Understanding Judaism
The name “Judaism” refers to the religion of the Jews in contrast to that of the Old Testament from which it was derived. The two focal points in its development were the two destructions of the Jerusalem temple in 586BC and 70AD, which ended the centrality of sacrifice found in the Old Testament. Above all it was encouraged by the widespread dispersion of Jews, both West and East, which made the Law the centre around which Jewish life and religion had to revolve outside Palestine.
During the period between the Testaments, Judaism was developing in various directions – e.g. there were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Hellenists. But the situation created by the destruction of the Jewish state in 70AD and confirmed by the crushing of the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 left the Pharisaic interpretation of Judaism without rivals. It reached its full development by 500, its authoritative documents being the Talmud, composed of the Mishnah and Gemara, and the Midrashim (official interpretations of the OT books).
Judaism has shown an ability to adapt itself to pressure and persecution, to minority social status, and to changing cultural circumstances without changing its essential nature. In the nineteenth century, under the influence of modern thought, a reform, or liberal, movement began and has steadily increased. Other Jews have turned to materialism, Marxism (Karl Marx himself was of Jewish extraction), or a religionless nationalism.
Judaism is essentially a historical religion based on God’s election of Israel, shown above all in the Exodus, giving of the Law, and conquest of Canaan. Though Judaism recognises the existence of the righteous among the nations, who will have “a share in the world to come,” a full knowledge of God’s will and the possibility of carrying it out are confined to Jewry. The possession of the Law gives real meaning to God’s election, and any Gentile who is prepared to accept “the yoke of the Law” is welcomed into the community of Israel.
The Jewish doctrine of God is not only monotheistic, but strongly anti-Trinitarian. The transcendence of God is stressed in a way that makes any concept of incarnation impossible.
Chief emphasis is placed on the Torah – “Law” or Instruction.” The Torah is seen to consist of two parts – written and oral. The written Torah contains 613 precepts, 365 negative and 248 positive; the oral Torah extends these precepts to cover all life and all its contingencies. Except for adaptations to more recent conditions, the oral Torah has found its definitive expression in the Talmud, to which modern developments must conform.
Though the system is legalistic, it is stressed that in carrying out the commandment the heart must be directed to God and it should be done for its own sake, out of love to God, and not purely for a reward.
The Torah is seen as a standard to live by. As a result, commandments that weighed too heavily on the community have been moderated or bypassed. In addition, a genuine threat to life releases the Jew from all commandments except those prohibiting idolatry (this includes Christian baptism!), murder and adultery. These factors, together with the disappearance of the sacrificial system have tended to diminish the sense of sin.
The messianic hope never took on a fixed form. It is universally accepted that God will yet set up his perfect rule on earth, and it was generally agreed that this would be achieved through the Messiah. Mainly due to repeated disappointments, he has become for many the personification of the hope of the kingdom of God. With this was linked the expectation of the resurrection of the body. Under Greek influence the concept of the immortality of the soul was gradually accepted. This has led to a blurring of the hope of a future life and bodily resurrection. For the Liberal Jew, future life is purely spiritual.
Movements within Judaism have included the popular mystical movement in Eastern Europe known as Hasidism and the rise of the Liberal Synagogue with its shift from the Torah to prophetic ethics. The advent of the State of Israel has normally added a strong nationalistic colouring.
Christian and Jew…
The question as to how Christians are to regard the Jews has a long history. The earliest believers had, in fact been practising Jews before their conversion. In their evangelism of Jews, it was therefore natural for them to draw their hearers’ attention to the obvious historical fact that the Jewish people and leaders had rejected Jesus as Messiah and were instrumentally responsible for his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. They did so with the very conscious call for repentance and offer of divine forgiveness (as in Acts 2.22-24,26-39).
Throughout the story in Acts, it was often the unbelieving Jews who instigated the persecution of Christians (as in 13.44-52; 14.1-5,19-20).
The basic question before the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 was whether or not Christianity was just a branch of the Jewish faith. And what was to be the relationship, not just between Jewish and Gentile believers, but between Christianity and Jewish practices such as circumcision.
Reflect on the words of Jeremiah 31.31-34.
What is the significance of the words of Jesus in Matthew 9.14-17?
Increasingly the Christian Church became a Gentile rather than a Jewish movement. The major NT passage on this theme is Romans 9-11.
Note what Paul says in 10.1-2. Should we, as Christians, have an earnest desire and prayer that the Israelites will be saved? Why?
Gentiles have no cause for arrogance – note 11.13-24. God’s purpose is that finally Israel will turn back with faith in the Messiah and be saved (v. 26).

© Peter J Blackburn, 1991,1999. This material was originally prepared for Antioch School. Permission is given for the printing and use of this material by congregations and individuals.