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A Jewish View of Jesus

John D. Rayner
Fall 1999


I am not a New Testament scholar, but like many, perhaps most, Jews, I have always been fascinated by the Jew who, paradoxically, occupies centre-stage in Christianity but in Judaism holds no place at all. Therefore I have found myself reading and thinking about him from time to time, and arrived at certain conclusions, consistent both with Jewish belief and with common sense, which, since they have clarified the subject for me, may conceivably help to do so for others.  

But let me make it clear from the outset that they concern the Jesus of history, not the Christ of Church doctrine. What Christianity has taught about Jesus — that he was the Son of God, or God Incarnate, that he was miraculously conceived and miraculously resurrected, that his death was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity, and that he is the Second Person of a Trinity, co-eternal with God the Father and the Holy Spirit — all these teachings lie outside Judaism and are incompatible with it. Indeed, to me they seem discontinuous with the general thrust of Hebraism. And therefore, though I try to understand and respect these beliefs, I have never felt any inclination to accept them.  

Before modern times, the historical Jesus and the theological Christ were generally deemed to be inseparable, and since Jews were bound to reject the one, they naturally tended to think negatively, or not at all, about both. That some leading Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, like Maimonides, nevertheless referred positively to Jesus, as preparing the way for the messianic age, is due, not to their appraisal of his person but to their perception that Christianity, in spite of its un-Hebraic aspects, has, as a matter of historical fact, purveyed many of the moral values of Hebraism to a previously pagan civilisation.  

Rise of Bible Criticism  

What enabled the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Church doctrine to be made was the rise of Bible Criticism, which has shown that the Gospels reflect the evolving theology of the Church some considerable time after the life of their hero.  

Not everybody accepted these findings immediately. Even Christian scholars who engaged in Old Testament criticism were sometimes reluctant to apply the same methods to the New. Of S.R. Driver, for instance, it was said that when he lectured on the Old Testament he was Professor Driver, but when he lectured on the New Testament he was Canon Driver. On the Jewish side, since Orthodoxy rejected modern scholarship as applied to the Hebrew Bible, it could not easily admit its validity as applied to the New Testament, and therefore it has been left mainly to non-Orthodox Jews to take advantage of the new methodology in order to attempt a historical reconstruction of the real Jesus. I refer to scholars like Claude Montefiore, Joseph Klausner, Samuel Sandmel, Geza Vermes and Hyam Maccoby. Today, however, it is pretty generally accepted that it is legitimate to use the tools of critical scholarship to try to get at the truth about Jesus of Nazareth.  

But I have said ‘try’ in order to indicate that it is not an enterprise in which certainty is attainable. For Jesus did not write anything, nor was anything written about him in his lifetime; and the Gospels, which are virtually our only source of information, have at least four disadvantages as sources of historiography. First, they are relatively late — even the earliest was written some forty years after the events it recounts. Secondly, they say next to nothing about the greater part of Jesus’ life but concentrate almost exclusively on his public ministry, which lasted only a year or two. Third, there are discrepancies between them. And fourth, they are tendentious, in that they adulate their hero and make little attempt to be fair to those whom they perceive as having been his enemies.  

In these circumstances, one has to treat the Gospel evidence with caution, and weigh it against the testimony of other sources, Jewish and Roman, not indeed about the person of Jesus, but about the religious and political realities of the time. Such an investigation can only yield probability, and is inevitably subjective — what seems probable to one person may seem improbable to another.  

Therefore I can only present the balance of probabilities as it seems to me, and I want to do so in the form of seven propositions: that he was real, that he was human, that he was Jewish, that he was a faith-healer, that he was a preacher, that he was a prophet, and that he was a would-be messiah.  

1. He was real  

Although there is much in the Gospels that is mythological, exaggerated or propagandistic, nevertheless I believe that they are essentially factual documents rather than works of fiction, and therefore Jesus was a real person. I believe that for three reasons. First, because the story the Gospels tell, shorn of its improbabilities, is inherently credible and accords well with what we know from other sources about the religious and political circumstances of the time. Secondly, because we don’t have only one Gospel but several, of which at least two (Mark and the non-Marcan source of Matthew and Luke, known as ‘Q’) are independent of each other. Thirdly, because they contain bits of information about Jesus which run counter to the Tendenz of the Gospel writers and which they are therefore unlikely to have invented — and we shall have some examples of such ‘telltale’ data, as we may call them.  

