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SIDIC Periodical XII - 1979/3
Jesus the Jew (Pages 08 - 13)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Who is Jesus
Nicolas De Lange


The following is the text of the eighth Cardinal Bea Lecture delivered at Sion Convent, Notting Hill, London on February 26, 1978. It is reprinted here from "The Month" April 1978, by kind permission of the editors.

What kind of an answer can a Jew give to the question "Who is Jesus?" Surely it is a question for Christians, not for Jews? It is not like the question "Who is Adam?" or "Who is Moses?", to which Jew and Christian alike can give authentic, if perhaps different, answers. Perhaps it is more like the question "Who is Muhammad?" or "Who is Karl Marx?" These are questions for the Muslim or the Marxist. If both Jew and Christian feel called on to answer them, that is because they feel that, as Jew and Christian, they are not untouched by Islam and Marxism. But there will always be a fundamental difference, a difference of kind, between their answers and the answers of the Muslim or the Marxist. And if they feel free to ignore these questions, that is a valid response for them, a response which is not valid for the Muslim or the Marxist.

The Jew is not obliged to answer the question "Who is Jesus?" But if he does answer it, he must be aware that his answer will be fundamentally and generically different from the answer any Christian would give to the same question.

All this may seem obvious. Yet Christians sometimes assume that, because Jesus was a Jew, Jews enjoy a privileged insight into his nature. And Jews are sometimes flattered into supplying Christians with the kind of answers that they think the Christians expect of them. This can become a dishonest exercise. The historical question "Who was Jesus?" can be answered objectively by anyone with the requisite knowledge of the subject, be he Christian, Jew or pagan. The question of faith "Who is Jesus?" can only be answered authoritatively by a Christian. No Jew can answer it for him.1

Since I have been invited as a Jew to answer the question, I shall try my best to do so. But let us be clear from the outset that I am not trying to tell any Christian what he should believe about Jesus. That would be not only presumptuous, but impossible. As a Jew, I can only speak out of my Jewish faith, and my Jewish experience. And so I can only speak as an outsider. I do not know Jesus directly, as a Christian can know him; I only know him through Christians, whom I can know directly.

So the question "Who is Jesus?", when addressed to a Jew, becomes a question about relations between Jews and Christians. There is much that could be said about this subject, but first let us remind ourselves of the ground rules of religious dialogue:

1. It must be a dialogue of friends, not of enemies. Between enemies there can be no dialogue, only conflicting monologues.

2. The dialogue must be open and honest. It must not be devious, nor can it afford to be excessively polite. There is no profit in blurring distinctions, or glossing over difficulties. If we cannot agree, then we must honestly agree to differ.

3. The object of dialogue is understanding, not persuasion. A Jew is a Jew, not a potential Christian. Nor does the Jewish partner wish to convert the Christian to Judaism.

There is a fourth point which has particular relevance to dialogue between Jews and Christians, and that is personal responsibility. As Jews and Christians, we are not personally responsible for what Jews and Christians in the past have thought or said or done. Of course we must be attentive to history, and apply the lessons is teaches us, but we should not bow, or expect others to bow, under the illusory burden of inherited guilt.

Jesus can be approached on various levels. Let us look back very rapidly at the history of Jewish responses to him.

The earthly life of Jesus is impossible to reconstruct in detail, but a few basic facts stand out: he was a real man, a Jew of Galilee, one of a number of charismatic figures who emerged in the troubled early years of direct Roman rule in Judaea, following the death of Herod the Great. He was born and died a Jew, and his followers were all Jews. They were attracted by his powerful personality, his teachings, and his gift of healing, and they (probably) hailed him as the Messiah, the leader who would rescue the people from subjection to the yoke of the oppressor. Eventually, at a tragically early age, he died a martyr's death at the hands of the barbaric governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.

