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“Gospel Dynamics”: When the Jewish Jesus Won’t Suffice

Two basic methods by Jewish scholars to impress Jesus’ “Jewishness” upon lay Christians and Jews are problematic because they do not remedy a major asymmetry: while Christians may well be receptive to learning about Jesus the Jew, many Jews remain relatively unenthused, even recoiling from such a prospect. A far more effective method, coined a “Gospel Dynamics” approach, plays to Jews’ love of cerebral challenge and results not only in neutralizing Jews’ avoidance strategies but transforms the Gospels into a favorite subject for Jewish exploration!

See Also: The Jewish Jesus

By Michael J. Cook
Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Cincinnati campus
August 2012

The tale is told of a conference of Gospel scholars held at my Quaker alma mater, Haverford College, where a venerable laywoman mistakenly wandered in and took a seat. Listening intently to heated debates over Gospel development, but unable to grasp the subtleties, she rose, Bible in hand, to interrupt astonished delegates: “I assert my prerogative [as a Friend] to speak as moved by the Spirit. Here, in John 21:15, Jesus says, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He never says, ‘Feed my giraffes.’ Brothers, when are you going to put the food where lambs can get it?”

This vignette may be aptly applied to current Jewish scholar efforts to impress Jesus’ “Jewishness” upon lay Christians and Jews. Assuredly, interfaith literacy should not operate the least among those requiring it the most, and it is indeed within lay social interactions that stereotyping, misunderstanding, and suspicion persist, in working-place environments, schooling, neighborhood living, and the like. Accordingly, knowing and being able to articulate “Jesus-as-a-Jew” should certainly be integral to lay interfaith discourse.

Currently problematic, however, are the two pedagogical approaches most commonly employed to this end. One heaps up Gospel excerpts that seem to establish Jesus’ Jewishness: his Great Commandment (the Shema; Golden Rule), the Lord’s Prayer, parables of the Kingdom, proto-rabbinic hermeneutics, among others. An alternative survey begins by arraying various Judaisms of Jesus’ day (Pharisaism, Qumran, etc.), thereafter showing how Jesus’ teachings are best clarified by such recourse.

Neither approach, however, sufficiently remedies a major asymmetry: while Christians may well be receptive to learning about Jesus the Jew, many Jews remain relatively unenthused. They may be impacted by Talmudic warnings against Gospel exposure. Or Jews who deem the New Testament the most deleterious external determinant of Jewish history may bristle, even cringe, at opening a corpus so unfriendly to them. Some Jews eagerly open the New Testament but only to spotlight those four core texts most directly generating “Christ-killer” canards (emphases added):

  1. “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:25).
  2. “You are of your father the devil ... your will ... to do your father’s desires ... a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).
  3. “Jesus, whom you delivered up ... when [Pilate] ... decided to release him ... you ... killed the author of life” (Acts 3:13-15).
  4. “The Jews ... killed ... the Lord Jesus.... But God’s wrath has come upon them at last” (1 Thess 2:14ff).

Unavoidably, the reticence of many Jews reflects a lurking question: of what consequence can Jesus’ Jewishness genuinely be given, over the centuries, the staggering numbers of Jews murdered in his name?

Accordingly, both aforementioned teaching approaches, while “logical,” may fall short of eviscerating the “psychological” -- i.e., fail to galvanize recalcitrant Jews to transcend their sense of victimization by the New Testament in favor of securing a measure of comfortable, even confident, control over it. I offer, therefore, as warranting priority a third approach, which I coin “Gospel Dynamics.”

By Jews learning “Gospel Dynamics” I mean their discerning those skillful techniques through which the four Evangelists enlisted and remolded the Jesus figure to solve problems of the Gospel writers’ day, not Jesus’. Recognizing such techniques plays to Jews’ love of cerebral challenge: here discovering problems in Gospel texts especially by recourse to Gospel Parallels, a tool foreign to most Christians but utterly fascinating to the Jewish mind.1 The results not only neutralize Jews’ avoidance strategies but catalyze Jews to dive further into how Gospel texts developed, remarkably transforming the Gospels into a favorite subject for Jewish exploration! Thereby sparked within Jews is a calming psychological realization: that an underlying Jesus figure had nothing to do with harms perpetrated against them in his name. Several weeks of tangling with Gospel Dynamics is key for “enhancing Jews’ well-being in a Christian environment” (sub-title of my book: Modern Jews Engage the New Testament [Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 3rd printing 2012]). In contrast to the two aforementioned approaches, the Gospel Dynamics enterprise brings Jews to the historical Jesus at the very end, not beginning, of an educative process.


