“Gospel Dynamics”: When the Jewish Jesus Won’t Suffice

Two basic methods by Jewish scholars to impress Jesus’ “Jewishness” upon lay Christians and Jews are problematic because they do not remedy a major asymmetry: while Christians may well be receptive to learning about Jesus the Jew, many Jews remain relatively unenthused, even recoiling from such a prospect. A far more effective method, coined a “Gospel Dynamics” approach, plays to Jews’ love of cerebral challenge and results not only in neutralizing Jews’ avoidance strategies but transforms the Gospels into a favorite subject for Jewish exploration!

See Also: The Jewish Jesus

By Michael J. Cook
Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Cincinnati campus
August 2012

The tale is told of a conference of Gospel scholars held at my Quaker alma mater, Haverford College, where a venerable laywoman mistakenly wandered in and took a seat. Listening intently to heated debates over Gospel development, but unable to grasp the subtleties, she rose, Bible in hand, to interrupt astonished delegates: “I assert my prerogative [as a Friend] to speak as moved by the Spirit. Here, in John 21:15, Jesus says, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He never says, ‘Feed my giraffes.’ Brothers, when are you going to put the food where lambs can get it?”

This vignette may be aptly applied to current Jewish scholar efforts to impress Jesus’ “Jewishness” upon lay Christians and Jews. Assuredly, interfaith literacy should not operate the least among those requiring it the most, and it is indeed within lay social interactions that stereotyping, misunderstanding, and suspicion persist, in working-place environments, schooling, neighborhood living, and the like. Accordingly, knowing and being able to articulate “Jesus-as-a-Jew” should certainly be integral to lay interfaith discourse.

Currently problematic, however, are the two pedagogical approaches most commonly employed to this end. One heaps up Gospel excerpts that seem to establish Jesus’ Jewishness: his Great Commandment (the Shema; Golden Rule), the Lord’s Prayer, parables of the Kingdom, proto-rabbinic hermeneutics, among others. An alternative survey begins by arraying various Judaisms of Jesus’ day (Pharisaism, Qumran, etc.), thereafter showing how Jesus’ teachings are best clarified by such recourse.

Neither approach, however, sufficiently remedies a major asymmetry: while Christians may well be receptive to learning about Jesus the Jew, many Jews remain relatively unenthused. They may be impacted by Talmudic warnings against Gospel exposure. Or Jews who deem the New Testament the most deleterious external determinant of Jewish history may bristle, even cringe, at opening a corpus so unfriendly to them. Some Jews eagerly open the New Testament but only to spotlight those four core texts most directly generating “Christ-killer” canards (emphases added):

  1. “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:25).
  2. “You are of your father the devil ... your will ... to do your father’s desires ... a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).
  3. “Jesus, whom you delivered up ... when [Pilate] ... decided to release him ... you ... killed the author of life” (Acts 3:13-15).
  4. “The Jews ... killed ... the Lord Jesus.... But God’s wrath has come upon them at last” (1 Thess 2:14ff).


Unavoidably, the reticence of many Jews reflects a lurking question: of what consequence can Jesus’ Jewishness genuinely be given, over the centuries, the staggering numbers of Jews murdered in his name?

Accordingly, both aforementioned teaching approaches, while “logical,” may fall short of eviscerating the “psychological” -- i.e., fail to galvanize recalcitrant Jews to transcend their sense of victimization by the New Testament in favor of securing a measure of comfortable, even confident, control over it. I offer, therefore, as warranting priority a third approach, which I coin “Gospel Dynamics.”

