What happens when Jews read Matthew’s Gospel together for the first time?

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Rabbi Jonathan Romain writes in  the Church Times that his Synagogue congregation have been reading through Matthew’s Gospel together, an exercise in Jewish-Christian dialogue. HE acknowledges the imbalance in the conversation as is caused by the fact that Jews are unfamiliar with the New Testament whilst Christians have read the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

In an article for The Church Times, he shares some of their experiences as they worked through the Gospel over a six month period.  Fascinatingly, for a couple of Christians with Jewish spouses, this was the first time they’d worked through the Gospel in depth from start to finish.

First, they were puzzled that the Gospel begins with a lengthy genealogy, tracing Jesus’ roots back to Adam through Joseph.  Wasn’t he God’s Son rather than Joseph’s. They put this down to the Doctrine of the Incarnation but then opt to leave it there.  I think their instincts are right in beginning to consider the incarnation as a significant influence on what the Gospel writers say but would encourage them not to just leave the mystery there but push into it. 

They were surprised at disparaging comments about Gentiles, observing the universal message of Christianity. Why then, does Jesus describe his mission as being “to the lost household of Israel.”  I hope that this insight will help to clear up any rumours and misconceptions about Matthew’s Gospel being antisemitic.  Romain’s suggestion that this might indicate a divergence by Christian religion from its founding Scriptures is intriguing. First, it might help us to understand a bit more about contemporary Judaism.  We cannot assume that Jews we interact with today can be understood by what we read in Scripture. We need to understand a bit more of the history, including the development of teaching through the Talmud and other writings.  Nor should we be over eager to read back into Jesus’ time the Judaism of 21st century Britain.  This is perhaps a warning against the mushrooming practice of attempting Seder meals to learn about the Last Supper.    

However, I don’t think that Romain is right to assume a change or drift in Christian thinking. That message of universal hope in Christ is present in Scripture.  It’s there in the New Testament and even in the Gospels.  Jesus is pointed out by John the Baptist as “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  He commissions his disciples at the end of Matthew to go into all the world.  But those missional seeds are there in the OT prophets too.  We would do well to reflect on why, given that global mission was built into the original DNA of the Church that Jesus does start with this emphasis on Israel and the Jews.  Why does Paul also go to Jews first and then Gentiles.  The clues to the answer may be found by starting in Romans 9-11.

They are encouraged by the number of references, quotations and allusions to Old Testament Scriptures.  Again, this reminds us that Christians are ingrafted into Israel according to Romans 9-11. There’s a shared history, we are adopted individually and corporately into a people.  It should encourage us to get to know the Torah, Prophets and writing better ourselves.

They were disconcerted and disturbed by the negative references to the Pharisees.  This might surprise us because we have become used to the word “Pharisee” having negative connotations.  However, as Rabbi Romain explains, to Jews, the Pharisees were a reforming group.  It may be helpful at this point to note the studies of New Perspective scholars such as EP Sanders, James Dunn and NT Wright.  Much of the writing around Second Temple Judaism does not fit the legalistic/works righteousness caricature we assume.

Romain and the Synagogue readers assumed that Matthew had made a mistake.  Had he confused the Pharisees with the Sadducees? I suspect that Matthew’s original Jewish audience would have had a similar reaction. Weren’t the Pharisees meant to be the good guys? If they were the radical reformers, then shouldn’t they have been on Jesus’ side against the establishment? Maybe Jesus was himself really a rabbi from among the Pharisees? However, Matthew as an eye witness was not mistaken and we would do well to pay attention to Jesus’ assessment of the Pharisees as reported by him.  First, we should not assume that the written records of some scholars from close to the time reflect the actual views and arguments of people on the ground at the time, just as we can see differences between what Christians believe and practice with what some scholarly books argue.  Second, perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus saw the dangers and failings of the Pharisees better than they did. They may have started with good motives. They may have believed that you were part of Gods people through election and grace not by works but their emphasis on law keeping to mark the boundaries of the covenant did, according to Jesus and the NT lead straight into works righteousness and legalism as well as ethnic pride.

I would encourage you to have a read of the article.  I found it helpful to hear the reflections of people from a Jewish background engaging with the Gospels for the first time.  It perhaps gives us an insight into how early readers of the Gospels without centuries of traditions and assumed knowledge might have read them.  In so doing, this may encourage us to try fresh reading. 

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