Encyclopedia > Comparing and contrasting Judaism and Christianity

  Article Content

Comparing and contrasting Judaism and Christianity

Table of contents

Comparing and Contrasting Judaism and Christianity

Many people hold that Judaism and Christianity are part of the same "Judaeo-Christian tradition", and that the beliefs of the two religions are basically similar. Others disagree, pointing out that the two religions have widely differing world-views. Both of these views have a basis in fact; the article "Judaeo-Christian tradition focuses on similarities, and this article focuses on differences.

One problem with the notion of a "Judaeo-Christian tradition" is that neither Judaism or Christianity is monolithic. Tremendous variations occur in both religions which have influenced each other over the past 2,000 years. Moreover, Judaism and Christianity each have widely diverging views of their respective relationship to the other. Persecution of Jews, including pogroms was common throughout Christian Europe. Organized violence by their neighbours, restrictive land ownership regulations, professional prohibitions, mandatory dress codes and ecclesiastical rules restricting marriages between Christians and Jews all had detrimental effects on Jewish Cultures. There is a growing all-faith dialogue to reconcile differences between the two groups. Some geo-political ecumenical groups are attempts by sub groups to gain legitimacy from each other. Christians emphasize common historical heritage and religious continuity with the ancient spiritual lineage of the Jews.

The nature of religion: national versus universal

Judaism does not characterize itself as a religion (although one can speak of the Jewish religion and religious Jews). The subject of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) is the history of the Children of Israel (also called Hebrews), especially in terms of their relationship with God. Thus, Judaism has also been characterized as a culture or as a civilization. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan defines Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. One crucial sign of this is that one need not believe, or even do, anything to be Jewish; the historic definition of 'Jewishness' requires only that one be born of a Jewish mother, or that one convert to Judaism in accord with Jewish law. (Today, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews also include those born of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers if the children are raised as Jews.)

To Jews, Jewish peoplehood is closely tied to their relationship with God, and thus has a strong theological component. This relationship is encapsulated in the notion that Jews are a chosen people. Although many non-Jews have taken this as a sign of arrogance or exclusivity, Jewish scholars and theologians have emphasized that a special relationship between Jews and God does not in any way preclude other nations having their own relationship with God. For Jews, being "chosen" fundamentally means that Jews have chosen to obey a certain set of laws (see Torah and halakha) as an expression of their covenant with God. Jews hold that other nations and peoples are not required or expected to obey these laws, and face no penalty for not obeying them. Thus, as a national religion, Judaism has no problem with the notion that others have their own paths to God (or "salvation").

Christianity, on the other hand, is characterized by its claim to universality, which marks a break with Jewish identity. As a religion claiming universality, Christianity has had to define itself in relation with religions that make radically different claims about Gods. Christians believe that Christianity represents the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and the nation of Israel, that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.

This crucial difference between the two religions has other implications. For example, conversion to Judaism is more like a form of adoption (i.e. becoming a member of the nation, in part by metaphorically becoming a child of Abraham), whereas conversion to Christianity is explicitly a declaration of faith. Depending on the denomination, this conversion has a social component, as the individual is in many ways adopted into the Church, with a strong family model.

In contrast to the cultural identity shared by Jews, Christianity has been incorporated by many different cultures around the world. In most cases, there has been at least some difficulty in discerning which teachings and practices are central to Christianity and cannot be changed, and which are "merely" cultural and can be adapted to a new culture without compromising the faith. The doctrine of the Incarnation has often been applied to mean that the Church itself can be enfleshed in a new cultural setting without compromising its essence.


Both Jews and Christians believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Tanach (Christian Old Testament, Hebrew Bible), the creator of the universe. Both religions reject the view that God is entirely immanent, and within the world as a physical presence. Both religions reject the view that God is entirely transcendent, and thus separate from the world. Both religions reject atheism, on the one hand, and polytheism, on the other. (Reform Judaism does not completely reject atheism, although it does encourage theism.)

Both religions agree that God shares both transcendent and immanent qualities. How these religions resolve this issue is where the religions differ. Christianity posits that God is a trinity; in this view God exists as three distinct persons which share a single divine essence, or substance. In those three there is one, and in that one there are three; the one God is indivisible, while the three persons are distinct and unconfused. Judaism sees God as a unity, and views trinitarianism as both incomprehensible and a violation of the Bible's teaching that God is one.

Some Jewish and Christian philosophers hold that due to these differences, it may well be that Jews and Christians don't believe in the same god at all. The majority Jewish view, codified in Jewish law, is that Christians do worship the same God that Jews do. The vast majority of Christians have always held that they worship the same God as the Jews.