By Jews learning “Gospel Dynamics” I mean their discerning those skillful techniques through which the four Evangelists enlisted and remolded the Jesus figure to solve problems of the Gospel writers’ day, not Jesus’. Recognizing such techniques plays to Jews’ love of cerebral challenge: here discovering problems in Gospel texts especially by recourse to Gospel Parallels, a tool foreign to most Christians but utterly fascinating to the Jewish mind.1 The results not only neutralize Jews’ avoidance strategies but catalyze Jews to dive further into how Gospel texts developed, remarkably transforming the Gospels into a favorite subject for Jewish exploration! Thereby sparked within Jews is a calming psychological realization: that an underlying Jesus figure had nothing to do with harms perpetrated against them in his name. Several weeks of tangling with Gospel Dynamics is key for “enhancing Jews’ well-being in a Christian environment” (sub-title of my book: Modern Jews Engage the New Testament [Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 3rd printing 2012]). In contrast to the two aforementioned approaches, the Gospel Dynamics enterprise brings Jews to the historical Jesus at the very end, not beginning, of an educative process.


A “Gospel Dynamic” course for lay Jews entails three-steps: (1) positing problems challenging the Evangelists decades later than Jesus’ ministry; (2) determining whether Jesus’ image was enlisted, and adjusted, to ease any of these problems; and (3) ultimately deciding what kind of a Jewish Jesus-figure might remain were these late accretions peeled away. Here the problems challenging the Evangelists resolve themselves into three broad categories:

  1. Internal to the Evangelists’ Christian Communities: that Jesus appeared to die a victim, not victor; that delay of the Second Coming left Christian believers impatient, frustrated, skeptical, even prone to defecting (cf. Peter’s denial); that Christian ranks were racked by rifts over ritual practice; and others.
  2. External to Early Christians and Caused by Rome: that Christians feared Roman persecution and betrayal to Rome; that Jesus’ crucifixion could stigmatize his later followers as seditionists; that Christians must disassociate themselves, in Roman eyes, from Jewish rebels (66–73 CE); that blame for Jesus’ death must be shifted from Rome to some other party (here, the Jews); that the “King of the Jews” accusation must be neutralized by another of no concern to Rome (“blasphemy”); and the like.
  3. External Polemics Posed by Non-Christian Jews: the charge that Jesus had failed to fulfill Jewish scriptural predictions; that Elijah (the Messiah’s herald) had yet to appear; that God’s chosen people could not include Gentile-Christians; that Jesus had not been resurrected; and others.

Assuming that their own immediate problems (70-100 CE) were anticipated -- even experienced -- by Jesus himself, the Evangelists sought to elicit guidance from Jesus’ words and deeds, now recast in terms more germane to later decades. As a core teaching device, my book adds to the standard “Subject,” “Scripture,” and “Scholar” indices what is likely the only “Gospel Dynamics Index” in a scholarly work on New Testament, replete with a nominal 100 illustrations and page listings where I elaborate upon each. To be stressed to lay Jews is that our purpose is not to determine matters of historicity (which may be well beyond retrieval) but to eviscerate Jews’ discomfort with Gospel study. Here are sample, but abbreviated, Gospel Dynamics (in CAPS):


Illustrating OMISSION: Might Anti-Judaism Decrease as We Regress toward Christian Origins?

Does Matthew delete the opening sentence from Mark’s version of the Shema so that Jesus “Great Commandment” ceases to be directed solely to “Israel” (Mk 12:29; cf. Matt 22:27)? Why does Matthew also omit Mark’s unique exchange of camaraderie between Jesus and a Jewish leader (Mk 12:32-34; see Matt 22:40)? Might Mark himself have made similar omissions when incorporating his sources? Does anti-Judaism in our sources decrease as we regress toward Christian origins?

Illustrating RETROJECTION (Back-Dating):

Was Jesus presumed condemned for “blasphemy” because not he but later Christians were hearing themselves so accused -- for worshiping a human as God? Did the Evangelists’ problems with Pharisees of their own day spawn or at the least intensify traditions of presumed altercations with Pharisees by Jesus -- obscuring that the Jewish Jesus could have been in respects Pharisaic himself?

Illustrating "AGGRANDIZEMENT": Did Jesus’ Sanhedrin Trial Even Occur? (Mk 14:55-65)

Early Gospel tradition (Mk 15:1) reports a brief Friday morning “consultation” by Jewish leaders over what to do with their captive Jesus. No dialogue is related or even that Jesus was present. Might Christian tradition have come to deem this mere consultation demeaning for the Son of God, and therefore to aggrandize Friday morning’s meager “consultation” into a full-fledged trial, the previous Thursday night, before the Sanhedrin, greatest court of the land? As for securing personnel to attend, how easily could services of Friday morning’s “chief priests, elders, and scribes” be extended back into Thursday night!

