The Bible’s optical illusion: Jesus or Israel?


I have written before about what I believe it means to practice Christianity “Jewishly”: that is, by asking hard questions and expressing spiritual doubts. But there is another, and perhaps more important, way of doing Christianity “Jewishly” — one that doesn’t involve rebranding Jewish theology, or the mistranslation of certain texts so they appear to point more directly toward Jesus.

It has to do with recognizing the lens through which you read Scripture. Depending on who is reading, the focal point is what changes: Christians read the Scriptures and see that everything points to Jesus, whereas Jews read it and see that everything points toward Israel.

Does this mean that one group is correct, and the other is wrong?

Not necessarily. Both things can be true at once.

Peter Enns explains this “lens” in his book, The Bible Tells Me So:

You can read the Old Testament as carefully and as often as you want…you won’t find anything about a future messiah dying and rising from the dead on the third day, the very thing Jesus says you will find there. Not a word. Don’t bother looking.

Jesus didn’t mean for the disciples to root through their Bibles to find the places where a dying-and-rising-from-the-dead messiah was hiding, like a first-century Where’s Waldo?

Jesus isn’t “in” Israel’s story that way. You’ll never read Israel’s story on its own terms and “find Jesus” on the surface…you will only see Jesus there in hindsight and under the surface, where your reading of the Old Testament is driven by faith in Christ, where Jesus has become the starting point for re-understanding Israel’s story, not the logical conclusion of Israel’s story.

When you do that, Jesus says, you will come to understand that Israel’s story is no longer a book primarily about Israel, but a book that now speaks of Jesus as the center and focus of Israel’s story, the final chapter that ties together Israel’s long difficult journey through history.

What I love about Enns’ book is that it allows for both Jews and Christians to be “right.” It doesn’t pit the two groups against each other in a battle of theologies, because he isn’t saying anything untrue: the Bible, when both testaments are put together, is about Israel, and it’s about Jesus.

I’m reminded of this optical illusion:


Old woman or young woman? Jesus or Israel? It’s both/and, not either/or.

This is why it’s important to recognize and respect the diverging paths that Judaism and Christianity have taken. To do otherwise is to disregard history.

I’m not nearly as invested in proving which group is “right” as I am in simply learning about the Bible, and about God’s complex relationship with humanity.


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6 thoughts on “The Bible’s optical illusion: Jesus or Israel?”

  1. So true. Arruably the most vivid thing about Jesus in the Hebrew scripture is Isaiah 53. Personally I am confident that is just an episode of the wider servant song that applies to Israel. Irrespective of that if we read it to apply to Jesus in no way is it the G-d-man of Christianity. I do think you can read a reasuercrion into the end of that narrative though.

  2. The sheer quantity of ink and breath and mental gymnastics that has been spent by people attempting to prove that their interpretation of scripture (all of them) is the only right one is astounding and there are more than enough people continuing to do that that I think you can be excused from the game.

  3. Part of me feels like I should bring the hammer down on one interpretation over the others, because that’s what True Christians do, and the Bible is God’s inerrant word, etc.

    But the headache involved in justifying why my version is “right” and all others aren’t involves a degree in both biblical history and hubris, neither of which I have :-p

    I do think there are two wrong ways to read the Bible though, absolutely: 1) with personal bias, and 2) out of historical/cultural context. Beyond that…not sure. May never be sure.

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