The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels Edited, with an introduction and commentary, by Shaul Magid
Reviewed by Russ Resnik
Jesus is Jewish—it’s a truism not just in Messianic Jewish circles, but also in the wider worlds of biblical and historical scholarship. Use of the name “Yeshua” rather than “Jesus” reflects this truth. The open question, though, is just how is Yeshua Jewish? What kind of Jew was he?
The ongoing Jewish reclamation of Jesus, which responds to these questions in a variety of ways, has surprisingly deep roots, going back well into the nineteenth century. One little-known pioneer of this reclamation process was Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik, member of an illustrious family of rabbis and scholars. He wrote a commentary on the synoptic gospels that interprets Yeshua as a Jewish teacher decidedly within the norms of rabbinic Judaism, particularly of the Maimonidean variety. Soloveitchik states his hope for this commentary clearly on his dedication page:
While writing this commentary of the New Testament, I had no other goal . . . but to reconcile these two enemy sisters: the Church and the Synagogue. I wanted to prove that this centuries-old enmity was based on dreadful misunderstandings through false interpretations by everyone—Jews and Christians—that were made concerning the words of Yeshua and the Apostles, who tried to instill in humanity the love of ONE GOD and the love of one’s NEIGHBOR.1
Readers of the commentary can evaluate Soloveitchik’s diagnosis of the “dreadful misunderstandings through false interpretations by everyone.” But they might first wonder what would lead a nineteenth-century Orthodox rabbi of the most distinguished background to accept this assignment of reconciling the Church and the Synagogue. In his introduction to Soloveitchik’s commentary Shaul Magid, editor and annotator of the whole volume, places Soloveitchik within the wider context of Judaism’s encounter with Christianity in the modern era. This encounter led many Jews to defend, articulate, and sometimes rethink their faith as they interacted more deeply with Christianity and Christians than they’d been able to do in previous centuries. Soloveitchik was unusual among such Jews in developing a positive view of Christianity and the New Testament while maintaining his solid Orthodox commitments.
In the 1830s or 40s, Elijah Zvi seemed to fall in love with Christianity and began a lifelong project of composing a Hebrew commentary to the New Testament. Unlike other Jews in his time with similar interests, he did not convert, and we have no record as to what might have precipitated his interest.2
Soloveitchik’s love for the New Testament and the message of Yeshua combined with a deep commitment to Jewish tradition presages the modern Messianic Jewish movement, which also seeks to affirm both Yeshua and Judaism, although in a radically different way than Soloveitchik’s early formulation.
By the 1860s and 70s Soloveitchik’s profound interest had produced a two-volume work entitled Qol Qore (“A Voice Cries”, reflecting Isaiah 40:3). The first volume was an extended commentary on Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith”; the second volume a commentary on the synoptic gospels, of which the commentary on Luke has been lost. Magid conjectures that Soloveitchik wrote to both discourage Jews from converting—his interpretation of Yeshua is so compatible with rabbinic teaching that there’s no real reason for a Jew to convert to Christianity—and defend Judaism to Christians, since “Christianity needs rabbinic Judaism for its truth to shine.”3
Throughout his commentary Soloveitchik evidences a desire for Jewish-Christian understanding, but ironically this desire leads him to present an interpretation of Yeshua and his message that most Christians, as well as most Jews, would find unacceptable. It also runs counter to trends in academic scholarship, both in his own time and today.
One of Soloveitchik’s key ideas, for example, is that Yeshua’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew), which is at the core of the synoptic gospels, is actually a declaration of “the principle of [God’s] unity.”4 Thus, on Matthew 4:17—“From this time on Yeshua began calling out to proclaim and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is on the brink of arrival!’”— Soloveitchik comments: “Whoever wishes to repent with a pure heart will come very close to understanding that God is the king of the universe and that he is unique.” The kingdom of Heaven will arrive not in apocalyptic fulfilment or visible power, but as individuals begin to understand the uniqueness of God as king.
Another example of Soloveitchik’s strategy in bringing the gospels into alignment with rabbinic thinking is his treatment of the “son of man” texts. In Matthew 24:44, for example, according to Soloveitchik, Yeshua used that phrase to admonish his listeners,
Do not imagine that the Messiah is divine—God forbid. He is only a son of man (i.e. human) who eats, drinks, and takes a wife just like sons of men. But YHWH chose him to teach the entire world about the unity of the Creator.
An earlier “son of man” passage, Matthew 9:6, reads, “‘But in order that you may know that the son of man has the authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic, ‘Arise, pick up your bed, and walk home.’” Soloveitchik comments, “This is to say, every man has the authority to be strengthened in repentance and his sins will be forgiven him. There is nothing that stands between a person and repentance.” Magid notes on this passage, “Soloveitchik certainly knows that Matthew 9:6 is usually read as a messianic title and thus he deflects messianism to suggest that ‘son of man’ is simply a title of a pious man, stressing the centrality of repentance, and not a reference to a messianic figure.”5
Thus, Soloveitchik’s treatment of “son of man” is almost the opposite of that recently presented by Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin in The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: New Press, 2012), which Magid cites in his note on Matthew 10:23.6 Indeed, Boyarin’s whole approach is a polar opposite to Soloveitchik’s. Soloveitchik seeks to resolve differences between the New Testament and rabbinic Judaism by denying Yeshua’s messianic claims, and especially any claim to divinity, recasting Yeshua as a gifted Talmud teacher in the Maimonidean camp. Boyarin brings the New Testament into alignment with Judaism, or at least with its early forms, by showing how the idea of a divine and exalted Messiah arises from within the diverse Judaism of Yeshua’s time. Boyarin, although not without his detractors, draws upon resources and scholarship far beyond Soloveitchik’s bounds. In terms of such scholarship, Soloveitchik is impaired by his unbending allegiance to Maimonides.
