Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Jacques B. Doukhan, D.H.L., Th.D.

The Two Witnesses

What makes the church in need of Israel? What makes Israel in need of the church?

The law of Moses requires the testimony of at least two witnesses to make the story believable (Deuteronomy 17:6). In the New Testament, John repeats this principle when he states, “The testimony of two men is true” (John 8:17). Indeed, when two people tell the same story, this means that they saw the same thing. They confirm each other; they say the truth. Likewise, the testimony of the Church makes Israel a true witness, and the testimony of Israel makes the Church a true witness.

Both testify to the same story. The same miracles of Creation, the Exodus, the resurrection, and the same hope are shouted aloud, proving that God was there, that He spoke and acted, that God is still there, that He speaks and is alive.

This is why the two witnesses, the Church and Israel, are needed so that people out there may believe and hope in something else beyond their pains and struggles and beyond the valley of shadow, that they may bring ethics into their lives and therefore become the human sign of divine reality.

But there is more. The two witnesses are not only needed in order to repeat and thereby authenticate the same story; they are both needed in order to complete the story. Each witness may have seen something that escaped the other’s eyes. We need both testimonies to get the whole story. Also, both witnesses need each other to make their own story more meaningful and beautiful.

The Church Needs Israel

History is the first and certainly the most obvious place that makes the Church dependent on Israel. The church was born and grew on the soil of Israel. The first Christians were all Jews who behaved as faithful Jews. Yeshua was a Jew. The Old Testament as well as the Midrashim, the Jewish parables, were part of his teachings. All his disciples were Jews; the whole New Testament was written by Jews who constantly referred to the Jewish Scriptures and traditions. The church needs Israel as a house needs its foundation and even more as a tree needs its roots. The apostle Paul makes this point very clearly when he compares Israel to an olive tree to which the new branches of the church were to be grafted (Romans 11). Note that the Jew Paul did not speak of another tree that would replace the old one. For him, the church was to prolong the tree, not replace it. The Church needs Israel for its very existence and identity. But the need goes even beyond mere historical reality. The present Church needs Israel for what Israel has now and the Church does not have.

The Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved by the tenacious work of the Jewish scribes who carefully copied the ancient manuscripts and also by the faithful Jews who read them throughout generations at the synagogue. Moses, Isaiah, the Psalms, and the Song of Songs are still chanted today in the original language. Thanks to Israel, Christians can have access to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, to the Hebrew thinking of the writers of the New Testament, and even to the Hebrew prayers, which Yeshua himself worshiped.

The Law, the Ten Commandments, the dietary laws, the Shabbat, and the whole ethical code have not only been preserved in writing by the Jews, but they are also being witnessed by the people who observe them in their lives. The Church needs the Jews to rethink the theology of the law. Christians have so stressed grace and love that they have often ignored the value of justice and its concrete works. Emotions, feelings, and subjective experience have been overemphasized at the expense of faithfulness, will, and the objective duty of obedience. Along the same lines, the Church needs the Jews in order to rediscover the intrinsic value and beauty of studying the Word of God for itself, as the word from above has its own truth to be discovered there. The naive Christian belief that the Holy Spirit will inspire personal reading of the Scriptures, no matter how they do it, has deterred them from the effort of searching the Scriptures for what they are. Too often, the Bible has been used to prove one’s point in the theological dispute or as a shallow sentimental inspiration for religious devotion. Even the way Jews worship, their attention to the great God, their respect for the holy Scripture, and their corporate singing, which involves effort of the mind, aesthetic sensitivity, deep emotions, as well as the motions of the body, might inspire the Christians in their research for a more creative and adequate worship service.

The joy of life and the sense of the feast—the ability to receive the gift of God in creation—are also values that Christians may learn from the Jews. From earlier stages, the influence of Gnosticism and especially of Marcion Christianity has opposed faith in the God of Creation, the God of beauty and of the senses, the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Spirit and the Soul, the God of Salvation, and the God of the New Testament. And this is sometimes reflected in the Christian theology of Sunday, which is interpreted as the sign of salvation, versus the Jewish Sabbath, the sign of creation. This dualism has influenced generations of Christians and produced a religion of sadness where laughter and enjoyment are suspect. Christians may learn from the Jews to pay attention to their physical as well as their spiritual lives. They will learn from them a holistic view of life. What they eat, what they drink, or whatever they do affects their total being. Christians need to learn from Jews that religion is a way of life and not just a turn of the soul.

