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  1. 1. Winter 2010 Judaism and Christianity George R. Honig     M  ost Jews possess scant knowledge about Jesus, and for many of us the mere mention  of his name is enough to provoke deep feelings of discomfort.   But there is still much  to  be  said  for  our  becoming  better  acquainted  with  the  history  of  this  profoundly  enigmatic figure.  Of course, gaining greater familiarity with the New Testament accounts of  Jesus’  life  and  death  can  help  us  better  understand  the  origins  of  the  Christian  anti‐Semitic  hatred that had such tragic consequences for the Jewish people.   But we also should be aware  that  a  now  quite  extensive  body  of  scholarly  analysis,  accumulated  mainly  over  the  last  few  decades, from both Jewish and Christian sources, has produced a considerably altered picture  of Jesus, one that contrasts strikingly from how he was depicted in the New Testament.  And  that reconceived understanding of Jesus has considerable relevance for Jews.      My own introduction to Jesus took place under the most unexpected of circumstances.   It  happened  late  one  evening,  soon  after  the  death  of  my  wife  that  had  ended  her  long  and  heart‐rending battle with cancer.  The last of the shiva visitors had departed, and I was home  alone when the telephone rang.  The call was from a neighbor.  I was aware that “Jack” was a  Christian,  which  at  that  time  was  rather  an  oddity  in  Skokie,  Illinois,  where  I  lived,  where  almost everyone, it seemed, was Jewish.        “Are you by yourself?’ he asked.  I told him that I was.  “Would it be all right for me to  come over so we could talk for a while?”  That was very kind, I said to him, perhaps naively,  and a few minutes later, Jack and I were sitting together in my living room.  He quickly got to  the  point  he  wanted  to  discuss:    “At  such  a  time  in  your  life  as  this,”  he  said,  “you  ought  to  think about accepting Jesus.”  With my mind still in a fog, grieving the terrible loss of my wife  of 32 years, I could at first barely comprehend what Jack was saying.  Why would I want to do  that?  I  finally  said.    His  reply  left  me  even  more  puzzled:  “It’s  to  guarantee  that  you’ll  go  to 
  2. 2. heaven when you die.  If you accept Jesus, if you’re baptized, then you’ll go to heaven; if not,  you won’t – it’s as simple as that.”      I had never heard of any such idea.  I did, however, have enough presence of mind to  challenge what he had told me: Hitler was a Catholic, I said, and presumably he was baptized,  so are you telling me that Hitler went to heaven?      “Yes,” he answered without hesitation, “but he would have barely gotten in.  And that’s  the point: Baptism is like fire insurance – it guarantees you’ll go to heaven no matter what.”   So,  if  I  were  to  go  to  heaven,  I  replied,  I  could  expect  to  find  Hitler  there,  but  none  of  the  people I most care about – such as my beloved wife who had just died.  It’s an easy choice, I  said,  if  that’s  what  heaven  is,  I  don’t  want  to  go  there.    Jack  found  my  reply  to  be  incomprehensible.  I, in turn, came away from our conversation with the impression that my  neighbor  was  a  religious  crackpot.    But  later,  after  a  good  deal  of  reading,  I  arrived  at  the  surprising realization that Jack’s beliefs are not only widely held by his coreligionists, but that  they are drawn from fundamental principles of Christian theology that go all the way back to  the writings of St. Paul, from the mid‐first century.       I also came to learn that anyone wishing to find an objective historical account of Jesus’  life  will  be  faced  with  a  major  obstacle:  virtually  everything  known  to  have  been  recorded  about  Jesus  during  the  century  in  which  he  lived  comes  from  religious  texts,  which  are  a  notoriously unreliable source of historical information.  Flavius Josephus, who lived in the 1st  century  and  was  undoubtedly  the  greatest  chronicler  of  that  era  of  Judean  history,  included  only one paragraph about Jesus in his extensive writings, and even that short entry appears to  be  of  dubious  accuracy.    Its  syntax  and  writing  style  demonstrate  notable  differences  from  those  of  Josephus’  other  works,  and  most  scholars  who  have  studied  the  passage  have  concluded that Christian scribes must have inserted much or all of it many years later.    I  n  the  New  Testament,  the  earliest  written  accounts  of  Jesus  are  found  in  the  epistles  (letters) of Paul, which are believed to date from a period some 20 to 40 years after Jesus’  death.    