If there is any section that is truly controversial on this list it is this one. Philo, Dead Sea Scrolls – big deal. We’ll see atheists and pantheists towards the end but they are just part of the big Jewish picture. Jewish Christianity is in a league of its own. Most Jews and most Christians probably don’t believe that such a group ever existed. Those that do more than likely deem it just a flash in the pan that faded within a few years and was relegated to the dustbin of history. Even those who know better might wonder what it’s doing here. Why get Jews and Christians up in arms over something totally unnecessary? Just find another ‘beyond the pale’ category and everyone will be happy.
The rebuttal to all this is that Christianity was Jewish at one time. It was thoroughly Jewish - as Jewish as matzo ball soup and Elijah the Prophet. If it hadn’t taken on non-Jewish core beliefs and become attractive to Gentiles, its sayings and wisdom probably would have found their way into mainstream Judaism. But it did and they didn’t, and the rest is history. What we are going to look at is those few generations when it was still Jewish but barely hovering on the edges of respectability.
We’re talking about the years 27 to around 80, give or take a decade. Nobody knows the exact years of Jesus’ public ministry, but 27 to 30 is a good guess. He died around the year 30 but was succeeded by his disciples, the apostles. They coalesced around the fledgling Jerusalem Church, a messianic oriented synagogue headed by James (Yaakov), the brother of Jesus (his name was Yehoshua or Yeshu, a common Jewish name of the time) and the apostle Peter (Shimon).
By around the year 45, Paul (Saul or Shaul, known as the Apostle of the Gentiles), who studied under famous rabbis, experienced his famous conversion and convinced the Jerusalem Church leaders that he could preach a watered down (circumcision-free) version of Christianity to the Gentiles of the eastern Mediterranean. Paul’s Christianity included many elements that were highly antithetical to Judaism, including the doctrine that Jesus was genuine incarnation of God. Messianic fervor was one thing – it was Jewish at least. Even resurrection was tolerable – it was also Jewish. But a flesh-and-blood son of God was flat out pagan in the eyes of the Jews and possibly the Jewish Christians. Paul really inaugurated the birth of Christianity as we know it - worshiping a trinity of God-persona and believing that salvation only comes through Christian faith and not through observance of the Torah.
Jewish Christianity was centered in Jerusalem until the year 66, the beginning of the Jewish revolt against Rome. The leaders of the Jerusalem Church went into exile across the Jordan River to the town of Pella. Remnants of Jewish Christian communities continued to exist in the area around Israel for up to 300 years. In all likelihood, Jewish Christianity was Judaism plus the acceptance of a messiah named Jesus and all of his teachings. As the decades went by, the Jewish Christians continued to observe Jewish law as part of the teachings of Jesus. Eventually both the Jews (by the year 100) and the main Christian Church (between the 2nd and 4th centuries) declared them to be heretics. They didn’t fit into either religion. Because of this non-acceptance, they probably died out around the year 400 and whoever was left either went back to Judaism (not likely) or accepted mainstream Christianity.
Of the four Gospels, the gospel of Matthew in is widely considered to have been directed specifically to the Jews. Nobody knows the real origins of this gospel (nowhere in the text is it attributed to Matthew). While pretty much everyone agrees that the author was Jewish, there is no agreement on how ‘Jewish’ the text is. It describes Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ - certainly a controversial idea to Jews. Some scholars say that the gospel that we have is a remake of an older gospel that was indeed a ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’. It happens that we find a very Jewish-sounding quote in Matthew (22:34-40) that deals with the purpose of life:
‘Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”’
This is about as Jewish as it gets. It is a good bet that if one were to take a survey of Jews through the centuries and ask this very question, some combination of these two commandments would probably be the winner. Rabbinic Judaism, possibly as a response to the popularity of this answer, made a major point of proclaiming that all the commandments were of equal importance and that none took precedence over any others.
But as far answering the direct question, ‘What is the most important commandment’, Jesus’ answer is these two. There are questions on this answer. First, why are these two commandments so important? Finally, what happened to the core of Christianity - personal salvation through faith and grace?
As far as the final question goes, there is not necessarily a contradiction. Personal salvation through faith and grace may very well be the end goal of Christianity, but these two commandments are the royal road to get there. It boils down to this – there is nothing more vital for human spiritual needs than unconditional love of God. And there is nothing more vital for human physical needsthan caring about others as much as caring about oneself. There may be other important things in life, like saving the earth or oneness with God or intellectual contemplation. But they aren’t as important as these things are. These are the two pillars of human life. One is physical and one is spiritual. Ignore one or the other and either physical of spiritual needs will suffer.
Is this really true? Taking them one at a time, we’ll start with love of God. To love God means one has a personal relationship with God that brings a sense of adoration, reverence, and gratitude. It is not merely feeling glad and appreciative about one’s lot in life. It is the awareness that one’s entire being is a gift from God, that the entire world is God’s creation, and that even the will, thoughts, and emotions are reflections of divine powers that have been granted to us. It is understanding that the world and our lives are not just meaningless clumps of happenstance, but are filled with purpose and depth. This is the core of spirituality – that life is the wonderful revelation of God.
Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is something we have seen before in the section on Hillel. If you are wondering how could two people as different in religious outlook as Jesus the Christian messiah and Hillel the Jewish rabbi, say what seems like the same thing, the answer is that their outlooks were not all that different. In fact, it is quite likely that Jesus knew about Hillel and respected him, and perhaps even reached this conclusion from Hillel’s teachings. It is also possible that Hillel would have respected Jesus for preaching this basic rule as the core of Judaism, even if it led to Jewish Christianity. The reason for this mutual respect is that this is as Jewish as it gets. Only when we are able to see the needs and feelings of others with the same importance as we see our own, can life function in a manner that is a credit to the human race. It may be second to love of God, but without it life is hardly worth living.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if people could somehow get these two basic things down? We wouldn’t have wars or jealousy or hatred. People would have more important matters on their minds than getting ahead of the next person or resenting the fact that the next person is ahead of them. God and higher spiritual goals would not be relegated to the back burner but would be the aim for humanity. To search for meaning in life, to consider achieving one’s purpose to be nothing less than a life quest – these would be the daily reality that we would live with. What keeps us from getting there? What keeps these simple goals in the closet?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Religions, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not so surprisingly, haven’t done much to promote these ideals. They always get bogged down in pushing their political agenda or in insisting that their brand is the only way to get there and all others have to be suppressed. They get caught up in a million and one details – the commentary – and lose sight about what the commentary is commenting about. Maybe organized religion needs to look itself in the eye and ask if it has achieved its noble goals. If it can honestly admit that it hasn’t, which appears to be the case, it has to ask why not. If the religions themselves cannot fight their own inertia, maybe individuals within the religions should ask themselves these questions on a personal level. If not now, when?
Food for Thought
It is sad that inter-religious antipathy seems to be a necessary feature of religion. It is also more than a little strange. If religions are shooting for a similar goal why can’t they overlook the minor differences of detail? Why do religions have to despise other religions?
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