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Letters to Ya'acov

Letter 14: From Mike

9th December 1987


Dear Ya’acov,

Thanks for your note of 3rd October. I must apologise for the fact that it has taken me so long to reply but I have been away from the office quite a bit and the pressures time-wise have been considerable. However, I would like to return to the point of your note that the New Testament contains "many pagan teachings".

It is worth remembering, as a primary consideration, that Christianity is as Jewish as Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, Paul and the apostles were all Jews, every New Testament author except (possibly) Luke was a Jew, and the first Christians were all Jews. Therefore we are not talking about a gentile religion versus a Jewish religion, even though the majority of Christians today happen to be gentiles. We are comparing, in our dispute, two Jewish creeds. I am a disciple of a Jew, a convert to Jewish doctrines, a sharer in a Jewish hope and an advocate of truths that Jews have taught me.

We both believe in the inspiration and authority of the Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible], yet we both submit to differing interpretations of it. My own conviction is that the New Testament writers provide the best interpretation of the Tanakh. As I understand your position, it would be that the rabbinic tradition is the authoritative interpretation.

In this letter I would like to examine, with particular reference to paganism, whether the rabbinic tradition or the New Testament is more consistent with the teaching of the Tanakh.

Throughout the New Testament idolatry is condemned, and the gentile converts in the book of Acts are expected to renounce idolatry to serve the living and true God. For example, in Ephesus, Paul caused a city-wide riot because he was found to be undermining the cult of Artemis. Those who were converted burned their books of magic. The amulet makers found their business decreasing dramatically through the success of Paul’s preaching. The entire account is found in Acts 19. In Athens, Paul opposed the idolatry of the superstitious population. In no way can Paul be accused of accommodating Christianity to paganism. He was no syncretist. Throughout the Mediterranean world, as Christianity spread through the preaching of Paul, idolatry and paganism were dealt a deadly blow. In his epistles to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians he reminds then that they turned from idolatry to serve the living and true God, the God of his fathers (1 Corinthians 12:2: "you were gentiles, carried away in worship of dumb idols"; 1 Thessalonians 1:9: "you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God")

When I compare the teaching of the New Testament with some of the rabbinic doctrine on astrology, demonology, the use of charms, amulets and magic incantations, it is not difficult to see which authority is most consistent with Moses and the prophets.

Moses forbade the use of magic, astrology or the consulting of familiar spirits, all of which the New Testament confirms. But, in the rabbinic writings we find all these things approved.

For example:

If any person be pursued by a serpent or a scorpion, it is lawful to charm it to prevent it from doing injury. Rambam [Rabbi Moses Maimonides] has written, He that charms a wound or reads a verse from the law (as a charm), and also he that reads over an infant that it may not be afraid, or who lays a roll of the law or phylacteries upon a child, are not only to be accounted as one of the charmers and magicians, but as the deniers of the law, for they use the words of the law as medicine for the body, whereas it is only a medicine for the soul. R. Isaac says absolutely that he who charms a wound, mentioning at the same time the name of God and spitting is the charmer of whom it is said that he has no share in the world to come: but if he does not spit the matter is not so grave. It is, however, forbidden to use a verse as a charm over a wound, even though there will be no spitting nor mentioning the name of God. But if life be in danger, everything is lawful; and it is lawful to read a verse as a defence, for instance at night in bed. (Joreh Deah. 179.)

While in the above passage there are forms of charming forbidden, certain forms are allowed. If life is in danger, says Joreh Deah, it is lawful to use even a scroll of the sacred Law of God as a charm. No such superstitious use of the Word of God is allowed among followers of Jesus.

Our rabbis have handed down the tradition that it is lawful to anoint and rub the stomach (of a sick man) on the Sabbath, also to charm serpents and scorpions on the Sabbath: also to pass an instrument across the eye on the Sabbath. R. Simeon, the son of Gamaliel, says, that this only applies to an instrument which may be moved (such as a key, a ring or a knife - Rashi), but with one that may not be moved, it is unlawful. But it is unlawful on the Sabbath to make inquiry of demons. R. Jose says, this is also unlawful on weekdays. Rav Huna says, the decision is not according to R. Jose: and R. Jose himself said this only on account of danger, for that is what occurred in the case of R. Isaac, the son of Joseph, who was swallowed up in a cedar tree, but a miracle was wrought for him - the cedar opened and cast him out. (Sanhedrin 101a)

To make inquiry of demons is what they do when anything is lost. They make inquiry by the work of demons, and they tell them, and this is forbidden on the Sabbath, on account of the words, ‘Not finding thine own pleasure.’ (Isaiah lviii. 13.) (Rashi [Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac]).

Here we find that the only reason why a demon may not be enquired of is that it may result in personal harm, rather than because the Law of Moses forbids us to consort with familiar spirits. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki seems to only object to the practice on the Sabbath. He elsewhere speaks of one who "was asking counsel, by means of a demoniacal operation, and the demon sought to do him an injury, but a miracle was wrought for him, and a cedar tree swallowed him."

If the righteous wished, they might create the world, for it is written, ‘But your sins separate, &c.’ Rabba created a man, and sent him to Rabbi Zira. He spoke with him, but when the others did not answer him, he said, Thou art from the magicians, return to thy dust. Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia used to sit every Sabbath eve and study the book of Jetzirah, and then created for themselves a three-years-old calf, and ate it. (Sanhedrin 65b)

"He created the man by means of the book Jetzirah, for it taught him the combination of the letters of the name of God." (Rashi).

In the light of these examples, how can you accuse the New Testament writers of paganism? If you discovered passages such as the above in the Epistle to the Romans you would have every right to condemn Christianity as superstition. However, it was the New Testament that turned me from paganism to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Before I became a Christian I despised the Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] as a book of fables.

It is a plain historical fact that wherever the gospel of Jesus the Messiah has been accepted pagans have turned from idolatry and superstition.

Admittedly there are those who in the name of Jesus have established a "christianised" idolatry. But they do it with no sanction from the Bible. They base their idolatry on tradition as far removed from Holy Scripture as some rabbinic tradition. The tradition of men, whether Jewish or "Christian" always leads men astray from the true God. Authentic Christianity has always established and upheld the Law.

Therefore when I appeal to you to trust in Jesus as the Messiah who has rendered a complete satisfaction for sins once and for all I am not seeking to turn you from the law and prophets but, rather, I am seeking to turn you back to them.

With best wishes for a happy Hanukkah [Festival of Lights],

Mike


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