Jesus' following in his lifetime was never a very large part of the Jewish people, and we must suppose that after his execution it was reduced still further by disappointment at his loss and the apparent failure of his mission. Indeed, we should have expected it to disappear altogether, as happened with most of the other similar movements of his time. Miraculously, some of his followers overcame their disappointment, and continued to believe in him. Their belief was transformed, and began to attract a new and wider following, including not only Jews but even gentiles. His fame spread far and wide, until the gentile converts came to outnumber the Jewish ones, and the Christians rivalled the Jews as a power in the world. This is all the more amazing when we remember that Judaism was a tolerated and even favoured religion in the Roman Empire, whereas Christianity was outlawed and even occasionally persecuted.

It is to this period of competition between the two missionary faiths that we can trace many of the characteristic attitudes of Judaism and Christianity towards each other. It was also in this period that Jesus the Jewish teacher and Messiah became Jesus Christ the risen Lord, the Word of God made flesh. By the time that Christianity had won the race to rule the world, the cross of Jesus had come to symbolise the rift betweenthe Church and the Synagogue, being "salvation to the gentiles but condemnation to the Jews", as a contemporary witness 2 puts it. By a paradoxical reversal of roles, the Jews were now identified as the killers of Jesus, while the Romans fought and conquered under his sign.

The triumph of the Christian Church inaugurated a history of centuries of humiliation and oppression of the Jewish people, which has lasted almost up to the present day. We should not forget the countless pagans, Christians and Muslims who suffered and died as victims of the triumphant Church, but nor can we forget that the Jews were always singled out for special treatment by the Church. They were made into a people apart, into outcasts from society, and a whole theology of hatred was erected against them. In this the figure of Jesus, in his new gentile guise, occupied a cardinal role. For centuries Jews experienced Jesus only as tormentor and persecutor .3

It is only recently that a change has taken place in Jewish attitudes to Jesus. In the footsteps of Christians in quest of the historic Jesus and at a time of the weakening of the Church's hold over the Jews, some Jews began to rediscover Jesus the Jew.4 With varying degrees of success, they reconstructed the Jewish background to the life of Jesus as told in the gospels. Piercing through the veil of centuries-old persecution, they encountered Jesus not as an enemy but as a long-lost friend and brother.5

Looking back over this history of Jewish encounters with Jesus, we can detect both negative and positive features at almost every step.
The Jewish followers of Jesus during his lifetime were involved in a real, fleshly encounter, and they responded to the undoubted power of his personality and his message. But they were surely mistaken if they believed that he was the messiah who would rescue Israel and inaugurate a new and happier age .8 The condition of the Jews actually deteriorated after his death. The early Church made brave efforts to explain the apparent failure of his mission and to convert it into a triumph, but these efforts, however successful they were among gentiles, never suceeded in convincing the vast mass of Jews.

In the following three centuries, the age of competition, the Jews were certainly right to see Jesus as a threat to Israel. The theological reinterpretation of the figure of Jesus by gentiles involved a cruel misrepresentation of the nature of Judaism and the character of the Jewish people, which led directly to the age of persecutions. A redeeming feature of this process was the stimulus which the success of the new movement presented to the leaders of Jewish thought. It is possible that the dynamism of Jewish thought in the tannaitic and amoraic periods (2nd-4th century) was partly due to the challenge of Christianity. (If so, it was a heavy price to pay.)

I should prefer not to dwell on the ensuing period, the long years of humiliation and oppression, in which Jesus appeared in the guise of the persecutor of his people. Here I confess I cannot find anything positive to report, and there is no challenging the painful authenticity of the hostile image as it was experienced by the downtrodden Jewish communities of the Christian world.7

