Many Jews and Christians trace 2,000 years of anti-Jewish persecution directly back to certain pronouncements of Jesus. In Matthew 23:37, for example, Jesus exclaims, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you . . . Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate." While dialogue aiming at better understanding has taken place between the two religions, some Jews and Christians have felt frustrated that New Testament passages have been used to support anti-Semitism.
Orthodox Rabbi Harvey Falk of Brooklyn believes that much interreligious tension need never have existed at all. His current book, Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, just issued by a Roman Catholic publisher (Paulist Press; 175 pages; $8.95), contends that Jews and Christians alike fail to grasp Jesus' ties to the competing Jewish factions of his time. Christians, says Falk, have misunderstood some of the teachings of Jesus, while Jews have been needlessly hostile toward "Yeshua ha Notzri" (Jesus of Nazareth). Falk's book offers a provocative and controversial theory on Christian origins.
Falk examines two factions of the Pharisees, a group of pious Jews who believed in the resurrection of the dead, rewards and punishments for this life in the next and rabbinic authority to interpret Jewish law. These two parties, the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, clashed shortly before Jesus' birth. Jewish tradition records that the rigid Shammaites held religious control throughout Jesus' life and during the founding decades of the Christian Church. But by A.D. 70 the more flexible Hillel school had become pre-eminent and the predecessor of today's traditional Judaism. In Falk's theory, Jesus was a Pharisee of the Hillel school, so that his denunciations ("Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!") were aimed at the Shammai school, not Jews in general, and not even at all Pharisees.
Falk holds that a central issue between the schools was Jewish-Gentile relations. The School of Shammai taught that non-Jews had no hope of eternal life. One of the faction's first acts upon gaining power in the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jews, was to pass a series of sweeping measures that limited contacts with Gentiles. The School of Hillel, however, taught that righteous Gentiles merited a share in the world to come if they observed the seven so-called Noahide commandments, basic moral directives addressed to Adam and Noah in the Bible and binding all humanity. The usual Noahide list includes the obligation to help establish a system of justice, plus prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, theft, murder, sexual sins and cruelty to animals. According to Falk, the authoritative compendium of Jewish oral law and commentary, the Talmud, says that Moses called upon Israelites to spread knowledge of the Noahide commandments to all people. The Jews never undertook such a mission, says Falk, but Jesus and Paul the Apostle did, motivated "by love of God and fellow man."