2. He was human  

Secondly, I believe that Jesus was human. That may seem an unnecessary point to make, since it is implied in the proposition that he was a historical person and since, from a Jewish point of view, there is in any case no other possibility. But the matter is not quite so simple.  

For one thing, we do encounter in the Hebrew Bible and subsequent Jewish literature references to superhuman beings of various kinds such as ‘sons of God’ (e.g., Gen. 6:2), angels and demons. But these are figures of popular mythology, and the general thrust of Hebraism was towards a theology in which they have no real existence but serve only as poetic images. In its most highly developed form, I would contend, Hebraism recognises no intermediate order of existence between God and humanity, but sees a chasm between them that is absolute except that there is inter-communication between them: by God in revelation and by humans in prayer.  

From such a point of view, therefore, the Christian belief that Jesus was both human and divine is ruled out ab initio. But because Christianity makes that claim, it is necessary to consider the reasons that are commonly adduced in support of it.  

Virgin Birth  

One is the story of the Virgin Birth. But that is clearly one of the mythological elements of the narrative, and a motif found in other ancient mythologies, which there is no reason to take seriously and which is nowadays doubted even by Christian theologians such as David Jenkins and Don Cupitt. As for the ‘Immanuel’ verse which the Gospel of Matthew (1:23) quotes as a proof-text from Isaiah (7:14), it has long been conceded by all serious scholars that it does not refer to a virgin but to a young woman, and is in any case a prophecy about the immediate, not the distant future. On top of all that, there is evidence within the Gospel account itself that the Virgin Birth legend arose relatively late, for it preserves fragments of an earlier tradition which knew nothing of it. (See Mark 6:3, Matt. 1:16 and commentaries.)  

Another reason is the story of the Resurrection. But that, even if it were true, would make Jesus no more divine than the prophet Elijah of whom we are told that he ‘ascended into heaven in a whirlwind’ (II Kings 2:11). That it came to be believed about Jesus seems to me not at all surprising, given that tradition about Elijah plus the belief in a general resurrection of the dead in the messianic age, even apart from the fact that, in the case of the followers of Jesus, it is easily explicable as wish fulfillment.  

Another argument one sometimes hears is that Jesus claimed to be divine and that, since he was evidently not insane, the claim must be true. But nowadays all serious New Testament scholars agree that Jesus made no such claim. Indeed, some of them even doubt whether he made the much more modest claim to be the Messiah.  

Grand Claims  

It is nevertheless true that according to the Gospels Jesus made some rather grand claims for himself. But these passages are not necessarily all authentic. For instance, the oft quoted verse, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me’, occurs only in John (14:6), the latest of the four Gospels, and it seems to me quite inconceivable that if Jesus had made such a sensational statement, and one so congenial to the propagandistic agenda of the Evangelists, it would have gone unmentioned by Mark, Matthew and Luke. As for the expression ‘Son of Man’, which Jesus probably did use about himself, and even the expression ‘Son of God’, which others used about him, they can be explained, as Geza Vermes has shown, without stepping outside the parameters of contemporary Judaism; and we shall come back to that point.  

Finally, it is sometimes alleged by Christian apologists that the sheer perfection of Jesus points to his divinity. But even the premise of that argument, let alone the inference, cannot be sustained. For one thing, we know almost nothing about the greater part of his life. For another, he actually disclaimed perfection. When, for instance, a stranger addressed him as ‘Good Master’, he replied: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’ (Mark 10:18; see also Matt. 13:32).  

Above all, the Gospel narrative, written to extol Jesus, shows him to have had some human weaknesses. For instance, he didn’t always practice what he preached. He preached against anger and abuse (Matt. 5:22), but if even a fraction of the tirades which the Evangelists put into his mouth against the Pharisees is authentic, he was quite vituperative towards them (Matt. 23). He preached ‘resist not evil’ (Matt. 5:39) but used violence against the merchants and money-changers in the Temple (Mark 11 :15f). And his courage, though great, sometimes deserted him. At Gethsemane, we are told, ‘horror and dismay came over him’ and he prayed, ‘Take this cup from me’ (Mark 14:34, 36); and on the cross he exclaimed: ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34).  