The modern Jewish rediscovery of the historical Jesus is partly motivated by a genuine search for common ground between Jews and Christians. This is no doubt a laudable exercise, but Jews are surely mistaken if they think they have some privileged access to Jesus which is not available to Christians.8 Many Jews have written with feeling and even with poetry about Jesus of Nazareth, but they have added little or nothing to the sum of our knowledge? The attempt to reclaim Jesus for Judaism has not succeeded; it has impressed Christians more than Jews. Those writers who have tried to interpret him in terms of modern Jewish issues, for example as an early Liberal Jew or a proto-Zionist, have merely brought their modern prejudices to bear on what is after all a very un-modern period, and none of them deals satisfactorily with the whole of the ancient evidence. "The possibilities are many; but of all or any of them it could well be said that the more we come to discover about the real Jesus the more he is seen to be, as Schweitzer warned us long ago, a man of his own time, a stranger we cannot hope to understand." 10

Moreover, the Jewish quest for the historical Jesus obscures the real issue between Christians and Jews, which is not Jesus the man but the Christ of the Church." The Church itself is currently in the midst of a painful rethinking of the proper relationship between these two faces of Jesus. Any Jewish contribution which grapples only with Jesus the man without facing up to Jesus the risen Lord cannot but be inadequate. The historical investigations by themselves achieve nothing. They derive their meaning from the present relations between Jews and Christians, and our hopes for the future.

Jesus stands at the very centre of the division between Christians and Jews. There is nothing accidental about this stance. The early Church consciously projected Jesus as a symbol of the rift with the "old Israel". The hostile Christian stereotype of the Jews was justified by a myth that "the Jews" had rejected and even crucified him. In a wider sense, Jesus has also come to stand for the non-universality of the Christian message. "Nobody can come to the Father except through me" leads directly to "extra ecclesiam nulla salus": only Christians are saved, and any other approach to God is invalid.12

But, if Jesus is the symbol of the rift between the old and new Israel, he is also the enduring link between them. The early Church resisted every temptation to separate Jesus the Saviour from God the Creator." On the contrary, the old covenant was the guarantee of the new, and the new Israel was intimately bound up with the old. We should not dwell on the negative side of this doctrine without giving full weight to the positive side. Jesus the Jew makes it impossible for Christians to be indifferent to Jews: without Judaism, there would be no Christianity.14
For us Jews, this Christian determination to cling to the Jewish roots of Christianity has meant that Christian teachings are always, at a fundamental level, within reach of our understanding. To put it simply (perhaps too simply), Jews and Christians read the same scriptures and worship the same Father in heaven. It also confronts us with a challenge. The Christian claim to the name of Israel must affect our discussion of the question "Who is a Jew?" Whoever lays claims to the name of Israel implicitly renounces the status of gentile. In principle we have always favoured a clear-cut distinction between Jews and gentiles; in practice we have not always been consistent in our attitude to those who call themselves by the name of Israel." Historically, our rejection of the Christians has been grounded in the Christian hostility to us. The Church has also been ambiguous in its claim to the title of Israel; this is also due to the rift between Church and Synagogue, as well as to Christian exclusiveness. If the hostility is broken down, and if the Church is prepared to cultivate a more tolerant attitude to other faiths, we shall be compelled to rethink our inherited attitudes. This is admittedly not an imminent prospect; in the meantime we might prepare ourselves by taking seriously the enduring Christian commitment to the destiny of Israel, and asking ourselves whether they might not deserve some intermediate status between Jews and gentiles.

