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The Gospel and Last Supper through Jewish eyes

06 April 2023

Jonathan Romain describes an unusual Bible study


YOU may be nonplussed if I tell you that my congregation has been studying the Gospel of Matthew — after all, is that not what most churches do? My congregation, however, is a synagogue, and it is the first time that many of us have ever opened the book you know so well.

It is indicative of the next step in the remarkable interfaith journey that has started to reverse the religious one-upmanship, rivalry, and persecution that were the hallmark of previous centuries.

The first step was the religious hierarchy’s establishing relationships when, in 1942, the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury founded the Council of Christians and Jews. Next was local rabbis’ and vicars’ getting together for polite cups of tea, which broadened out to meetings of the laity also.

All this was ground-breaking, and deserving of praise. The only criticism might be that such exchanges have usually concentrated on “safe topics”, and avoided anything disputatious, lest that new-found fraternity be endangered. Confidence-building takes time to develop.

There has always been an imbalance, however, in that Christians are fairly familiar with the Old Testament (which we prefer to call the Hebrew Bible), whereas the New Testament has largely been a no-go area for Jews. So, for us, it was stepping from the comfort of our home into foreign territory, in the same way as, I suspect, it would be for most readers of the Church Times to read the Qur’an, or the Hindu or Sikh scriptures, despite the availability of English translations.

Now, though, we are heading to the stage where we can step abroad religiously. So, for the past six months, at my Maidenhead synagogue, our adult-education programme has been studying Matthew, working our way from chapter one onwards, every Monday night.

IT HAS been an eye-opener for all, including two practising Christians, married to Jewish members, who knew much of the Gospel, but had never studied it in sequence.

There was, I must admit, much that puzzled us, especially in the first chapter. Why was there so much emphasis on the genealogy of Jesus, tracing it from Adam to Joseph, when he was supposed to be the son, not of Joseph, but of God? We reckoned that that is the mystery of the incarnation, on which hundreds of books have been written, and we had better leave it at that.

We were also surprised by the disparaging references to Gentiles (18.17) and the fact that Jesus felt that his mission was only to the lost sheep of Israel (10.5, 15.25). It seemed to contradict the more universal message of the Church, which grew shortly afterwards. It highlighted the fact — RE teachers, in particular, take note — that you cannot judge a faith solely by its founding scriptures; for much changes over time. Certainly this is true of Judaism, a high percentage of whose beliefs and practices are post-biblical.

More positively, we were constantly struck by the number of references to passages in the Hebrew Bible, be it clear parallels — such as Jesus’s flight to Egypt echoing that of Abraham, or the forty days in the wilderness, which recalled the same experience of Elijah — or direct quotations, especially from Deuteronomy and Psalms. It explained why Christian visitors to Jewish services are often amazed at how familiar many passages are, and say, “They are just like our ones!” It is not that they are duplicates, but that they both have a common source in the Hebrew Bible.

In addition, many of us had not realised that several expressions we routinely use are derived from this Gospel, including gnashing one’s teeth, casting pearls before swine, a house built on sand, and knowing people by their fruits.

Another theme to emerge was how Jesus was a master of parables. While there are a handful of instances of these in the Hebrew Bible, they are a distinctive part of Jesus’s ministry. Even those who had never opened the New Testament had heard about seeds falling on rocky ground, or the five foolish virgins.

One disturbing element was the highly negative references to the Pharisees (“full of hypocrisy and iniquity. . . brood of vipers”). For us, they were the reformers of that time, who were trying to modernise Judaism (unlike the Sadducees, who were the rigid, caste-based Establishment). The Pharisees are the direct ancestors to today’s rabbis. We wondered whether Matthew had confused the two.

MOST fascinating of all was the Last Supper. We assumed, from the wording of the text, that this was the Passover meal (Seder) that Jesus and his disciples — all of whom were Jewish — would have celebrated in Jerusalem. It seemed to replicate the key elements of the Seder: the act of “dipping in the dish” referring to dipping the parsley (or other green vegetable) in the salt-water, the former signifying the time of spring, the latter being the tears of the Israelite slaves.

The bread, which Jesus declared to be his body, was unleavened bread (a reminder of the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt; so the bread they were baking did not have time to rise). And the wine representing his blood is from one of the four cups of wine traditionally drunk at the Seder in commemoration of the four verbs of redemption in Exodus 6.6-7.

This eventful meal is the point at which Judaism and Christianity both meet and diverge. Jewish families still hold almost exactly the same Seder every year at Passover, while Christians partake of the unleavened wafer and wine every Sunday at the eucharist. We are both heirs of the same religious heritage; theology divides us, but symbolic foods unite us, and the Last Supper has not been the last word.

There were some who objected to the course, arguing that the Gospel was none of our business, and a distraction from Jewish learning; but, since there have been no thunderbolts, I like to think that God is pleased that his religiously different children are discovering each other’s perceptions of him.

Dr Jonathan Romain is the Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, and author of
The Naked Rabbi, published by John Hunt Publishing at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89); 978-1-78904-729-5.

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