Gerald Sigal's "Jew and the Christian Missionary": A Critique

Our report here is concerning a work entitled The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity by Gerald Sigal (KTAV, 1981). Sigal has practically no qualifications outside of "twenty-five years studying the doctrines and beliefs of fundamentalist missionaries and how to refute their doctrines." He has rightly discovered that many Messianic prophecies are not, to the modern eye, suitable and satisfactorily fulfilled in the life of Jesus, and many chosen by modern commentators indeed ought not be used at all in certain contexts. That they and those used in the NT are indeed applicable is a matter of first proving something else (e.g., the Resurrection) in some cases, and in accordance with variations in interpretation within first-century Jewish exegetical methods. In this regard see Glenn Miller's work on that subject.

But there are a few other things Sigal writes that need some specific attention, and indeed, we are surprised to find that in some cases he cannot even understand the OT correctly.

In this book we find all of the usual charges that we have dealt with before and need not refute in detail, but we will offer samples:

Sigal's source citation is lacking. The book does not have a bibliography, other than a list of less than a dozen Bible translations he consulted, and you will find a few footnotes, but nothing that shows that Sigal did the job of research adequately. Nor will you find reference to any scholar of Palestinian Judaism such as Davies, Sanders, nor even Vermes.

The book is divided into 68 sections of varying length -- some items are as small as a page. We'll check into those few entries that deserve special attention for being unique.

Ways Of Atonement?

Leviticus 17:11 tells us, "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." This has obvious readings for Christianity, but Sigal calls it a "misinterpretation". [11] Sigal claims that Christian missionaries have overlooked that there was a spiritual "sacrifice" necessary as well, one involving a "repentant mental attitude."

Well, perhaps the missionaries have overlooked this, but Christian theology, which Sigal has not consulted, has not overlooked it; actually I doubt if missionaries have either. The NT stresses repentance as part of the faith message quite clearly, so much so that I hardly need to give details here -- just look for the word "repent" in your concordance. But let's discuss the point of atonement.

Sin requires payment. It must be put away, eliminated, and destroyed, for it is an offense against a holy God. The payment is for the purpose of satisfying God's wrath against sin. Repentance does not satisfy God's wrath alone -- sin must still be paid for -- but it is still required of us, for of course God does not wish for us to continue in sin, and He wants us to turn our hearts towards Him.

The OT observance called Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement" (more literally, the day of covering or concealing) featured the offering of the two goats, one of which was sacrificed and whose blood was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat for purification; the other (if I may simplify) was ceremonially laden with the sins of the people and sent into the wilderness. This served the double duty of showing first that God's wrath was appeased, and second the sins of the people were positionally speaking removed from them. [Glas.FFI]

Christians of course maintain that Jesus Christ's atoning death combined these aspects into one sacrifice. (Cf. the descriptions in the Book of Hebrews.)

In his own chapter on sin and atonement, Sigal says nothing about Yom Kippur, other than mentioning it as a time of "fasting and repentance" -- not a word is said about the double-goat sacrifice. Reading what we have above, it is easy to see why: The observance has uncomfortable parallels to actual Christian belief. With literally dozens of books written on the topic of atonement from a Christian and Jewish perspective, Sigal thinks it satisfactory to dispatch the parallels with a mere 5 pages. It is not surprising, therefore, that he doesn't succeed in his arguments,

We can see how the OT and NT are perfectly compatible, with allowances made for context. Sigal argues, however, that there are OT passages that prove that "prayer, without the shedding of blood, can and does provide a means for the atonement and forgiveness of sin." [11-2] What his cites actually prove, however, is that the blood sacrifice is meaningless without the repentance -- just as Jesus' sacrifice is meaningless as far as we are concerned if we do not recognize who he was and respond appropriately.

They also prove, quite sensibly as the writer of Hebrews saw it, that animal sacrifice was a temporary, typological measure that looked forward to the only truly suitable payment for sin, the blood of Christ; up until then, repentance (which is in essence a show of faith in [e.g., loyalty to] God) was of course of primary importance (rather than a tandem with sacrifice, as it is now with Christ), for the very reason that the authors of Hebrews argued.

Not that any of those OT figures whom Sigal cites could know this in all but the most shadowy of senses; but that is after all a typological -step that differentiates the former and the latter covenants. But let's look at these citations.

Conclusion

In the work of Gerald Sigal we find very little that is scholarly and very little that goes beyond stretches of interpretation. We also see key silences that render his explanations incomplete.

-JPH

Sources

  1. Glas.FFI - Glaser, Mitch and Zhava. The Fall Feasts of Israel. Moody Press: 1987.
  2. Jns.Lk - Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Gospel of Luke. Liturgical Press, 1991.
  3. Morr.AIMS - Morris, Leon. The Atonement: It's Meaning and Significance. IVP: 1983.