A “Gospel Dynamic” course for lay Jews entails three-steps: (1) positing problems challenging the Evangelists decades later than Jesus’ ministry; (2) determining whether Jesus’ image was enlisted, and adjusted, to ease any of these problems; and (3) ultimately deciding what kind of a Jewish Jesus-figure might remain were these late accretions peeled away. Here the problems challenging the Evangelists resolve themselves into three broad categories:

  1. Internal to the Evangelists’ Christian Communities: that Jesus appeared to die a victim, not victor; that delay of the Second Coming left Christian believers impatient, frustrated, skeptical, even prone to defecting (cf. Peter’s denial); that Christian ranks were racked by rifts over ritual practice; and others.
  2. External to Early Christians and Caused by Rome: that Christians feared Roman persecution and betrayal to Rome; that Jesus’ crucifixion could stigmatize his later followers as seditionists; that Christians must disassociate themselves, in Roman eyes, from Jewish rebels (66–73 CE); that blame for Jesus’ death must be shifted from Rome to some other party (here, the Jews); that the “King of the Jews” accusation must be neutralized by another of no concern to Rome (“blasphemy”); and the like.
  3. External Polemics Posed by Non-Christian Jews: the charge that Jesus had failed to fulfill Jewish scriptural predictions; that Elijah (the Messiah’s herald) had yet to appear; that God’s chosen people could not include Gentile-Christians; that Jesus had not been resurrected; and others.

Assuming that their own immediate problems (70-100 CE) were anticipated -- even experienced -- by Jesus himself, the Evangelists sought to elicit guidance from Jesus’ words and deeds, now recast in terms more germane to later decades. As a core teaching device, my book adds to the standard “Subject,” “Scripture,” and “Scholar” indices what is likely the only “Gospel Dynamics Index” in a scholarly work on New Testament, replete with a nominal 100 illustrations and page listings where I elaborate upon each. To be stressed to lay Jews is that our purpose is not to determine matters of historicity (which may be well beyond retrieval) but to eviscerate Jews’ discomfort with Gospel study. Here are sample, but abbreviated, Gospel Dynamics (in CAPS):


Illustrating OMISSION: Might Anti-Judaism Decrease as We Regress toward Christian Origins?

Does Matthew delete the opening sentence from Mark’s version of the Shema so that Jesus “Great Commandment” ceases to be directed solely to “Israel” (Mk 12:29; cf. Matt 22:27)? Why does Matthew also omit Mark’s unique exchange of camaraderie between Jesus and a Jewish leader (Mk 12:32-34; see Matt 22:40)? Might Mark himself have made similar omissions when incorporating his sources? Does anti-Judaism in our sources decrease as we regress toward Christian origins?

Illustrating RETROJECTION (Back-Dating):

Was Jesus presumed condemned for “blasphemy” because not he but later Christians were hearing themselves so accused -- for worshiping a human as God? Did the Evangelists’ problems with Pharisees of their own day spawn or at the least intensify traditions of presumed altercations with Pharisees by Jesus -- obscuring that the Jewish Jesus could have been in respects Pharisaic himself?

Illustrating "AGGRANDIZEMENT": Did Jesus’ Sanhedrin Trial Even Occur? (Mk 14:55-65)

Early Gospel tradition (Mk 15:1) reports a brief Friday morning “consultation” by Jewish leaders over what to do with their captive Jesus. No dialogue is related or even that Jesus was present. Might Christian tradition have come to deem this mere consultation demeaning for the Son of God, and therefore to aggrandize Friday morning’s meager “consultation” into a full-fledged trial, the previous Thursday night, before the Sanhedrin, greatest court of the land? As for securing personnel to attend, how easily could services of Friday morning’s “chief priests, elders, and scribes” be extended back into Thursday night!

Lay Jews, fascinated by the mere posing of this question, quickly note the oddities resolved by such conjecture. Thursday night’s proceeding and verdict seem to render Friday morning’s “consultation” superfluous since what would remain to discuss by the same personnel, now summoned anew, not already decided just hours before? This would imply that Friday morning’s “consultation” was the earlier tradition, with the prefatory trial invented and belatedly inserted. (Indeed, absent the Sanhedrin paragraph, a smoother-flowing story-line remains.)

Now we would understand why the Sanhedrin scene seems so skeletally depicted: with but two ultra-brief exchanges possible between Caiaphas and Jesus; with Caiaphas’ two questions paralleling (literarily structured upon?) the two later asked Jesus by Pilate; with Jesus’ two clashing demeanors -- silence, then stridency -- the result of artificially harnessing him to two clashing proof-texts (Isa 53:7; Dan 7:13). Now the villains are Jewish authorities (no longer Roman); the person first sentencing Jesus to death is the Jew, Caiaphas (not the Roman, Pilate); condemnation is for Jewish “blasphemy,” preempting the Roman “king of the Jews” (sedition). In sum, a Jew put to death by Rome has morphed into a “Christian” sentenced to death by Jews.

Most riveting to modern Jews? How many of their people died due to a possibly fabricated trial, reenacted with grotesque embellishment for centuries to come (in story-telling, drama, film)?

Illustrating "CONFORMANCE": Was Jesus’ Passion Accommodated to Jeremiah’s?

Both Jesus and Jeremiah (said to be cited by Jesus himself)2 are righteous prophets who, speaking for God, arouse enmity from Jewish priests. Demanding reform, both threaten destruction of the Temple (“a den of robbers”)! Confronted with death, both warn their accusers against bringing innocent blood upon themselves. Failing to save each figure is a vacillating ruler. As both Jeremiah and Jesus prophesy, the Temple is later destroyed.