The Messiah

Jews believe that a descendant of King David will one day appear to restore the Kingdom of Israel. Jews refer to this person as a moshiach, translated as messiah in English and christos in Greek. The Hebrew word 'moshiach' (messiah) means 'anointed one,' and refers to a mortal human being. The moshiach is held to be a human being who will be a descendant of King David, and who will usher in a messianic era of peace and prosperity for Israel and all the nations of the world. The traditional Jewish understanding of the messiah is non-supernatural, and is best elucidated by Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), in his commentary on the Talmud. In brief, he holds that the job description, as such, is this:

All of the people Israel will come back to Torah; The people of Israel with be gathered back to the land of Israel; The Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt; Israel will live among the nations as an equal, and will be strong enough to defend herself; Eventually, war, hatred and famine will end, and an era of peace and prosperity will come upon the Earth.

Christians use the term messiah to refer to Jesus, who they believe was not a normal human being. Rather, Christians hold Jesus to be the son of God in a literal sense, fully human, and simultaneously divine, fully God. In this view, Jesus the messiah is the son of God who offers salvation to all humans. Readers should read the Wikipedia entries on Jewish eschatology, messiah, and Jesus Christ to learn more about the differences between these two concepts.

Faith vs. Good deeds

Judaism teaches that the purpose of the Torah is to show that deeds are considered by God to be more imporant than beliefs. Although the Torah commands Jews to believe in God, Jews see belief in God as neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being Jewish. The Torah condemns the polytheistic and pagan religions of the near-east that existed at this time.

Based on elements of the New Testament, much of Christianity also teaches that God wants us to perform good deeds; many others hold that faith is necessary for salvation. Both views are based on texts in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament) that are quoted in the New Testament. The major theological innovation of the New Testament is to teach that beliefs (such as belief in Jesus as the son of God) are considered by God to as important as one's actions. In this view, holding correct beliefs is necessary for salvation. This is especially so in Protestantism; many hold that beliefs and actions are both essential, each encouraging the other (See entry on Eastern Orthodox Christianity).

Sin and Original Sin

Sin is the idea that people make mistakes or offenses against God. Original Sin is the idea that a newborn baby has guilt for sin before taking any action to offend God.

Judaism teaches that humans are born morally pure; Jews have no concept of Original Sin, and do not accept it. Instead, Judaism affirms that people are born with a yetzer hatov (in some views, a tendency towards goodness, in others, a tendency towards having a productive life and a tendency to be concerned with others) and with a yetzer hara (in some views, a tendency towards evil, and in others, a tendency towards base or animal behavior and a tendency to be selfish.) Thus, all human beings have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take.

The Rabbis recognize a positive value to the yetzer hara: one tradition identifies it with God's observation on the last day of creation that His accomplishment was "very good" (God's work on the preceding days was just described as "good") and explain that without the yetzer ha'ra there would be no marriage, children, commerce or other fruits of human labor; the implication is that yetzer ha'tov and yetzer ha'ra are best understood not as moral categories of good and evil but as selfless versus selfish orientations.

Jews recognize two kinds of "sin," offenses against other people, and offenses against God. Offenses against God may be understood as violation of a contract (the covenant between God and the Children of Israel). In a post-Temple world, Jews believe that right action (as opposed to right belief) is the way for a person to atone for one's sins.

Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states "One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated 'I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice".

The Babylonian Talmud teaches that "Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one's table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]." (Tractate Berachot, 55a.)

The liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh HaShanah[?] and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (righteous charity) atone for sin.

Christianity interprets the Biblical story of Adam and Eve as a story of the first sin, the consequence of which was to both make man mortal and also aware of the consequences of his/her actions (i.e. man gained free will). Paul in Romans and First Corinthians in the New Testament placed special emphasis on this doctrine, and stressed that belief in Jesus would allow Christians to overcome death and attain salvation in the hereafter. (In contrast, Judaism did not believe that faith in Jesus, nor even God, provides salvation.) Some interpret the New Testament as teaching that rejection of Jesus as the path to salvation is a willful disobedience and rebellion against God. Whatever the origin of sin, Christianity teaches that sin separates everyone from God, and, without salvation (see below), that person's separation from God will be enforced, causing such a person to be sentenced to Hell, or in some views, Limbo or Purgatory.

Under Augustine the doctrine of Original sin was articulated, teaching the taint of Adam's original sin is inherited by all people at birth. Nothing a person does in their life can remove this taint. The status of this teaching has differed among the various Christian Churches. It took on greater prominence in Catholic Christianity and lesser in most Protestant Christian denominations. Augustine wrote in Latin in the fourth century, but his writings were not translated into Greek until the fourteenth century. Consequently, Eastern Christianity has never taught that guilt is inherited and began repudiating this idea once they learned of it. They teach that we inherit a corrupted or damaged human nature in which the tendency to do bad is greater, but that each person is only guilty of their own sins. By participating in the life of the church, each person's human nature is healed and it becomes easier to do good; at the same time, the Christian becomes more acutely aware of his or her shortcomings.

