Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Judaism and Christianity - Two Trees or One?

As regular readers know, I write a lot about contextual analysis on this blog. In my post the other day about Paul's influence in Christianity, I wrote about Jesus' ministry primarily focusing on the Jews, and Peter/Paul/Barnabas/Titus all simultaneously leading the charge into the Gentiles, but only after the Jewish timing was fulfilled.

In discussing this post on Twitter with a follower, I made the comment, "We often overlook the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul, to our detriment."

This has led me to an analogy that I wish to share, which needs to happen in order to correct an often-mistaken view among Jews, Christians, and the world at large.


Imagine that Judaism at the time of Christ was an olive tree.

This tree grew from the seed of Adam. Its roots were Abraham, and it sprouted and grew under the gardening of Moses. By the time of Christ, it was a large tree with a long history.

Then along comes Jesus. In the view of most Christians and Jews, what Jesus did was this: He said, "Judaism is wrong, I have come to start a new religion. It will grow from the seed of Judaism, but this new religion is something altogether different."

So in this popular view, Jesus took the seed of Judaism and grew a second tree nearby--Christianity. This religion is primarily for the Gentiles and is the "true" religion--the religion that Judaism was supposed to be. It comes from the seed of Judaism, but is something altogether different.

You will even hear Christians say this sometimes--that Christianity is the "True Israel," or that the tree of Judaism has been abandoned by God.

(If that were true, by the way, I think we might need to question some of God's promises to the Jews in the Old Testament!) This is how most now picture Judaism and Christianity, today: they are related, come from the same seed (Old Testament), but are completely separate. They share some things in common, but Judaism is Judaism, and Christianity is Christianity.

The problem is that this is not at all how early Christians thought of it, nor how the Bible pictures it. Christianity is not a new religion made from the seed of Judaism--Christianity is Judaism in its completely blossomed form. God did not start over and plant a new tree from Judaism's seed: He gardened and cultivated Judaism into what it was supposed to be all along.

Let's listen to what Paul said in Romans 11, when he uses the exact same analogy of a tree:

"I ask, then, has God rejected His people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people...

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember that it is not you who support the root, but the root who supports you." (Rom 11:1-2,13-18 - emphasis mine)

Paul uses the example of an olive tree, and grafting in branches. His discussing of grafting makes it clear that he chose an olive tree as an example purposefully--but we Americans, not often having olive trees in our yards, miss his point.

Olive trees grown from seeds generally give poor yields and are very slow growing, so that is not the common way of growing an olive tree. The more successful method of propogating olive trees is grafting, the process Paul refers to. When grafting, branches of one olive tree are cut into shoots or branches about a meter (3') long. Incisions are made into the bark of the receiving tree, and the new shoot is added in. It is then sealed and allowed to grow.

Paul uses this analogy and makes a few specific points:

1. God did not reject Israel (v.1)
2. The holiness of the branches (Gentiles) is dependent upon the holiness of the root (Judaism) (v.16)
3. The Gentile Christians are not the root, but the wild tree grafted into the healthy tree (v.17)
4. It is the root of Judaism that nourishes the Gentiles, not the other way around (v.17b)
5. If God did not spare the natural branches He certainly won't spare you! Be fearful and honor those to whom you have been joined (v.18-22)

Paul is very specific to point out that we are the wild ones who have been mercifully grafted onto their tree...not the other way around!

The common Christian perception is:
1. God made a new tree, Christianity, from the seed of Judaism
2. If Jews accept Jesus they are removed from Judaism and grafted onto "our" tree

It is mind-blowing that we think this, when  Paul explicity states in the New Testament that this is untrue! The truth is:
1. God made one tree, Judaism. Jesus fulfilled it to grow to its full height.
2. Jews following the proper Messiah (Jesus) are the natural branches of this tree.
3. Jews who reject Jesus are cut off of this tree.
4. Gentiles, in God's infinite mercy, are undeservedly grafted onto the tree to fill it back out.

