Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the launch of his book, New Testament People: A Rabbi’s Notes, at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem, on 13 February 2017.
My book, New Testament People: A Rabbi’s Notes, published by Authorhouse in association with the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, has been launched in Sydney and Melbourne, and now I introduce it to Jerusalem.
I have spent my life studying and teaching Judaism. I have been a Jewish spokesman on many platforms – the pulpit, the classroom, the written and printed word, the audio-visual media – as well as university campuses, Christian seminaries and the church Press – constantly urging the “undimmed eye and unabated natural force” of the teachings of Moses and the rabbis. I have generally been received with respect, even when I rather shocked my audience.
My interfaith involvement has brought me many friendships, but I have also learnt, as Rabbi JB Soloveitchik says (“Confrontation”, Tradition 6:2, 1964), it is impossible for a Jew to really get inside the mind of a Christian, and vice-versa. Still, I was moved by Paul van Buren’s view that our age of mutual respect has a radical significance in the long, often difficult story of Jewish-Christian encounter.
Writing on the “theology of displacement”, Van Buren has said: “The church looked at the Jews from its own position and saw only a stubborn refusal to accept what the church preached as the truth. It seems never to have crossed Christian minds that what the church called Jewish stubbornness was, from Israel’s perspective, fidelity to Torah and Torah’s Author” (A Christian Theology of the People of Israel, NY: Seabury Press, 1983, p. 276). Modern scholarship shows that many aspects of Christian history need re-assessment; many Christians now see the harm done by an unhistorical approach to the Jewish milieu of Jesus.
There are really two New Testaments – the Gospels which depict Jesus the human being, the Jew, who was more or less a Pharisee and did not intend to forsake Judaism, and the post-Gospel material which depicts the new faith which was built around and upon the figure and preaching of Jesus.
In the first New Testament, Jesus took part in debate, sometimes questioning the traditional view, becoming controversial when he spoke in the first person and claimed special status. No-one is certain how much of his teaching was preserved verbatim, how much was reworked by redactors. Nor can anyone explain why the quiet man of peace is sometimes aggressive and speaks with the robustness of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nobody can solve all the problems but we can delineate some of them.
If we ask whether Jesus would have approved of the New Testament in its Gospel form, we cannot be sure of the answer. He would certainly not endorse the hostility and horror unleashed in his name upon his fellow-Jews. Nor would he seek to escape the fate of the Jews who were crucified in the Nazi Holocaust. Whether or not Martin Buber was right to call Jesus “my great brother”, Jesus himself would have said with the Biblical Joseph, “I go seeing my brethren”.
Jewishness is where he came from. His milieu was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Isaiah, though he believed they had come alive again in him. He saw the upheavals of his time as the pangs of the Messiah and thought of himself in messianic terms. He diverged from tradition in his exegesis of Scripture but he probably had no intention of creating a new religion.
In the second New Testament, the post-Jesus generation reconstructed his life, teaching and status, so that Jesus the Jew became Jesus the Christ and Christianity became a gentile faith, incorporating other influences and interpreting Jesus in ways that radically departed from Judaism.
The parting of the ways involved a series of paradoxes: universalism and particularism, faith and works, sin and atonement, death and rebirth, today and tomorrow, earthly man and ineffable God. Sometimes the new faith leant this way and sometimes that. As much as it is essential to establish the Jewishness of Jesus, it is important to recognise the way he was re-shaped.
Both sides are sure they are right; the question is whether they can live and let live. And both have to face up to a new factor: a resurgent Islam which is not yet certain whether it can handle the independent spirit and ethos of the other two monotheistic faiths.
The encounter must be within a climate of civilised discussion, robust without rancour, without aggressiveness or arrogance. That is the type of mood in which I wrote this book, and it is in this mood that I hope it will be read. I am not looking for winners or losers. I am not seeking to dismiss or defeat, but to respect and understand. I am not seeking to destroy you but to know you.
Is the world big enough for all of us? I believe the answer is yes, but it is already an achievement to recognise the question.
What I say to readers is, “Enjoy the book, think about it, and decide what matters more, the answers or the questions”.
Rabbi Apple’s video message from the book launch can be viewed here.
The softcover and ebook editions of New Testament People: A Rabbi’s Notes are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online. Selections from the book can be previewed on Google Books.