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I have an interest in the New Testament simply to understand Christianity. I would therefore like to read it, but not at all in an idolatrous way (assuming reading it itself wouldn’t be idolatrous).

Would it be permitted to read it as a purely scholarly/academic activity?

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    It’s not permitted. hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=919&st=&pgnum=181
    – Chatzkel
    May 30, 2023 at 23:28
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    I've read it. I wouldn't advise it. It's full of quotations of dodgy translations, verses that don't exist, contradictions. It's a wonder anyone actually believes in it.
    – James Read
    May 31, 2023 at 11:37
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    @JamesRead another reason to avoid reading it is that it's fully of very sly material designed to get you to scorn Jews, without being direct about it. A form of brainwashing
    – Rabbi Kaii
    May 31, 2023 at 16:57

3 Answers 3

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Many are citing the Rambam AZ 2:2, and that is proper and to be expected. However I think it is slightly more nuanced, and this halakhah is balanced against דע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס - knowing how to respond to an Apiqores (Abboth 2:14).

The Rambam (Perush ad loc) writes:

אף על פי שתלמד דעות האומות לדעת איך תשיב עליהם, השמר שלא יעלה בלבך דבר מן הדעות ההם, ודע שמי שתעבוד לפניו יודע צפון לבך, והוא אמרו ודע לפני מי אתה עמל, רצה לומר שיכוין לבו באמונת השם יתברך

Even though you study the opinions of the nations to know how to respond to them, take care that nothing of those opinions arise in your heart, and know that the One before whom you worship knows the direction of your heart, and as it is said, "and know before whom you labor", which is to say that you should direct your heart to belief in God.

Indeed the Rambam makes clear in the Moreh (3:29) that he has studied all of the idolatrous works of the Sabeans. Facially this would appear to contradict the halakhah as he restates it in AZ 2:2, but with Abhoth 2:14 born in mind makes perfect sense.

To bolster this point and perhaps add a caveat, the Ribhash wrote concerning the Rambam (Vol 1, Res. 45):

כי הוא למד קודם לכן כל התורה כולה בשלימות: הלכות ואגדות, תוספתא, ספרא וספרי וכוליה תלמודא. בבלי וירושלמי, כמו שנראה מספר משנה-תורה שחיבר, וכדי להשיב את האפיקורס...כשהתלמיד אדם גדול מותר שיבור פסולת וישליך הפסולת, כמו שאמרו שם "ר"מ רימון מצא, תוכו אכל קלינתו זרק"

For he had prior learned the entirety of the Torah, halakhoth, aggadoth, Tosefta, Sifra, Sifri, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, as is apparent from his composition of the Mishneh Torah, and [he studied external works] in order to respond to the Apiqores... and when the student is a man of great standing he is permitted to peel away the shell and cast it away, as our Sages taught (Hagigah 15b) R. Meir found a pomegranate and ate its contents while throwing away its peel [i.e. studied halakhoth from the heretic Aher].

According to the Ribhash, in order to engage in the process of learning such external works for the purpose of knowing how to respond to an Apiqores, one must already be at a high caliber of learning in their Torah. Then they may engage in a discerning process of תוכו אכל קליפתו זרק - consuming the valuable innards and tossing the outer peel/shell, which can be toxic/injurious.

Accordingly, it would seem that before reading such a work one ought be very honest with themselves about a) what is the purpose of their study, b) even if a legitimate reason motivates them - what is the leaning of their heart? and c) per the Ribhash, is one on a level of Torah mastery such that they can competently discern what to keep and what to toss.

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    Thank you very much for the detailed and comprehensive reply! Jun 1, 2023 at 0:30
  • Rambam also says in AZ 3:2 that beis din needs to be well-versed in methods of idol worship so they can apply the law correctly.
    – shmosel
    Jun 1, 2023 at 2:05
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Rambam explicitly forbids this in Avodah Zarah 2:2:

The worshipers of false gods have composed many texts concerning their service, [describing] what is the essence of their service, what practices are involved, and what are its statutes. The Holy One, blessed be He, has commanded us not to read those books at all, nor to think about them or any matters involved with them.

It is even forbidden to look at the image of an idol, as [Leviticus 19:4] states: "Do not turn to the idols." In this regard, [Deuteronomy 12:30] states: "[Be careful]... lest you seek to find out about their gods, saying, 'How did they serve them.' This prohibits inquiring about the nature of their service even if you, yourself, do not serve them. This matter will ultimately cause you to turn to [the false god] and worship it as they do, as [the above verse continues]: "so that I will do the same."

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    Incidentally, this was in today's portion of the 1 chapter daily Rambam cycle.
    – shmosel
    May 31, 2023 at 7:46
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    What about cases of דע מה שתשיב? For example, someone who's involved in outreach to uninformed Jews, or someone who's involved with anti-missionary work. May 31, 2023 at 8:04
  • @IsraelReader There are special exemptions, but I don't think they're relevant here.
    – shmosel
    May 31, 2023 at 8:17
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    Thank you! That was much more definitive then I was expecting. May 31, 2023 at 9:41
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The question whether to read a Christian translation of the Old Testament (the Torah) was asked by the Jewish Press to many religious authorities. Their responses provide indications that reading the New Testament would be forbidden, specifically

  • "One may not possess, let alone make use of, a New Testament. If it was printed for Christian purposes, it is sacrilegious and should be burned if it comes into one’s possession, even if the Torah is also included in the work or it has G-d’s name, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe)." - R Yitzchak Schochet
  • "Keeping a King James Bible in one’s home is prohibited, even if the New Testament is removed. Hence, reading it, or excerpts from it, is prohibited." - R Zev Leff
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  • That is both selective and modern (some of the opinions pointing to the now wide availability of Jewish translations of the Torah and Tanakh). Your link also has R. Hai Gaon advising R. Mazliah b. Albazek to go to the Catholic Patriarch and ask him about a verse, saying, “Our saintly predecessors, who are our guides, solicited information on language and interpretation from many religious communities, and even of shepherds, as is well known!”
    – Henry
    Jun 1, 2023 at 9:11

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