Lay Jews, fascinated by the mere posing of this question, quickly note the oddities resolved by such conjecture. Thursday night’s proceeding and verdict seem to render Friday morning’s “consultation” superfluous since what would remain to discuss by the same personnel, now summoned anew, not already decided just hours before? This would imply that Friday morning’s “consultation” was the earlier tradition, with the prefatory trial invented and belatedly inserted. (Indeed, absent the Sanhedrin paragraph, a smoother-flowing story-line remains.)

Now we would understand why the Sanhedrin scene seems so skeletally depicted: with but two ultra-brief exchanges possible between Caiaphas and Jesus; with Caiaphas’ two questions paralleling (literarily structured upon?) the two later asked Jesus by Pilate; with Jesus’ two clashing demeanors -- silence, then stridency -- the result of artificially harnessing him to two clashing proof-texts (Isa 53:7; Dan 7:13). Now the villains are Jewish authorities (no longer Roman); the person first sentencing Jesus to death is the Jew, Caiaphas (not the Roman, Pilate); condemnation is for Jewish “blasphemy,” preempting the Roman “king of the Jews” (sedition). In sum, a Jew put to death by Rome has morphed into a “Christian” sentenced to death by Jews.

Most riveting to modern Jews? How many of their people died due to a possibly fabricated trial, reenacted with grotesque embellishment for centuries to come (in story-telling, drama, film)?

Illustrating "CONFORMANCE": Was Jesus’ Passion Accommodated to Jeremiah’s?

Both Jesus and Jeremiah (said to be cited by Jesus himself)2 are righteous prophets who, speaking for God, arouse enmity from Jewish priests. Demanding reform, both threaten destruction of the Temple (“a den of robbers”)! Confronted with death, both warn their accusers against bringing innocent blood upon themselves. Failing to save each figure is a vacillating ruler. As both Jeremiah and Jesus prophesy, the Temple is later destroyed.

Most riveting here to modern Jews? Were details of Jesus’ Passion so sparsely known as to prompt conformance of Jesus’ image to Jeremiah’s? How many murders of Jews may have been due to Passion traditions extraneous to what genuinely transpired with Jesus himself?

Illustrating TYPOLOGY : Did Judas Genuinely Betray Jesus?

How should we explain the assonance between “Judas” and “Jew” and their similar spellings (in Greek and Hebrew)? Was there a disposition to equate the two -- so as to facilitate transferring blame for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jewish nation whose name Judas bore, such that not only Judas the Jew, but Judas as the Jews, betrayed Jesus? And what of Jewish Scriptural parallels: David’s psalm: “even my bosom friend ... whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me,” supposedly referring to David’s trusted adviser, Ahithopel, the model for Judas hanging himself? Also Judah (Septuagint: “Judas”), one of twelve, at a meal, urging Joseph’s sale for pieces of silver? Riveting for Jews? How much of Judas’ betrayal tale was shaped from these Jewish scriptural antecedents?3

Paul’s sole Last Supper reference, meanwhile, is customarily mistranslated as “the night when the Lord Jesus was betrayed;” Paul actually means “when ... Jesus delivered himself up to death” (matching Paul’s usage of the same verb elsewhere).4 To be questioned here is not the historicity of Judas but that of his betrayal of Jesus. Listings of Jesus’ disciples are early, but may have originally included only the specification, “Judas Iscariot” (without an addendum: “who betrayed Jesus” [Mk 3:19]). Illogically, Luke has Jesus appointing all the apostles to occupy judgment thrones after Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal (suggesting the betrayal motif is a later accretion to tradition [Luke 22:28ff.]). What of the historical backdrop of Mark (where the story first appears): Nero’s grievous scapegoating of Christians (64 CE) for Rome’s fire, torturing captured Christians into betraying erstwhile friends, even relatives -- cf. “brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child ... ” [Mk 13:9; cf. Tacitus, Annals, xv.34])? Was a story that Jesus himself had been “delivered up” by a close companion applied as a Gospel Dynamic to fortify later Christian betrayal-victims, assuring them that Jesus, having himself experienced this very plight, would also see them through theirs?


