Echoes of the Judeo-Christian Polemic in the Biblical Commentaries of the Sages

The sages did not interpret the Bible in a sequential fashion, in the manner of the medieval rabbinic scholars. Instead, in their halakhic and aggadic literature they primarily left us a non-sequential array of commentaries on the verses of the Bible. Many of these commentaries reflected the reality of their lives, including the religious polemic with the Christian world, particularly in the third and fourth centuries C.E. in Palestine. Sermons against the Jews appear already in the New Testament, and later, in the writings of the Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Origen, Jerome. We will discuss several examples of anti-Christian components in the commentaries of the sages as well as a number of practices relating to prayer and the synagogue service which should be understood against the background of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians in the early centuries. Based on the verse “Write thou these words” (Exod. 34:27), the sages learned that the words of the Bible should be written out, but the words of the Oral Law should not. They thus underscored the distinction between the Bible, which is in written format and familiar to one and all, and the Oral Law, which belongs solely to the Jews. The sages understood the words of Balaam, “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Num. 23:19) as pointing to the clear distinction between God and man: should a man come and say, I am God, that man is lying! They interpreted the verse in the Song of Songs “Look not upon me, that I am swarthy” (1:6) as the words of the Jewish nation to the world, which explain the hatred towards the Jewish people. The verse “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:3) was interpreted by the sages as referring to the holiness of God who is in the heavens, on earth and in the future, thus rejecting the Christian interpretation that the verse is referring to the Trinity. The important place of the verse “Hear, O Israel… the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4) in Jewish liturgy was apparently intended to emphasize the oneness of God and thus negate the Christian Trinity. In addition, the reading of chapters of the Prophets in the synagogue, Haftara's (Heb.: Haftarot), reflects a distancing from chapters which the Christians regarded as the foundation stones of their faith.