As we turn to face our Christian brothers in dialogue, we Jews are conscious that we have been moulded by the events of the past half-century. The Nazi holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel have presented us with a profound challenge, but they have also challenged Christians in their attitude to the Jewish people. The Holocaust shattered the comfortable optimism of Liberal Judaism, and also of liberal Christianity. In that horrific outburst of demonic hatred, the lasting power of the "teaching of contempt", the dehumanisation of the Jews by the Church, became visible. It is a small consolation that out of that unfathomable horror came the impulse to a sincere attempt by some Christians to overcome the teaching of hatred. We deceive ourselves if we imagine that that attempt has been universal or successful." The holocaust also seemed to vindicate the claim of the Zionists, that the Jewish people must have the security of a land of its own. The Zionists achieved in 1948 what the messianic zealots of ancient Judaea failed to accomplish, and compelled all Jews to reconsider their attitudes to the role of Israel among the nations. They also challenged the stereotype Christian image of the Jews as a downtrodden people. Maybe that is why the State of Israel has received such reluctant and ambiguous recognition from the Christian world. The Holy See has been particularly grudging in its response, and its stance has set an example for other Christian institutions and for millions of faithful Christians. The inadequacy of the Christian response to the State of Israel has done inestimable damage to the progress of good relations between Jews and Christians. The State of Israel may not be the kingdom of God on earth, but it has become a powerful symbol of recovery from catastrophe and a token of hope in the midst of despair for Jews the world over. There are those who have dared to apply to it the symbolism of the resurrection of Jesus." This is a graphic image, but it is hollow and cruel so long as the figure of the risen Jesus still remains for many a living image of the subjugation and oppression of the Jewish people. Until this negative image can be overcome and it is the Christians who must overcome it

I do not see how we Jews can take seriously the idea of Jesus as a "personal symbol" of the history of the Jewish people.

And so the ultimate question remains: What face will Jesus show to his people in the years to come? Will he confront us as the enemy or as the lover of the people which begot him and to which he was always faithful in his lifetime? I believe that if he came as a friend he would find a willing response in Jewish hearts, but it would not be easy to break down the barriers erected by centuries of enmity. We should bear in mind that it was the relatively brief period of insecurity of the early Christians which nurtured the enmity towards Jews which has survived to our time, sixteen centuries after it became meaningless in any real terms. Will it take a correspondingly long time for the Jews to overcome the insecurity bred of those sixteen centuries of oppression? I hope not at least if we can learn from our past mistakes. But we have also learnt to be wary of easy optimism.

Meanwhile, who is Jesus for the Jew of today? We cannot begin to understand Jesus through the elaborate structure of dogmatic formulations erected by the Church in the high period of the mission to the gentiles. The language of the creeds and councils is gentile language. It was developed by gentiles for gentiles, and it is far removed from the traditional categories of Jewish thought, even if it makes use of some very Jewish words. In the sense in which I understand these terms as a Jew, I cannot see Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, or as the inaugurator of a messianic age. I do not count him among the prophets, as our Muslim brothers do.18 I cannot think of him as Lord, or as the son of God, and I certainly do not believe that a man can be God. It is not the way of Judaism to engage in a "cult of personality", to elevate any one human being above all the others. Abraham, Moses, Isaiah were great men, with a great and enduring message for mankind, but they were merely men and shared our human weaknesses. I cannot think that Jesus was greater than these. Nor can I accept that Jesus' purpose was to do away with Judaism as he found it. He had his criticisms, to be sure, but he wanted to perfect the law of Moses, not to annul it. The Christian hostility to this law strikes me as a betrayal of Jesus' teaching, as well as a serious barrier to the recognition of the Christians as truly part of the people of Israel." Finally, I confess that I cannot understand the Christian claim that Jesus fulfils or completes Judaism. I agree entirely with Samuel Sandmel when he writes:
I neither feel nor understand that my Judaism is in any way incomplete . . . I do not discern any religious incompleteness which the figure of Jesus would fill in, just as I see no incompleteness which a Mohammed or a Confucius would fill in.20

Jews do not feel the need of a mediator to help them to come to the Father: we are all sons of the Father.

