Christianity In Jewish Terms


By Tikva Frymer-kensky

By David Novak

By Peter Ochs

By David Sandmel

By Michael Singer

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Over the past few decades, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish — Christian relations, including signs of a new, improved Christian attitude towards Jews. Christianity in Jewish Terms is a Jewish theological response to the profound changes that have taken place in Christian thought. The book is divided into ten chapters, each of which features a main essay, written by a Jewish scholar, that explores the meaning of a set of Christian beliefs. Following the essay are responses from a second Jewish scholar and a Christian scholar. Designed to generate new conversations within the American Jewish community and between the Jewish and Christian communities, Christianity in Jewish Terms lays the foundation for better understanding. It was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 2001.





Tikva Frymer-Kensky
David Novak
Peter Ochs
David Fox Sandmel
Michael A. Signer


Over the past few decades there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations. Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christian theologians and clerics have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for Christianity and that is completed in and replaced by Christianity. In the four decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically. Both individual theologians and, then, an increasing number of official church bodies, both Catholic and Protestant, have made public statements of their remorse about Christian mistreatment of Jews and Judaism over the last two millennia. These statements have declared, furthermore, that Christian theologies, liturgies, and Bible teachings can and must be reformed so that they acknowledge God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish people and celebrate the contribution of Judaism to world civilization and to Christian faith itself.

Most Jews have experienced the profound social consequences of this change in Christian beliefs, but few Jews are aware of the religious sources of the change, and even fewer seek to assess its impact on Jewish life today and in the future. The Jewish authors and editors of this book believe it is high time to acknowledge these recent changes in Christianity and to examine their implications for Jewish life in the Western world. In this volume, we begin the process of examination by taking a careful second look at Christian religious belief—as it has been since the early centuries of the Christian era and as it has become in the last few decades.

We believe that living as a minority in a still largely Christian America—and Christian West—Jews need to learn the languages and beliefs of their neighbors. They need to understand the meaning of what their Christian neighbors are saying: about what modern society should become, and about the place of the Jewish people itself in that society. Jews need to learn ways of judging what forms of Christianity are friendly to them and what forms are not, and what forms of Christian belief merit their public support, and what forms do not. They need, as well, to acknowledge the efforts of those Christians who have sacrificed aspects of their work and of their lives to combat Christian anti-Judaism and to promote forms of Christian practice that are friendly to Jewish life and belief. Jews need to know enough about Christian belief to be able to explain their own Jewish goals and ideals for society in terms their Christian neighbors will understand.

For the past hundreds of years, when Jews have been taught about Christian belief, it has been primarily in non-Jewish terms. During the years of their residence in Christian Europe, Jews learned about Christianity only through the untranslated terms of a Christianity that separated itself from its Jewish roots. Then, during the years that followed Emancipation, Jews learned about Christianity through the equally non-Jewish terms of secular European thought. This was often the most difficult kind of learning, since secular European thought often treated Christianity as a universal religion, as opposed to the particularity or “tribalism” of Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to learn about Christianity in Jewish terms: to rediscover the basic categories of rabbinic Judaism and to hear what the basic categories of Christian belief sound like when they are taught in terms of this rabbinic Judaism. To hear Christianity in our terms is truly to understand it, perhaps for the first time.

If Christianity is changing in these years after the Holocaust, Judaism is changing as well. During the past two hundred years, Judaism has suffered from an increasing inner division that has separated the realms of science and reason on the one hand from those of faith and tradition on the other. It is as if the Jewish religion itself spoke of an unbridgeable gulf between the human and the divine. The editors of this volume, however, are animated by a different vision. The Judaism of the Bible, Talmud, and other classical Jewish sources has always emphasized the partnership of humanity and God. In this volume, the editors have therefore gathered together essays that help rediscover the power of the classical sources of Judaism to heal the divisions from which we suffer today: between human reason and Jewish faith, as well as between Judaism and Christianity.

The central ten chapters of this volume address our two main concerns: how to renew our understanding of Judaism today from out of the sacred texts and, then, how to understand Christianity in terms of this Judaism. Each chapter, consisting of three essays, treats a key theological concept in Judaism and Christianity. In the first essay, a Jewish scholar teaches about a particular area of Jewish theological tradition and then offers ways for Jews to understand a corresponding set of Christian beliefs. In the second essay, another Jewish thinker describes from his or her own perspective another way to understand both the Jewish and the Christian beliefs. In the third essay, a Christian scholar responds to the first essay and answers the questions: “Do I recognize my Christianity in what has been written? What is the significance of Judaism for my understanding of Christianity?”

