they ended up in such different places? In particular, modern-day Jews do not offer sacrifices and there seems to be no atonement for sin – the focus seems to be rather on the observance of the law. So I was interested to see that Simon Schama has created a new documentary called “The Story of the Jews” recently (Sunday evenings on BBC2 – at the time of writing there are another couple of episodes remaining in the series). Mrs Phil and I have been watching it, and it’s fascinating. What’s particularly interesting to me is how Judaism has changed and adapted over the years.

It’s fascinating to see how Simon Schama – and others – interpret the parts of the Scriptures which I am familiar with, and yet put a slant on them which I would be quite unfamiliar with. Present-day Jews have much more history to look back on, and have much more to explain. In a particularly poignant moment at the end of the last programme, for example, Simon Schama talked about the building anti-Semitism in Europe at the end of the 19th century before finishing up at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

In Exodus 19, God says this to Moses:

‘This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.’ (Exodus 19:3-6)

How does a modern-day Jew interpret these verses, post-Holocaust? Simon Schama hasn’t really offered any answers (yet).

But it’s interesting to me having studied John’s Gospel recently. The Evangelist (i.e. John) constantly talks about ‘The Jews’, generally not in a positive light, which has led some to conclude that John is anti-Semitic. This is not the case; John’s usage of the term is highly nuanced and at many points clearly does not refer to all Jews everywhere – just a particular group from among them. (The New Testament scholar Steve Motyer suggested that John was referring to a group he dubbed Torah-Fanatiker  – a phrase borrowed from someone else – i.e. Pharasaical Jews who were fanatical about the law but couldn’t see its significance).

Anyway, what I find particular interesting about John is how he is at pains to demonstrate that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Jewish religion. He often points out Jewish festivals, e.g. 2:13, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover”; 5:1 “Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals”; 7:2 “But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near” and so on. Often Jesus is shown in some way to be the fulfilment of that particular festival – most importantly, in John 19, where Jesus is crucified at the time of the Passover. John makes it clear from his choice of quotations that Jesus is the Passover Lamb.

Throughout the gospel, ‘The Jews’ (to use the Evangelist’s choice of words) are in conflict with Jesus about his identity and their identity as children of Abraham. To my mind this probably comes across most clearly in John 6, where Jesus is contrasted with the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness. Whereas Moses had given the Israelites manna from Heaven, Jesus is greater:

‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ (John 6:49-51)

Throughout the whole gospel, the test of a true Israelite becomes the matter of whether they believe in Jesus as the Messiah. This is the point of John 1:47, for example, where Jesus says of Nathanael “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit”. What does Nathanael go on to do? He says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (v49). Now that God has spoken definitively in history, the only important question for Jews and Gentiles alike is what we do about Jesus the Christ.

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