June 5, 2013

Jesus the Jewish Messiah?

“…[A]ccording to the promise, God raised up for Israel a Savior – Jesus…” (Acts 13:23)

“Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:14)

One of the facts of early Christian history is that relatively few Jews accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. Instead, the Church very quickly came to be dominated by gentile converts. We should consider this carefully because, while there are many examples of faithful Jews who did and do accept Jesus as the Messiah, most do not. Why is that?

Christian history is one reason. Over the centuries persecution and pogroms haven’t much encouraged faithful Jews to become followers of the “Prince of Peace.” For many, symbols of Christian faith and life—the cross, Christmas trees—are reminders of oppression. To even consider such a possibility—becoming Christian—is a betrayal of the memory of family and past generations abused by people calling themselves Christians.

Rabbi Talks with Jesus

But there are more fundamental reasons that Jews do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Rabbi Jacob Neusner is a prolific scholar who has carefully studied the New Testament and the Jewish response. In A Rabbi Talks With Jesus he says that he found many attractive and Jewish features in the teaching and person of Jesus. But he still hears something in Jesus’ teaching that is so fundamentally different that he must reject it as a faithful Jew.

It was not that I was not persuaded in the virtue of the man, or the wisdom of some of what he said. It was that I did not hear from him the message the Torah had told me to anticipate…God had bound the people to God in a covenant, giving the Torah as terms of agreement, engraving even into our flesh the very sign of the covenant. Nothing I heard from Jesus spoke of covenant, nothing of Israel, nothing of obligation of the whole of Israel…

If I had heard what he said, for good and substantive reasons I would not have become one of his disciples. And for these same reasons, I am not one today. (A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, New York: 1993, p 138, 139, 143)

As Orthodox Christians for whom Tradition is central, we should be sympathetic to faithful Jews who reject the innovations of Jesus and his followers. But their hesitation points to a new factor that radically distinguishes Jesus from the classical Jewish prophets.

Jesus did not have the same “return to the old teaching” message of the other prophets. He wasn’t calling Israel to merely go back to faithfulness to the ancient covenant. He was calling them to look forward. He was proclaiming fulfillment of the prophetic promises and the opening a new covenant. In other words, he was saying that the God of Israel was speaking in a new way. While the prophets had emphasized faithfulness to the old Law, Jesus was announcing the new age of the Kingdom. He was announcing that the new Messianic age was upon them.

This was different from the Jewish prophets of old in one key respect: listeners to the prophetic message in the past, calling for reform, could look back at the Law. The tradition supported what the Old Testament prophets proclaimed. The hearers may not have like it, but they could see it written in the records of the past. John the Baptist’s message of repentance could be seen in this way too.

Jesus’ message was not verifiable in the same way. His message of the Kingdom required discernment, not just repentance. It required that people do more than read the past texts of scriptures and scribes. It required more than faithfulness to the Torah and tradition.  It required that they become prophets themselves, listening for the word of God spoken directly to them. They now had to read God’s word in their own experience and to verify whether or not what Jesus was saying was true, whether the new era was in fact beginning.  And this is very different from just picking up the baton from the past and running with it. Hence in Jesus’ message and in the earliest church there is an emphasis on personal verification and conversion, not just communal faith. This is precisely why Rabbi Neusner finds it impossible to follow Jesus. Because the message he sees in Jesus is not the Torah as he knows it.

As much as we correctly have rediscovered the Jewishness of Jesus in the last few decades, the fact remains that His message was a challenge to Judaism because it required something radically new.