Most riveting here to modern Jews? Were details of Jesus’ Passion so sparsely known as to prompt conformance of Jesus’ image to Jeremiah’s? How many murders of Jews may have been due to Passion traditions extraneous to what genuinely transpired with Jesus himself?

Illustrating TYPOLOGY : Did Judas Genuinely Betray Jesus?

How should we explain the assonance between “Judas” and “Jew” and their similar spellings (in Greek and Hebrew)? Was there a disposition to equate the two -- so as to facilitate transferring blame for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jewish nation whose name Judas bore, such that not only Judas the Jew, but Judas as the Jews, betrayed Jesus? And what of Jewish Scriptural parallels: David’s psalm: “even my bosom friend ... whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me,” supposedly referring to David’s trusted adviser, Ahithopel, the model for Judas hanging himself? Also Judah (Septuagint: “Judas”), one of twelve, at a meal, urging Joseph’s sale for pieces of silver? Riveting for Jews? How much of Judas’ betrayal tale was shaped from these Jewish scriptural antecedents?3

Paul’s sole Last Supper reference, meanwhile, is customarily mistranslated as “the night when the Lord Jesus was betrayed;” Paul actually means “when ... Jesus delivered himself up to death” (matching Paul’s usage of the same verb elsewhere).4 To be questioned here is not the historicity of Judas but that of his betrayal of Jesus. Listings of Jesus’ disciples are early, but may have originally included only the specification, “Judas Iscariot” (without an addendum: “who betrayed Jesus” [Mk 3:19]). Illogically, Luke has Jesus appointing all the apostles to occupy judgment thrones after Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal (suggesting the betrayal motif is a later accretion to tradition [Luke 22:28ff.]). What of the historical backdrop of Mark (where the story first appears): Nero’s grievous scapegoating of Christians (64 CE) for Rome’s fire, torturing captured Christians into betraying erstwhile friends, even relatives -- cf. “brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child ... ” [Mk 13:9; cf. Tacitus, Annals, xv.34])? Was a story that Jesus himself had been “delivered up” by a close companion applied as a Gospel Dynamic to fortify later Christian betrayal-victims, assuring them that Jesus, having himself experienced this very plight, would also see them through theirs?


Exposure to a Gospel Dynamics way of teaching can empower lay Jews to articulate new perspectives -- internally to themselves and externally to family members, to Christian friends, to a broader Christian society, even to missionaries. It will be this kind of endeavor that readies Jews for the two aforementioned standard pedagogical approaches -- although now, to repeat, commencing concentration on the Jewish Jesus only after the initial phase of the learning process.

I empirically validate my approach autobiographically. Although a Quaker school, Haverford College compelled me to learn New Testament. I had befriended there Henry J. Cadbury, Harvard’s great scholar on Luke-Acts, who frequented Haverford’s campus with intention of retiring there. He pressured me to study about Jesus. I balked, but his cousin, William Cadbury, was Dean of Students, and that sealed the deal.

Seeking how to boost my flagging interest in this Gospel course, I canvassed library stacks for secondary Christian scholarship not on our syllabus. Thereby I first came to configure my notion of Gospel “devices” -- that I later recoined “Gospel Dynamics.” Thus early on I envisioned a “Gospel Dynamics” approach as potentially redounding to modern Jews’ sense of security precisely because it had redounded so to my own.

What better channel to impart this technique than teaching at Hebrew Union College’s Cincinnati campus, now the sole Jewish seminary in history requiring technical study of New Testament for ordination as “rabbi” -- a curricular upgrade in which my own track record played some role. By now more than three decades later, I have taught a Gospel Dynamics approach to well-over 1,000 rabbinical students as a prelude to my teaching them the Jewish Jesus. Following their ordination, many in turn have rechanneled this approach into New Testament offerings within their own synagogue adult education and guest speaker programming. Naturally, I myself do the same when keynoting Institutes for Christian Clergy, also when speaking in synagogue, church, and university venues -- reapplying the mandate of at least the Johannine Jesus (cited by our venerable Christian laywoman): “putting the food where the lambs can get it.”

When Christians themselves begin to spot Gospel historical traditions that all along may have been flashing caution signals against ready embrace, Jews in turn -- recoiling no more -- will cease to come across to Christians as stubborn or blind. Learning Gospel Dynamics as a means of holding their own in New Testament discourse will produce a comfort level finally readying Jews fully to welcome examining the Jesus figure directly. This is how I, at least, induced first myself, and thereafter Jews I have taught, eagerly to delve into Gospel texts when, previously, we had never approached reading the Gospels in any manner at all.


1 Best for Jews’ use: Gospel Parallels, Burton Throckmorton, Jr., ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1967).

2 Texts pertinent to this illustration: Jer 7:11, 14; 26:8, 10-11,15; 38:5, 14, 19; cf. Mk 11:17 & parr; 14:53 & parr; 14:58 & par; 14:64 and Matt 26:65; 27:24-25 and Jn 18:33; 19:8.

3 Ps 41:9; cf. Jn 13:18; 2 Sa 17:23; cf. Matt 27:5; Gen 37:26–28.

4 1 Cor. 11:23; cf. Rom 4:25; 8:32; Gal 2:20.