The synagogue and the church

As his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (Luke 4:16, KJV).

“Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18, KJV).

The first passage describes a custom in the life of Jesus, something He did every Sabbath. He worshiped in the Jewish synagogue or the temple. This was a custom the disciples followed later as they went from town to town on their missionary journeys as recorded in the book of Acts.

The second passage contains a promise: that Jesus Himself will build the church where He will be worshiped as the Lord and Saviour of the world. The apostles, even as they worshiped in the synagogues, spoke much about the church as the body of Christ and as the community of the believers in Christ as one sent by God.

That was the apostolic age. But since then, history has recorded nothing but strife and conflict between the synagogue and the church, between Jews and Christians.

Is that strife necessary? Should hatred mark the relationship between these two communities? Can we try to understand and learn from each other? The answer should be “yes” for three reasons: both communities have so much in common; Christianity can learn much from Judaism; and Judaism can learn much from Christianity.

The common ground

Christianity and Judaism share common roots. First, there is the Scripture. Jesus and the disciples had only one Bible: the Old Testament. Indeed, the New Testament builds on the Old and amplifies it.

Second, there is theology. Both Judaism and Christianity share a common concept of a personal God who created our world. The story of the Fall, the call of Abraham, the ethos of the covenant, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the ethical emphasis of the prophets are all part of the common heritage of the two religious groups.

Third, there is history. The philosophy of history that God is in control and that history is moving toward its climax on a linear basis is common to both Christianity and Judaism. The Church traces its history to the church in the wilderness, and draws its support and inspiration from the promises that were made to the children of Israel. Moreover, the Church grew in the soil of Israel. The first Christians were all Jews who behaved as faithful Jews. Jesus was a Jew. The Old Testament, as well as the midrashim, the Jewish parables, were a part of His teachings. All His disciples were Jews. Most—if not all— of the New Testament was written by Jews, who constantly referred to the Jewish Scriptures and traditions.

With so much in common, why should there be strife between the two religions? On the contrary, should they not be learning from each other?

What Christianity can learn from Judaism

The Church can connect to Israel and learn from them their love for the Scripture. The Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved by the tenacious work of the Jewish scribes, who carefully copied the ancient manuscripts, and also by the faithful Jews, who read them throughout generations at the synagogue. Moses, Isaiah, the Psalms, and the Song of Songs are still chanted today in the original language. Thanks to the Jews, Christians can have access to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, to the Hebrew thinking of the writers of the New Testament, and even to the Hebrew prayers, through which Jesus Himself worshiped. The role of the Scripture in Jewish life and worship is something Christians can cherish.

The Church can also learn from Judaism the deeper meaning of the Law, the Ten Commandments, the dietary laws, the Sabbath, and the whole ethical code. These have not only been preserved in writing by the Jews, but they are also being witnessed to by the people who observe them in their lives. The Church needs the Jews to rethink the theology of the law. Christians tend to stress grace so much that they have often ignored the value of justice and obedience. Emotions and feeling and the subjective experience have been overemphasized at the expense of faithfulness, will, and the objective duty of obedience.

Along the same line, the Church needs the Jews in order to rediscover the intrinsic value and beauty of studying the Word of God, as the Word from above that has its own truth to be discovered. Too often, the Bible is used to prove one’s point in a theological dispute or as a shallow sentimental inspiration for religious devotion. True, the Christian can expect the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures, but it is naive to substitute the Spirit to personal searching of the Scriptures.

Christians can also learn from the way Jews worship: their reverence of the sovereign God, their respect for the Scripture, their corporate singing that involves effort by the mind, aesthetic sensitivity, and deep emotions, as well as the motions of the body. An attention to these might inspire Christians to make their worship services more creative and fulfilling.

Another religious value Christians can learn from the Jews is the joy of life, the sense of the feast, and the ability to receive the gift of God in Creation. From earlier stages, the influence of Gnosticism, especially of Marcion, Christianity has opposed faith in the God of Creation, the beauty and senses. An attempt has been made to distinguish between the God of the Old Testament as God of creation and the God of the New Testament as God of salvation. This distinction is sometimes reflected in the Christian theology of Sunday interpreted as the sign of salvation versus the Sabbath, a sign of Creation. This dualism has influenced generations of Christians and produced a religion of sadness that suspects laughter and enjoyment. Christians may learn from the Jews to pay attention to their physical as well as their spiritual life. They can learn from them a holistic view of life. What they eat, what they drink, whatever they do affects their total being. Christians, like Jews, can affirm that religion is a way of life and not just a turn of the soul.

What Jews Can Learn from Christianity

History has shown that Israel needs the Church. Christians have made the God of Israel known throughout the earth. Christians have translated the Hebrew Bible and taken its message to all the world. From Amazon to Africa, from Alaska to Australia, the story of Joseph and the psalms of David have been heard by the simple and the sophisticated people alike. Jewish theology of particularism has been complemented by Christian universalism, the latter being responsible for taking the biblical truth to the ends of the earth. A by-product of this Christian mission is the knowledge of the people of the Old Testament and the existence of Israel. This is one of the most ironical and interesting paradoxes of history. Without the Church, Judaism might have remained a small, insignificant, and obscure religion that might well have disappeared.

