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Jews & Anti-Judaism in the New Testament: Decision points & divergent interpretations

Author: Terence L Donaldson
Published By: SPCK (London )
Pages: 176
Price: £12.99
ISBN: 978 0 281 05883 9

Reviewed by Julian Reindorp.

Is the New Testament anti-Semitic? Anyone looking for a balanced approach to this difficult question, or who wants to be aware of the risks of anti-semitism when talking about and teaching the Bible will find this book extremely helpful. I am writing in the week after Holocaust Martyrs Remembrance Day, a time when Israel for a brief while comes to a standstill: the Holocaust the culmination of the grim history of anti-semitism through the centuries.

We will be aware of the words in Matthew's Passion from the crowd: “his blood be on us and on our children” - and how often this has been used against the Jews as the killers of Christ, even though crucifixion was a Roman punishment. Then there is that echo through Johns Gospel - “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”.

After an introduction in which he asks three questions (Is the New Testament antisemitic? Is it anti-judiac? Is it supersessionist, i.e. has the Christian Church superceded the Israel of the OT?), in separate chapters Donaldson tackles Matthew; Luke-Acts; John; Paul; the New Testament then and now. Then he uses the questions raised by four forthright scholars (among others in this field) during the 20th century - Parkes, Isaac, Baum and Ruether. Finally in each chapter, he looks at the questions raised under three headings - the identity of the group to which each author and the readers belong; the location of the author and the intended readers, and the rhetorical character of the text (what were the purposes for which it was written). What he calls the self-definition, degree of separation, rhetorical intent provide a three dimensional grid.

He sees his task as primarily to describe and analyse the diversity of views held rather than to arbitrate between them. While Ruether and others argue that Christian anti-Judaism (this becomes anti-semitic whenever the church has sufficient social and political power) was intrinsic to the Christological message of the earliest Church ('anti-judaism is the left hand of Christology'), Donalson outlines not just the questions of interpretation within each book, but the also the changes in the wider world of scholarship. The waning of Christendom, the growing interaction of Jewish Christian scholars, and our much clearer understanding of the social setting of early Jewish Christianity enable us to see a much more balanced picture.

This fascinating book - surely an ideal introductory text to this crucial discussion - ends with his ten conclusions. In one way or another, the writings of the New Testament all ascribe ultimate significance to Christ. The writings of the New Testament present Christ's person and work as the goal and culmination of the story of Isreal. These two claims about Christ stand in considerable tension with the Jewish understanding of how the story of Israel would reach its goal and culmination

New Testament claims about Christ are qualified by his 'coming' in the future’; there is an ethical element in the process of interpretation; contemporary Christians need to read the New Testament as Gentile Christians; Christian interpretations needs to carried out in dialogue with Jewish interpreters; Christian interpreters of the New testament need to be fully aware of this history, especially as it refers to Jews and Judiasm; the canon of the New Testament offers more options for Christian self-definition than were open to those involved in the process of canonization; the New Testament provides us with example of living with tension. As it says on the tin - “engrossing, persuasive and highly readable” by a scholar who has an international reputation in this field.

Julian Reindorp

Team Rector of Richmond, Surrey

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You are reading Issue 50 of Ministry Today, published in November 2010.

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