Interestingly,  Paul  readily  admits  that  he  had  never  known  Jesus  during  his  lifetime, and that Jesus revealed himself to him only through visions and dreams.  It was from  those  apparitions  that  Paul  established  much  of  the  scriptural  bedrock  upon  which  Christianity was eventually built.  Paul’s writings relate very little about Jesus’ life, and that is  certainly understandable.       The gospel stories of the New Testament (there are four of them: Matthew, Luke, Mark,  and John) all written in Greek apparently some 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, provide  detailed accounts of Jesus’ life, his ministry, and his death.   From scholarly analyses of these  writings, there is general agreement that the Mark gospel was written first, followed by Luke  and then Matthew, with John following some years later.  The gospels all date some years later  than  Paul’s  letters,  and  they  clearly  were  heavily  influenced  by  Paul’s  theological  ideas  and  pronouncements.  The first three of the gospel stories present remarkably similar narratives,  and the few differences that exist among them provide important windows of understanding  into  how  successive  versions  of  the  Jesus  story  were  modified  to  meet  the  religious  and  political needs of the developing Church.   
  3. 3.      A  central  figure  in  all  four  of  the  gospel  stories  is  a  Galilean  Jew  who  comes  to  be  known as John the Baptist (a Greek word meaning “immerser”).   John is portrayed in the New  Testament as a committed proponent of the Pharisee beliefs that in the end of days, and with  the  coming  of  the  Messiah,  the  dead  will  be  resurrected  from  their  graves,  and  all  who  are  truly  righteous  will  enter  into  God’s  kingdom;  he  also  emphasized  that  when  that  day  of  reckoning  comes,  all  unrepentant  sinners  will  be  destroyed.    John  (who  was  a  well‐ documented  historical  figure,  described  at  length  by  Josephus)  traveled  about  in  Galilee,  preaching a traditional Jewish message of charity: “He that hath two coats, let him impart to  him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.” But John’s most passionate  mission was to urge his countrymen to ready themselves for the coming day of judgment:  to  repent and make atonement, and then to join him at the Jordan to confess their sins and be  immersed in the flowing water of the river.      Immersion in a natural body of water, or in a mikva containing rainwater, had long been part of the traditional Jewish practice of achieving ritual purity, and in ancient days, all Jews were required to immerse themselves prior to entering the courtyards of the Temple. Accordingly, John’s immersions would have been an entirely understandable step in preparation for entering into God’s kingdom at the start of the messianic age. Amongst those who came with John to be immersed in the Jordan, the gospels tell us, was Jesus, and from other indications in the New Testament, Jesus also may well have later become John’s disciple. From all of that, it might seem that John could well have been a religious figure of greater importance than Jesus, but the gospels take great pains to emphasize that John was mainly a messenger, who proclaimed events that were to come.     In the gospel accounts of his travels and his ministry in Galilee, Jesus is portrayed as a  learned teacher of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Numerous miracles are also ascribed to him, many  of  which  involve  his  healing  the  sick  by  driving  out  evil  spirits.    In  addressing  his  followers  and  his  disciples,  Jesus  is  frequently  quoted  in  the  New  Testament  referring  to  God  as  “my  father,” suggesting that he had a unique and literally filial relationship to God, and implying, as  well, his  own dietyship.  But in spite of that, when a scribe in one of the gospel stories asks  him:  “Which  is  the  first  commandment  of  all?”  Jesus  answers:  “Hear,  O  Israel;  The  Lord  our  God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul,  and with all thy mind,” i.e. with the shema, the supreme Jewish declaration of monotheism.     As presented in the New Testament, the principal message Jesus conveyed to his disciples and to his countrymen was basically the same as that of John the Baptist: Turn away from sin and follow the path of righteousness, and that will help assure you a place in God’s kingdom. A large number of Jesus’ quotations in the gospels are in the form of highly engaging parables, a device said to have helped him attract listeners. Most of Jesus’ parables touch on righteous and/or non- righteous behavior, and a large number of them serve as metaphors of the Kingdom. Some of Jesus’ parables, such as the familiar story of the Good Samaritan, provide a clear moral message that is easily understood by anyone. But in many of the others, the meaning is obscure, defying any ready interpretation.   According to his portrayal in the New Testament, Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead and the coming of the messiah, and often, but not always, in a tolerant, compassionate