Exposure to a Gospel Dynamics way of teaching can empower lay Jews to articulate new perspectives -- internally to themselves and externally to family members, to Christian friends, to a broader Christian society, even to missionaries. It will be this kind of endeavor that readies Jews for the two aforementioned standard pedagogical approaches -- although now, to repeat, commencing concentration on the Jewish Jesus only after the initial phase of the learning process.

I empirically validate my approach autobiographically. Although a Quaker school, Haverford College compelled me to learn New Testament. I had befriended there Henry J. Cadbury, Harvard’s great scholar on Luke-Acts, who frequented Haverford’s campus with intention of retiring there. He pressured me to study about Jesus. I balked, but his cousin, William Cadbury, was Dean of Students, and that sealed the deal.

Seeking how to boost my flagging interest in this Gospel course, I canvassed library stacks for secondary Christian scholarship not on our syllabus. Thereby I first came to configure my notion of Gospel “devices” -- that I later recoined “Gospel Dynamics.” Thus early on I envisioned a “Gospel Dynamics” approach as potentially redounding to modern Jews’ sense of security precisely because it had redounded so to my own.

What better channel to impart this technique than teaching at Hebrew Union College’s Cincinnati campus, now the sole Jewish seminary in history requiring technical study of New Testament for ordination as “rabbi” -- a curricular upgrade in which my own track record played some role. By now more than three decades later, I have taught a Gospel Dynamics approach to well-over 1,000 rabbinical students as a prelude to my teaching them the Jewish Jesus. Following their ordination, many in turn have rechanneled this approach into New Testament offerings within their own synagogue adult education and guest speaker programming. Naturally, I myself do the same when keynoting Institutes for Christian Clergy, also when speaking in synagogue, church, and university venues -- reapplying the mandate of at least the Johannine Jesus (cited by our venerable Christian laywoman): “putting the food where the lambs can get it.”

When Christians themselves begin to spot Gospel historical traditions that all along may have been flashing caution signals against ready embrace, Jews in turn -- recoiling no more -- will cease to come across to Christians as stubborn or blind. Learning Gospel Dynamics as a means of holding their own in New Testament discourse will produce a comfort level finally readying Jews fully to welcome examining the Jesus figure directly. This is how I, at least, induced first myself, and thereafter Jews I have taught, eagerly to delve into Gospel texts when, previously, we had never approached reading the Gospels in any manner at all.


1 Best for Jews’ use: Gospel Parallels, Burton Throckmorton, Jr., ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1967).

2 Texts pertinent to this illustration: Jer 7:11, 14; 26:8, 10-11,15; 38:5, 14, 19; cf. Mk 11:17 & parr; 14:53 & parr; 14:58 & par; 14:64 and Matt 26:65; 27:24-25 and Jn 18:33; 19:8.

3 Ps 41:9; cf. Jn 13:18; 2 Sa 17:23; cf. Matt 27:5; Gen 37:26–28.

4 1 Cor. 11:23; cf. Rom 4:25; 8:32; Gal 2:20.