But I have also tried to argue that history obliges Jews to take account of the figure of Jesus, because Jewish life is lived in the midst of the gentiles, and for the majority of Jews that means in the midst of Christians. We are compelled to respond to Jesus not Jesus the ancient Jew but Jesus the Christian Lord. Therefore I can answer the question "Who is Jesus?" in this way: Jesus is the spiritual father of a vast race of righteous gentiles, who have voluntarily chosen to separate themselves, up to a point, from the gentile world and taken upon themselves not only the privileges but some (at least) of the burdens of the people of Israel. Through their faith, Jesus is alive today. This is the only sense in which we can understand Jesus as a unique and challenging being. So long as Christians are faithful to the memory of Jesus, we have a pledge that they will be faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to the teachings of Moses and the Hebrew prophets. They are our younger brothers, and our fellow-workers in the same vineyard. Surely we must agree with the words of Franz Rosenzweig: "Before God, Jew and Christian both labour at the same task. He cannot dispense with either." 21

1. See also Samuel Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus (London 190) p. 110f. Sandmel's book provides an excellent summary of Jewish attempts to answer our questions, together with some sober yet sympathetic personal remarks.
2. Origen, Homilies on Leviticus III .1 .
3. The fact is stated with brutal simplicity by a recent Christian apologist, Malachi Martin: 4. Christians hated Jews as only Christians can hate for the love of Jesus." He goes on to describe this hatred as "blasphemous and an act of indescribable hypocrisy" (Jesus Now, Fount Paperbacks 1977, p. 40).
4. The first Jewish study of Jesus was published by the Frenchman Joseph Salvador in 1838. For an account of the early literature of this kind see the book by Sandmel mentioned in note 1. There is now a huge corpus of Jewish books about Jesus.
5 Martin Buber wrote: "All my life I have felt that Jesus was my elder brother." The same image recurs in Schalom Ben-Chorin's book Bruder Jesus (Munich 1967) and in the title of the dialogue between Hans Kung and Pinchas Lapide, Brother or Lord? (translated by Edward Quinn, Fount Paperbacks 1977).
6. Hans Kung appears to admit that Jesus himself was in error if he believed the end of the age was near: "If anyone feels that he must speak of 'error' in connection with Jesus" expectation of an imminent end, let him do so. In terms of cosmic knowledge it was an error" (On Being A Christian, translated by Edward Quinn, London 1977, p. 218).
7. If a Christian tells me that anti-Semitism is a denial of Christianity and a betrayal of the teaching of Jesus
I am happy to believe him, but I cannot erase the image of leading churchmen, from the time of Constantine to the time of Hitler, publicly preaching the doctrine of hatred.
8. It is true that for a long time Christian scholars tended to rely excessively on the evidence of Christian documents, neglecting the important comparative material of the Jewish sources, but there have been some excellent Christian students of the rabbinic literature (notably George Foot Moore, and in England Travers Herford). The best recent book on the historical Jesus, for my money, is Geza Vermes's Jesus the Jew (London 1973).
It makes very full use of all the available sources for the understanding of first-century Judaism. For this reason the author, who happens to be a Jew, calls it "a very Jewish book indeed" (p. 9). On the same page he quotes a remark of Buber: "...we Jews know (Jesus) in a way in the impulse and emotions of his essential Jewishness that remains inaccessible to the Gentiles subject to him." Yet the historical information is very accessible to any gentile who takes the trouble to study it.
9. Two of the best-known Jewish writers on Jesus are Claude Montefiore and Joseph Klausner. Sandmel comments, on the former, "Perceptive as he was, I recall no single theory of his which was original", and on the latter, "Klausner's bad book would have been inordinately improved by his having drawn on Montefiore's vastly greater scholarship" (We Jews and Jesus pp. 90, 93). David Flusser's book Jesus (translated by R. Walls, New York 1969) is sadly disappointing, as the work of one of the greatest living Jewish students of Christian origins.
10. G.W.H. Lampe, God As Spirit (Oxford 1977) p. 103 intended as a judgment on all quests for the historical Jesus, not just Jewish ones.