The Jews have deliberately ignored the New Testament, although it was written by Jews even before the time of the composition of the Talmud. Jews would benefit from the reading of these texts, for they not only witness to the life and belief of the first Century Jews, but they also contain valuable truths that may strengthen and enrich their Jewish roots.

As a matter of fact, Jews well versed in their own Scriptures and tradition may understand the New Testament even better than the Christians themselves, who often project their own worldview into them. The Jews will discover that the New Testament is not as foreign as they think. After all, it was written in the context of a worldview shaped by the Old Testament. Approached this way, the Jews may even get a better grasp of their own heritage. Often the meaning and the beauty of the Hebrew Scriptures are enhanced by the explanations of the New Testament. The stories of the Rabbi of Nazareth, His parables and His teachings, will surprise them by their Jewish flavor and the high Jewish ideals they convey.

Grace (hesed) is not unique to the Christian message. Judaism also cherishes grace. However, Jews can learn from Christians that salvation is not achieved through mitzwoth (law), but through the God who comes down in history and acts on behalf of His people. Jews need to learn more about the proximity of God, the God who goes so far as to enter the complex process of incarnation in order to speak with humans, be with them, and save them. Certainly Abraham Heschel thought of this reality when he observed that “the Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology.”*

Learning about God’s incarnation, the Jews will understand better the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God who spoke face to face with Moses, the God who fought for Israel at Jericho, and the God who spoke through the prophets. And this perspective will even bring new life into their mitzwoth. The law will not just be performed as a required chore, but it will blossom from the heart as a fruit emerging from their personal relationship with God.

The Seventh-day Adventist mission

The mission of the eschatological remnant to witness to the world would hardly fulfill itself without reference to its roots. The flower cannot blossom if the tree is not rooted: the future cannot be produced without this memory. This requirement contains a whole philosophy of witnessing. The responsibility to bring the message to the Jews and to other Christians implies the duty to respect them. It is not possible to preach to the Jews while being anti-Semitic; likewise, it is not possible to preach to Catholics while being anti-Catholic. The Adventist adventure pertains to Jews, to Christians, and to everyone in the world.

We as Seventh-day Adventists are heir to both Jewish and Christian history. We also have the mandate of the everlasting gospel of Revelation 14. Our message is unique not only because we proclaim fully Jesus and the law, grace, and obedience, but also because we speak of a definite future to come. Our mission is not just of a historical nature, to proclaim a past event; it is also of an eschatological nature, to declare a coming event.

Our mission should, therefore, be carried out with humility, openness, and sensitivity, with the consciousness that there is always something to learn and receive from others in order to reach out to men and women everywhere, Gentile or Jew.

The Ten Points of Seelisberg

Immediately after the Second World War, Protestant and Catholic churchmen concerned with the terrible force of anti-Semitism, which reached its climax with the Third Reich, met with their Jewish colleagues to focus on 10 issues in order to avoid “false, inadequate, or mistaken presentations or conceptions… of the Christian doctrine.”

  1. Remember that one God speaks to us all through the Old and the New Testaments.
  2. Remember that Jesus was born of a Jewish mother of the seed of David and the people of Israel, and that His everlasting love and forgiveness embraces His own people and the whole world.
  3. Remember that the first disciples, the apostles, and the first martyrs were Jews.
  4. Remember that the fundamental commandment of Christianity, to love God and one’s neighbor, proclaimed already in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus, is binding upon both Christians and Jews in all human relationships, without any exception.
  5. Avoid distorting or misrepresenting biblical or postbiblical Judaism with the object of extolling Christianity.
  6. Avoid using the word “Jews” in the exclusive sense of the enemies of Jesus, and the words “the enemies of Jesus” to designate the whole Jewish people.
  7. Avoid presenting the Passion in such a way as to bring the odium of the killing of Jesus upon all Jews or upon Jews alone. It was only a section of the Jews in Jerusalem who demanded the death of Jesus, and the Christian message has always been that it was the sins of mankind which were exemplified by those Jews and the sins in which all men share that brought Christ to the Cross.
  8. Avoid referring to the scriptural curses, or the cry of a raging mob, “His blood be upon us and our children,” without remembering that this cry should not count against the infinitely more weighty words of our Lord, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
  9. Avoid promoting the superstitious notion that the Jewish people are reprobate, accursed, reserved for a destiny of suffering.
  10. Avoid speaking of the Jews as if the first members of the Church had not been Jews.

Published by the International Council of Christians and Jews in 1947.

Born in Algeria of Jewish ancestry, Jacques Doukhan (Ph.D., University of Strasbourg; Th.D., Andrews University) teaches Hebrew and Old Testament exegesis at Andrews University. He is also the editor of Shabbat Shalom and L’Olivier, a Jewish-Christian journal published in English and in French. Among his books are Drinking at the Sources, Daniel, and Hebrew for Theologians.His address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104-1500; U.S.A.

*Abraham Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Octagon Books, 1972), p. 129.