  4. 4. interpretation of the law. To that extent, he shared common ground with Hillel and Gamaliel, the pre-eminent Pharisee sages of his era. He apparently was also inclined toward pacifism: “And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.”   In the gospel accounts, Jesus comes across as a tireless champion of those on the lowest rungs of the ladder in Jewish society. The teachings attributed to him strongly emphasize the commandments from the Torah to care for the orphan and the widow and to be generous to the poor. At every opportunity, it appears, he admonished his followers to take pity and help those in need, even when doing so required extreme personal sacrifice.   But in spite of Jesus’ untiring beneficence, there was one group of people for whom the New Testament depicts him as having only disdain and contempt. One might suppose that that would have been the Romans, who ruled Jesus’ country of Judea with an iron hand and who savaged its people with ruinous taxes, so severe as to leave much of its populace in a state of near-starvation. But the gospel stories scarcely mention the Romans; and when they do, they most often come off as being benign, rather kindly folk.   Strangely,  Jesus’  disaffection,  we  are  told,  was  reserved  for  his  own  Jewish  brethren,  particularly the Pharisees, who shared so many of his values and beliefs, and who presumably  would  have  been  among  his  strongest  supporters.    According  to  the  gospel  accounts,  Jesus,  and  also  John  the  Baptist,  loosed  venomous  fury  against  the  Pharisees,  damning  them  as  “broods  of  vipers.”    Jesus  reviled  his  fellow  Jews  further,  accusing  them  of  laziness,  oppressiveness,  false  piety,  vanity,  uncleanliness,  and  hypocrisy.    These  various  sins,  which  are  reminiscent  of  those  included  in  the  “al  chet”  confession  that  we  read  on  Yom  Kippur,  were no doubt committed frequently by Jews during the 1st century, just as they are today, but  it would be difficult to imagine that they would justify such condemnation.  So why was there  all  of  this  ferocious  acrimony  by  Jesus  against  those  we  would  have  anticipated  to  have  received his respect and affection?  The New Testament provides no convincing answer, but it  does assert that “the Jews” themselves harbored intense animosity against Jesus, so much so  that they paid witnesses to give false testimony against him, and that they constantly plotted  to kill him    So what, then, supposedly motivated such awful enmity on the part of the Jews? That, the gospels tell us, arose to a large extent from their perception that Jesus violated Jewish laws and customs. In one prominent example, Jesus allows some of his disciples, who were hungry and had nothing to eat, to pluck some grain on the Sabbath. A group of Pharisees who witness this are outraged because of Jesus’ disregard for the law that prohibits work on that day. Elsewhere in the gospel stories, Pharisees castigate Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Additional passages relate how Pharisees take him to task because his disciples did not wash their hands before eating, or because they failed to observe certain fasts. It would indeed be plausible for the Pharisees, who were generally strict in their compliance with the law, to have frowned upon such infractions, but would they have wanted to kill Jesus for violations such as these? The writers of the gospels do appear to have recognized the need to build a more compelling case to justify the supposed hatred of Jesus by his Jewish brethren, and perhaps it was for that reason that they introduced the accounts of Jews
