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Why We Shouldn’t Forget That Jesus Was a Jew

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Russell E. Saltzman - published on 07/14/15

But Richard Hays’ latest book makes a vibrant case that “Christian” makes no sense unless it is read backward, backward through the Jewish expectations of who and what and how the Messiah appears.

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness is a series of six lectures delivered at Cambridge in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014. His premise: To interpret the event of Jesus the gospel writers, all of them Jewish, were compelled to plumb their own Jewish scriptures to understand what had happened in that event. 

The New Testament is laced with somewhat cryptic references to this thing or another being done or said “in accordance with the scriptures.” But to leave it at that is to miss the deep wealth of Jewish scriptural references found in the Gospels. By “reading backward” Hays finds in the four Gospels not only quotations from Jewish scripture sprinkled in the text―sometimes explicit, sometime not―that explain the Christ, but equally Jewish allusion, allegory, and metaphor, all rising from an awareness of Israel’s call to be the light of the nations fulfilled in Christ.

How do we regain a keener sense of the connections between Christ, Gospel, and Jewish expectation? I would think, first, lectionary commissions should pay far greater attention to the Christological implications in their selections of Hebrew scripture for the first reading in the mass. Nor should any congregation skip the Old Testament reading. Second, homilists ought to take care to incorporate those lectionary insights when they preach from the gospels. There are alternative interpretations of the parables; pick the one that speaks of Jewish fulfillment in Christ rather than the one that attacks the religion of Jesus. Last, let us remind ourselves, as Hays puts it, “the God to whom the Gospels bare witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

A former Lutheran pastor becoming Roman Catholic, Russell E. Saltzman is a web columnist for First Things magazine living in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at

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