In other and I, we Gentile Christians? We are members of the religion of Messianic Judaism.

Okay, not in the way we use the terms, sure. But according to Peter and Paul, they did not invent a new religion at all! They brought Judaism into its blossommed, final form. Some Jews rejected Messiah, however, and thus were cut off of their natural tree.

When early Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah, God did not create a new tree--He removed the offending branches and added us in their place. But the tree, the faith--Judaism--remained unchanged. It simply had some new adherants, related not by blood but by faith. What has happened is that the pile of discarded old branches still claims to be the 'proper tree'--and thus we have renamed our tree "Christianity."

Christians do not see ourselves as 'new Israel' but as "Israel Proper"--a thoroughly Jewish tree, nourished by the history of the Old Testament, brought into blossom by the Messiah Jesus, and onto which tree we Gentiles have been graciously (and undeservedly) grafted.

So as I have said before, I will say again:  we do ourselves a disservice if we do not recognize the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul. After all, it is the Jewish tree to which we have been joined.

(Postscript--Everyone read the passage of Romans 11:25-32. You have just read the context behind it, now tell me what this means? I think there is a clear implication here for the future of those born into Judaism and committed to the faith. But it is a controversial reading. Give it some thought and conclude in your mind what this passage tells us. You can share in the comments if you like, but you are not obligated to do so.)


  1. I quite agree. If this blog had wider readership (or more commenters) I'm sure it wouldn't take long for some angry dispensationalist to show up and start accusing you of "replacement theology."

    Since I've started thinking about how the church and Israel relate, I've struggled how to figure out the way that Romans 11.25-32 relates to it all. Maybe I'm just having trouble removing the dispensationalist goggles glued to my head from a young age, but it sounds like eventually there will be a revival among Judaism to return to the true, blossomed faith of Christianity.

  2. Bingo--wow, first comment! You're right on in your theological terminology, too: I have never been either completely comfortable with dispensationalism or covenant (replacement) theology. I am uncomfortable with the fact that some covenant theologians would interpret the above to say that Jews who reject Christ but maintain Mosaic Covenant are okay--I disagree. But also I dislike the dispensational view in that it goes way too far beyond Romans 11 in separating Israel from the Church.

    As with most man-made guess is that neither are correct. God is too big to be held in any systematic theology.

    So for me I tend to see it as slightly more covenant than dispensational (as shown in my post), but with--just as you said--a coming future revival among Judaism to return to the faith.


  3. The tricky part is that our man-made theologies are often heavily shaped by reading our culture back into the Bible (which I think was the case with both dispensationalism and reformed/covenent theology.) It's all tied up in understanding the historical context and trying to reconstruct that the original authors were trying to say. Of course we'll never entirely get past our own biases, but I think guys like NT Wright and Ben Witherington have done a good job of it - or at least have pointed us in the right direction.

  4. To add to this, there is sect (or line of thought) out there of Jews that have "converted" to Christianity, or in the context of this article have bloomed into it. However, in doing so they straddle the fence and try to blend the practices of the Old Law and the New Law. I found out about this when I went with a friend to her congregation a few years ago. They had a guest speaker that morning who was in some form of a Christian-Rabbi position. His whole talk was about detailing they rituals of passover and a number of other things they practiced... While I'm sure the intent was mean to be good, it didn't serve to uplift, preach, or otherwise the Christians that were present. But more importantly, it showed that in their blooming into the "fullness of the Tree" that they were still very largely remaining under the old Law. Matthew 5, Romans 8, and countless other comments by Jesus and Paul point to keeping the core spirit of the principles of the Law while leaving behind of the code and legality of the Law. Suffice it to point out the importance of the blooming of that one tree. In my mind, I see this idea of straddling both laws as a natural branch growing a bud while failing to let it bloom.

    Thoughts? Comments?

  5. Book: "CHRISTIANITY: New Religion or Sect of Biblbical JUDAISM?"