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Jesus and Judaism
Sobel, Henry I.
I must confess that I wavered before accepting to write this article. After all, Jesus is the paramount figure of Christendom and I was afraid of trespassing on someone else’s property. But then again, the property is not altogether “someone else’s”, as we shall see later. Nevertheless, I pen these lines with deep humility and with the utmost caution, being fully aware that the relationship between Jesus and Judaism is a very delicate one.
Jesus was a Jew, born of a Jewish mother. He was circumcised on his eighth day, according to Jewish law (Lk 2:21), and he considered himself a Jew faithful to his origins. His teachings derive from the Jewish laws and traditions with which Jesus was brought up and which he never denied. He was called rabbi (Jn 1:49; 9:2) and frequented the Temple in Jerusalem, together with his disciples. It is unfortunate that the later disagreements between Church and Synagogue resulted in a process of obliteration of the Jewish origins of Christianity. Jesus participated in debates on the interpretation of Jewish principles, as did other Jews in his time, and he preached obedience to the laws of Torah, the Hebrew Bible. He taught in synagogues and his message was a Jewish one, addressed by a Jew to his Jewish coreligionists.
Proofs of the “Jewishness” of Jesus abound in the New Testament. For example, when asked what is the major commandment (Mk 12:28-31), Jesus answers in the words of the Hebrew Bible (Dt 6:4-5): “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind and with all thy strength.” This confession of faith, known as the Shema, was then, and still is, repeated twice a day by every observant Jew. To the Shema Jesus adds a second commandment, which he considers equally important, also taken from the Torah: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lv 19:18).
A second example of the Jewish origins of the teachings of Jesus is found in the Pater Noster (Mt 6:9-13). Again, the resemblances with the Jewish Scripture and liturgy are evident: Avinu She’Ba’Shamayim, “Our Father who art in heaven”, was a traditional invocation in Jewish prayers and blessings; Itkadash shmei raba, “Hallowed be Thy name”, is part of the Kaddish, the major Jewish hymn of praise to God; V’al tevieinu lo lidei nissaion, “Lead us not into temptation” is found in the morning prayers. The Torah says that God is our father (Is 63:16) and the ancient rabbis already taught us to address Him as “Father” in our prayers. There are many commentaries on the Aramaic term abba, “father”, used by Jesus during his moments of affliction in the garden of Gethsemane. The way in which Jesus opens his heart to the Father on this occasion shows his trust in God as a fatherly figure, but does not necessarily mean – as some Christian scholars claim – that this form of address was a new concept introduced by Jesus.
A third example worthy of mention is the Sermon on the Mount. In addition to the striking parallels between the Beatitudes and some verses in the Psalms (eg., “But the meek shall inherit the earth”, Ps 37:11), Jesus affirms in this sermon his love for Torah in explicit terms: “think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil [...] Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:17-19). And we cannot but notice that the moral imperative to imitate the perfection of God (“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”, Mt 5:48) is very similar to the commandment in Lv 11:45 and 19:2: “Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
A verse frequently mentioned as a proof that Jesus opposed Jewish teachings is Mt 5:43-44: “Ye hath heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt [...] hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies [...] and pray for them who [...] persecute you.” Biblical scholars have yet to identify the source on which Jesus based this affirmation, since nowhere in the Old Testament is there an injunction to “hate the enemy.” On the contrary, the Torah commands: “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink. [...] And the Lord shall reward thee” (Pr 25:21-22).
By stressing that which the teachings of Jesus have in common with Jewish precepts, one does not intend to deny the singularity and the innovative nature of the preaching of this great master. The intention is simply to show how false is the widely disseminated thesis that Jesus and the Jews of his time were ideological adversaries. They were not, nor could they be, for they followed the same bible. As Pope John Paul II so clearly explained to the Pontifical Biblical Commission on April 11, 1997: “It is impossible to fully express the mystery of Christ without reference to the Old Testament. Jesus’ human identity is determined on the basis of his bond with the people of Israel.”