Salvation and attaining an afterlife

Both Jews and Christians believe that there will be some sort of afterlife. Protestant Christianity generally posits that one can be saved through the acceptance of Jesus as a saviour, although some variants of Protestantism do teach that salvation is available to followers of other faiths as well.

Catholicism traditionally taught that "there is no salvation outside the Church", which thus denied salvation to non-Catholic Christians as well as non-Christians; Catholicism reversed this position in Vatican II, which said that "the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator", thus potentially extending salvation to other monotheistic faiths. Vatican II further affirmed that salvation was available to people who had not even heard of Jesus. However, later official Vatican position papers have led some to question the Church's commitment to ecumenism. The current Pope has personally endorsed a document called "Dominus Iesus", published in August 2000, by Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It has been ratified and confirmed by Pope John Paul II "with sure knowledge and by his apostolic authority." This document states that people outside of Christianity are "gravely deficient" in their relationship to God, and that non-Catholic Christian communities had "defects". Jewish and Muslim groups have expressed distress at this disparagement of their faiths.

In response to these criticisms, Pope John Paul II on October 2 of that year emphasized that this document did not say that non-Christians were denied salvation: "this confession does not deny salvation to non-Christians, but points to its ultimate source in Christ, in whom man and God are united". The pope then, on December 6, issued a statement to further emphasize that the Church continued to support the position of Vatican II that salvation was available to believers of other faiths: "The gospel teaches us that those who live in accordance with the Beatitudes--the poor in spirit, the pure of heart, those who bear lovingly the sufferings of life--will enter God's kingdom." He further added, "All who seek God with a sincere heart, including those who do not know Christ and his church, contribute under the influence of grace to the building of this kingdom,". On August 13, 2002, American Catholic bishops issued a joint statement with leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism, called "Reflections on Covenant and Mission", which affirmed that Christians should not target Jews for conversion The document stated: "Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God" and "Jews are also called by God to prepare the world for God's kingdom." However, some U.S. Baptist denominations still believe it is their duty to engage in what they refer to as outreach to "unbelieving" Jews (see Jews for Jesus).

Eastern Orthodox Christianity emphasizes a continuing life of repentance or metanoia, which includes an increasing improvement in thought, belief and action. Regarding the salvation of Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians, the Orthodox have traditionally taught the same as the Catholic Church: that there is no salvation outside the church. People of all genders, races, economic and social positions, and so forth are welcome in the church. People of any religion are welcome to convert. Orthodoxy recognizes that other religions may contain truth, to the extent that they are in agreement with Christianity. (Some of the early church fathers pointed to Socrates' belief in one God; a few more modern Orthodox Christian theologians have found traces of trinitarianism in the writings of Lao Tzu.)

Many Orthodox theologians believe that all people will have an opportunity to embrace union with God, including Jesus, after their death, and so become part of the church at that time. God is thought to be good, just, and merciful; it would not seem just to condemn someone because they never heard the Gospel message, or were taught a distorted version of the Gospel by heretics. Therefore, the reasoning goes, they must at some point have an opportunity to make a genuine informed decision. Ultimately, those who persist in rejecting God condemn themselves, by cutting themselves off from the ultimate source of all Life, and from the God who is Love embodied. Jews, Muslims and members of other faiths, then, are expected to convert to Christianity in the afterlife. (Isn't this also the view of the Mormons? Someone please look into this and write something here.)

Orthodox Christians do not take their own salvation for granted. The icon of the "Ladder of Divine Ascent" depicts a ladder going from the bottom left to the top right of the icon. At the top is Jesus Christ in glory with hands outstretched towards those people who are climbing the ladder. In the air and on the ground are a number of demons trying to shoot (with arrows) or drag people off the ladder. And some people are falling from the ladder. The point is that no matter how high a person might ascend, no matter how close to God one may come, it is still possible to fall, to turn from God, and so each of us must remain watchful and vigilant. The question is not, "What is the minimum that I can believe or do in order to be saved?", but rather "How can I be most saved? How can make my salvation certain and persevere in it?"

Modern Judaism holds that whatever salvation may exist is found only through ethical action. The majority of Jewish works on this subject hold that one's beliefs alone play no role. However, for a contrary Jewish position see Maimonides's "The Guide of the Perplexed", which limits the afterlife only to people who attain a relatively high level of intellectual perfection, thereby allowing the active intellect to be made eternal through God.

Judaism teaches that all gentiles can receive a share in "the world to come". This is codified in the Mishna Avot 4:29, the Babylonian Talmud in tractates Avodah Zarah 10b, and Ketubot 111b, and in Maimonides's 12th century law code, the Mishneh Torah, in Hilkhot Melachim (Laws of Kings) 8.11.