Comments (7)

Let me question the logic of Gospel Dynamics.
1. OBJECTIVES. I accept the objective of avoiding religious polemics but I'm not sure if they are avoided, rather than disguised, if we make it a controlling objective to minimise the reader's discomfort in the study of the text. You have to face the text as it is before you can make an eirenic approach to it.
2. HISTORICITY. If it is said that the New Testament in its final form is critical of Judaism then the discomfort inherent in that fact has to be faced. It could be argued that the NT is in this respect unfaithful to the historical Jesus - but that argument cannot even begin if we have, according to your suggestion, no handle on the question of historicity as far as it concerns Jesus.
3. HISTORY OF THE TEXT. We may say that we cannot retrieve the history of Jesus but that we can retrieve the history of the NT and there was in effect a proto-NT that was not so anti-Jewish. Even if this very controversial claim could be made out how much discomfort would it relieve? It would show, very disturbingly, that from a very early date the Christians made sure that the dominant version of their sacred text was developed increasingly and purposefully in an anti-Jewish direction.
I would suggest that we have to begin from the fact that there was intense controversy within first century Judaism. It's reasonable to talk of anti-Judaic sentiment within Judaism and it was this sentiment that escaped from the Jewish world and contributed some features to Christianity.

#1 - Martin - 08/22/2012 - 22:43

To Martin:

I welcome the tenor of your response but am frustrated that you have apparently missed the thrust of my essay. I am not trying to minimize Jewish readers' discomfort over the New Testament's anti-Judaism. My concern, rather, is to spark them to overcome their reticence to deal with this already. I do not want to shield Jews from religious polemics but to reverse almost 2,000 years of their taking refuge in ignorance of how to engage them -- this to their severe disadvantage. Why must NT be the sole arena where Jews prefer ignorance -- the very opposite of their paradigmatic approach to solving all other problems?

My assigned role in the seminary where I teach is to motivate Jews who, had they their druthers, might prefer skipping my class. Instead, "Gospel Dynamics" motivates them to flock to class and dive into studying what they now find intrinsically absorbing and cerebrally challenging. So here what I find missing is your recognition of how my using Gospel Dynamics constitutes a breakthrough that Jews have not sufficiently experienced before.

Since I am entirely unclear why you impute to me belief in an "in-effect proto-NT that was not so anti-Jewish" -- which you term a "very controversial claim" -- I state here that I not only hold no such view but do not understand what a "proto-NT" would mean.

Your suggestions about "historicity" and "history of the text" are, of course, standard for anyone already self-motivated to study NT. My book of 400+ pages -- as opposed to my brief essay limited to merely 2,500 words -- hones in on your concerns substantively and substantially, so I urge you to look there, if you are so moved. I thank you for the respectful spirit of your comment.

Michael J. Cook

#2 - Michael J. Cook - 08/26/2012 - 13:11

I am Jewish, and I have never read the New Testament, although I have seen movie versions of parts of the New Testament. Just like I wouldn't read the New Testament, I wouldn't read your book on why and how I should read it. Your students might find your techniques interesting, but they are taking your class because they are required to, so that does not prove that your technique will work for Jewish people who are not required to read the NT.

I don't see any reason to read it. It is not because I see it as anti-Jewish, but because I don't see why it would matter to me. I think Christianity is wrong and the NT is wrong. Should I read it because it exists and is famous and many other people have read it?

Kenneth Greifer

#3 - Kenneth Greifer - 08/26/2012 - 16:01

To: Kenneth Greifer

I thank you for your comment and empathize with it. I have essentially four responses:

[1] We have an asymmetry going between us. I understand your position, and respect it. Speaking autobiographically, I attended Forest Hills High School in Queens when it was 95% Jewish, and felt very much the way you now do. But this means that I ALSO have something to draw on that is remote from your experience: To make a fair judgment, we would have to see whether, if you replicated my own experience after I left NYC, you'd still hold your current stance.

When I attended Haverford College, west of the Hudson River (that's an expression), I was confronted with allegations of being "blind" to the intuitively obvious truths of the NT. Part of my exasperation was my inability to know what to say. Perhaps I needed to say nothing, but it gnawed at me and annoyed me, and angered me -- so much so that I actually went on to major in New Testament and THAT proved salutary beyond measure to me. That led to my assumption that the same could be salutary for other Jews.

[2] I have had the experience for more than three decades of seeing persons such as yourself follow the same path I myself once reluctantly chose but became intent on doing something to correct. You believe no corrective is necessary -- I apologize for using the word "corrective," but it has a purpose. For it was alumni themselves of the Hebrew Union College who petitioned our Administration to introduce the "corrective" of altering my course from an Elective to a required Core course. This detail casts your note in a radically new light.

