by David de Bruyn
“Originally delivered to a Jewish audience that invited David to address them recently”
Perhaps one of the most famous authors to have been born on our shores was J.R.R Tolkien, the author of the famous Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit and many other works. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, before moving to the United Kingdom early in life. The Hobbit was published in 1937 while the winds of Nazism were blowing strongly. A publisher in Berlin wrote to Tolkien, expressing interest in a German edition.
In the few years before, that publisher, Rütten & Loening had been owned by German Jews, who were forced to sell in 1936 to “Aryan” Germans, according to the Nuremberg laws. The new owner, Albert Hachfeld, fired all the Jewish staff and dropped all Jewish writers. He then wrote to Tolkien, explaining that before they could begin work on a German version of “The Hobbit”, they needed to make sure of Tolkien’s Aryan descent, and to make sure he had no Jewish ancestry.
This is how Tolkien replied, “Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”
The Hobbit was not published while the Nazis, were in power; it took until 1957 before it came out in what was then West Germany.
Tolkien was an outspoken adherent of Roman Catholicism, and though his form of Christianity is not the one I espouse, his attitude towards the Jewish people is the one I heartily support. I am a Christian, who, like Tolkien, am very thankful for the Jewish people. I believe all Christians should be thankful to the Jewish nation.
But at the outset of this talk, I acknowledge that I do not speak for all who call themselves Christian. I cannot claim that mine is the “official” position, or even the majority position. Sadly, those who call themselves Christian have committed some of the worst atrocities against the Jewish people. The history of Christian-Jewish relations is mostly an ugly one and painful to read.
Supposedly in the name of Jesus, untold horrors have been committed against the Jewish people. Sadly, some of this ugliness persists even today in various strains of Christianity. So I wouldn’t blame any Jewish person for being sceptical of the claim that Christians are thankful to the Jewish nation.
But I can make the case that gratitude towards Jews should be normal for Christians, that anti- Semitism is really anti-Christian, that the many evils of hatred directed towards the Jews may have been done in the name of Jesus Christ, but illegitimately so. In saying this, I am not denying the historicity of the heinous acts committed by those calling themselves Christian. What I am denying is that those acts were Christian acts in the true sense of the term.
Because despite being misrepresented, Jesus Himself was a faithful Jewish man, who kept Torah, attended the synagogue and loved the Jewish nation. His teaching was almost entirely to the nation of Israel, and ministry to non-Jews was more the exception than the rule. He said that his ministry was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. When accused of violating Torah, he said, “I didn’t come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them”. He looked upon Jerusalem and wept over her, foreseeing her future trauma. And very importantly, he prohibited spreading his message through violence or force.
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Judean leaders; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (Jn. 18:36)
So when a person claiming to be a Christian persecutes the Jewish nation, or uses force or violence upon them, they are acting completely unlike Jesus himself. There is nothing Christian about anti- semitism.
But why should I, as a Christian, be thankful to the Jewish nation? Of course, outside of religion, I have plenty of reasons to be thankful for my neighbours and fellow citizens who were Jews.
Growing up, as I did in Berea, Hillbrow and Parktown, all kinds of kindnesses were done to me by my Jewish neighbours. I was brought into this world by a Jewish doctor at the Park Lane Clinic, cared for Jewish GPs and dentists. Several of my teachers at Roseneath Primary School and Parktown Boy’s were Jewish, and our next door neighbours were pleasant, if occasionally outspoken, Jewish neighbours.
But I am not today talking about why anyone could be thankful for good fellow citizens. I want to make the case that Christians, as Christians, can and should be thankful to the Jewish Nation. In that respect, there are three compelling reasons why Christians as Christians, should be thankful to the Jewish nation.
1) The Bible Christians use was written by Jewish people.
Of course, Christians and observant Jews both regard the Tanakh or Old Testament as Scripture. The first five books of Moses, the Torah, the Neviim or prophets, and the Ketuvim, or writings are the same books of Moses, David, the prophets. It is a remarkable truth, and one too little reflected upon, that of all the nations and ethnicities in the world, God chose to focus the bulk of His special revelation on that small nomadic people, Israel. Paul answering the question of the distinguishing privilege of being Jewish says this: “Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:2 )
Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the Jewish people for writing, recording and preserving the Scriptures which we share as the Word of God. Were it not for the carefulness and fastidiousness of the scribes, the veneration with which the synagogues protected the scrolls, the skill of the Masoretes, we might not have the Scriptures today. Today, at a Christian seminary worth its salt, a large portion of study is the study of Hebrew grammar, Hebrew syntax so as to rightly understand the Hebrew Scriptures.
And this might surprise you, but the New Testament was entirely Jewish as well. Were we to use the Hebrew names of the authors, we’d soon hear that almost the entire New Testament (or B’rit Chadashah) was written by Jews: Mattiyahu (Matthew), Yochanan Marcus (John Mark), Yochanan ben Zebedee (John), Sha’ul (Paul), Yaacov (James), Shimon Petra (Peter), and Yehudah (Jude).
Some scholars are even debating whether Luke was a proselyte or perhaps a natural born Jew. The Bible is, without question, a Jewish book, a book of Israeli authorship.
As a Christian, the Bible is to me the Word of God. When I hold the Bible in my hands, I hold a Hebrew book. The Bible was mediated to me through Jewish authors, and therefore I can only be grateful and thankful to the Jewish nation.
2) The God Christians worship was revealed through the Jewish people.
Living as we do in a time when monotheism is practiced by over 4 billion people, it is easy to forget that there was a time when most people lived in the superstition and darkness of paganism. Certainly my ancestors in Europe worshipped nature and the many gods and goddesses of pagan Europe. If you know anything about the practices of Roman pagans, of the Vikings and Norsemen, you know it was brutal, bloody and beastly.