Having said this, we must acknowledge the important and numerous differences between the ideas conveyed by Jesus and the doctrines of Judaism. Some of Jesus’ pronouncements deny the Jewish teaching that no man can be an intermediary between the Creator and other human beings. Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). The notion that Jesus’ special relationship with God would ensure salvation only for those who believed in him (Jesus) is alien to Judaism. The Hebrew prophets punished sinners, but did not pardon their sins. From a Jewish perspective, forgiveness can only be granted by God or by the person against whom the offense was committed. Jesus, however, believed he had the power to forgive any sin: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” (Mt 9:6). Moreover, Jesus claimed he had the power to resurrect the dead: “for as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the son quickeneth whom he will” (Jn 5:21). The Hebrew prophets also performed miracles, but stressed that they did so merely as instruments of God. When Elijah resurrected the son of the widow (1 Kgs 17:17-24), he did not credit himself with the miracle, but rather “he cried unto the Lord, and said, ‘O Lord, my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again!’” Likewise, when Elisha proposed to resurrect the son of the Shunammite, he “prayed unto the Lord” and the child was restored to life, in answer to the prophet’s prayers (II Kgs 4:33).
With regard to talion, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, criticized by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:38-39), it was not meant to be a cruel physical retaliation, but rather a juridical principle according to which the penalty should be proportional to the offense. At the time, this was a breakthrough in current jurisprudence, considering that until then the infliction of exorbitant penalties was the norm. There are no indications that the law of talion was applied literally in Biblical times and it is known that the same was later replaced by a system of monetary compensation. Nevertheless, the attitude prescribed by Jesus, “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”, is in direct opposition to Jewish doctrine. From the standpoint of Judaism, turning the other cheek to the aggressor is an incentive for him to continue acting violently.
Judaism exalts the family, which is seen as the fundamental unit of the community. Jesus advocated celibacy and despised family ties, considering them a barrier to religious piety. When one of his disciples pleaded: “Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house”, Jesus reprimanded him: “No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:61-62). He affirmed categorically: “If any one come after me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife , and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26).
Judaism emphasizes the importance of collective prayer. A minyan (a quorum of ten men) is required for the major prayers and, in particular, for the reading of Torah. This does not mean that Judaism belittles individual prayer, only that the individual is seen as a link in the chain of his people and of humankind. Jesus, on the other hand, opposed this stance and extoled solitary prayer: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. [...] But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret” (Mt 6:5-6).
One of the major disputes between Christians and Jews is over the question of Jesus’ status as the Redeemer or Messiah. Messianic expectations were already rife before the birth of Jesus and Jews awaited fervently the Messiah’s arrival on earth, in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. The first disciples of Jesus, believing him to be the Messiah promised by the prophets, added the word Christ to his name (Christos, in Greek, is the translation of the Hebrew term Mashiach, Messiah, “the anointed one”) and this belief became the dogma of Christianity. Thus, from the Christian perspective, we have been living in the Messianic era for 2,000 years. Jews, on the other hand, do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, simply because the Messianic prophecies on which we had pinned our faith did not come true. Oppression did not end, war did not stop, hatred did not cease, poverty did not disappear. And, most important, the spiritual regeneration of humankind which we so earnestly yearned for did not take place.
In addition to this serious divergence between Judaism and Christianity about the Messianic status of Jesus, Jesus’ divine nature is also not accepted by Jews. The Christian doctrine that God transformed Himself into man is incompatible with Jewish principles. Judaism does not accept any distinction between human beings, neither does it admit the superiority of one human being over another. The rabbis explain that the entire human race descends from Adam. And why only from Adam? So that no one may say that his or her father is better than anyone else’s. And because God made us all equal, Judaism does not recognize a “Son of God” who holds a unique and superior position. Jewish persuasion is that we are all “children of God”, created in His image, and no human being is to be considered more divine than others. According to Judaism, God is God, man is man, and between them there is an insurmountable distance. Such a belief does not reflect disrespect or prejudice against Jesus. None of our own patriarchs or prophets – neither Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, nor Moses, Aaron or David – is considered divine. In Jewish theory, with its strict emphasis on monotheism, God cannot take any human form. The belief in a divine Messiah who is God incarnate conflicts with the Jewish conviction of the absolute sovereignty and oneness of God.
