Reading the New Testament in Israeli State Education

All the textbook authors, in one way or another, grappled with the matter of the acceptance of Jesus as the messiah and the success and spread of Christianity – a puzzle that has confounded Jews for centuries. In this vein, the distinction between Jesus, the loyal Jew, and Paul, the zealot for Christianity, was stressed.

See Also: "Jesus Was a Jew": Presenting Christians and Christianity in Israeli State Education (Lexington Books; Illustrated edition, 2020).

By Orit Ramon
The Open University of Israel
December 2020


For decades, Jewish-Christian polemics were based on perceptions held by each side about the other. These polemics were nourished, inter alia, by Jewish contempt for the way the Christians used the Old Testament as a key to reading the New Testament (ha-brit ha-hadasha, in Hebrew; literally “the new covenant”) and as a key to the concept of Christians as the “new Israel” – the Chosen People. Jews used to refer to the New Testament as “evan-guelions” - although a phonetic transcription from the Greek word for “gospels”—evangelion—in Hebrew means sheets of paper/pages.

On the Christian side, the contempt was to the “blindness of the Jews,” who did not see the (Christian) truth in their own (Hebrew) Old Testament. Although Augustine's “Jewish Witness Theology” made it incumbent on Christians to guard the Jews, it also reduced their importance in the eyes of Christians. The existence of Jews was viewed as mere testimony to the antiquity of the scriptures, which contained the prophecies and testimonies for Jesus’ messianism. Thus, acceptance of the New Testament as an integral part of the Bible became a central criterion for defining Christians, while its rejection defined a separate Jewish identity, especially during the long coexistence of Jews as an exilic minority in Christian Europe.

One could assume that following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Israeli control of Christian holy sites in Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War, and Christians representing a tiny minority in Israel, Jewish-Israelis would let go of past enmity. Moreover, with the acquisition of political power, the publication of the Catholic “Nostra Aetate,” papal visits to Israel, or Israeli ties with American Evangelists, one could expect a waning of exilic Jewish attitudes toward Christianity as a hegemonic oppressor and of the role of Jewish-Christian polemics in Israelis’ approach to Christians and Christianity. 

However, as I demonstrate in my new book “Jesus was a Jew”: Presenting Christians and Christianity in Israeli State Education, co-authored with Ines Gabel and Varda Wasserman (Lexington 2020), Israel’s Jewish citizens have not shed the historical image of Christianity as a competing and threatening entity nor as an “other” to be used for constructing Jewish identity.

In the present paper, I will demonstrate the role this historical image still has by presenting a few examples of how the New Testament is presented in Israeli Jewish state schools, including curricula planning, textbook content, and teaching practices.

Israeli state school curricula were drafted immediately upon the state’s establishment. The curricula in general, and the history curricula (which include references to Christianity) in particular, were adapted to the national historiographic outlines and reflected the ideology of statehood striving for broad consensus in the educational and political realms. Curricula were recruited to create a common basis for the establishment of the fledgling Israeli society. In the curricula, which were Eurocentric at their core (and remain so today),[1] the discussion of Christianity had an important role: the teaching about Christianity – nearly always Catholicism – was incorporated into the history of the Jews in exile. The Christian religion and the Church were presented simplistically as a powerful political, social, and religious force that threatened – both physically and culturally – Jewish existence.

This presentation was meant to serve the Zionist narrative, which negated Jewish dependent life in exile as well as Jewish religious heritage and presented the exilic legacy as an existential threat to the reborn, independent nation. Thus, the historical religious tension between Jews and Christians was harnessed in the construction of the new national Jewish identity. The interconnection between the portrayal of  Christianity and the new national Jewish-Israeli identity forged in the first curricula did not fade with time, although it was slightly modified over the years. The increase in Jewish-heritage studies (especially from the 1990s on), as well as Shoah (Holocaust) studies, only bolstered this portrayal. Thus, for example, based on curricular instructions, a history textbook published in 1948 and still in use during the 1960s, portrayed Jesus in the following way:

Jesus, born in Nazareth, learned Torah from the Pharisees, began associating with the Essenes, and was immersed in the Jordan and found followers who, owing to his healing, admired him and believed him to be a holy person. Over time, he himself began to believe that he was sent by God. Then he began preaching that the Jews need no longer observe the commandments as the Sages taught, but rather, that he has the power to elucidate the words of the Torah himself…. After his crucifixion, his followers, who believed him to be the son of God, fabricated stories about him…. these disciples spread throughout the world to find more believers…among the Jews, these emissaries found but a few believers, but among the pagans, many joined them.[2]

Although no direct quotations from the New Testament are used, two important claims emerge from this account. The first concerns Jesus believing himself to be the messiah, based on the beliefs of those around him until, in his arrogance, he renounces observance of the commandments. The second relates to pagan converts who, unlike the Jews, are persuaded by the apostles to join them in their faith. The claim that Jesus deviated from the “true Jewish path” and the claim of Jewish superiority are clear: Although the pagans were won over by Christianity, the Jews were not.

