Christians have struggled to understand Judaism on its own terms

John Phelan’s book helps us unlearn what we thought we knew.

In recent decades many Christians have begun to appreciate the integrity and genius of Judaism on its own terms rather than as the negative foil for Christianity. Old characterizations of Judaism as a religion of law not grace, or of legalism not love, have been recognized as caricatures—impediments to understanding Jews of the first century or of today.

Yet such caricatures retain power in parts of the church and continue to seep into Christian sermons. Even for those who want to resist the caricatures, the spiritual proximity of Jews and Chris­tians—the fact that we share sacred texts and histories—in some ways makes the task of understanding more difficult. What look like obvious differences can turn out upon investigation to mask important agreements, and what have seemed important commonalities can turn out to contain significant differences. It takes a sustained, patient conversation with the other tradition to begin to understand its inner logic.

John E. Phelan Jr. has undertaken that patient conversation with Jewish colleagues and Jewish texts. A pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church and former president of North Park Theo­logical Seminary, Phelan has absorbed the recent work of Christian scholars on Judaism and immersed himself in Jewish writings.