Views of CCJR Members

Jesus - a Jewish perspective


[Down the centuries Christians have persecuted Jews and for their part Jews have been indifferent or hostile to Jesus and his teaching. Yet attitudes on both sides have changed in recent years and here a Jewish commentator explains why.]

One of the certain facts about Jesus is that he was a Jew. He was a child of Jewish parents, brought up in a Jewish home and raised in accordance with Jewish tradition. Throughout his life, Jesus lived among Jews and his followers were Jews.

No other Jew in history has rivalled Jesus in the magnitude of his influence. The words and deeds of Jesus the Jew have been, and are, an inspiration to countless millions of men and women. His death marked a turning point in the history of the world. In his name a great religion was founded and Christians have gone forth carrying his message to the remotest corners of the earth. Strange, is it not, that most Jews have given little attention to the life and teaching of this outstanding Jew?

Yet, this is true because the Christian followers of Jesus came to cherish beliefs about his life, which no Jew could hold. When the Church persecuted Jews in an effort to convert them, Jewish indifference to Jesus turned to hostility. It is a sad fact of history that the followers of this great Jew have brought much suffering upon the Jewish people, so that for centuries it was very hard for any Jew even to think of Jesus without difficulty. Up until recently, most Jews have chosen not to think of him at all.

In more recent times there has been a dramatic change. Jewish scholars have come to study the teaching of Jesus and Jews have striven to appreciate the nobility of his life. A re-evaluation has gradually been taking place and although the hostility of centuries cannot be eliminated in the blink of an eye, nor the traditional Jewish attitude of indifference to Jesus, the signs are encouraging.

Christians also, who have studied the Jewish background of the life of Jesus, have consequently come to admire the true greatness of Judaism and have ceased to affront Jews with the oft-repeated slander that Judaism is nothing but a mere set of formalistic rules. Christians have begun to realise the immense debt Christianity owes to Jews and Judaism.

Even areas of difference, such as the Virgin Birth are not the gulf that they were once thought. It is well known that some arguments between Christians and Jews took place on the basis of the interpretation of the Hebrew word alma in the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Jerome offered virgo ('virgin') in the Vulgate, following the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint from the third century BCE, which renders almah by parthenos, ('virgin'). Jewish interpreters tended to use 'maiden' or 'young woman'.

Yet, it should be remembered that Jews are equally also familiar with the Hebrew Bible's accounts of miraculous births such as that of Sarah who conceived Isaac at the age of 90. In fact, the first century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, calls Isaac a 'son of God' and God as the 'father of Isaac' . His interpretation is based on the Septuagint, (Genesis 21:1 and 6) which states that God "visited" Sarah. Interestingly, Sarah is described by Philo as a virgin at the time she conceives Isaac.

Another story familiar to Jewish readers, is Luke 1: 26-35, which recounts the encounter between Mary and the angel, who announces that although she is a virgin she will conceive by the work of the Holy Spirit. This account would remind a Jewish reader of other biblical
writings such as angelic visits paid to Hagar (Genesis 16:7-14) and to the mother of Samson (Judges 13:2-5) as well as post-biblical Jewish writings such as Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities, which reports Miriam's dream in which an angel tells her of the miraculous birth and career of her brother Moses.

So what are the practical domestic facts? Jesus and his family would have been observant of Torah, paid tithes, kept the Sabbath, circumcised their males, attended synagogue, observed purity laws in relation to childbirth and menstruation, kept the dietary code - one could go on. While the Gospels record disputes about Jesus' interpretation of a few of these, such as his conversation with Pharisees about cleanliness, the notion of a Christian Jesus, who did not live by Torah or at least by its ethical values, does not fit historical reality Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Philip and Andrew, Jesus bore a Jewish name: Yeshua. Family names indicate a strong commitment to Judaism and it is worth recounting Jesus' brothers: James (Jacob), Joseph (Josef), Judas or Jude (Judah), Simon (Simeon), and his father, Joseph and mother, Mary (Miriam).

There is no official Jewish view of Jesus but the vast majority of Jews are united in their rejection of the tremendous claim, which is made for Jesus by Christians, that he is the Lord Christ, God Incarnate, the very Son of God the Father. On that belief, Jews and Christians must continue to respectfully differ. Jews believe that all share the divine spirit and are stamped with the divine image and no person - not even the greatest of all people - can possess the perfection of God. No one can be God's equal.