All the textbook authors, in one way or another, grappled with the matter of the acceptance of Jesus as the messiah and the success and spread of Christianity – a puzzle that has confounded Jews for centuries. In this vein, the distinction between Jesus, the loyal Jew, and Paul, the zealot for Christianity, was stressed.

Not only textbooks but also researchers, both Jewish and Christian, stressed the historic Jesus’ Judaism.[3] In the Israeli context, however, it became ingrained, particularly following the publication of historian Joseph Klausner’s Jesus of Nazareth in 1922. In that work, Jesus the Jew’s image as the “salt of the earth” was tied to the Jewish national rebirth,[4] enabling (as it still does) the adoption of the historic Jesus as a Jew, while rejecting Paul and Christianity. Moreover, it enabled the affirmation of the Zionist chronology, emphasizing Jewish self-determination in the ancient Land of Israel and the arguments stemming from that chronology surrounding the Jews’ return and their right to settle their land.

Textbook authors followed this concept by highlighting, on the one hand, the Jewish bond with the Land of Israel through a kind of reversal of Augustine's “Jewish witness theology,” identifying Jesus as a Jew who lived there, and on the other hand, stressing Christian deviation from the righteous Jewish path. A 2002 textbook summarizing Jesus' life story says that “Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died as a Jew. He never intended to found another religion, but nonetheless, he became the central figure of the Christian faith.”[5]

Moreover, a 2001 textbook still used in many classrooms bases its discussion on Jesus' image on research ambivalence about the reliability of the New Testament as a historical source: “We know little about Jesus’ life, and what we know is not always reliable. There is even dispute over the year of his birth…” It is acknowledged that events are presented “according to New Testament accounts.” In the spirit of the 1975 history curricular directives, an attempt to advance a methodological historical discourse can be noted, although the implementation of critical historical methodology specifically – and only – in the discussion of the New Testament, makes one raise an eyebrow. Pupils actually understand the discussion as a disputation of the credibility of the Christian scriptures and narrative in an effort to claim the lack of a basis for the Christian religion – as Jews claimed in the past. On the other hand, there are teachers who treat the New Testament differently. For example, Eran, a secular teacher who became newly religious and teaches in the rural school network, says, “The thing with the gospel is a little bit like what we call Jewish pride. The message of monotheism was born of neither Islam nor of Christianity.”

Eran is one of the few teachers who actually teach about Christianity, Jesus, or the Gospels. Since the subject is marginal in Israel’s state school curriculum, it continues to be negligible in the teaching plan of most teachers. Those who choose to teach the subject do it consciously and deliberately. Of these teachers, the non-religious generally prefer studying the New Testament with their students instead of reading the textbook.

It is worth mentioning that most teachers who choose to expand upon Christianity beyond what is required in the curriculum teach in highly-rated schools whose students come from prosperous homes. From the teachers' perspective, teaching about Christianity establishes both themselves and their pupils as an elite versed in concepts and knowledge of the world not available to most of the population. Familiarity with Western culture in general, of which knowledge about Christianity holds a central part, thus renders them less provincial and more cosmopolitan. 

Vered, a history teacher in a secular school, says, “My objective in teaching about Christianity is familiarity with Western culture... Studying about Christianity is part of a “package,” and understanding Europe today is impossible without understanding its fundamental assumptions.” Moreover, an appreciable segment of the teachers views teaching about Christians and Christianity as an opportunity to discuss the “Other” in Israeli society and as preparation for shaping students' attitudes toward Israel’s Arab and Palestinian populations and their political worldviews in general.

Other teachers view the importance of teaching about Christianity differently. Avraham, a history, civics, and Land of Israel studies teacher in a prestigious national-religious junior high, says,

Today’s world is overwhelmingly non-Jewish, so one must know who you’re facing. This knowledge [of Christianity] is power…when somebody argues with you about Christianity, you’ll know how to respond. I’m constantly telling [my pupils], “Guys, we’re Jews. Stop trying to ingratiate with non-Jews. Period! Be you, so they respect you!” That’s my motto… Nothing will help: a Jew is a Jew. The gentiles always remind us of it. We forget, and they remind us.

