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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

April 2, 2009

Catholic and Jewish Dialogue

This is the time of year when Christians and Jews share two important holy days and seasons: Easter and Passover. This year, Easter Sunday is on April 12. Passover is celebrated from April 9 to 15. On Good Friday, Catholics pray especially for their Jewish brothers and sisters. Use the opportunity to explain some of the common and different beliefs between Catholics and Jews. The following material is reprinted from

Exploring the Religions of the World by Nancy Clemmons, SNJM.

Relationship Between Catholics and Jews
The relationship between Catholics and Jews is unique indeed. Catholicism is rooted in Judaism historically, scripturally, liturgically, and theologically. No two religious traditions have so much in common. We both believe in one God (CCC, 228). We share Abraham as our father in faith, the first to believe in the one God (CCC, 72). We believe God has made multiple covenants with the Jewish people—with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David—and that God has broken no covenant (CCC, 71). We know God has broken no promises. We affirm God’s revelation on Mount Sinai to Moses, then to the Jewish people, and then to all mankind (CCC, 72). We accept the Ten Commandments as a minimum guide for moral living (CCC, 1980). We pray the same psalms. We believe that God has spoken to us through the prophets. We accept the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God, and it is contained in the Old Testament. We know that at the end of time we will see that history has meaning, that there will be a final judgment, and that the world will be redeemed (CCC, 1060). Yet, those things that are common to both religious traditions are also the sources of our differences in the following areas.

The most noted difference between Catholics and Jews is in the person of Jesus. Both agree Jesus was a historical figure. Jesus was born of a Jewish woman named Mary, raised in a traditional Jewish home in the Jewish homeland, was a charismatic itinerant preacher and wonder-worker, and died a criminal, crucified by Romans around 30 CE (AD). Here the commonalities end and the differences begin.

Jews still expect a Messiah or messianic age to come. Jews believe that the Messiah (“the anointed one”) will be a wise person who will reestablish the House of David and that he will bring about the messianic era when the “lion shall lie down with the lamb and swords shall be turned into plowshares.” Catholics believe the Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. While Jews at the time of Jesus were looking for a Messiah who would be a warrior-king, a political figure, from the House of David, Jesus of Nazareth was a spiritual rather than a political figure. The coming of the Messiah is the inauguration of God’s reign on earth. It is a spiritual, moral reign rather than an earthly reign, for Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. The Gospel of Luke cites Jesus reading in the synagogue from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4: 18–21)

At the end of time, it will be revealed that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and Redeemer for the entire world. For Christians, the end of time will be the Second Coming of the Messiah, while for Jews it will be the first coming.

Jesus is something else besides the Messiah, the Anointed One of God (CCC, 453). Jesus is God. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). God became one of us in Jesus. At Jesus’ conception, the human nature of Jesus was perfectly united with the divine nature of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity (CCC, 479). Jesus is not part human and part divine. Rather, Jesus is truly God and truly human (CCC, 480). God became one of us in Jesus to bring about our salvation, to reconcile us to God. This is the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Jews expect the coming Messiah to be a human being, anointed by God, but not divine. Jews see no reason for a mediator between them and God. Each person has the power within to reconcile, to make right, with God.

However, the doctrine of the Incarnation is not totally foreign to Jews. Both Jews and Christians believe the Word of God was present at creation, for God spoke, and it came to be. While for Christians the Word became Incarnate in the Person of Jesus, for Jews, the Word became Incarnate in a book. These are not the same or even similar doctrines. Rather, they both say that God is present to us through something concrete. For Christians, the tangible is Jesus, who is truly God and truly human. For Jews, the tangible is the Torah. It, too, has a divine and a human nature. The words of Torah make God present in the midst of the human reader.

To Catholics, God’s inspired word in Scripture is contained in more than the Hebrew Bible. All Christians accept also the New Testament as revealed scripture. While Jews accept the New Testament as documents written, for the most part, by first-century Jews, they do not accept the New Testament as revealed by God. Christians commonly believe that the Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew Bible, though that is not exactly true. The Church included seven books (1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Sirach, and Wisdom), which were mostly written in Greek after 300 CE, not included in the Hebrew Bible B.C. (CE). These seven books are referred to as deuterocanonical—“second canon”—to show that they are not accepted in the Jewish canon.

The word “testament” means “covenant.” So, while Christians could say that their scriptures are made up of the Old Covenant and New Covenant, as noted above, God made multiple covenants with the Jewish people, the most important of which is the covenant on Mount Sinai. God does not break covenants. God’s covenants are eternal. Jesus did not enter human history to render the Old Covenant void.

There are striking similarities between the annual Passover meal of the Jews and the daily Eucharistic celebration of Catholics, also known as the Mass or the Lord’s Supper. In each there are readings from scripture, the offering, blessing, and fracturing of unleavened bread, as well as the offering, blessing, and consuming of wine. Even the beginning of the blessings can be similar. Jews pray, “Blessed are you, King of the universe,” and Catholics pray, “Blessed are you, God of all creation.”

Holy Thursday and Passover
There is a connection also between Easter and Passover. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. The Passover is in commemoration of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. In this historical event, Jewish slaves in Egypt were brought to freedom through the leadership of Moses. After many attempts to get the pharaoh to release the slaves through the use of plagues, it was the last plague that caused the release. In the last plague, the first-born son would be slain. To avoid the killing of the first-born son, the Jews were to slaughter an unblemished lamb and mark the post and lintel of their dwelling with the blood of the lamb. The angel of death would “pass over” any dwelling that was marked with blood. The death of first-born sons was too much for the pharaoh, and he let the Jews go free. Christians see Jesus as the Lamb of God who was slain and whose blood released believers from the slavery of sin to freedom in Christ Jesus.

Pentecost and Shavuot
The Christian feast of Pentecost and the Jewish fest of Shavuot are related. In fact, Shavuot is known also as Pentecost. While Shavuot means “weeks,” referring to seven weeks after Passover, the name Pentecost refers to fifty days after Passover. Shavuot began as a spring harvest feast, but it is better known as a celebration of when God gave the Torah and the Mosaic Law to the Jews through Moses. This momentous occasion on Mount Sinai is when the Jews became a covenantal people. When the first followers of Jesus were celebrating Shavuot/Pentecost in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit came upon them. They, too, became a people. Pentecost is sometimes known as the “birthday of the Church.” In accepting Jesus, the Mosaic Law was not nullified, but fulfilled.

  • Research four areas in which Jews and Catholics are in agreement.
  • What are some other topics that can further Jewish-Catholic dialogue in a positive way.

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