Jesus And The Jews
By Shep Lenchek
Although I am not a Christian, I regard my fellow Jew, Jesus Christ, with respect and good will. It was his teachings that were responsible for the spread of the Jewish concept of one God, the code of the Ten Commandments and many other uniquely Jewish ideas throughout a world that worshiped multiple Gods or idols, engaged in human sacrifice and was subject to the tyranny of rulers who were regarded as living gods, answerable to no higher authority.
What is most remarkable about this is that Jesus himself sought only to reform Judaism. His words, as reported in the first three Gospels—though written long after his death—reflect a total commitment to Jewish law and philosophy.
Basically, Jesus aimed his messages at the Jews of his time. The first chapter of the Gospel by St. Matthew traces his ancestry back to David and Abraham, Old Testament figures. Clearly, this was an effort to seek validation with his co-religionist Jews. The same Gospel quotes the Sermon on the Mount.
Now Jesus says “Think not that I am come to destroy the law of the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfill.” Again quoting St. Matthew, we hear Jesus instructing his disciples, saying, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”
He too was bound by the Jewish belief that they were a chosen people, whose God was theirs alone, not to be shared with those not born into the religion—a concept fatally flawed. Had the ancient Hebrews been willing to share their one God, their Code of Ethics, Judaism might well have become the universal religion. Instead, when in about 300 A.D. Christianity offered the non-Jewish world the same relationship of man to God, once claimed exclusively by the Jews, it gained wide acceptance and by 600 A.D. most of the known world had converted to the new religion.
It is almost impossible to discover why the Jews of his day rejected Christ’s teachings. None really threatened the basic principles of their religion. There is little record of his existence in either Jewish or Roman secular writings. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, in his “Antiquities of the Jews,” written between 93 and 94 A.D., mentions him only in one short paragraph.
He describes Jesus as a wise man, a teacher, a worker of miracles, founder of Christianity and confirms that he was crucified, but offers no explanation as to why, safe to say in previous paragraphs that the Jews of the day were troubled that the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, had brought images of Caesar into Jerusalem. This was a violation of Jewish law against setting up idols and as a result of the unrest, many whom he describes as Galilean Jews were crucified for leading the disturbances. Tacitus, a contemporary Roman historian, simply notes Jesus’ name and that he was put to death on the cross. It seems obvious that Jesus had little impact on the Judaism of his day.
The explanation offered by modern Jewish scholars is that the Old Testament predicted the coming of a Messiah who would re-establish the Kingdom of David, re-build the Temple and resurrect the dead. What Jesus promised did not fulfill Jewish expectations. A threat to the establishments, both Jewish and Roman, his New Covenant appealed only to a limited number of a population already engaged in conflict with their Roman rulers. Also, he spoke in parables, at times clear, other times obscure. The first split between the Old and New Religion came in 45 A.D. when Paul, born Saul, challenged the method the Church itself had set up for pagan conversion, i.e., embrace Judaism, then become a Christian; 300 years later it became expedient for Christianity to shift the blame for the Crucifixion from the Romans who they were seeking to convert, to the Jews who had rejected the new religion. This caused the final Jewish-Christian break that Jesus had never visualized and that cannot be blamed on him.
It is a mistake to view early Judaism or Christianity as monolithic. There were constant internal battles regarding doctrine and dogma. But in the end the concepts of one God, written Codes of ethics, and the sanctity of life, prevailed. First promulgated in the Old Testament, somewhat modified by Jesus and then transplanted into the New Testament, they have served mankind well.
Christians should recognize that their code of ethics originated in Judaism. They have but to read the Gospel by St. Matthew to note that when Jesus was asked, “Which is the great commandment of the Law?” he replied, “Thou shall love the Lord, thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.” Part of a quotation from Deuteronomy, these words are the very essence of Judaism. They are encased in the Mezuzahs that adorn doorways in homes of devout Jews. According to St. Matthew, Christ then said, “The second most important is: thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law.”
With these two quotations, Jesus handed his followers a blue-print for living. If all other religious tracts and dogma were discarded by both Jew and Gentile, these few words would guide us to a better world. Unfortunately, as Christianity grew by converting a largely illiterate population, the words of Christ himself receded further and further into history. It was impossible for the average man to read either the Old or New Testament. The Christ that emerges to those who do read the New Testament is of a Teacher, born a Jew, living as a Jew, and dying as a Jew. Christians who revile Judaism ignore his message. He preached Brotherly Love, they preach hate.
This Easter, let us all take a second look at Jesus. Christians should obey him, Jews should respect him.