To achieve both his aims a knowledge of Christianity while reinforcing Jewish identity, Avraham chooses to teach about Christianity from Jewish sources, mainly the Talmud and the Kuzari,[6] ignoring other historical sources, certainly Christian ones. Avraham adds, “If historical events are referred to in the Talmud and it appears in the textbook, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to show it… as the source for Jesus becoming Christian is in the Talmud.” For Avraham, teaching about Christianity is a tool for presenting Judaism’s superiority as a religion that goes deep, is complex, and has a thick rulebook delineating beliefs and behaviors that challenge its adherents, rendering it a religion to be taken more seriously than Christianity.

In fact, as shown above, the reading of the New Testament and the portrayal of Christianity in Israeli Jewish state schools reflect a “translation” of Jewish attitudes toward Christians and Christianity to the realm of national concepts. Although differently approached in religious and secular schools, these attitudes still define Israeli-Jewish identity, vis-à-vis the Christian (mainly Catholic) “Other.”


[1] Arie Kizel, Subservient History: A Critical Analysis of History Curricula and Textbooks in Israel, 1948–2000 (Tel Aviv: MoFeT, 2008), 70-82 [Hebrew].

[2] Moshe Hershko, Israel and the Nations: Their Histories up to the Completion of the Talmud (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1962), 174–175 [Hebrew].

[3] Paula Fredrikson analyzed the various characteristics that researchers have attributed to Jesus in “What You See Is What You Get: Context and Content in Current Research on the Historical Jesus,” Theology Today 52/1 (1995): 75–90.

[4] Neta Stahl, “Jesus as the New Jew: Zionism and the Literary Representation of Jesus,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 11 (2012): 2–3.

[5] Tzipi Eldar and Lily Yafeh, Greeks, Jews, and Romans in the Ancient World: History for 6th Grade (Tel Aviv: Maalot, 2002), 216, 221 [Hebrew]. The same appears in the teacher’s guide by Esti Rhein, In the Days of Greece and Rome: Teacher’s Guide (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Books, 1996), 84–85 [Hebrew].

[6] The Kuzari, or The Book of Refutation and Proof in Support of the Abased Religion, is one of the most famous Medieval Spanish-Jewish polemical works, completed around 1140. Judah Ha-Levi’s Kitab al Khazari, Hartwig Hirschfeld (trans.) (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1905). A new translation soon to be published by Barry Kogan.

Article Comments

Submitted by Kenneth Greifer on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 05:27


I think there is a difference between teaching Christianity and the New Testament. Christianity is a religion with beliefs based on the New Testament, but it adds a lot of beliefs that are not explicitly stated in the New Testament like the Sabbath day being on Sunday. You also have other interpretations like in Messianic Judaism. I don't think anyone has to read the New Testament to understand Christianity. There is no point to it.
I am Jewish and I have never read the New Testament, and I don't plan to ever read it because I have heard enough about it here in America and I have seen a little bit of it in TV movies. I get the gist of it without reading it or watching whole movies about it.
In a way, none of this matters because it doesn't matter what they teach in school. What matters is what happens outside of school, and I predict in the future that many Jewish people, especially in Israel, will be converting to Messianic Judaism in the future, unless Jewish people come up with better arguments against Christianity. I have read and watched videos of debates between Jews and Christians and I think the Jewish arguments are pretty weak, except about the virgin birth prophecy that Christians claim is in Isaiah. I think it is just a matter of time.
Of course, very religious Jewish people might not convert because they don't go by the Hebrew Bible as much as the Talmud, so they would be harder to convince.
Kenneth Greifer

Submitted by David Madison on Thu, 12/03/2020 - 09:03


The attempt to "rescue" Jesus from Christianity is a hopeless one. It depends on the idea that Paul corrupted the "original" message of Jesus and his followers. Paul supposedly turned Jesus the Jewish holy man into a pagan demigod. It's an idea that has been roundly rejected by NT scholars.

In reality there is no reason to think that Paul was preaching anything at odds with the Jerusalem church or with the spirit of Judaism. The one thing that stands out in the Old Testament is that Israel was under constant threat from idolatry. Israel was surrounded by idol-worshippers who might lure the people into idolatry themselves or destroy them. Israel could never be safe as long as it was surrounded by idolaters.

The only solution to the problem was to destroy the idols. But how could that be achieved? What could Israel do against such overwhelming odds? The answer was Christ. After the Resurrection, the process of conquering the idols began and it continued until they were more or less all wiped out. This was an extraordinary achievement and it was done in Christ's name.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.