This is a bold undertaking: to be open to thinking seriously about Christianity, let alone about God and religion in a new way! How do we avoid the pitfalls that have characterized efforts at Jewish and Christian understanding in the past? In Chapter 1, one of our editors offers lessons in “what to seek and what to avoid in Jewish–Christian dialogue.” In light of the tragic history of Jewish–Christian relations in the past, why should we risk this endeavor at all? In Chapter 2, a Jewish historian notes both the negative and positive aspects of Jewish and Christian interaction from the first century through modern times. In Chapter 3, a Jewish and a Christian theologian offer responses to the most challenging question of all: “And now, after the Shoah, do we still dare to promote such a dialogue? How can Jews and Christians speak about each other’s religion and about God?” While creating this volume, the authors and editors themselves have wrestled with these same questions, and in the process have gained new understanding and insight. In the Epilogue, one Christian scholar evaluates the impact of Judaism on Christian belief today, and the book’s editors then reflect on the impact of this project on their own expectations of the future of Judaism and of Jewish–Christian relations.

The publication of this book marks only the beginning of an effort that may engage us for years to come, an effort to encourage Jews to rediscover the revered place of Judaism among the great religions of the world. This is also an effort to help Jews relearn the vocabulary of their own faith and then, within this vocabulary, to help them recognize and understand the main tenets of their neighbors’ faiths. At the same time, our goal is to acknowledge and aid the complementary efforts of Christian scholars and leaders to teach Christians the main tenets of Judaism and, thereby, to rediscover the significance of Judaism as both a source of Christianity and a dialogue partner in the ultimate work of redeeming a troubled world.

In September 2000, we published a public statement in the New York Times and other newspapers. The statement is a brief explanation of how we believe Jews should begin to learn about Christianity and to understand Christianity in Jewish terms. This volume of essays is a scholarly extension of that statement, which appears here just after the acknowledgments. This volume has also stimulated the preparation of a study guide, which is being prepared by the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies for the use of synagogue, church, and student groups who would like to make the issues addressed in this book the subject of ongoing discussion.

The Jewish and Christian scholars and theologians who have contributed to this project are among the most revered and influential contributors to religious thought today. We are profoundly grateful to them. They have taken considerable time from demanding work schedules to meet this volume’s exacting publication requirements—the first of which was to enter boldly into a form of theological exchange that may have no precedent! The energy, efficiency, and depth of their responses are testimony both to their generosity and, we believe, to the urgency of this endeavor.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky
David Novak
Peter Ochs
David Fox Sandmel
Michael A. Signer


For years, the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies (ICJS) has played a leading role in fostering Jewish–Christian understanding. We are deeply grateful to the ICJS for helping sponsor this book project and the activities of publication and discussion that accompany it. We are indebted, in particular, to Charles Obrecht, board chairman of ICJS; Rev. Dr. Christopher Leighton, executive director of the ICJS; Dr. Rosann Catalano, ICJS Roman Catholic scholar; and Rabbi Joel Zaiman, ICJS board member and spiritual leader of Congregation Chizuk Amuno. We wish to thank the Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation, Inc.; the David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation, Inc.; the Hoffberger Family Fund; the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Fund; and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation for their ongoing support of this project. This book was also made possible, in part, by funds granted by the Charles H. Revson Foundation. The statements made and the views expressed, however, are solely the responsibility of the authors. Finally, we want to thank all of our editors and support staff at Westview Press, in particular Sarah Warner, the editor for this book.We owe a particular debt of gratitude to David Toole, whose editorial work was above and beyond the call of duty.

T. F.-K.
D. N.
P. O.
D. F. S.
M. A. S.


In recent years, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations. Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity. In the decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically. An increasing number of official church bodies, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have made public statements of their remorse about Christian mistreatment of Jews and Judaism. These statements have declared, furthermore, that Christian teaching and preaching can and must be reformed so that they acknowledge God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish people and celebrate the contribution of Judaism to world civilization and to Christian faith itself.

We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response. Speaking only for ourselves—an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars—we believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity. As a first step, we offer eight brief statements about how Jews and Christians may relate to one another.

Jews and Christians worship the same God.

Before the rise of Christianity, Jews were the only worshippers of the God of Israel. But Christians also worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth. Although Christian worship is not a viable religious choice for Jews, as Jewish theologians we rejoice that through Christianity hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel.

Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book—the Bible (what Jews call “Tanakh” and Christians call the “Old Testament”).

Turning to the Bible for religious orientation, spiritual enrichment, and communal education, we each take away similar lessons: God created and sustains the universe; God established a covenant with the people Israel; God’s revealed word guides Israel to a life of righteousness; and God will ultimately redeem Israel and the whole world. Yet, Jews and Christians interpret the Bible differently on many points. Such differences must always be respected.

Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.

