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 teacher at the Lutherans St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Now a convert to Reform Judaism who belongs to a temple in Falls Church, Va., she teaches Bible at the College of William and Mary.
Galambush, naturally, doesnt 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 Testaments Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (HarperSanFrancisco). Her book originated with experimental classes on the New Testament she led at a Maryland synagogue.
The New Testament 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 its vital that Jews understand Christianity. Thus she wrote her book especially for Jewish readers, though it will stir discussion (and dissent) among Christians.
Muslims, too, would benefit greatly from learning New Testament basics, though not from this type of book.
The nutshell paradox: The New Testament 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.
Galambushs theme is that modern Christians and most Christians across the centuries distort what the critical comments meant because they dont realize that the New Testament was recording an intense debate within the Jewish community.
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 Israels 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 (or Old Testament) applied to Gentiles who joined the Jesus movement. Others like Paul, and eventually Peter, said Gentile converts could ignore some of those requirements, especially circumcision.
The latter, liberal faction won out and its New Testament 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 didnt 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 New Testament, 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 Gentile, so believers lacked that basic understanding and the scriptures appeared simply to condemn Jews as Jews a lethal mistake.
The bulk of Galambushs study examines the New Testament writings, book by book.
Pauls epistle to the Galatians is pivotal. It was written in the A.D. 50s following the summit meeting (depicted in Acts 15) where Jewish followers of Jesus accepted Pauls plea to free Gentile converts from the circumcision rule.
Galatians is polemical, likening Torah versus Gospel to curse versus blessing or slavery versus freedom. Paul removes all earthly markers of status and ethnicity, writing that there is no longer Jew or Greek and no male and female, no slave and freeman.
Paul sought to free Gentiles from what he saw as a false sense of obligation to Torah, Galambush writes, but later Gentiles misunderstood this as a wholesale condemnation of Jewish ritual observance as practiced by Jews. Instead of Pauls righteous anger against fellow Jewish Christians he disagreed with, later Gentile Christians mistakenly read his words as anger against Jews in general.
When read as originally intended, she concludes, the New Testament becomes unfamiliar ... demanding, even threatening, for Christians and Jews alike.