Jesus, I would say, was a great and good man, even very great and very good. But to go further than that and say that he was perfect is to go both beyond and against the evidence, which shows that he was fully, and fallibly, human.  

3. He was a Jew  

My third proposition is that Jesus was a Jew — and I mean that not in some senses or in most senses but in every sense. He was born of Jewish parents. He was circumcised on his eighth day (Luke 2:21). He received a Jewish education, probably from Pharisaic teachers in Nazareth. At the age of twelve, according to one of the Gospels, his parents took him to the Temple in Jerusalem, where they went for Passover every year (Luke 2:41f). He often went to synagogue in his hometown Nazareth, Capernaum and other places (Mark 1:21, 1:39, 6:2. etc.). The prayers he prayed were Jewish prayers. The festivals he celebrated were Jewish festivals. The company he kept was Jewish company. When asked to heal the daughter of a Phoenician woman, he said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 15:24; cf. Mark 5:19). He even advised his disciples, ‘Do not take the road to gentile lands, and do not enter any Samaritan town’ (Matt. 10:5). These, incidentally, are examples of those ‘telltale’ passages which the Gospel writers would not have invented.  

Above all, the religious beliefs and values Jesus affirmed and taught were those of Judaism and not of any other religion. In short, he was Jewish through and through, and the idea of founding a new and different religion never crossed his mind.  

Normative Judaism  

It may indeed be objected that some of the things Jesus is said to have taught strike one as uncharacteristic of, if not at variance with, what one assumes to have been the normative Judaism of his time. But to that objection there are two good answers. For one thing, not everything that is put into the mouth of Jesus by the Evangelists was actually said by him. Some of it is a reflection of attitudes that prevailed in the Christian Church towards the end of the first century. I have already mentioned the saying from John’s Gospel, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life...’, as a case in point. Much, if not all, of the vilification of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 is probably to be explained in the same way. And there is general agreement among New Testament scholars that the passage at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus charges his disciples, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (28:19), is a late interpolation.  

But the other point to be made is that the Judaism of first-century Palestine was not monolithic but comprised a number of different streams: a fact of which the Dead Sea Scrolls have made us more aware than ever. The question, therefore, needs to be asked, with which of these streams Jesus should be identified. Most probably the answer is: with none; he was too much of a loner. Certainly the Sadducees can be ruled out. For they were priestly and aristocratic, whereas Jesus was neither; they were closely associated with the Temple, whereas he was ambivalent towards it; and they denied, whereas he affirmed, the resurrection of the dead (Mark 12:18-27).  

Jesus and the Pharisees  

On the other hand Jesus clearly had much in common with the Pharisees, whose ideas he will have absorbed to some extent during his education. Like them, as we have just seen, he believed in the resurrection. He employed the kind of Bible exegesis, and told the kind of parables, familiar to us from Pharisaic literature. The Paternoster prayer which he taught his disciples (Matt. 6:9-11) is a string of characteristically Pharisaic phrases. And when asked which was the greatest commandment, he singled out precisely the two which one would have expected a Pharisaic teacher to single out, namely, from Deuteronomy, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God is One; and you shall love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and with all your soul...’ (6:4f), and from Leviticus, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (19:18).  

Incidentally, the changes that story undergoes as it is told in Mark (12:28-34), retold in Matthew (22:34-40) and then again in Luke (10:25-37) — whereas John disdains to mention it — show a clear progression from warmth to coldness to animosity in the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, and allows us, by extrapolating the trend backwards, to surmise that in reality their relationship was even friendlier than the earliest Gospel tradition suggests, and therefore also that the venomous denunciations of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 owe less to Jesus and more to the hostility of the Church in the Evangelist’s time.  

Jesus and the Law  

But did not Jesus adopt a negative attitude to the Law which was the pride and joy of the Pharisees? Only up to a point. He certainly didn’t reject the Law. On the contrary, he lived by its precepts. He even affirmed it, and not only the Written Law, but the Oral Law as well. Two passages are especially relevant here, and they are again of the ‘telltale’ kind which the Gospel writers would have been unlikely to invent. Jesus said: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfil...Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven...’ (Matt. 5:17-19). And even more significantly: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do what they teach you and follow it...’ (Matt. 23:2).  

