Jesus Teaches the Old Testament: The Attempt to Restore A Jewish Roots’ Perspective, Part 2


Read Part 1.

In our day, we can find a plethora of Jewish Roots resources at our fingertips. Even a fresh translation of The Babylonian Talmud on CD1 offers us a wealth of traditional rabbinic teaching right at hand – for a very low price. Older translations are available online for free. There are many free resources online, including one particularly helpful resource: The Jewish Encyclopedia.

Some of these resources have been available for years, but not readily or conveniently available. Others were well hidden, like the Dead Sea Scrolls (from which we are still making discoveries).

This modern infusion of Jewish Roots material can be used to hone our understanding of Jesus’ teachings – or it can be used in an effort to undermine Biblical Christian faith. Information can be used in a variety of ways: how we choose to interpret and apply information is often agenda-based.

Academics with a low view of the New Testament Scriptures can readily use Jewish Roots material destructively, perhaps to demonstrate that Jesus (Yeshua) was not all that special. Maybe He was merely a misunderstood rabbi just like the other rabbis; perhaps His followers developed legends based upon intense longings, hallucinations, superstition, and hearsay to present Him as God incarnate.

Those of us with a high view of the New Testament use the same information to better understand what Jesus meant; Jewish Roots material helps affirm that Yeshua (Jesus) is indeed the Messiah, knew He was the Messiah, and clearly demonstrated the same. Yes, He was like other rabbis in some ways; similar teachings by other rabbis can help us better understand the background of His teachings – and, most noteworthy – important variations. Helping us see where Jesus was similar to others also helps us to see where He was different. Yeshua was distinct by virtue of Who He claimed to be, the miracles He worked, the depth of His teaching, and the credentials He bore. His resurrection is the ultimate credential, but not the only credential.

Even in the recent past – except for Messianic Jews or Christian scholars who targeted Jewish roots studies – many academics and pastors were virtually in the dark when it came to Jewish Roots of the Christian faith, even unfamiliar with basic concepts like midrash. Only a small number of serious laymen have been exposed to these concepts.

Others – while exposed to these materials via modern commentaries or academic journals – do not consider Jewish Roots materials all that helpful – and certainly not worth the bother. I obviously hold a different opinion and believe these insights can add useful tools to our hermeneutical toolbox.

This Jewish Roots “surge” (if it can be called that) is a fairly recent phenomenon. It began as a seedling after World War II and has blossomed since that time. I will not attempt to document the historical details behind this infusion, but I can summarize them. They include: the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, non-hostile Jewish academics who became interested in the teachings of Jesus from a Jewish perspective,2 the rise of the Messianic Jewish movement, easy access to Jewish resources (like the Talmud) by Christians, the formation of the modern State of Israel, and a decline in Christian antisemitism.3

Dispensationalism, in its own way, helped to thaw the cold feelings Christians harbored toward the Jewish people. Rather than being Christ-killers, the Jewish people were still God’s people – and their end time population had a glorious future awaiting them. Many Jewish outreach programs had dispensational roots because of this (reclaimed) love for the Jewish people. Scholars and academics began to incorporate Jewish Roots resources into their studies (whether dispensational or covenant); these begat more helpful resources to pique further interest.4 These trickling streams have melded into a notable river.

If the very earliest churches were originally Messianic Jewish in practice and culture (as I believe the Book of Acts suggests), how did we lose this connection to the church’s Jewish roots? My contention is this: the second-century church threw away the key to interpreting some of the nuances of Scripture connected to the Jewish culture because of antisemitism. Christians, originally described as a “sect of the Jews” became estranged from the Jewish nation for a variety of complex reasons; that is a separate study in itself, and we are not going to go there. The implications of this antisemitism, however, became entrenched within Christian theological dogma and has propagated itself to the present day, in my opinion. Even with antisemitism being removed, the theological assumptions motivated by it have often been retained, I would argue.

Ancient church leaders divorced Jesus from His Jewish context and emphasized His deity to the exclusion of His humanity, which, incidentally, was a Jewish humanity. They repelled Jewish believers, those most likely to understand the Jewish context of Yeshua’s words. As a result, Christ’s words became more mysterious to the second generation of believers than they were to that first generation. Our goal is to increase context by examining the Jewish mindsets of the Gospel era and potentially return to a fuller understanding of the Savior’s words.

A few quotations from Ignatius in the early second century demonstrate how the church was guilty of a significant switcheroo. The Jerusalem council ruled that gentile Christians could faithfully serve the Lord and be saved without being Torah observant (Acts 15:24-29); the Jewish believers obviously were Torah observant, or this would not have been an issue. The switcheroo occurred when Jewish believers who observed the Torah were the ones no longer tolerated, a complete flip-flop. Note Ignatius:

If any one celebrates the Passover along with the Jews, or receives the emblems of their feast, he is a partaker with those that killed the Lord and His apostles. (Phil. 14.1)

Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace. (Mag. 8.1)5

Even in these simple quotations, you can sense contempt for all things Jewish, as well as early antisemitism: The Jewish people as a whole were deemed guilty for the actions of a corrupt minority of Jewish people.

In the next installment, we will set the tone for the lion’s share of coming articles and our main focus: the study of midrash within the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.


1 The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary on CD, edited by Jacob Neusner, available through Hendrickson Publishers

2 Particularly David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai.

3 The rise of Dispensationalism – with its emphasis upon God’s faithfulness to the Jews – not only reduced antisemitism, but also paved the way for Messianic Judaism, though not intentionally.

4 Such as Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by Carson and Beale or Craig Keener’s The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, to name two.

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.


Your enthusiasm for Jewish roots has certainly helped me develop a much greater appreciation for this area of biblical studies.