Our journey through The Moral Vision of the New Testament continues as Richard Hays devotes a series of chapters to the New Testament’s witness regarding specific, controversial issues. (If you’ve gotten behind in the reading or you’re just joining us, see the reading schedule here.)

We began with the question of Christians using violence in the defense of justice. Then, we looked Hays’ treatment of divorce and remarriage, and the issue of homosexuality. Today, we look at anti-Judaism and ethnic conflict by asking Hays’ question: How should Christians regard Israel and treat Jews?

Reading the Texts

Before analyzing the relevant texts, Hays sets up a way of reading them in historical context. He offers several considerations:

  • First-century Judaism was diverse, not monolithic.
  • Earliest Christianity began as a Jewish sectarian movement.
  • Christianity’s success in reaching Gentiles created a crisis of communal identity.
  • Hostility toward Jews and Judaism is to be understood as “sibling rivalry,” a “struggle for possession of Israel’s heritage.”

Perspectives from 4 Major New Testament Writers

  • Paul: God has not rejected His people, but His people have rejected their Messiah – a tragic state of affairs that brings Paul sorrow. Rather than being targets of contempt, Jews should be seen as the objects of sacrificial love, for the final fruition of God’s dealing with Israel remains to be seen.
  • Luke: The way of salvation runs through Jesus, and those who will not follow are no longer part of the elect. Luke’s position is similar to Paul’s, although he tends to stress the continuity of the church with Israel even more strongly. Luke aborbs the line of salvation history into the church.
  • Matthew: Matthew combines ardent affirmation of the Law and vehement rejection of Judaism. His writings are reflective of an increasingly adversarial relationship between church and synagogue. Matthew provides a supersessionist theology where the church replaces Israel.
  • John: Many of the speeches attributed to Jesus are reflective of the Johannine community’s “frustrated and angry response to Jewish interlocutors” who have refused to accept the claims of Jesus. John’s Gospel features an ontological dualism, and his bitter and polemical treatment of the Jews puts him on the other end of the spectrum from Paul’s hope-filled sorrow.

Synthesis: Israel in Canonical Context

Hays begins with a summary of several points of agreement among the four authors above:

  • All New Testament writings show puzzlement over Israel’s failure to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah.
  • No New Testament writer envisions a “separate but equal” salvation for Gentiles and Jews.
  • Paul, Luke, Matthew, and John testify to the persecution of Christians by Jews.
  • No New Testament texts show evidence of racially motivated “anti-Semitism.”
  • Early church conflict should be seen as an intra-Jewish phenomenon.

But Hays sees “wide divergences” as well, tensions that must be allowed to stand. It’s here that Hays makes his boldest claim: “No thoroughgoing synthesis is possible.” So what to do? Hays suggests Paul’s approach should be treated as “the benchmark” because he is the one who best preserves continuity with the larger Scriptural story. Making Matthew and John the norm has led the church to disaster.

Community: The church must adopt an ethic of corporate responsibility that takes to heart Paul’s admonitions in Romans 11.

Cross: Jesus’ death is the enactment and proof of God’s faithfulness to Israel.

New Creation: We are to embody hope and prayer for the eschatological reconciliation of Israel.

Hermeneutics: Responding to the New Testament’s Witness Concerning Israel

We’ve seen how Hays gives Paul the highest place of authority in how we are to view Israel. Next, he examines how the hermeneutical guidelines are presented in the New Testament.

  • Rule: The New Testament doesn’t provide rules that govern the church’s conduct toward Jews.
  • Principle: The New Testament does not appeal to the principle of tolerance toward Judaism.
  • Paradigm: Paul demonstrates anguish for the Jewish people to believe in Jesus.
  • Symbolic World: The story is unfinished, but already we see how God’s judgment and faithfulness to Israel is revealed.
  • Other Authorities: The church’s tradition is mixed and thus offers little help in understanding the New Testament’s witness. The role of reason is inadequate in answering the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah. Experience (post-Holocaust) has led us to reassess our theology and use of Scripture. “The theological trajectory that begins in John 8 ends – one fears – in Auschwitz.”

Living the Text: The Church as Community Overcoming Ethnic Division

  • The New Testament argues for transcending ethnic divisions within the church.
  • Racism is a heresy. The church must seek reconciliation across ethnic and racial lines.

Some Personal Considerations: This chapter is the most disappointing (and disturbing) in the book. In a sense, Hays throws up his hands at the diversity of the New Testament witnesses and decides that Paul should be allowed to set the framework for the way we read the other witnesses.

My problems with Hays’ approach are not in his conclusions but in his method. He doesn’t simply read John or Matthew in light of Paul; instead, he dismisses the other witnesses in favor of Paul. For example, Hays argues that Jesus’ “revelation discourses” in John are not truly from Jesus but should be seen as prophetic-theological commentary for the evangelist’s own time. We are to see John’s “Jesus” as “historically understandable” but “theologically misconceived” (434).

What is most disturbing to me about Hays’ treatment of “John’s Jesus” is that it reflects a radical revision of how we read the Gospels. His post-Holocaust reflection has led to a dismissal of John’s witness to Jesus. Furthermore, Hays’ method here is at odds with his overall proposal, one that claims to take Scripture as authoritative and desires to hear the biblical witness on its own terms and not ours. Someone to the left of Hays on sexual ethics could easily employ his hermeneutic on John’s Gospel to Paul’s words on homosexuality, something which Hays (thankfully) does not do, even as he hands the methodological sword to his opponents to use it against him.

As an evangelical, I believe John’s perspective of Jesus is equally inspired to the other Gospels and therefore historically accurate. I recommend Craig Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of John’s Gospelwhich adopts a critical realistic approach and makes a cogent case for the historicity of these words. I close this chapter, thankful for the right and true things Hays has to say about ethnic diversity and the heresy of racism, and deeply frustrated that he chose to trample over John’s portrait of Jesus to get there.