It is true that Jesus performed acts of healing on the Sabbath, but that was quite permissible when it was a matter of saving life, and even otherwise if it was done, as Jesus did it, by mere speech, without physical contact (Matt. 12:9-14). It is also true that he allowed his disciples to eat without first washing their hands, but there is no suggestion that he did so himself (Mark 7:1-8).  

The only instance in which Jesus seems to question the obligatory character of the Law is a passage in which he makes light of the Dietary Laws by saying that it is not what enters the body, but what comes out of it, that defiles, at which point the Gospel text adds: ‘Thus he declared all foods clean’ (Mark 7:19). But that parenthetical comment almost certainly expresses the view of the Evangelist rather than of Jesus himself, and may even be a mistranslation (see Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, p. 29).  

On the subject of divorce, the Gospels preserve two discrepant traditions: that Jesus would allow it only on the ground of adultery (Matt. 5:32, 19:9), in which case he agreed with the school of Shammai (Mishnah, Git. 9:10), and that he would disallow it altogether (Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18), in which case he advocated what the Rabbis called middat chasidut, a higher degree of piety than the Law strictly required.  

In fact, much of the teaching of Jesus needs to be understood in the light of that principle. That is especially true of the Sermon on the Mount, which we will discuss presently. Meanwhile it must suffice to say that Jesus’ attitude to the Law was generally positive, but combined with a certain disdain for the hair-splitting legalism to which the Pharisees were no doubt inclined, as it has characterised the legal mind in all ages. With these qualifications, then, we may re-affirm what we said previously: that Jesus had much in common with the Pharisees.  

Jesus and the Essenes  

But we must add that he also had much in common with the Essenes, who in turn are generally identified with the Qumran community. For like them, he practised celibacy and asceticism, tended towards communism, and believed in the imminence of the messianic age, and the urgency of the need to repent in preparation for it. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4:17) was, after all, the burden of his message. (See also Mark 13:24-27.) In addition, the Essenes were much given to faith-healing — indeed, it is possible that their name derives from an Aramaic word meaning ‘to heal’, as their counterparts in Egypt were known as Therapeutae — and faith-healing played a large part in Jesus’ ministry.  

Jesus and the Zealots  

Even with the Zealots Jesus had more in common than is generally supposed. Not only was one of his disciples, Simon, a member of that group (Mark 3:18, Matt. 10:4, Luke 6:15), but several of the teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels strike an activistic and even militaristic note distinctly reminiscent of the Zealots. For example: ‘You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34); ‘I have come to set fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled’ (Luke 12:49); and ‘whoever has no sword, let him sell his cloak to buy one’ (Luke 20:36). These are surely among the ‘telltale’ passages whose authenticity is not to be doubted.  

4. He was a faith-healer  

My fourth proposition is that Jesus was a faith-healer. I could have said, more generally, a wonder-worker, but that would imply a belief in miracles which I don’t hold. For I would regard all stories of the suspension or violation of the laws of nature as products of folkloristic imagination, whether they occur in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Talmud, or anywhere else. In that way I would discount, for instance, the stories of Jesus walking on the lake (Mark 6:48) and the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6:38-44). But faith-healing is another matter, since it is explicable in terms of the influence of the mind on psychosomatic conditions, and well enough attested.  

Furthermore, the vast majority of the miracle stories told about Jesus in Mark, Matthew and Luke are in fact of the faith-healing kind. As Geza Vermes points out, ‘Compared with the massive insistence of the Synoptists on the healing of mental and physical disease, other miracles assigned to Jesus are numerically insignificant’ (Jesus the Jew, p. 26).  

I find these stories essentially credible, even though some allowance must still be made for exaggeration, and though one may doubt the theory underlying the healing acts, for Jesus evidently believed that the sick were in many cases possessed by an evil spirit which had to be exorcised.  

Certainly Jesus’ activity as a faith-healer does not place him outside Judaism, for similar powers are ascribed to men of exceptional piety in Rabbinic literature.  