Judaism has no strong tradition of offenses being punished by eternal damnation (the Hebrew Bible itself has very few references to any afterlife, and the word that is often translated as "Hell" may also be translated as "the grave"). Some violations (e.g. suicide) would be punished by separation from the community (e.g. not being buried in a Jewish cemetery).


Both Jews and Christians regard pregnancy as a gift from God, and hold children to be miracles.

The only statements in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament) about the status of a fetus state that killing an infant does not have the same status as killing a born human being, and mandates a much lesser penalty (a fine.)

Rabbinic Jewish works thus hold that the fetus is not yet a full human being. Therefore killing a fetus is not murder, and abortion - in restricted circumstances - has always been legal under Jewish law. Judaism prefers that such abortions, when necessary, take place before the first 40 days. Christians who agree with these views may refer to this idea as abortion before the "quickening" of the soul by God in the fetus.

Most branches of Christianity have historically held abortion to be murder of a human being, referring to Old Testament passages such as Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1, as well as New Testament passages concerning both Jesus Christ and John the Baptist while they were in utero. These verses have been interpreted as literally applying to pre-born humans. Many Protestant Christians claim that the Ten Commandments prohibit abortion under the heading of "Do not murder". Others reject this view, as they hold that the context of the entire set of Biblical laws includes those laws which restrict them to already born human beings.

The Bible

Jews and Christians seek authority from some of the same basic books, but they conceive of these books in significantly different ways.

Jews call their Bible the Tanach, a Hebrew acronym for the three sections of their scriptures: Torah (the five books of Moses), Nevi'im (the Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). Jews traditionally believe that these written works are accompanied by an oral tradition which was revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed down through generations (and eventually written down in the Talmud (see below)). Jews believe that these written and (formerly) oral traditions together embody a living covenant between them and God.

Christians reject the Jewish oral tradition, and disagree with the Jewish order of sacred texts (and some Christian traditions have included in their Old Testament books that are not included in today's Jewish canon, although they were included in the Jewish Septuagint). Historically, the Jewish oral tradition was not written down, nor the Jewish canon established, until after the rise of Christianity. Most importantly, Christians reject the covenant with God embodied in traditional Jewish scriptures and oral traditions as obsolete, and thus refer to their canon of Hebrew books as the Old Testament. Christians believe that God has established a new covenant with people, and that this new covenant is established in an additional set of books collectively called the New Testament, together with the oral teachings of Jesus to the Apostles which have been handed down to this day.

Jews do not accept the New Testament (nor do they accept the characterization of their sacred texts as an Old Testament), although they do accept as sacred certain texts that are not included in the Tanach which were written at a much later date; especially the Mishnah, which was compiled around 200 C.E., and a Babylonian and a Jerusalem Talmud, which were edited around 600 C.E. and 450 C.E., respectively. Many Jews believe that these texts, together called the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, contain an Oral Law revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

(See also Biblical canon for a more complete treatment of this topic.)

War, violence and pacifism

Jews and Christians accept as valid and binding many of the same moral principles taught in the Torah. There is a great deal of overlap between the ethical systems of these two faiths. Nonetheless, there are some highly significant doctrinal differences.

Judaism has a great many teachings about peace and compromise, and its teachings make physical violence the last possible option. Nonetheless, the Talmud teaches that "If someone comes with the intention to murder you, then one is obligated to kill in self-defense". The clear implication is that to do anything less would be tantamount to suicide (which Jewish law forbids) and it would also be considered helping a murderer kill someone. The tension between the laws dealing with peace, and the obligation to self-defense, has led to a set of Jewish teachings that have been described as tactical-pacifism. This is the avoidance of force and violence whenever possible, but the use of force when necessary to save the lives of one's self and one's people.

The New Testament records that Jesus taught that if someone comes to harm you, then one must turn the other cheek. This has led four Protestant Christian denominations to develop a theology of pacifism, the avoidance of force and violence at all times. They are known historically as the peace churches, and have incorporated Christ's teachings on nonviolence into their theology so as to apply it to participation in the use of violent force; those denominations are the Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and the Church of the Brethren. Many other churches have people who hold to the doctrine without making it a part of their doctrines, or who apply it to individuals but not to governments. The vast majority of Christian nations and groups have not adopted this theology, nor have they followed it in practice.

See: Judeo-Christian tradition

External Links

Roman Catholic Church's views on other faiths (http://www.religioustolerance.org/rcc_othe.htm)

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article

... Falun  |  Gagnef  |  Hedemora  |  Leksand  |  LudvikaMalung  |  Mora  |  Orsa  |  Rättvik ...

This page was created in 68.5 ms