How Does the Bible Relate to Judaism?

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  • How Does the Bible Relate to Judaism?

    by Larry R. Helyer

    Judaism should not be confused with the biblical religions of ancient Israel. Early Judaism arose in the aftermath of the destruction of the first temple (586 B.C.). The term Judaism originally appeared in the first century B.C. (2 Macc 2:21; 8:1; 14:38) to describe the beliefs, customs, and rituals of Jews during the Hellenistic (Greek influenced) era.

    Judaism has developed considerably over the intervening centuries. For example, official Judaism has been a nonsacrifical religion since the destruction of the second temple (A.D. 70). Observance of the mitzvoth (the commandments) replaces sacrifice, atoning for sin (Tob 4:6-7,9-11; 12:9-10). Judaism's root, however, are deep in the OT. The fundamental ideas of modern Judaism, in all its diversity, maintain continuity with the biblical revelation at at Mount Sinai. These ideas include ethical monotheism (belief in one God), God's gift of Torah ("instruction") to Israel, and the choice of Israel as a light to the nations. A striving for peace, justice, and righteousness for all peoples derives from the Prophets, and a spirituality grounded in everyday life stems from the wisdom and hymnic literature of the OT.

    The Torah outlines a way of life for the people of Israel and is nearly synonymous with Judaism. Embedded in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) are 613 commandments. After the exile in the sixth century B.C., these 613 commandments were adapted, augmented, and hedged by other laws that became part of an ever-growing oral law (cp. Mk 7:5; Gl 1:14). In time the oral law was also attributed to Moses. Eventually (c. A.D. 500), the oral law was codified in the Mishnah ("repetition"). This in turn was commented on and augmented in the Gemara ("completion"). Finally, the Mishnah and Gemara were published in two massive works, the Palestinian Talmud (c. A.D. 400) and the Babylonian Talmud (c. A.D. 500). (Talmud means "learning" or "instruction.") For Orthodox Jews, the Babylonian Talmud, at some 2.5 million words, remains the authoritative guide for Judaism. The foundation of Talmud, however, remains the Torah of "Moses our Rabbi."

    Modern liberal Jews reject the belief that the Pentateuch was divinely inspired and written by Moses. While not treating it as an infallible guide for faith and practice, they nonetheless acknowledge its historical and symbolic role in providing Jewish self-identity.

    Modern Judaism maintains continuity with the OT in a number of significant ways. The annual festivals are primarily those prescribed in the Pentateuch. The essential ethical teachings of Judaism derive from the Mosaic Law, especially the Ten Commandments. Circumcision, dietary laws, and ritual immersion have their roots in the Pentateuch. The Prophets are appealed to for their emphasis upon social justice and mercy. Throughout the year, in synagogues, the Torah (Pentateuch) and haphtarah (selections from the Prophets) are read in a lectionary cycle. Most Orthodox Jews still anticipate a personal Messiah and a messianic age based upon the Prophets.

    For Israeli Jews, the Hebrew Bible (OT) is a national treasure avidly studied in both religious and secular schools. The modern Zionist movement appeals to the Bible as part of its cultural heritage. Archaeology and historical geography of the Bible are national pastimes in Israel. Increasingly, Jewish scholars are also studying the NT as a valuable source for understanding the development of early Judaism.

    A key issue distinguishing Christianity from Judaism (though both have the OT in common) has to do with fulfillment, Jesus taught His disciples to read the Scriptures christologically, or in terms of how they relate to Him, since the Scriptures speak of Him and His work (Mt 5:17-18; Lk 24:25-27, 44-49; Jn 5:39). Judaism denies that Jesus fulfills the messianic prophecies of the OT. For example, Jewish scholars interpret the so-called Servant Sons of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) as referring to the prophet himself, to an unknown prophet, or (most likely) to the people of Israel viewed collectively as the Servant of the Lord. Traditional Christianity, of course, sees these passages as prophecies of Jesus and His ministry (Ac 8:26-35). Orthodox Jews, who still harbor hopes of a personal Messiah, await a Davidic descendant who will rule as king at the end times. Liberal Jews prefer to interpret these passages metaphorically as referring to an ideal age.

    Thus a major factor in the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity centers on the meaning and mission of Jesus. For Judaism, there is no human failing, whether collective or individual, that requires special divine intervention and that cannot be remedied with the guidance of Torah. Salvation consists of faithful, through not perfect, adherence to the mitzvoth. God in His mercy forgives those whose intentions are upright. The NT, however, unambiguously proclaims the finality of Jesus Christ. He is God's last word to sinners (Heb 1:1-3), the Word who became flesh, dwelt among us, and reveals the Father to sinners (Jn 1:1-18). By His atoning death on the cross, He draws all people unto Himself (Jn 3:16; 6:35-40; 12:32).
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