It should also be added that in an age which believed implicitly in faith-healing, as in miracles generally, that belief would itself have been a factor contributing to the effectiveness of such therapy.  

5. He was a preacher  

My fifth proposition is that Jesus was a preacher. That is indeed obvious, but I mean it in a particular sense. It is often said that Jesus was a rabbi, but that is doubly wrong. First, it is anachronistic, for the term was not yet used as a title, but only as a mode of address, in his time. Secondly, a rabbi was essentially a Halachist — an expert interpreter of Jewish Law, and there is little indication in the Gospels that Jesus had either the knowledge of a Halachist or that much interest in the legal side of Judaism.  

On the other hand, many rabbis were also masters of Aggadah — of homiletics. Some even specialised in that side of Judaism, and with them Jesus may appropriately be compared. He was, moreover, a charismatic, popular, itinerant preacher, like the East European Maggid of pre-modern times. Like some of the Pharisees, he conveyed his teachings largely through parables — especially about father and son, master and servant, king and subject — as well as terse aphorisms, in simple language and with vivid, homely illustrations. Some of his teachings, like some of Hillel’s, are cryptic. Some are obscure. Some may have been confused in transmission. But the majority are clear, go straight to the heart of the relationship between person and person, and between God and humanity, hit home, and belong to the gems of religious literature. There is no reason why Jews should not appreciate them. If Jesus had not been appropriated by Christianity, they would no doubt have found their way into Jewish writings such as the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ and Midrash. For their content is thoroughly Jewish and in particular, as has been pointed out, Pharisaic.  

There are indeed many close parallels between the teachings of Jesus and those found in Pharisaic-Rabbinic literature. Here are just a few examples. Jesus taught: ‘You of little faith! Do not worry, saying, What will we eat? or ‘What will we drink? or What will we wear?’ (Matt. 6:30f). Rabbi Eleazar taught: ‘One who has enough to eat for today and says, What will I eat tomorrow? is a person of little faith’ (Mechilta to Exod. 16:4).  

Sabbath Made for Humans  

Jesus taught: ‘The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). Rabbi Simon ben Menasia taught: ‘The Sabbath is entrusted to you, you are not entrusted to the Sabbath’ (Mechilta to Exod. 31:13).  

Jesus taught: ‘There will be greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent’ (Luke 15:7). Rabbi Abbahu taught: ‘Where those who have repented stand, the perfectly righteous are not permitted to stand’ (Babylonian Talmud, Ber. 34b).  

Jesus taught: ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). The Rabbis stressed the biblical injunction, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Eternal One your God am holy’ (Lev. 19:2; Lev.R. 24:4), and taught: ‘As God is called merciful, gracious and righteous, so you should be merciful, gracious and righteous’ (Sifré Deut. to Deut. 11:22).  

That saying of Jesus, ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’, comes from the Sermon on the Mount, which, with its recurring formula, ‘You have heard X but I tell you Y,’ is commonly taken to indicate that Jesus did, after all, seek to establish a new religion. But that is a misunderstanding, for the contrast he draws is not between an old religion (Judaism) and a new religion (Christianity) but between an incorrect and a correct interpretation of Scripture within the same religion, Judaism; and with his view of the correct interpretation, most Jewish teachers, not least Pharisees, would have agreed. Indeed, it is likely that the rejected interpretations were meant to be hypothetical rather than actual.  

It may be safely asserted, then, that the teachings of Jesus are mainly aggadic rather than halachic; that they all fall comfortably within the parameters of the several varieties of Judaism that existed in first-century Palestine; and that many of them have particular affinities with Pharisaic teachings.  

But to say that is not to say that all his teachings are acceptable from a modem Jewish point of view, Many Jews today would be inclined to reject, for instance, his belief in evil spirits as the cause of sickness (see above), his teachings about the ‘sheep’ and the goats’, and the torments to be inflicted in hell on the wicked and on those who reject the true teaching (e.g., Mark 9:43-48, Matt. 7:13f, 13:49f, 25:32, 25:41).  