But when Israel’s God was presented to the people’s of Europe, it transformed them. For the next 1000 years, the teachings of Israel, Old and New Testament seeped into the thinking of people across Europe. It changed the way they thought about law and ethics and morality. It seeped into the thinking of vicious and pagan Vikings who delighted in being bloodthirsty and wicked. It changed attitudes towards the weak, the orphans, women. It changed the ideas of impartial law, about the rights of an individual, about fair trials, about punishments fitting the crime.
Monogamy in families, chivalry toward women, laws against infanticide, hospitals for the sick, orphanages for children began. It changed marriage and family, and soon it changed government, from absolute chiefs to kings with limited power to democracies and republics. It changed the way way people thought about nature and creation and it sparked what we call science and invention. Industrial and scientific and medical revolutions began and continued to this day. It created the most beautiful architecture, painting, music, literature, and poetry the world has ever seen. It even created the freedom to criticise itself and question itself.
Now all of this came because people were exposed to the one God of Israel. Winston Churchill once said “We owe to the Jews in the Christian revelation a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together. On that system and by that faith there has been built out of the wreck of the Roman Empire the whole of our existing civilization.”
Yes, indeed, Christians and Jews differ on whether the one God of Abraham exists with plurality within Himself or not. But Christians are adamant that we have been exposed to, and included in, the ancient faith of Israel. We can wholeheartedly say, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” Indeed, one of the first teachers of the church, Paul, or Sha’ul as he would have been known, warned his Gentile readers not to act boastfully towards Jewish people, but to understand that they had been grafted in to the olive tree of Israel. The God I worship is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I can only be thankful to the Jewish nation for being God’s servant to bring His knowledge to me.
3) The Messiah Christians trust in is a Jewish Messiah.
Of course, because of the terrible antisemitism, inflicted on Jewish people by professing Christians, many Jews regard the name of Jesus as a great curse. As I’ve pointed out, hostility to Jewish people or forced conversions was not what Jesus Himself taught, nor what He endorsed. Indeed, Jesus was not the blonde, blue-eyed figure in many pictures. He was Yeshua, son of Miryam, brother of Yaacov and Yehudah. He lived in Natzaret, kept Torah, faithfully went up to Yerushalayim every year. He made extraordinary claims, and did extraordinary things. But one thing is for sure, he was Jewish. He was nursed and nourished in the Jewish nation, loved it, and sought its welfare.
Now this is obviously a point of disagreement between Jews and Christians: over who Jesus was. But no one can deny the heritage and ethnicity of Jesus. Nothing could be stranger than for Christians to act with hostility and disdain toward the people from whom Jesus came.
During the Second Crusade, anti-Semitic attacks broke out in Rhineland. A Christian cleric by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux rode to the Rhine valley and declared, “Anyone who attacks a Jew and tries to kill him it is as though he attacks Jesus himself.”
Now what is a Christian apart from the Bible he reads, from the God he worships, and from the Saviour he trusts? And yet these three fundamental aspects of Christianity came from, or through, or by the Jewish people. There is nothing in Christianity which Gentiles can claim originated apart from Israel. It is one of the saddest twists of history that Christians have forgotten the root of their faith.
So I, as a Christian am indebted to the Jewish nation, Yes, indeed to ancient Israel, but equally to her living descendants today. One of the ways we show respect and honour for people is how we treat their children, and my gratitude is not to people in the past whom I will never meet. My gratitude is living and present-tense.
How does my gratitude manifest?
First, I want for my Jewish neighbours the same freedoms and tolerance I want for myself. When the United States of America was in its infancy, George Washington wrote a reply to Moses Sexias of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island:
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” My gratitude towards the Jewish nation means I desire freedom and liberty of conscience for my Jewish neighbour.
Second, I support the right of Jewish people to live in the land of Israel, for Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation and to be safe from their enemies. And I do not think Jewish people should be safe only in Israel, they should be safe in any land they live in. For me and my church, that means that we would feel the obligation to protect and shelter Jewish people, should waves of anti- semitism break out. We would do that without pre-conditions, without requiring Jewish people to convert, but simply as those to whom we feel a debt of gratitude. My gratitude towards the Jewish nation means I would protect and shelter those who have given me the Word of God.
Third, I want for my Jewish neighbours to know and celebrate the Scriptures that we share, the Tanakh, or Old Testament as most Christians call it. The situation between Jews and Christians is not parallel to the situation between us and Hindus or Moslems. The Koran is an entirely different set of Scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita is an entirely separate set of writings. But Christians and Jews share 24 books in the Tanakh, though Christians split some of those longer books into two, and so count them as 39 books. But they are the same. Sadly, many Christians and many Jews fail to read their own Scriptures. A treasure-trove of wisdom, law, history and prophecy sits on their shelves.
My gratitude towards the Jewish people means I want us to drink from the same well, and enjoy our shared inheritance of the Hebrew Scriptures, now translated for us all.
Fourth, I want my Jewish neighbours to continue a friendly dialogue on the areas where we disagree. Who is the Messiah? Who was Jesus? Is the Talmud the oral law given to Moses? How do we gain atonement for sins without the Temple? Yes, these have been contentious issues, but our mutual respect and gratitude means the discussion can be held without threats, fear, or intimidation. We would even agree with Voltaire, “I may disagree with what you are saying, but I will fight to the death for you to be able to say it.” In a truly free society, our children and grandchildren play in the same parks, we shop in the same malls, we attend the same community meetings, while having the freedom to openly discuss and openly disagree on ultimate truths.
So, today, I stand with Tolkien. If someone were to ask me if I have Jewish ancestors, I might say, “I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” But I would add, but I am so thankful that my ancestors were blessed by theirs, and so I am and remain thankful, as a Christian to the Jewish nation today.