The most important event for Jews since the Holocaust has been the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the Promised Land. As members of a biblically based religion, Christians appreciate that Israel was promised—and given—to Jews as the physical center of the covenant between them and God. Many Christians support the State of Israel for reasons far more profound than mere politics. As Jews, we applaud this support. We also recognize that Jewish tradition mandates justice for all non-Jews who reside in a Jewish state.

Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.

Central to the moral principles of Torah are the inalienable sanctity and dignity of every human being. All of us were created in the image of God. This shared moral emphasis can be the basis of an improved relationship between our two communities. It can also be the basis of a powerful witness to all humanity for improving the lives of our fellow human beings and for standing against the immoralities and idolatries that harm and degrade us. Such witness is especially needed after the unprecedented horrors of the past century.

Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.

Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to, Nazi atrocities against Jews. Other Christians did not protest sufficiently against these atrocities. But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity. If the Nazi extermination of the Jews had been fully successful, it would have turned its murderous rage more directly to Christians. We recognize with gratitude those Christians who risked or sacrificed their lives to save Jews during the Nazi regime. With that in mind, we encourage the continuation of recent efforts in Christian theology to repudiate unequivocally contempt of Judaism and the Jewish people. We applaud those Christians who reject this teaching of contempt, and we do not blame them for the sins committed by their ancestors.

The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.

Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition. Jews know and serve God through Torah and the Jewish tradition. That difference will not be settled by one community insisting that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other, nor by one community exercising political power over the other. Jews can respect Christians’ faithfulness to their revelation just as we expect Christians to respect our faithfulness to our revelation. Neither Jew nor Christian should be pressed into affirming the teaching of the other community.

A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.

An improved relationship will not accelerate the cultural and religious assimilation that Jews rightly fear. It will not change traditional Jewish forms of worship, nor increase intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, nor persuade more Jews to convert to Christianity, nor create a false blending of Judaism and Christianity. We respect Christianity as a faith that originated within Judaism and that still has significant contacts with it. We do not see it as an extension of Judaism. Only if we cherish our own traditions can we pursue this relationship with integrity.

Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.

Jews and Christians, each in their own way, recognize the unredeemed state of the world as reflected in the persistence of persecution, poverty, and human degradation and misery. Although justice and peace are finally God’s, our joint efforts, together with those of other faith communities, will help bring the kingdom of God for which we hope and long. Separately and together, we must work to bring justice and peace to our world. In this enterprise, we are guided by the vision of the prophets of Israel:

It shall come to pass in the end of days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established at the top of the mountains and be exalted above the hills, and the nations shall flow unto it . . . and many peoples shall go and say, “Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord to the house of the God of Jacob and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in his paths. (Isaiah 2:2–3)


Gen. Genesis
Ex. Exodus
Lev. Leviticus
Num. Numbers
Deut. Deuteronomy
Jos. Joshua
Jud. Judges
1 Sam. I Samuel
2 Sam. 2 Samuel
IKgs. 1 Kings
2Kgs. 2 Kings
Is. Isaiah
Jer. Jeremiah
Ezek. Ezekiel
Hos. Hosea
Obad. Obadiah
Jon. Jonah
Mic. Micah
Nah. Nahum
Hag. Haggai
Zech. Zechariah
Hab Habakkuk
Zeph. Zephaniah
Mal. Malachi
Ps. Psalms
Prov. Proverbs
Qoh. Qohelet
Lam. Lamencations
Est Esther
Dan. Daniel
Neh. Nehemiah
1 Chr. 1 Chronicles
2 Chr. 2 Chronicles

New Testament

Mt.           Matthew
Mk. Mark
Lk. Luke
Jn. John
Rom. Romans
ICor. 1 Corinchians
2 Cor. 2 Corinchians
Gal. Galatians
Eph. Ephesians
Col. Colossians
1 Thes. 1 Thessalonians
2 Thes. 2 Thessalonians
1 Tim. 1 Timothy
2 Tim. 2 Timothy
Tit. Titus
Heb Hebrews
Jam. James
1 Pet. 1 Peter
2 Pet. 2 Peter
1 Jn. 1 John
2 Jn. 2 John
3 Jn. 3 John
Rev. Revelacion

Rabbinic Sources

M.           Mishnah
T. Tosefta
B. Babylonian Talmud
TJ Palestinian Talmud
R. Rabba (e.g.. Gen. R., Ex. R., etc.)


Ar. Arachin
AZ Avodah Zarah
BB Baba Batra
Bech. Bechorot


On Sale
Mar 16, 2002
Page Count
464 pages
Basic Books

Tikva Frymer-kensky

About the Author

Tikva Frymer-Kensky is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Peter Ochs is the Edgar Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia.

David Sandmel is the Jewish Scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

Michael A. Signer is Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture in the Department of Theology at University of Notre Dame.

Learn more about this author