  5. 5. scheming to bring false testimony against him. But nowhere do they reveal the accusations that these false witnesses supposedly made.    These  puzzling  accounts  of  mutual  animosity  between  Jesus  and  his  Jewish  countrymen  come  into  sharper  focus  in  a  later  part  of  the  gospel  narratives,  which  purport  that  after  Jesus  was  arrested  and  brought  before  the  High  Priest,  the  Kohen  Gadol  of  the  Temple, “The high priest . . . said unto (Jesus), I adjure thee by the living God that thou tell us  whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.” And each time that question is put to him, Jesus  answers in the affirmative.  Of course, we would assume that the High Priest would not have  employed  the  Greek  word  “Christ  (Χριστος)”  in  his  discourse  with  a  fellow  Jew,  so  if  an  interchange  such  as  that  one  had  actually  taken  place,  he  certainly  would  have  used  an  Aramaic or Hebrew word.  The gospel of John (1:41) tells us “Christ” has the same meaning as  the Hebrew vhan, “messiah,” but there is more to it than that: “Christ” also denotes divinity.   The  second  part  of  the  High  Priest’s  question  to  Jesus  raises  another  such  double  meaning.   Perhaps  any  1st  century  Jewish  man  would  have  considered  himself  to  be  a  son  of  God;  but  when  the  High  Priest  purportedly  asked  Jesus  about  his  being  the  Son  of  God,  the  gospel  account leaves little doubt that he was actually demanding to know if Jesus regarded himself  to be the one and only son of God, which again would have implied his status as a deity.     The New Testament narratives make it unmistakably clear that Jesus was arrested at the instigation of the Jews. The sum of the alleged transgressions that purportedly led to his indictment evidently included the various relatively minor sins referred to earlier, to which were added Jesus’ declaration of being the messiah, and as well his assertion that he was the Son of God, a claim of deityship.   T he messiah (the word literally means “anointed”) has figured large through virtually all of Jewish history, although the messianic idea in Judaism has been reshaped considerably since it first appeared in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi. Its exemplar has always been King David, the supremely mighty warrior who vanquished his enemies and conquered Jerusalem, establishing it as the holy city of the Jews, and then paved the way for the building of the Temple. Messianic aspirants have all sought to follow more or less in David’s footsteps. Most of the Jewish messianic figures in ancient times emulated King David quite literally, by waging war against their opponents. These messiahs (Simon Bar Kochba is a prime example) organized military forces and led them into battle against the occupiers of his country. Although Bar Kochba managed to gain the upper hand against the Romans for at least for a few years, he and his army were ultimately destroyed, and that was the eventual outcome of every other messiah who engaged the Romans militarily.   But a few messiahs pursued an alternative approach to freeing Jerusalem and the temple from their hated Roman occupiers. Their strategy was to initiate a mainly symbolic attack, counting on a miracle from God to stay the hand of the enemy and assure that they were victorious. The gospel of Luke suggests that this was exactly the approach Jesus took. The New Testament account relates that at the end of the Last Supper, as Jesus was preparing to go out with his disciples onto the Mount of Olives, the following dialog took place: “And (Jesus) said to them: . . . ‘he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.’ And they said ‘Lord, behold, here are two swords.’ And he said unto them, ‘It is enough.’” But out on the mountainside, what his tiny army
  6. 6. encountered was not the Romans, but rather a contingent of the Temple Guard, who promptly arrested Jesus. And it was shortly thereafter that the High Priest supposedly confronted Jesus, demanding to know if he were the Christ.   So what was the significance of the High Priest’s purported accusation, and in particular, was it an infraction of the law of the land for Jesus to proclaim himself the messiah? The reality is that throughout the centuries, Jews always honored and invested their most profound hope in virtually every reasonably credible individual who declared himself to be the messiah. And through all those years, to have made such a claim has never been interpreted as a violation of Jewish law. As for the High Priest’s question about whether Jesus was the Son of God, and therefore, presumably, was a deity himself, that needs to be looked at from the perspective of how such ideas were viewed in antiquity. Although many peoples of the ancient world, Greeks and Romans among them, commonly elevated their leaders to the status of gods, Jews never accepted the notion of human deification, even for the patriarchs, for the most revered of the prophets, or for King David, the paramount messiah of Jewish history. And perhaps out of recognition of that reality, as the late Hyam Maccoby strongly emphasized, no Jewish law was ever promulgated that forbad anyone from claiming to be a god. So even if Jesus had proclaimed himself to be the messiah, and if, in addition, he were to have announced that he was the Son of God, neither of those