The fact that there are differences between Jews and Christians should not and cannot prevent us from being brothers and sisters and striving together for the great and universal objectives. Siblings are different; they have different opinions, different ideas, different beliefs. Differences per se do not constitute a problem. What does constitute a serious problem in the relationship between the followers of Judaism and those of Christianity is the accusation that the Jews killed Jesus.
Anti-semitism existed well before the time of Jesus. Around 450 BCE, Haman, the Prime Minister of Persia, seeking to justify his plan to kill all the Jews in the empire, claimed that “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of the kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people” (Est 3:8). This, and only this, was the “crime” which the Jews had committed: they were different. That is also what the Christians used to say about the Jews. Ever since the decline of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church had become the dominant power in Western civilization. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, Jews were left as the only dissidents. With ever-growing impatience, the Church and its faithful sought to bend that obstinate minority. They considered the permanence of Judaism not only offensive but unexplainable. It was inconceivable to them that any sane person would choose a faith other than Catholicism. Why did the Jews hold so steadfastly to their “false” creed? Why did God allow them to do so? The only possible explanation, according to many Christians, was that Jews were intended as a warning, that God had condemned those “Christ killers” to live forever – rejected, ostracized, expelled from land to land – as an example of what happens to those who deny Jesus. Anti-Jewish feelings were heightened by everything that set Jews apart from the others; their dietary laws, their rules for slaughtering animals, their ritual of circumcision. Rumors arose that Jews exuded a peculiar odor, which disappeared the minute they accepted a Christian baptism. This, in turn, led to stories about Jews conniving with the Devil in secret and ghoulish ceremonies, in which they practiced “ritual murder”. The accusation was actually a combination of different but interrelated charges. Depending on the period or the disseminator, one of these would surface with greater momentum. According to the most frequent one, Jews crucified Christian children for the purpose of reenacting the crucifixion of Jesus. This version explains why the libel recurred most often on the days preceding Easter.
The accusation of deicide, which weighed heavily on the Jewish people for many centuries and was one of the major causes of anti-semitism, is totally unfounded. There is no historical evidence to sustain such a theory. Blaming Jews for the death of Jesus was a more convincing expression of the real accusation: that so many Jews refused to become Christians.
With regard to the agony and death of Jesus, it is important to remember the oppressive nature of the Roman government in Judea. Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator at the time of Jesus, was especially cruel in the performance of his duties. Like his predecessors, he had the right to appoint and depose the High Priest as he pleased. Therefore, Pilate was in full control of the situation during the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Neither may we forget that, before Jesus, hundreds of other Jews had already been crucified, most of them refusing to collaborate with the pagan occupation armies. Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers as a political criminal, “King of the Jews”. It is noteworthy that Pontius Pilate’s conduct was considered inordinately brutal even by his own superiors, so much so that he was called back to Rome for questioning and was never reassigned to the post of procurator.
The alleged “trial” of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic court, is not reported by the evangelist John, nor by Luke, which makes the historicity of the event highly dubious. In Matthew’s gospel (27:24-25), after Pilate washes his hands and says, “The responsibility is yours!”, the people yell back: “His blood be on us and on our children!.” This is the most terrible phrase in the gospels, insofar as anti-Judaism is concerned. The Greek theologian Origen, in the third century, expressed clearly how this verse would reverberate throughout the ages: “Therefore, the blood of Jesus spilled not only on those who were then alive, but on all the Jewish generations that would follow, until the end of days.” Strangely, only Matthew records this supposed reaction en masse, while Mark and Luke make a distinction between a small group of Jews convoked by Pilate and “a great company of people”, who followed Jesus and “bewailed him” (Lk 23:27). The Gospel of John, on the other hand, uses the generic term “the Jews” in the Passion account, thus contributing strongly to the belief in the collective guilt of the Jews and the ensuing animosity towards the Jewish people over the centuries.