However, in two respects the homilies of Jesus did differ from the general character of Pharisaic and Rabbinic preaching: that they often represent an extremist stance, and that they were delivered with a strong assertion of personal authority. To account for these features, we need to bring into play two more affirmations about Jesus.  

6. He was a prophet  

My penultimate point is that he was a prophet. That affirmation will cause raised eyebrows among some Jews, but only, I think, because they take the traditional, fundamentalist view that a prophet is an infallible transmitter of divine messages, so that he can never be mistaken, and that prophecy ceased after Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. However, from a non-fundamentalist point of view neither of these assertions need be granted. From such a point of view, the prophets were human and fallible (Zechariah, for instance, was mistaken in believing that Zerubbabel would reign over a restored Davidic monarchy) and the distinction between prophetic and post-prophetic books, as indeed between canonical and non-canonical writings, is not absolute. There is in any case evidence that a kind of prophecy (not necessarily known by that name) continued after the closure of the canon; in particular, a tradition that seemingly modelled itself on Elijah and Elisha and that is represented in Rabbinic Judaism by characters like Choni ha-Me’aggel and Chanina ben Dosa: charismatic, ascetic, itinerant preachers, wonder-workers and faith-healers whose extraordinary piety endowed their prayers with extraordinary power. All of them came, like Elijah and Elisha, from Galilee, and all of them were popularly believed to have been specially commissioned or ‘adopted’ by God. That Jesus fits well into this category, of Galilean Chasidim (pietists) is the main thesis of Geze Vermes’ seminal book, Jesus the Jew. It may also, as he points out, help to explain the epithet ‘Son of God’, which was perhaps originally applied to Jesus in the sense of ‘adoption’ and only later understood by a Gentile Church in the sense of divine kinship.  

Prophetic Speech  

However that may be, it can hardly be denied that Jesus spoke in a prophetic manner, and that he made the impression of a prophet on his audiences. His teaching, we are told, caused astonishment because he spoke ‘as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ Mark 1:22) — that is, not only as an interpreter of Scripture or tradition, but from personal religious experience and conviction. Some people thought he was Elijah come back to life, and some said: ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old’ (Mark 6:15; see also Matt. 21:11).  

The fact that he was, or believed himself to be, a prophet explains the critical posture he adopted towards the accepted wisdom of the contemporary religious establishment; Amos and Hosea would surely have been similarly critical of Pharisaic legalism if it had existed in their time. It also goes a long way towards explaining the authority with which he spoke. As the prophets of old would declaim, ‘Thus says the Eternal One’, so Jesus often declaimed, ‘I say to you’, meaning ‘I say to you in God’s name’. Yet the omission of that qualifying phrase suggests an even higher degree of authority than one would normally expect of a prophet. Perhaps it was simply due to a sense of personal self-importance which is one of the less attractive character traits of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. But that sense of his own importance would in any case have been inflated if the last of my seven propositions is true: that he was a would-be messiah.  

7. He was a would-be messiah  

Whether Jesus actually claimed to be the Messiah is a disputed issue among Christian scholars; but I suspect that some of them like to deny it because the concept of a Jewish national liberation movement leader, which is one of the major connotations of the term, does not sit well with the image of a universal saviour. (See Hugh Schonfield, For Christ’s Sake.)  

One thing is certain, however: that Jesus regarded the messianic age as imminent. In other words, he believed that the old world-order was coming to an end, soon to be succeeded by a new world order known in Hebrew as and commonly translated ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ but really meaning the rule of God. That is the message he took from John the Baptist, and it dominated his thinking for the rest of his life. In theological jargon, he believed himself to be living in the age of realised, or about-to-be-realised, eschatology.  

This fact alone explains the exaggerated or extremist tendencies in some of his teachings: about turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), about giving away one’s possessions (Mark 10:21; see also 10:25), about giving priority to discipleship rather than father and mother, son and daughter (Matt. 10:37), about cutting off hands and tearing out eyes (Mark 9:43-48). These teachings, which would seem extravagant in ordinary times, might well seem less so if one believed that the world was about to end.  