assertions would have represented any violation of existing laws. In light of that, the purported intense hatred of Jesus by his Jewish countrymen could not plausibly have been justified by the infractions of Jewish law that the gospel stories describe. T he contention that the Jews killed Jesus, and accordingly, that the Jewish people are guilty of deicide, was for a very long time a central element of Christian belief. That accusation is clearly stated in Thessalonians (1-2:15), one of the earliest of Paul’s epistles. In recent years, a good many Christian denominations have finally come to acknowledge that Jews did not kill Jesus, and that it was the Romans who were responsible for his crucifixion. So why, then, would the Romans have bothered to condemn a small-town preacher who traveled about the country urging his followers to lead lives of charity and righteousness? Most likely it was for the same reason that had led them to put John the Baptist to death. Both John and Jesus preached the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, and that message must have caused considerable apprehension among the Roman authorities. Because the establishment of God’s kingdom in Judea would perforce have meant the end of the Roman kingdom, it would have been treasonable to advocate any such idea. Moreover, the bringing together of sizeable numbers of people to hear such a message, both by John and by Jesus, could well have raised fears among the Romans that the two men were inciting their countrymen to rebellion. Those concerns would have been ample cause for the two men to have been arrested and executed. But if that indeed had been the case, why would the writers of the New Testament have devoted such a sizeable part of their gospel narratives to accounts clearly intended to demonize Jesus’ Jewish brethren, and why did they pepper their scriptural texts with so many stories of mutual hatred between Jesus and his fellow Jews? The explanation that has been most widely advanced in recent years is that the early writers of Christian scripture were faced with a serious political dilemma: The Jewish nation was moving into open rebellion against its foreign ruler, and
  7. 7. the Roman forces, in turn, were responding with brutal force, killing large numbers of Jews and sending thousands of others into slavery. Eventually, the Romans went on to destroy the temple in Jerusalem, bringing an end to the sacrifices that were of such fundamental importance to the religious life of Jews everywhere. It was while all of this was taking place that the beginnings of early Christianity were coming together. The Jesus movement at that point was in fragile circumstances, and to side with the defeated Jews might well have left them in even more precarious straits. So, instead, they carefully fashioned their scriptural texts so as to place the Jews in the worst possible light, in an effort to curry favor with Rome. To that hypothesis, I would offer another, viz. that much of the anti-Jewish hatred expressed in the New Testament could well have stemmed from a personal animosity against Jews and Judaism, on the part of the chief architect of Christian theology, Paul of Tarsus. I n his epistles, Paul declared that he himself had been a Jew, “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee.” But compelling textual analyses by Hyam Maccoby, an extraordinary Talmudic and New Testament scholar whose writings informed many parts of this article, suggest that Paul was far more likely to have been a Greek who converted to Judaism only in his adult life. Noteworthy evidence in support of that assertion is, firstly, that Paul’s knowledge of the Hebrew language was surprisingly limited; most telling was that a number of passages he quoted from the bible were unmistakably taken from the Septuagint, the Greek language version, rather than from the primary Hebrew texts, with errors in the Greek translation appearing prominently in Paul’s letters. Moreover, the unique forms of reasoning and argumentation that characterized learned Pharisee discourse were often distorted or misapplied in Paul’s writings. And what perhaps may be most significant of all is that a good many of the theological conceptions that made their first appearance in the Pauline epistles of the New Testament were utterly foreign to Judaism, but had close parallels in the Greek mystery cults that were prominent in Paul’s native city. Among Paul’s most important innovations was the Eucharist, the ritual involving the ingesting of bread and wine (1-Cor. 11:24-25). The drinking of blood was of course always a taboo for Jews, and for a Jew, as Paul claimed to be, to initiate the practice of drinking wine as a proxy for Jesus’ blood would hardly seem imaginable. But