Jesus lived his life not as a Christian but as a Jew, obedient (with very few exceptions) to Torah. In time, the Jewish followers of Jesus espoused a rather different kind of religion from that followed by most Jews. Judaism, like Islam after it, is strongly rooted in religious law; Christianity ceased to be so. Judaism, also like Islam, has a strong belief in the unity of God; Christianity came to place such great store in Jesus and subsequently in the doctrine of the Trinity that it seemed to other monotheists to be a form of tri-theism. Gradually, Christianity came to look less like an authentic, even if eccentric, form of Judaism, and more like a completely different religion.

The belief that Jesus was God is an impossibility for Jewish thought. But not so the belief that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. Several Jews have in the course of 2000 years, claimed to be the Messiah - sent by God to inaugurate God's kingdom on earth. Indeed, for Jews, Messianic expectation is a sign of religious vitality. Simon Bar Kochba in 132 CE and Shabbetai Zvi in 1665 CE are two examples among many. Most recently, many followers of Menachem Schneerson, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, considered him to be the Messiah. Even today, after his death in 1994, some await his messianic return.

Jesus was put to death by the Romans on the charge that he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus made it clear to Peter that he regarded himself as the Messiah (Mark 8:29) as he did to the High Priest (Mark 14:62). Some Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah, believing that he would redeem them from the bitter yoke of Rome and bring the messianic age. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem he was acclaimed, "blessed is the Kingdom that comes, the kingdom of our father David" (Mark 11:10). Other Jews rejected the claim.

The charge against Jesus on the cross and his mockery as 'King of the Jews' and the appearance of royal messianic motifs suggest that Pilate faced a man charged with sedition. Jesus was not crucified because he denied his Jewishness, abandoned the Scriptures, or disowned his people. He remained a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew from Galilee and was executed more for political than religious reasons.

To claim to be the Messiah was not an offence against Jewish law for which Jesus could have been put to death, if it was an offence against Judaism at all. The Gospels say that Jesus' claim to be the Messiah was blasphemy, but in Jewish law, blasphemy was to curse God using God's sacred name. Jesus did nothing of the sort. There were others who claimed to be a Messiah and Josephus mentions some of them. But they were not tried by a Jewish court nor sought out by any Jewish authority. The religious rulers were not disturbed by them; but the political rulers were. The Romans sought out and executed these 'Messiahs' as rebels or potential rebels. The Romans had reason to fear anyone who was, or might be looked at as the Christ (Messiah). To Jews of Jesus' time, 'Christ' referred to the king of the Jews who would deliver them from Rome.

For Jews, history has shown that Jesus was not the long-awaited Messiah, for Jews were not delivered from the yoke of Roman bondage and the Golden Age did not come. However, some Jews have suggested that Jesus was following in the footsteps of the biblical prophets (cf. Mark 6:15, Matt 21:11).

"What commandment is the first of all?" he was asked. Jesus answered as any Jew: "the first is: Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31). Every Jew will recognise in Jesus' answer the Shema, a Jewish declaration of faith, which is recited at every Jewish service, day and night (Deut 6:4-9). The famous command of Leviticus about love of neighbour 19:18 is also a fundamental precept of Judaism.

It was in his attitude towards the Torah that Jesus seems to have departed from the Judaism of his time. In their teaching, the rabbis would state, "thus says the Torah." Jesus showed independence by standing above the Torah and speaking as one "having authority". (Mark 1:22) He dared to base his teachings on "I say to you" and it was this daring which brought him into conflict with the Judaism of his time.

It is highly improbable that Jesus told his followers to ignore the Torah; rather, he emphasized that "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21) i.e., follow the deepest instinct for truth and love in your heart for therein, not through Torah, lies salvation. This was a courageous message; one which made some Jews unbounded in their devotion to him and caused others to regard him as a heretic.

The death of Jesus cannot have for the Jew the same significance as for the Christian. For the Christian the death of Jesus is the supreme example of self-sacrifice; the willing sacrifice of his life by the Son of God that the world might be redeemed from sin. For the Jew, the significance of Jesus must be in his life rather than his death. It was a life of exalted faith in God, a life filled with nobility of thought and teaching, magnificent in its courage and tremendous in its grandeur. His was a personality that expressed itself in simple yet moving deeds of goodness.

He was a great Jew who knew that he was always in the presence of God and who defied great suffering.

For the majority of Jews, Jesus can never be what he is to Christian hearts. For Jews, not Jesus but God alone is Lord. Yet an increasing number of Jews are proud that Jesus was Jewish; that he was born, lived and died a Jew.

[Edward Kessler, Woolf Institute, Cambridge For information on the Cambridge University Masters Degree in the study of Jewish-Christian Relations, see]