Misleading missionaries will often reference Jewish sources to bolster their case that even the Talmud (or Rabbi XYZ) supports the Christian interpretation. Invariably these "proofs" are nothing of the sort -- generally taking non-literal stories and trying to use them literally.
Michael Brown (shown in the image with R' Moshe Shulman) has written many books "answering Jewish objections" using just this approach.
Who is Michael Brown? If you are unfamiliar with him, Brown claims he was born a Jew and states he was raised as a Conservative Jew. There are no details as to his Jewish education as a child, but he himself admits that he was drug addict (age 14, heroin by age 15) and thief who turned to Christianity (officially at age 16). This is not slander, this is what Brown writes about himself.
In other words, Brown had very limited Jewish education -- and any education he has since acquired has all been from Christian sources. He may have been born a Jew, but his education was limited and he has never practiced Judaism as an adult.
Would you take the experience of a 16 year old heroin addict / thief who never went to medical school, but decided to take an alternative medical course and then hang a shingle as an expert of modern medicine?
Why accept that Brown has any true knowledge of Judaism given that his education is all from non-Jewish sources (B.A. in Hebrew from Queens College, his M.A. and PhD. degrees are in Near EasternLanguages and Literature from New York University)?
He is a visiting professor at the Christian Denver Theological Seminary and Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. Christian institutions. Not Jewish.
Yet he authors books with titles such as "Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus." He presents Jewish sages as if they endorse Christianity. I am using Dr. Brown as an example, because there have been many Christian missionaries before him (and concurrent with him) who do precisely the same thing.
Brown specializes in throwing out lots of "Jewish sources" -- 4-5 at a time so that it becomes impossible to refute his assertions. It takes him 10 seconds to make an accusation and it would require hours of study to look up each source and most likely an hour to verbally refute each one of the sources he spouts off with such abandon. For example, Brown says that the Ramban (Nachmanides) agrees with Chrstians that the servant in Isaiah 53 is the messiah. Is this true? Here is what Brown wrote: "While it is true that Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Radak all interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, other equally prominent leaders, such as Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban) felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation)."
Is Brown purposefully lying to his readers, misleading them through misdirection, or is he innocently misusing sources (not realizing the differences in Jewish sources)? I don't know -- and does it really matter? Whether done "on purpose" or by accident Brown is completely misusing the sources he throws out with abandon.
Brown mentions that the Ramban was speaking of מדרש / Midrash. There are two major types of midrash -- midrash halacha (legal discussions) and midrash aggadah (stories that are NOT literal and should not be used to "prove" anything theologically. They are meant to make a moral point). To understand Midrash I recommend reading "What is a Midrash?"
Brown will often reference thse stories as if they are the Jewish teachings about the bible (rather than a story to make a moral point). This is misleading in the extreme. It is possible that somewhere in his many books that Brown explains to the Chrstian what Midrash Aggadot is -- stories which were written to make a moral point and are not literal interpretations of scripture. . . but if he has I have never found such a quote. Missionaries (including Brown) usually just throws out a source and the reader is left to either do his (her) own research or just take the quote at "face value."
Let's read what Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban) really had to say on the subject of the servant in Isaiah 53. The following is from a debate between Nachmanides (the Ramban) and a Jewish apostate, Friar Paul, in front of the King of Aragon. This is referred to as "The Disputation at Barcelona":
Friar Paul claimed: "Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and how he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?"
"I (Ramban aka Nachmanides) said to him: In terms of the true meaning of the section, it (Isaiah 53's servant) speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call 'Israel My servant' or 'Jacob My servant."
Already it should be apparent that Brown's statement "Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban) felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation" is the exact opposite of what the Ramban actually said. If an innocent Christian seeking the truth relied on Brown's book he would already think that up is down -- that the Ramban thought the subject of Isaiah 53 was "the messiah" when the Ramban clearly himself said the servant is "the people of Israel."
To quote him again "it (Isaiah's 53's servant) speaks only of the people of Israel."
You now know that Brown's quote is misleading. The Ramban clearly said that the servant "speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call 'Israel My servant' or 'Jacob My servant." NOT THE MESSIAH -- apparently not so compelled as Brown would have his readers believe to "embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation."
How about Brown's claim that the "ancient tradition" of the Jews was that Isaiah 53 is messianic? Not according to Origen, an early church father wrote in the year 248 CE that the Jews said the servant of Isaiah 53 was Israel. He wrote that Isaiah 53 “bore reference to the whole [Jewish] people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations.” Origen, Contra Celsum.
Missionaries often purport to quote Jewish sources, as Brown did with the Ramban, but the quotes are either out of context, or turned upside down to appear to say the reverse of what is actually intended. This example is used to encourage Christians to not blindly believe what they are told by a missionary. Research the facts for yourself!
Brown did not lie outright in the quote I gave (above), because he states in his parenthesis that the Ramban was speaking of Midrash -- but he does not tell his readers that the Ramban identified the servant as the Jews and he does not explain to his readers that Midrash are non-literal stories (so that means the Ramban did not think the servant was the messiah). . .
He simply lets his readers jump to the wrong conclusion based on the way he worded his statement.
Let's read a bit more from the Disputation -- we can read for ourselves what the Christian friar said to the Ramban, and the Ramban's replies:
Friar Paul, in his debate, used the same argument that Brown posits in his quote. The Friar said: "I shall prove from the words of your sages that it speaks of the messiah."
To which the Ramban replied to the Friar "It is true that the rabbis in the (Midrash) aggadah explain it as referring to the messiah."