on the other hand, such a tradition was well known in the mystery religions, whose adherents ate meat and drank blood of sacrificial animals to bring them into communion with Attis or others of the cult gods. Paul’s description of the Eucharist established it as the most universal element of Christian observance. Paul disparaged the Torah as being a curse (Gal. 3:13), and based on that contention, he introduced another of Christianity’s fundamental tenets, viz. that faith in the risen Jesus supplants the Torah’s commandments: “A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16). ” He also, apparently for the first time, asserted that events associated with Jesus’ life and death had taken place in fulfillment of prophesies from the Hebrew Scriptures. Later, that claim was also made, repeatedly, by the authors of the gospel stories, presumably to give greater authority to their Jesus narratives. But because the “fulfillments” were always written about after the fact, Rabbi Michael Cook, another prominent New Testament scholar, has suggested that the process could well be likened to shooting arrows at a blank wall and then painting the bulls-eye around them afterward. And as a final example, Paul wrote: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be
  8. 8. saved,” which is presumably the scriptural underpinning of my neighbor Jack’s understanding of what one needs to do to get into heaven. S o in the end, what do we really know about Jesus? With there being very few historically reliable contemporary accounts about him, the gospel stories, in spite of their obvious limitations, still carry the greatest potential for providing at least occasional kernels of useful information. But how can the apparently few accurate historical elements be extracted from the gospel texts’ religious and political constructs? Through skillful, often ingenious analyses of the gospel stories, a number of scholars, of whom one of the most notable was Hyam Maccoby, appear to have achieved enough success in this endeavor so that at least a shadowy image of the historical Jesus has emerged: In all likelihood, Jesus was a pious Jew, a man deeply committed to fulfilling the commandments of the Torah. At a momentous turning point in his life, Jesus apparently became a disciple of John the Baptist. And in time, after John was arrested and executed, Jesus went on, with some of John’s disciples as well as others of his own, and continued to preach John’s message, admonishing his fellow Jews to atone, repent, and prepare themselves for the imminent coming of God’s kingdom. As Jesus’ ministry evolved, it took on a unique flavor, growing out of his special talents and abilities: He undoubtedly was a charismatic figure, and to enhance his already engaging speaking style, he developed to an exquisite degree the Pharisee custom of speaking in parables. In addition, he apparently was an exceptional healer, with acute powers of observation coupled with outstanding analytical skills, and those abilities aided him in attracting people who needed his help, and who then stayed on to listen to his religious message. Jesus’ teachings followed the same course and direction as those of other apocalyptic Pharisee teachers of his time, but in addition to preaching Torah-based principles of righteousness, he gave special emphasis to his followers to the importance of charity and concern for the less fortunate. Eventually, Jesus came to believe that God had chosen him to be the messiah, the King of the Jews. To consummate his kingship, Jesus led his disciples into Jerusalem, to initiate the holy war that would culminate in "the great and terrible day of the Lord" that had been predicted long before by the prophet Malachi. After Jesus was arrested and executed, his disciples, who had fully accepted his messiahship and kingship, became convinced that he had miraculously been returned to life, and they exchanged stories among themselves of having encountered their master fully restored and alive. They also quoted the resurrected Jesus as having told them that he would be leaving, but that he would return imminently to take up his messianic mission. Christians have been awaiting his “second coming” ever since that time. We can now perceive Jesus as having been a committed Jew, devoted to Judaism’s highest ideals and values, but a man whose life story and mission may well have been refashioned to meet the needs of a very different religious movement, one that might have been scarcely recognizable to Jesus or his contemporaries. So perhaps the mention of Jesus’ name ought not bring us discomfort. And it seems likely that had his life had been depicted more accurately, Jesus might justly have become a respected figure in Jewish history. •