Millions of people have had the blessing of education in the 20th century, and knowledge has enhanced our ability to perceive, analyze and understand the world we live in. Although education is valuable, is everything we learn worthy of acceptance at face value? Do our teachers always tell us the truth? Or do they sometimes pass on preconceived ideas learned from their teachers? Following a biblical principle, should we not seek to "prove all things and hold fast that which is good"?
Against this backdrop we should examine a bias in the world of theology. Some fervently believe that the Jewishness of the New Testament is something to be explained away or even ignored at all costs. Is this reasonable? Some scholars admit that the established churches have fallen into gross error over important aspects of the Founder of Christianity and His early followers. Is it possible that churches founded in the name of Christ have been fundamentally wrong about His teaching and practice? Was the early Church far more Jewish than has been taught?
Well, as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. The subject of early Christianity's Jewishness has been avoided by most scholars because of a long-standing prejudice in the theological world. But a change of sorts is under way, and it is causing a reevaluation of some underlying approaches to traditional Christianity. If understood in their totality, the implications are profound.
Recognizing that the context of Jesus' life was within the Israelite religion of the Hebrew Scriptures, Roman Catholic theologian John Pawlikowski notes that some biblical scholars "share the conviction that Jesus must be returned to his essentially Jewish context if the Church is to understand his message properly."
More pointedly he writes: "It is now becoming increasingly apparent to biblical scholars that the lack of a deep immersion into the spirit and content of the Hebrew Scriptures leaves the contemporary Christian with a truncated version of Jesus' message. In effect, what remains is an emasculated version of biblical spirituality."
The Hebrew Scriptures comprise what we call the Old Testament, and we favor the "New Testament" over the "Old" by this nomenclature. More accurate and less misleading would be to call these two divinely inspired portions of the Bible the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apostolic Writings. Then we might better understand what the early Church knew and that its teachings and practice were firmly rooted in the only Bible they had for much of the first century, the Old Testament.
In practical application, this meant that those first Christians observed what many today would say are Jewish customs, such as the Passover. It is eye-opening to read the accounts of Jesus' last days with this Jewish background in mind. On the night preceding His crucifixion, Jesus sat with His disciples for the Passover meal, annually eaten by the Israelite peoples for centuries after the Exodus from Egypt.
Jesus was an Israelite, of the tribe of Judah. He was also God in the flesh. That night He took bread and wine and introduced new symbols for an ancient memorial, infusing it with fresh significance. He was soon to become the Savior of humanity by His sacrificial death in our stead. He was the Passover Lamb of God.
That evening He also performed the seemingly menial task of washing His disciples' feet. Today some follow His example by once a year on the Passover washing other's feet, symbolic of their desire to humbly serve. They also take bread and wine in memory of the ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God. One teacher of theology told me a few years ago that some friends had recently begun the practice of foot-washing, and she considered them better Christians for doing so.
We would all do well to consider what it means to be a Christian in light of the findings of today's scholars regarding the Founder's essential Jewishness. Which other early-Church beliefs and practices should we imitate? The Good News will bring you more on this subject as the months go by. GN