This last sentence by the Ramban is the one missionaries leap upon to convince Christians that Jews believe the servant in Isaiah 53 is the messiah -- the problem is that they do not tell "the rest of the story." The Ramban does what Brown neglects to do -- he explains to the Friar and the King that Midrash is not a literal interpretation. An explanation which Brown's readers might have found helpful! The Ramban said "Know that we Jews have three types of books.
Brown's readers might have warranted hearing this statement "In regard to this book, those who believe it well and good, but those who do not believe it do no harm."
Yet, in reading Brown's paragraph it seems as if sages like the Ramban literally believed that Isaiah 53's servant was the messiah. Brown misleads his readers (intentionally or through his own lack of knowledge I do not know). Yet a Christian reading Brown's quote would most likely believe that the Ramban personally thought the servant in Isaiah 53 was the messiah -- because they are left with a half-truth.
Brown's statement that the Ramban "felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation)" is more than misleading, it is completely false.
Compelled??? The Ramban was a man with the bravery to stand in front of the king of his country and dare to tell him the truth about Judaism contrasted with Christianity. This man is not likely to be compelled to say something he does not believe!
The Ramban (Nachmanides) merely stated to the king that the rabbis (Talmudic sages and others) referred to Isaiah 53's servant as the messiah (and Moses, Moshiach ben Yosef (not "the" messiah) and others -- which Brown conveniently does not mention to his readers) in STORIES. Let's not forget that the Ramban said "In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call 'Israel My servant' or 'Jacob My servant.'"
Missionaries like Brown using that specific quote from the Ramban would sure clear up the mistaken idea given by Brown and other missionaries -- but for some reason they never present that particular quote to their readers!
If you only read Brown's quote would you not have thought that the Ramban "felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual Messianic interpretation (of the servant in Isaiah 53 being the messiah)"? Yet in reality:
The Ramban goes on to tell the king that Jews reject Jesus as the messiah. Why do suppose Brown felt it was OK to misuse the Ramban to "answer Jewish objections to Jesus" and yet NOT tell those readers that the Ramban completely rejected Christianity?
Then the Ramban said to the King of Argon at Barcelona: "I am amazed. The words said in our presence to convince us that the Nazarene (Jesus) is the Messiah, were said by the Nazarene himself when he brought this same message to our ancestors and tried to persuade them. . .
"They (the Jews who knew Jesus) refuted him to his face with a perfect and strong rejection despite the fact that it was he who spoke, who knew and could argue his claim that he is divine, in accordance to your opinion, better than you can today. Now, if our ancestors who saw him and knew him did not heed him, how then can we believe and heed the voice of the king, whose only knowledge of the matter stems merely from the hearsay of distant reporters who heard it from people who neither knew him nor were his countrymen as our ancestors knew him and witnessed his life."
Here is a link to a copy of the Disputation at Barcelona from whence come the Ramban's quotes. This was the Ramban's own report of the disputation, in translation. Rabbi Moshe Shulman's website "Judaism's Answer" has some excellent refutations of common missionary misuses of Jewish sources. Here are a few from the section of the Rabbi's website entitled Lies, Damned Lies and What the Missionaries Claim the Rabbis say. This page has articles on distortions found in books that were written to target Jews for conversion. While it is true that in any book errors can occur, and we should always try to be understanding, Sometimes we find errors that cannot be excused as 'mistakes' but are either due to purposeful distortion, or people claiming to be scholars who by their works show that they are not.
Criteria for Inclusion
Articles in Alphabetical Order by Rabbi Moshe Shulman:
Driver and Neubauer and their distortions of Rabbinic texts
Dr Michael Brown and his erroneous chronology in Volume 1.
Response to Dr. Michael Brown's objection to my comments which appear in his Volume 4.
Dr. Arnold Fructenbaum and the Rabbis views of Isaiah 53 before Rashi
Rachmiel Frydland's claims about Deuteronomy 18 and the Ralbag.
Dr. Daniel Gruber and his claim in his book "Rabbi Akiba's Messiah".
Risto Santala and Psalm 110
Dr. David Stern and his claims about Rashi on Isaiah 53
Response to Dr. Michael Brown's objection to my comments about Dr. David Stern.
In this blog post I've used this one example of Michael Brown and his misuse of the Ramban on Isaiah 53. This example was used to prove a point -- tht missionaries often misquote or take out of context the words of various Jewish sages. They also often use mistranslations. The example was about Michael Brown and his quote from the Ramban (Nachmanides, Moses ben Nachman). . . and it should show readers to be wary of any missionary reference of a Jewish source. When presented with such "Jewish proof" go back and check the source.
This is not easy to do (check the source) because most missionaries do not quote the sources! Often one missionary will just take a claim from an earlier missionary (I've found a few of these in Brown's books as well). R' Moshe Shulman's articles are an excellent place to start checking some of these sources as he has scholarly taken great pains to check some of the most often found.
The missionary misuses of the Talmud, the Targums and various Midrash Aggadot which are found all over the internet tend to do exactly what Brown did with this passage. Many of them come from a 19th century book entitled "The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters." This publication was put together by Christians and for the most part sources are not given. I have written articles about this book, as has R' Shulman (link).
Let the moral of this post be: do not blindly believe what a missionary might tell you about Jews or Jewish teaching. Do your own research, or ask a learned Jew to prove to you the proper quote and context.
Sophiee Saguy has been countering false missionary claims about Judaism and the T'nach (Jewish bible) for nearly twenty years. You may find her on FaceBook and at the Messiah Truth forum.