The primary value of The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament, then, is not as a guide to the first-century background and the original manuscripts of Matthew and Mark. Rather, it is a fascinating look at one of the earliest attempts to reconcile the gospel accounts with rabbinic Judaism—in this case with the Judaism shaped by Maimonides—and a solid resource for comparing rabbinic texts, mostly from the Talmud, with the gospels.
On numerous occasions, though, Soloveitchik’s use of rabbinic texts provides important insights into the gospels within their own context. One example is his treatment of Matthew 26:17, usually translated like this: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus” (NRSV or ESV). This sort of translation presents a difficulty, because the disciples come to Yeshua asking where to make preparations to “eat the Passover,” which doesn’t make sense if the feast of Unleavened Bread has already begun and was on its first day. Soloveitchik draws upon the Tanakh and the Talmud to show that “the first day” in this context is referring to the day preceding Passover, the day of Erev Passover on which all the leaven has been removed.
The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament also provides valuable insights into the gospels on a more devotional level. We can turn to another “son of man” passage, Matthew 12:40, as an example: “For just as Yonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, so, too, will the son of man be in the heart of the ground for three days and nights.” Soloveitchik notes the apparent contradiction between “three days and nights” and “on the third day,” which is the chronology of the resurrection in the rest of the NT texts. “However, it is known by everyone,” he writes, “that he died on erev Shabbat and that on Sunday morning, he was not to be found in his grave (Mattai 28; Markos 16).” This suggests to Soloveitchik that the sign of Yonah isn’t primarily about the resurrection at all, but something else. Furthermore, he notes that the resurrected Yeshua appears specifically to his disciples rather than to the general population, and asks whether the scholars and Pharisees, who in this passage are asking for a sign, would accept the disciples’ report of a sign when they are unmoved by signs they’ve witnessed firsthand. Soloveitchik uses these discrepancies to argue that the sign of Yonah is a call to repentance.
Pay attention to what happened to Yonah when he stubbornly refused to go where YHWH had sent him, and what the Holy One, blessed be he, did. He appointed a large fish to swallow him, and he was there three days and three nights. Afterward, he went and called out to the people to repent. You must also remove evil from your hearts and return to YHWH, for what happened to Yonah is likely to happen to you.
This is not the last word on Matthew 12:38–42, of course, but it’s a fresh and insightful contribution to the discussion. As a congregational rabbi who has lived through years of disputes about the exact timing of Messiah’s death and resurrection based on this passage, I found Soloveitchik’s treatment compelling and pastorally deep. His treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7, is also particularly rich and relevant.
The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament employs the Franz Delitzsch version of the Gospels in the English translation published by Vine of David.7 It’s not clear in the original manuscripts of Soloveitchik’s commentary whether he used this version (in its Hebrew original), but it was already widespread in Soloveitchik’s time, and Delitzsch was respected as a scholar and Hebraist among many Jews as well as Christians. The translation flows well with the text of Soloveitchik’s comments, which were translated from Hebrew (in his commentary on Matthew) and French (in the commentary on Mark). Translator Jordan Gayle Levy has done an admirable job of interpreting multiple languages and sources into a clear and readable English text. Finally, the introduction by Shaul Magid provides a fascinating and insightful account of the nineteenth-century encounter between Judaism and Christianity. It doesn’t see beyond the “either-or” dilemma of the times, in which a Jew who embraces a divine Messiah in Yeshua must convert to a different religion, but it effectively portrays that dilemma.
Not all readers will agree with Soloveitchik’s assessment of what kind of Jew Yeshua was. Nevertheless The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament provides fresh insights into the Gospels, if not a systematic commentary on them. It’s also an essential guide to Jewish perspectives on Yeshua and Christianity. Soloveitchik’s book belongs on the shelf of every student of the Gospels, and everyone interested in Jewish-Christian relations and Messianic Judaism . . . even if it’s not clear where it should be placed on the bookshelf.
1 The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels, Edited, with an introduction and commentary, by Shaul Magid (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 49.
2 Bible, Talmud, and New Testament, 5.
3 Bible, Talmud, and New Testament, 20.
4 Comment on Mark 1:5.
5 Bible, Talmud, and New Testament, 143; fn. 113.
6 Bible, Talmud, and New Testament, 155, fn. 132. See also his citation of Boyarin regarding “son(s) of God”, 101, fn. 68.
7 The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels: A Hebrew-English Translation (Marshfield, MO: Vine of David, 2011).