The Messiah himself would come closer to the Christians if only they were closer to the Jews. Indeed, the “Messiah” concept is specifically Jewish. The word Christos (Christ), from which comes the word "Christian,” is nothing but the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mashiah (Messiah). This word is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, where it designates the king, the priest, the prophet, or anyone who is anointed (mashah) by God for specific purposes. Ultimately, the Mashiah (Christ) is described in the Bible as the ideal King of David who will bring change, peace, and salvation to Israel and the world. This is why, for the Jews, the Messiah has not yet come. He is expected in the future. The Christians need the Jews to be reminded that salvation did not take place yet, that salvation apart from the world is not salvation, and that the Kingdom of God is a historical, physical reality and not just an existential subjective experience. The Messiah implies hope for a better world—that is, a world that is not the one we presently know. This is why the Messiah has been represented in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Jewish tradition as a star, the lonely star, the last star that announces the coming of the day—the star of David, the very star that shines in the Israeli flag. Christians have so much emphasized the value of the past event of the crucifixion that they often stopped there at the cross. They do not wait anymore. They are already saved. The cross overshadowed the star. The Kingdom of God is already here. Christians will learn from the Jews to become more lucid, to look around, and to realize that the wolf does not yet lie down with the lamb. Death, violence, and suffering are still striking, eloquent signs that the Messiah is still to come. With the Jews, the Christians will learn to hope.

Israel Needs the Church

History has demonstrated that Israel needs the church. Christians have made the God of Israel known throughout the earth. Thanks to Christians, the Hebrew Bible and its message have been translated into most, if not all, the languages of the world. The story of Joseph and the Psalms of David have been heard by Africans and Indians of the Amazon, as well as by Europeans and Americans. The particularism of Israel as a chosen people has been complemented by the universalism of the Church, which takes the truth of Israel beyond its historical and geographical borders. Thanks to Christians, the world has learned about the existence of Israel. This is one of the most ironic and interesting paradoxes in history. Without the Church, the Jews might have remained a small, insignificant, and obscure religion, which might well have disappeared. The Church has not only made Israel known by the nations but also made the existence of Israel necessary for the Church’s own existence. Israel owes her existence, fame, and survival to the Church.

The New Testament has been deliberately ignored by the Jews, although it was written by and for Jews even before the time of the composition of the Talmud. Therefore, Jews would benefit from the reading of these texts, for they not only witness to the life and beliefs of the first century Jews, but they also contain valuable truths that may strengthen and enrich their Jewish roots. As a matter of fact, Jews well versed in their own Scriptures and traditions may understand these writings even better than Christians themselves do, as they often project their own “Gentile” worldview into them. The Jews will discover in the New Testament that it is not as foreign as they thought. In this light, they may even get a better grasp of their own heritage. Often, the meaning and beauty of the Hebrew Scriptures will be enhanced by the explanations of the New Testament. Also, the Talmud and the Midrashim will be set up in context. The stories about the rabbi of Nazareth, his parables, and his teachings will surprise them with their Jewish flavor and the high Jewish ideals they convey.

Grace (hesed) is not specific to the Christian message. Grace is also cherished by the Jewish people. It is a genuine Jewish value. From the Christians, however, Jews will be reminded that salvation is not just achieved through mitzwoth but also through the God who comes down in history and acts on behalf of Israel. Jews need to learn more about the proximity of God, the God who goes so far as to enter the complex process of incarnation in order to speak with humans, be with them, and save them. Certainly Abraham Heschel thought of this reality when he observed that “the Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology.”By learning about God’s incarnation, the Jews will better understand the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who spoke face-to-face with Moses, the God who fought for Israel at Jericho, and the God of the prophets. And this perspective will even bring new life into their lives. The law will not just be performed as a required chore; it will blossom from the heart as a fruit emerging from their personal relationship with God.

