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Go here to view my conversation with editor David Mishkin about
A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Gospels.
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“Jewish roots”—not just Backgrounds!
You may have seen it on a bumper sticker, a tee-shirt, or a coffee mug—”My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” This catchy saying is an attempt to express the Jewish background of the Christian faith. The expression “Jewish roots” describes a relationship between Judaism and the church that involves more than the bland term “background”—roots are so much more important than background when comes to a tree! Roots are organically connected to the stem, branches, leaves, and seeds of any plant, and so it is with the church. Its very life, not just its history, is rooted in the grace of God, expressed in biblical promises going back to Abraham in Genesis 12.
David Mishkin points this out in the introduction to the book: By “roots” we were referring not only to background information but also to an ongoing interconnectedness that remains relevant even today. In other words, God’s choice of Abraham and faithfulness to Abraham’s descendants is not just historically prior to the coming of Jesus, it is essential to understanding the coming of Jesus, our identity as followers of Jesus, and our mission for Jesus in this world.
“Jewish roots” is an expression that is itself deeply rooted in the Bible. In Genesis God’s plan to redeem his rebellious image-bearers takes shape in Genesis 12, where God chooses the descendants of Abraham to be his special people. This apparently exclusive move turns out to be just the opposite—God plans to bless the entire human family through the Jews. The Temple in Jerusalem was to be a house of prayer for all the nations (Isa 56:7 > Matt 21:13/Mark 13:17/Luke 19:46). Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Exod 19:6; 1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6) that would bring the light of God’s grace to all the nations (Isa 49:6). Simeon had this truth in mind when he encountered the infant Messiah in the Temple (Luke 2:32), as did Paul when he was opposed by some of the Jews in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:47). As Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22; cf. Isa 2:3). The book of Acts shows how the Jewish church expanded all the way from Jerusalem to Rome as it began to reach out to Gentiles as well as Jews. Paul’s writings reflect most deeply on the theme of the church’s Jewish roots (e.g. Gal 1:16; 2:8; 3:7-9, 14, 28; Eph 2:11-3:6; Col 3:11).
Romans provides the most profound reflection on the theme of Gentile participation in God’s covenant promises to Israel, especially in Romans 9-11, which culminates in Paul’s imagery in 11:17-24 of the wild olive branches (Gentile believers) being grafted into a cultivated olive tree (Israel), and receiving life through its nourishing roots (God’s covenant fidelity to Israel). Unbelieving Jews will be pruned, yet they may be grafted in again if they come to faith. Similarly, Gentiles must persevere in faith or they too will be pruned. The Old Testament and the Gospels in turn both use a great deal of agricultural imagery to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel; Paul’s olive tree imagery apparently comes from Jeremiah 11:16 and Hosea 14:5-7.
With all this in mind, the book’s cover image of an olive branch is especially helpful in conveying the Jewish Roots of the church.
What’s in the Handbook?
Editors Craig Evans and David Mishkin have sought to make current scholarship on the gospels accessible to a wide audience. The result is a substantial yet not intimidating volume of 370 pages. Altogether there are 34 articles, typically 10-12 pages in length, organized in five main chapters:
- Textual Roots: Discussions of ancient gospel manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, reception by the ancient church, and Rabbinic literature.
- Intertextual Roots: Discussions of how the Gospels draw on the Old Testament and its themes
- Narrative Roots: Discussions of the geographical and historical setting of selected events in the gospel narrative.
- Theological Roots: Discussions of how understanding the Judaism of Jesus’s day helps us understand selected themes in the Gospels.
- Intercultural Roots: Discussions of how the gospels have been received through history and how this informs Jewish-Christian relations today.
As the Table of Contents reveals, the articles vary in focus, with some exploring a theme within one Gospel and others addressing more broadly a topic that is relevant to all four gospels. It is especially interesting to find discussions of how the gospels influence contemporary Jewish-Christian relations.
This handbook is a companion volume to A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, published in 2019.
Why the Handbook is Important
With Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus working together, this book models its stated theme on Jewish roots. Several authors are from Israel College of the Bible (Netanya, Israel), where the project originated. The college is unique as a place where Jews and Arabs who follow Jesus study together for accredited degrees, with much of the instruction coming in Hebrew. This book is a present realization of the ultimate biblical vision of people from every nation worshipping God in the name of Jesus (e.g. Rev 4-5).
This coming together of Jews and Gentiles in the name of Jesus to write this handbook is all the more important today in a climate where many charge that the church is anti-Jewish because its founding documents were also anti-Jewish. The church’s checkered relationship to the Jews is historical fact and must not be denied or minimized. Yet, as this book shows in several different chapters, the church gravely misunderstood the very New Testament documents that it used to justify its anti-Jewish activities. I have written on this question in my book on Matthew 23, Israel’s Last Prophet. The mistaken theology of the church replacing Israel is itself anti-Semitic, as we show in this conversation about my book.
“Replacement theology” is the notion that God has jettisoned Israel and inserted the church as the heir to the biblical promises made to Abraham and his descendants. A more technical term for this is supersessionism—the view that the church has superseded Israel and the true people of God. Theankfully the insights presented in the HandbookA recent movement among theologians, The Post-Supersessionist Society,
Another important point is that the 30-plus contributors to the Handbook present a wide array of current scholarship on the gospels. There is a wealth of information here, and it is presented in a compact, well-organized format. Each article presents an accessible overview, along with a bibliography of Works Cited. For some readers’ needs, the articles themselves will be sufficient. For others, the bibliographies will map out directions for further studies.
Anyone with interest in the Jewish roots of the gospels will find the Handbook to be a helpful resource for personal enrichment. It is also suitable for use as an academic textbook in colleges and seminaries. It would be hard to find another resource with such a wide array of information on the Jewishness of the gospels. Whether the book is being used as an individual or classroom resource, it can be read through chapter-by-chapter or consulted occasionally as a reference on specific topics.
I was pleased to contribute a chapter on biblical fulfillment in Matthew to the Handbook. I hope you find it to be just as interesting and helpful as I do. Remember, today’s largely Gentile church began as a handful of Jews following a remarkable man from an obscure village in Galilee whose name was Yeshua (ישוע) in Hebrew. Whether he followed his father Joseph into the construction trades or not, as his life and ministry unfolded in Galilee, Judea, and ultimately in Jerusalem, God’s ultimate deliverance for all humanity was playing out in fulfillment of Old Testament patterns and promises. The Fourfold Gospel tradition is our portal for understanding this amazing revelation. A Handbook on the Jewish Roots of the Gospels will help us grow in that understanding.
You can read excerpts from the book and buy it at a discount here.
Don’t forget to view my my conversation with editor David Mishkin here.
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I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:
“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.” [Isaiah 59:20-21]
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?” [Isaiah 40:13}
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?” [Job 41:11]
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:13-36 NIV)