It was the experiences of my 1,000+ students, now ordained congregation rabbis, asking their congregants to secure my book that is primarily responsible for its just completing its third printing. At one point (I imagine briefly?) my book was the fourth best-selling book on New Testament in North America, and now slightly more often purchased by Christians than even by Jews. And it is no popularization but a scholarly work accessible to lay readership. If I sound like a salesman I'm not: I'm simply enthused about a successful venture within my (academic) life. I only ask you here to consider that maybe I have "information" on my side of our "ledger" that you do not (yet?) have. Again, asymmetry.

[3] I spot a thought that may not have occurred to you: you seem to feel my book is a survey of NT, without your considering what I DO with the NT. Wouldn't you need to know that before making your ultimate judgment on whether to read it?

[4] If you have Jewish children, or are intermarried, or belong to a blended family, would you be interested at least in enhancing your family members' welfare in a Christian environment? For 33 years I have been enlisted to speak at Jewish summer camps on nothing but this topic, possibly the most commonly-requested topic by Jewish young people.

Jews whom I have convinced are a tributary breaking away from what has been the wary mainstream for almost two millennia. It is time for Jews to widen the tributary into a general course, leaving the old channel to dry up entirely. History is filled with Jews who have pioneered new paths and were viewed as odd -- but ultimately proven correct.

Nonetheless, I resonate very much with your position because it was once mine. With great thanks. Respectfully,

Michael J. Cook

#4 - Michael J. Cook - 08/26/2012 - 18:29

Dr. Cook,

When I read your article, I did not know you were a rabbi. It kind of sounded like someone, possibly not Jewish, trying to convince Jewish people to study the NT. That kind of bothered me.

I am interested in how Christianity uses the Hebrew Bible as proof of their beliefs. That is a topic that I have studied, but I am not interested in disproving the NT or knowing much about it. I think Jewish people need to know about the Hebrew Bible and how they explain it in a lot of detail, but so far I don't see the importance of the NT.
Now that I think about it, one of my close relatives recently converted to Christianity, and he is very interested in the NT.

I should think about this more.

Kenneth Greifer

#5 - Kenneth Greifer - 08/26/2012 - 20:42

I did not say that Jewish students were,on your view, Michael, to be made comfortable with anti-Judaism but with study of the NT: though I'm a little doubtful about what 'eviscerated discomfort' feels like: sounds a bit uncomfortable. By 'proto-NT' I mean the set of earlier versions and (Christian)sources underlying our canonical NT. I'd be surprised if this set were empty, though efforts to describe its contents are highly controversial, though pervasive in scholarship. G Dynamics seems to be a description to the effect that the overall tenor of the proto-NT was significantly different from that of the canonical version by being less anti-Jewish. (Mark is less anti-Jewish than Matthew; Mark's sources, part of the proto-NT, less than Mark.) This may be true but how comforting is it? To Christian students and readers, whose religion is revealed as highly inauthentic, significantly and unreasonably (even calamitously) changed from its original nature, acute discomfort would result. I cannot see how Jewish readers would obtain comfort on the basis of mutual respect for their Christian counterparts. Is comfort on any other basis genuine comfort?
However, I'll may feel rather churlish if I don't read your book.

#6 - Martin - 08/30/2012 - 20:07

To Martin:

You and I are using the word "comfort" differently. You are investing it with a meaning I do not in the least intend. All I mean by it is an end to the psychological "recoiling" from delving into the New Testament. You are inferring from my use of the word "comfort" something(s) entirely different.

I have read through our exchamge as well as my original piece. You appear to me to be bringing to our discussion your own sense of my meaning of "comfort" and not allowing my genuine sense to squeeze through.

To repeat, the only comfort I am hoping Jews can achieve is a way to end their instinctive psychological "recoiling" from delving into the New Testament

I hope this helps somewhat. Michael Cook

#7 - Michael J. Cook - 09/10/2012 - 23:12

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