The Messiah embodies this very principle of God’s involvement in human history and existence. The Christian emphasis may therefore help the Jew recognize the effective presence of God in the flesh of history. For the Messiah was not only to be out there in heaven or in the far future. He was also to be here among humans—“Messiah for all generations”—as it has been taught in mystical Judaism and recently pointed out in Hasidic currents.2 Significantly, the Messiah is not only represented as a star in biblical and Jewish traditions; he is also expected as a human seed (zera) from which will come the One who will kill the serpent (Genesis 3:15) or a human sprout (tsemah) raised to David, who will bring salvation and safety to Israel (Jeremiah 23:5–6). Strangely enough, this human product bears divine features: he is called “The Lord our Righteousness.” The Talmud infers from this biblical passage that this human Messiah “will have the name of the Holy Blessed One.”3 This twofold figure of the Messiah has baffled the rabbis of the Talmud, who concluded that there were two Messiahs: a suffering Messiah, a victim personified by the Messiah Son of Joseph, and a glorious Messiah, a king personified by the Messiah Son of David.4 It is also significant that the suffering Messiah portrayed in Isaiah 53 was identified as the Messiah King, a title that specifically designates the Messiah Son of David.5

The idea of a suffering God and a suffering Messiah is found not only in the Hebrew Scriptures but also in many ancient Jewish writings. It is not a Christian invention to justify the Christian view of the Messiah. Yet the Christians are those who preserved it and emphasized it. As a result, many Jews reacted to it and looked at it with suspicion. The contact with Christians will therefore help the Jews rediscover this truth as an original datum of their Jewish heritage.

Two Voices for the Same God

Indeed, both witnesses, Israel and the Church, are required, not only because they confirm each other’s truth but also because each one brings a truth, a dimension, that is ignored or simply rejected by the other—because they need each other, because they are complementary. This thesis was initiated in the late 19th century by the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig in his book The Star of Redemption and was even suggested to a certain extent by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in his book The Two Faiths. Today, in the post-Holocaust era, this direction of thinking is more and more advocated by Christian and Jewish theologians as well. More and more Christians are interested in their Jewish roots.6More and more Jews dare to be interested in the historical figure of Yeshua.6

Lately, the Catholic professor Hans Küng made this revolutionary statement: “What seems to be divisive has to be reexamined in a self-critical way. Take the example of the preexistence of Christ... I think we have to discuss what the real differences are: the law, the State of Israel, etc.”7 More recently, the Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod invited the Jews to become more open to Christians' theology of the incarnation of God while calling Christians to reconsider their theology of the law.8

One of the most eloquent declarations was given a few years ago by the Protestant theologian Mark Fressler in a speech given on the premises of Auschwitz: “The Jews witness to the absolute transcendence which founds all ethics, the law. The Christians witnessed the incarnation of the Word. Two voices for the same God! Two different voices whose harmony is promised beyond the times”:9 That the Jew witness to the Christian about the law and the requirement of justice, the importance of searching and listening to the written word of God, the value of Creation and the joy of life, the force of Particularism in the theology of covenant, the truth of hope in the star; that the Christian witness to the Jew about God’s salvation, the truth of incarnation, the value of grace and love, the power of universalism in the theology of covenant: an appeal to listen to each other, to learn from each other, an appeal to fulfill God’s dream for a reunited Israel.

 

 1 Abraham Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: Octagon Books, 1972), p. 129.

2 See Eliyahu Touger, Sound the Great Shofar (Brooklyn: Kehot Publishing Company, 1992), p. 20.

Baba Batra, 75b

Sukkah, 52a.

5 Bereshit Rabbati on Genesis 24:67; cf. Bereshit Rabbati on Genesis 19:34; cf. Berakot, 5a.

6 See Schalom Ben-Chorin, Bruder Jesus: Der Nazarener in jüdischer Sicht (Munich, 1967); Samuel Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Geza Vermes, The Gospel of Jesus the Jew (Newcastle upon Tyne: University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1981); David Flusser, Jesus (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969); Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis and Critique of the Modern Jewish Study of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1984); Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times and Teaching (New York: Bloch, 1989); P. Lapide, Der Rabbi von Nazaret: Wandlungen des jüdischen Jesusbildes (Trier: Spee-Verlag, 1974).

7 James H. Charlesworth, “Discussing Anti-Judaism in the New Testament with Hans Küng,” in Explorations 6/2 (1992): 2.

8 Michael Wyschogrod, “A Jewish View of Christianity,” in Rabbi Leon Klenicki, ed., Toward a Theological Encounter: Jewish Understandings of Christianity (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), pp. 106-119.

9 Quoted by Albert Nicolas in “Le dialogue judéo-chrétien à l’heure de vérité” in Le Christianisme AU XXème Siecle, April 1991, p. 14.

 

Image: The two witnesses, as depicted in the Bamberg Apocalypse, an 11th-century illuminated manuscript. Public Domain

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