What is also clear is that, as the leader of a messianic movement, Jesus soon came to be regarded as the central actor in the eschatological drama that was supposedly about to unfold, in other words, as the Messiah; that the point was repeatedly put to him, and that he did not deny it; and it is therefore likely that at some stage between his baptism and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he came to believe it himself. And if he never said so openly and explicitly, that is easily explained by the fact that to do so would have been to invite instant arrest by the Roman authorities; for however he or his followers might have understood the role of the Messiah, it clearly involved the overthrow of Roman rule, if not by political insurrection, then by divine intervention, or perhaps a combination of both (see Acts 1:6). The explanation, that is, lies in what has been called the ‘concealed Messiahship’. As Mark tells us, ‘he did not speak to them [the crowds] except in parables; but privately to his disciples he explained everything’ (4:34).  

Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion  

When he asked his disciples who the people thought he was, ‘Peter replied: "You are the Messiah". And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him’ (Mark 8:27-30). When he entered Jerusalem, he did so quite deliberately on a young donkey so as to enact a messianic prophecy (Zech. 9:9), and the people shouted: ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David’ (Mark 11:1-10). When the High Priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah?’, he answered: ‘I am’ (Mark 14:61). When Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’, he replied, more guardedly: ‘You say so’ (Mark 15:2). And the inscription on the cross read: ‘The King of the Jews’ (Mark 15:26).  

In addition to all that, only the assumption that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, or allowed himself to be so proclaimed, can explain satisfactorily his arrest, trial and crucifixion. That is the considered opinion of any number of scholars, including Paul Winter, Geza Vermes, Hyam Maccoby and Ellis Rivkin.  

Thus the theory that Jesus was a would-be messiah is so amply supported by the evidence of the Gospels, and explains so many things, that it seems to me beyond all reasonable doubt. Among other things, it explains the personal authority, greater even than that of a prophet, with which he spoke.  

It should hardly be necessary to add that, if Jesus did make such a claim, it would not have made him less Jewish but, if possible, more so. For if there are degrees of Jewishness, the Messiah is surely the most Jewish Jew of all!  

At the same time it seems to me very clear that the claim, if Jesus made it, was mistaken. For one thing, there is considerable doubt whether the very concept of a Messiah was not a mistake: a figment of the imagination of the Apocalyptists, who were surely charlatan prophets.  

For another thing, although there were several different conceptions of the Messiah in first-century Palestine, and although Jesus may have had his own conception, not quite identical with any of them, nevertheless all of them surely involved a radical change in the condition of the Jewish people and of humanity; and that did not take place. The Roman empire remained in place. The Davidic kingdom was not re-established. The Jewish people were still oppressed, and even more so after 70 CE. Sin and crime, violence and cruelty, folly and ignorance, prejudice and superstition, intolerance and persecution, political and religious wars: all these continued. Indeed, it is for this very reason that the early Christians spoke of a ‘Second Coming’ which has never taken place. It may also be surmised that the manifest failure of Jesus to fulfil any one of the Jewish people’s messianic expectations is what induced the Christian Church to invest the Greek translation christos of the Hebrew mashiach with a connotation far removed from what Jews, of the first or any subsequent century, understood by the Messiah: a connotation that has few if any roots in Hebraism and is closer to the divine saviour of the mystery cults. (If it were recognised that what Jews mean by ‘Messiah’ and what Christians mean by ‘Christ’ are quite different concepts, much misunderstanding between them could be avoided.)  


If Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah, and was mistaken in that belief, it makes his life one of the most poignant of all tragedies. But it does not negate his religious and ethical teachings, many of which, in addition to being Jewish, retain their validity, their power and their appeal. Nor should Jesus be held responsible for the still greater tragedy that his life and death came to be so interpreted as to ignite a furious and persistent hatred against his own people. Inevitably, that historical fact makes it difficult for Jews to take an objective, let alone an appreciative, view of Jesus. Difficult, but not impossible. The portrait I have painted — of a real person, fully and fallibly human, Jewish through and through, a faith-healer, a master of Aggadah, a prophet in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, and a would-be messianic redeemer of his people and of humanity — is an attempt to do that. It will disappoint Christians that it doesn’t go further, but perhaps gratify them that it goes as far as it does. It may help Jews to resolve some unresolved conflicts in their minds. And for both reasons, I would like to think, it will contribute a little to greater clarity in Jewish-Christian dialogue.  

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