It is important to stress that the Gospels were not written as historical reports, in the modern sense (that is, as a factual transcription of events), but rather as narratives of a religious nature. Since there are four gospels, the events were seen from four different theological perspectives. Furthermore, the evangelists did not base their writings on first-hand information. There is today a consensus among scholars that the gospels were written at least 40 years after the death of Jesus. Raymond Brown, American priest and author of the 1,600-page study The Death of the Messiah, emphasizes that the intention of the evangelists was to evangelize; therefore, one cannot exclude the possibility that they resorted to whatever expedients they could, including fiction.
At the time when the Gospel of Matthew was set down, the Church and the rabbis were engaged in a religious dispute over the “correct” interpretation of the Jewish Bible that both shared as Scripture. Still a minority within the Jewish minority surrounded by the hostility of the Roman world, Matthew’s community needed strong arguments to defend its own interpretation and to belittle that of the rabbis. Matthew’s Gospel does not hesitate to use all the available rhetorical devices to attain its objectives.
One of these was to defame the rival. Only thus can we explain the diatribes against “the Pharisees” (eg., Mt 23). One need only compare Mark’s description of the same incident (12:28-34) with that of Matthew to realize the other’s intention. While Mark relates a respectful dialogue between Jesus and one scribe, Matthew records an offensive rebuke delivered by Jesus to all the Pharisees. Obviously, Matthew’s Gospel applies to the past (the time of Jesus) the atmosphere of discord between Christians and the rabbis which the evangelist is witnessing in the present. While such a marketing technique may have been valid at the time, later generations of Christians, unaware of the historical context in which the Gospel of Matthew was written, understood the text as something that the author himself did not have in mind: an absolute and categorical condemnation of rabbinic Judaism. And that condemnation was used in the Middle Ages as a rationale to justify the persecution of Jews.
Another tactic employed by the evangelists was to obliterate the profound identification of Jesus with the teachings of the Pharisees and, in so doing, depict Jesus’ message as a new world religion, completely apart from the official Judaism of the Pharisees. Jesus did not intend to distance himself from Judaism, so much so that he declared: “For verily I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt 5:18).
The negative image of the Pharisees, found in so many Christian texts, created among Christians a grossly distorted vision of Judaism. Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees is a sign that he took them seriously. It was to them that Jesus addressed his criticism of the religious establishment (the Sadducees, the Jewish aristocracy); it was with the Pharisees that Jesus learned the “golden rule” (“Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets”, Mt 7:12) and from them comes the belief in the resurrection. Therefore, the conflicts and controversies related in the New Testament should be seen as discussions between brothers, not as disputes between enemies. By being misinterpreted, the criticisms made by Jesus against the Pharisees became weapons in anti-Jewish polemics and their original intention was deformed.
The Vatican itself admitted that the Gospels, while based on historical facts, “are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work.” The statement is found in Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, a document published in June 1985 by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. The Notes also emphasize that “Jesus shares, with the majority of Palestinian Jews of that time, some pharisaic doctrines: [...] forms of piety, like alms-giving, prayer, fasting, and the liturgical practice of addressing God as Father, the priority of the commandment to love God and our neighbor” (# 17).
The Talmud records the fact that, in the time of Jesus and the ensuing decades, pharisaism was divided between two major schools of thought, the “houses” of Hillel and Shammai. In many cases, Jesus followed the more flexible interpretations of the House of Hillel, whose opinions would later prevail in the Talmud, and opposed the stricter and more legalistic points of view of the House of Shammai, which was then on the rise. It is therefore possible that many of the conflicts between Jesus and “the Pharisees” described in the New Testament were actually internal disputes among the Pharisees themselves, with Jesus siding with one faction against the other.