11. See Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus p. 103f. A notable exception to the general rule is Franz Rosenzweig, who is as much concerned with Christ and the Church as with Jesus the man in his book The Star of Redemption (translated by W.W. Hallo, London 1971).
12. See John Hick in The Myth of God Incarnate (edited by John Hick, London 1977) pp. 180f. For Rosenzweig and others, Jews do not need to approach the Father through the Son, because they are in the presence of the Father already. This way of thinking, to which no Jew would take exception, might, if it could be accepted by Christians, facilitate a Christian acceptance of Judaism in a more tolerant age.
13. Cf. Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption p. 414,
I. Maybaum, Trialogue between Jew, Christian and Muslim (London, 1973) p. 104.
14. So Kung, On Being a Christian p. 167, and many others. A. Roy Eckardt, in Elder and Younger Brothers: The Encounter of Jews and Christians (New York 1967)
p. 143, supplies the other half of the idea, usually left unspoken: "Christianity does not, in comparison, constitute the problem for Judaism that Judaism constitutes for Christianity. Christian faith is not dogmatically necessary to Jewish faith; had there been no Christianity, Judaism would probably still be alive. But had there been no Judaism, there would be no Christianity. The church has a dogmatic, vested interest in Israel. For without the divine mystery of Israel, there is neither Christian faith nor Christian hope."
15. Examples are, in ancient times the Samaritans, and in more modern the "Children of Israel" of Bombay and the "House of Israel" (Falashas) of Ethiopia. The ancient rabbis appear to allow an intermediate status to the Samaritans, between Jews and gentiles. The status of the other two groups is disputed; some authorities put the Falashas in the legal category of "doubtful Jews" they can be admitted to Judaism by a simple and "hypothetical" conversion ceremony. The rift with the Samaritans, and perhaps the other two groups, is more remote in time than the separation between Jews and Christians.
16. There are signs everywhere of the persistence of the anti-Jewish teachings, and we should remember that it is only in the West that any real progress has been made: the churches of the East are as firm as ever in their hostility to Judaism and the Jews. Eckardt makes another valid point when he reminds us of the lateness of the change of heart: "How admirable of us now to cease concentrating upon the reputed transgressions of the Jewish people! Could there be a more damning judgment upon the church of our century than this one that not until after the day of Auschwitz did we Christians see fit to fabricate a correction of the record?" (Elder and Younger Brothers p. 115).
17. Two recent examples, from a Christian and a Jew: "Cannot Jesus be understood almost as a personal symbol of Jewish history? . . . Does not the history of this people with its God, this people of tears and of life, of lamentation and confidence, culminate in this one figure, Jesus, and his history as a striking sign of the crucified and risen Israel?" (Hans Kling, On Being A Christian p. 173); "For all the Jews of our time, even for those who were never in Europe, Auschwitz really means what Good Friday must be for devout Christians: a Golgotha on a national scale. The foundation of the State of Israel, on the other hand, is Easter Sunday: the resurrection from the ruins of the whole people ..." (Pinchas Lapide, in Kung and Lapide, Brother or Lord? p. 20).
18. Vermes shows clearly that Jesus thought of himself as a prophet and was hailed by others as a prophet (Jesus the Jew pp. 86-90). Kung wants Jews to recognise Jesus as "the last of the Jewish prophets" (On Being A Christian p. 172).
19. Christians who reject the commandments are clinging to heir gentile birthright; but gentiles have no right to tell Jews that the laws are no longer valid. There is a mindless confusion in statements like that of Stephen Neill (in The Truth of God Incarnate (edited by Michael Green, Hodder Christian Paperbacks 1977, p. 83): "Jesus Christ was destroyer no less than saviour; at one fell swoop he swept away the whole of the Jewish ritual and ceremonial law." Gentiles were never subject to the ritual and ceremonial law; for Jews, Jesus was apparently powerless to destroy it. Not that he ever wanted to!
20. Sandmel, We Jews and Jesus p. 111. I may add that Christians should beware of the facile claim that the success of Christianity points to a deficiency in Judaism. The obvious retort is that, by the same token, the continued existence of Judaism must point to a deficiency in Christianity!
21. The Star of Redemption, p. 415.


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