Book explores Jewish-Christian schism through Christian Bible writings

Julie Galambush brings a rare background to the often delicate topic of Jewish-Christian relations and her special interest in the first-century split between the two faiths.

She was an American Baptist Churches minister and a teacher at Lutheran St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Now a convert to Reform Judaism who belongs to a synagogue in Falls Church, Va., she teaches Bible at the College of William and Mary.

Galambush, naturally, doesn’t believe in Jesus’ divinity. But her main emphasis is that Christians misunderstand what their scriptural writers originally meant to say about Jews.

She develops that case in “The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book.” Her book originated with experimental classes she led at a Maryland synagogue on the topic of the Christian Bible, known to Christians as the New Testament.

The Christian Bible is “one of the strangest Jewish books ever written,” she writes, and one that “most Jews neither own nor read.” Yet they should read it, she believes, because it’s vital that Jews understand Christianity. Thus she wrote her book especially for Jewish readers, though it will stir discussion (and dissent) among Christians.

The nutshell paradox: The Christian Bible has many passages that are sharply critical of Jews, yet it was written mostly by Jews and largely for Jewish readers to teach about a Jewish messiah.

Galambush’s theme is that modern Christians — and most Christians across the centuries — distort what the critical comments meant because they don’t realize that the Christian Bible was recording the intense debates within the Jewish community, and between the factions of Jews who followed Jesus.

It was a three-way argument. First, of course, the overwhelming majority of ancient Jews had no interest in Jesus or rejected claims he was Israel’s messiah.

But the really hot dispute, she says, occurred between the two factions of Jews who followed Jesus. One insisted that all the commandments of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, applied to non-Jews who joined the Jesus movement. Others like Paul, and eventually Peter, said non-Jewish converts could ignore some of those requirements, especially circumcision.

The latter faction won out, and its Christian Bible exponents were writing harsh attacks against fellow Jewish Christians “rather than Jews as a whole,” Galambush says.

Both sides believed the Jesus movement was authentically Jewish and didn’t conceive of a separate faith called Christianity. “The New Testament authors fought, ultimately in vain, to maintain their legitimacy as Jews,” she writes.

In her view the Christian Bible, if read authentically as a Jewish book, depicts the beginnings of the “reluctant parting” when Christians permanently ceased being part of the Jewish people. But later churches were wholly non-Jewish, so the scriptures appeared “simply to condemn Jews as Jews.”

The bulk of Galambush’s study examines the Christian Bible writings, book by book.

Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is pivotal. It was written in the 50s C.E. following the summit meeting where Jewish followers of Jesus accepted Paul’s plea to free non-Jewish converts from the circumcision rule.

Galatians is polemical, likening Torah vs. Gospel to curse vs. blessing or slavery vs. freedom. Paul removes all markers of status and ethnicity, writing that “there is no longer Jew or Greek,” no male and female, no slave and freeman.

Paul sought to free non-Jews from what he saw as “a false sense of obligation to Torah,” Galambush writes, but later non-Jews misunderstood this as “a wholesale condemnation of Jewish ritual observance as practiced by Jews.” Instead of Paul’s righteous anger against fellow Jewish Christians he disagreed with, later non-Jewish Christians mistakenly read his words as anger against Jews in general.

When read as originally intended, she says, the Christian Bible becomes “unfamiliar … demanding, even threatening,” for Christians and Jews alike.

“The Reluctant Parting” by Julie Galambush (352 pages, Harper San Francisco, $24.95.)