Be that as it may, the image of the Pharisees as implacable opponents of Jesus does not correspond to reality. The Vatican Notes remind us that it was Pharisees who warned Jesus of the risks he was running (cf., Lk 13:31). An earlier Vatican document, Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council, had already repudiated the accusation of deicide against the Jews and formally condemned anti-Semtism. The document states that the death of Jesus “cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.” “The Church [...] deplores the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.” It was an enormous step in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations.
Although the Vatican documents emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity, they retained many of the teachings of the Church which had proven to be disastrous to Jews throughout the ages. The Notes, for example, while quoting with approval the declaration of Pope John Paul II to the effect that Jews were “the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked,” state that Judaism cannot be considered a means of salvation (for salvation can only be reached through Jesus). They also affirm that Jews “have been chosen by God to prepare the coming of Christ” and that the events and personalities of the Hebrew Bible should be interpreted in the light of the New Testament (“The Exodus, for example, represents an experience of salvation and liberation that is not complete in itself, but [is later] accomplished by Christ”). This denial of the validity of Judaism per se is an obstacle for theological dialogue. Jews cannot accept the premise, be it explicit or implicit, that their redemption depends on Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, the progress achieved in Catholic-Jewish relations over the last decades is unquestionable. Since the Second Vatican Council, the barriers of mutual distrust have been gradually breaking down. From 1965 until now, more positive contacts have been established than during all the previous 1900 years. Negative stereotypes are being erased. Anti-Jewish references are being eliminated from Catholic textbooks and passages with anti-semitic implications are being removed from the liturgy. Seminary curricula are being purged of the prejudices of the past. An entire generation is growing up without being exposed to the hatred that formerly poisoned Jewish-Christian relations. There is today, at least among the moderate wings of both communities, a search for mutual understanding and a willingness to dialogue.
However, prejudice still remains and antisemitism is still very much alive. In many European countries, a wave of xenophobic nationalism has led to acts of aggression against immigrants and several minorities, including Jews. In Argentina, the terrorist attacks which destroyed the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires in 1994 have yet to be accounted for. In Brazil, antisemitic attacks are only sporadic, but antisemitism reveals itself quite often, by way of verbal assaults and defamatory messages transmitted via the internet. To mention only one case: in June 1997, a teacher in a federal university in Rio de Janeiro said right in the classroom that two prominent Brazilians (whom she mentioned by name) were “dirty Jews”. She added that “the Holocaust was not enough; they should not have killed 6 million, but 20 million.”
In truth, the accusation of deicide weighs upon the Jewish people to this very day, nurturing the feeling of hatred towards Jews, especially among the less educated strata of the population. In our country, for instance, many people do not know that the recent documents of the Church no longer consider the Jews guilty of the death of Christ. That is why we are investing so much time and energy in the consolidation of our relations with people of other religions, particularly with the Catholics. The more opportunities we have to dialogue and raise awareness and enlighten, the better our chances of erasing prejudice. And the more we succeed in erasing prejudice, the smaller the number of people who will let themselves be poisoned by anti-Jewish slander.
The figure of Jesus has unfortunately been a stumbling block in the relationship between Christians and Jews, a justification for mutual exclusion, a source of friction and resentment. It is of fundamental importance that Jesus be recognized as an essential link between the two faiths. Jesus is the bridge by way of which all of Christendom is included as a descendant of Abraham and therefore a co-heir, together with the Jews, of his magnificent spiritual legacy. Many Jewish thinkers, among whom the medieval philosopher Maimonides, considered Jesus a divine instrument for the universal conversion of humankind. According to Maimonides: “All the teachings of Jesus paved the way for the coming of the King-Messiah and prepared men to united and together serve the one and only God” (Mishneh Torah, HILKHOT MELAKHIM 9:4).
I believe this is the way Jesus would like to be remembered: not as a bone of contention, but rather as a sower of peace between Christians and Jews.
* Henry I. Sobel is Senior Rabbi of the Congregaçao Israelita Paulita in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Jewish coordinator of the National Commission for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, under the auspices of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. This article was originally published in the book Jesus de Nazaré: profeta da liberdade e da esperança, Editora Unisinos (1999).