Jewish Apologetics – Christianity’s Ongoing and Unique Challenge by Michael Brown

by Michael L. Brown, Ph.D.

June 9, 2006, International Society of Christian Apologetics

Charlotte, North Carolina

Several months ago, a colleague in Arizona introduced me to a very sharp lawyer and debater who also taught apologetics a local seminary. We began to talk about some of the debates I had had with Orthodox Jewish rabbis, at which point he asked, “But what objections could they possibly raise?” Having written more than 1,500 pages of answers to Jewish objections to Jesus, I must admit that his question surprised me, given his educational and apologetics background. I then began to explain to him some of the principal Jewish objections to Jesus, to which he replied, “It looks like you have your work cut out for you!” I’ve had similar conversations with pastors and Christian leaders who, initially, could not understand how Jewish people could possibly object to our presentation of Messianic prophecies or Christian evidence.

This reminds me of my experience as a new believer in Jesus in the early 1970s. The Lord graciously reached out to me when I was a heroin-shooting, LSD-using, marijuana-smoking, diesel gas-huffing, long-haired, rebellious, sixteen year-old, Jewish rock drummer with no interest in God and, of course, no faith in Jesus. In a period of several months, my life was radically transformed, and by the time I had known the Lord for one year, I was spending at least six hours alone with Him every day: three hours in prayer, two hours reading the Scriptures, and one-hour memorizing the Scriptures (memorizing 20 verses a day). Although I was certainly lacking in wisdom and sensitivity, no one in my high school could withstand my knowledge of the Scriptures, and I was even able to lead a neighborhood woman out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some time later, at the age of eighteen, I was introduced to some ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn, men who had years of experience in dealing with Jews who believed in Jesus. They were not overwhelmed by my knowledge of the Word! In fact, it was very humbling to sit there with my King James Bible, which they politely critiqued as another one of those faulty English translations, while they sat there with their Hebrew Bibles open, Bibles they had been reading in the original since they were young children. For the first time, I was the one being challenged, both by their knowledge and by their lifestyle.

As a result of my time with these rabbis I began to look into contemporary, Jewish Christian responses to these objections, but almost everything I found at that time tended to be very superficial, primarily popular in scope and tone (not to mention often marred by embarrassing errors). Thankfully, as I continued to search, I found that there were much more substantial, academic Christian responses to these objections, but in many ways, these learned Gentile responses failed to grasp the weight of the objections, being so sure of the rightness of their own position that they could not grasp the depth of the objection, also appearing to be virtually oblivious to the terribly destructive impact of anti-Semitism throughout the course of “Church” history. Simply stated, it has been my observation for many years that Christians somehow think that by simply stating their position, they have thereby successfully responded to the particular Jewish objection being raised. After all, the Jews are stiffnecked, blind, and hardened, so there can be little or no substance to their objections. They’re just stubbornly refusing to see the truth! Not surprisingly, Christian understanding of Jewish objections to Jesus has often been marked by superficiality, insensitivity, and triumphalism.

To give one typical example, while participating in a major biblical conference in Chicago in 1988, I entered into a discussion with some of the world’s top New Testament scholars. One of them had even written a book on Jewish views of Jesus, so I asked him, “In light of Jewish fidelity to the Torah, how would you explain the gloss in Mark 7:19 which, according to many interpreters, indicates that Jesus abolished the dietary laws?” He responded, “That’s where we have to understand His authority as the Messiah. He changed the law by His Messianic authority.” Of course, that is an argument that needs to be considered, but I relate this story for a very different reason. This erudite scholar failed to realize that, according to the Orthodox Jewish understanding of the eternal immutability of the Torah, an understanding reinforced by the Lord Himself in Matt 5:17-20 and elsewhere, if Yeshua did change the law, He would thereby have disqualified himself from being the Messiah! Moreover, according to the clear reading of Deut 13:1-11, no amount of miracles or apparent divine confirmation – including, by implication, even rising from the dead – could be marshaled as sufficient cause to follow other gods, gods which were not known to the past generations, which, in the traditional Jewish view, would include the worship of Jesus. It is my goal, therefore, in this paper to illustrate the unique and challenging nature of Jewish objections to Jesus, pointing to the best way to respond to these objections.

Let me begin with the concept of a newer and better covenant displacing the old, inferior covenant. (Remember, of course, that to a religious Jew, there is no such thing as the “Old Testament,” nor is there anything inferior or lacking in their covenant with God as they understand it.) To us, living in the light and glory of that wonderful new covenant, a covenant confirmed by the death and resurrection of the Son of God, it is difficult to see how a religious Jew could not possibly recognize his spiritually incomplete state. But what do we say to a Muslim who claims that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets and that it is we who are spiritually incomplete? We tell him, among other things, that anyone who seeks to add to the final revelation of God in Jesus, as spelled out in the New Testament writings, is a false prophet. We respond in similar fashion to the claims of those who say that so-and-so is a contemporary incarnation of the Christ. We remind them of Jesus’ words that false prophets and false christs would arise who would deceive many, and we point out that the Lord clearly forewarned us, instructing us to wait for His coming in the clouds.

This, of course, is self-evident to us, yet we often fail to see the parallel response from Judaism to Christianity: “In the Torah, God warned us not to follow any prophet or miracle worker who in any way deviated from the words of this Instruction, and anyone that contradicts or adds to or takes away from the once-and-for-all revelation from God at Sinai – a revelation that He said was for all generations – must be rejected out of hand. We have been forewarned! And the last word He spoke to us in the prophets was to remember the Torah of Moses and to expect the coming of Elijah (Mal 4:4-6). As for your Messianic claims, when our Messiah comes and establishes peace on the earth and regathers the exiles, we’ll have no trouble recognizing that he’s the one. Until then, we reject all other false Messianic claimants.” Furthermore, while so much Christian practice bears little resemblance to the commands of the Torah and the calendar of the Torah, the traditional Jew points to many passages in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) which call on him to perpetuate the Torah lifestyle so that, when his children ask him, “Why do you do this?”, he can explain, “It is because the Lord brought our fathers out of Egypt . . . ” (see, e.g., Exod 12:24-28). In this way, as stated in the Psalms and other related passages, one generation declares to the next the faithfulness of God (see, e.g., Ps 78:1-7). To a Jew, this is part of his sacred calling: Preserving the unbroken chain from Abraham to Sinai to the present. This, he would argue, is hardly an outmoded covenant!

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