Can we be Jewish and believe in Jesus? Can we be Christians and reject the Jewish roots of Jesus?
Since the schism which split Judaism, producing the church and the synagogue, Jesus has become the Messiah venerated by Christians and abhorred by Jews. Christians accuse the Jews of having rejected him while the Jews accuse Christians of having forged him; the very name of Jesus would become synonymous with blasphemy and betrayal. Jesus could not be the Messiah simply because he was the Messiah of the Christians.
But are these accusations and assumptions really justified? Are the Christians correct when they accuse the Jews to have rejected and even killed Jesus? Are the Jews right when they assume that Jesus is the Messiah only for the Christians? Today, we do not dare to address such divisive and confrontational issues. To be sure, these questions were too much abused and distorted in phony Jewish-Christian dialogues. Yet this should not prevent us from the consultation of the evidences, for they may lead to interesting and quite surprising conclusions.
A Recognized Messiah
If we believe the story told by the Gospels and the New Testament book of Acts, when Jesus came into Galilee and Judea, he was listened to, acclaimed and followed by Jewish crowds. “Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (Luke 4:14, 15).1 “Then He arose from there and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan. And the people gathered to Him again, and as He was accustomed, He taught them again” (Mark 10:1). “For all the people were very attentive to hear Him” (Luke 19:48). Jesus’ popularity lasted until the very end. Just before the fateful Passover which would see Jesus being taken away, Luke reports as a final note, as if forever marking the memory of his passage in Israel: “Then early in the morning all the people came to Him in the temple to hear Him” (Luke 21:38). Jesus’ popularity was such that his judgment was done expeditiously and at night (Matthew 26:31; 27:1).
After Jesus’ death the book of Acts talks about the presence of numerous disciples. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 disciples could be counted in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41), then later the number would swell to 5,000 men plus women and children (Acts 4:4). Shortly thereafter, the book notes that: “And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14). The term “multitudes” is then used to designate those that came “from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem” (Acts 5:16). Later, the book of Acts notes again that “the number of the disciples multiplied” (Acts 6:7).
Based upon the figures given in the book of Acts and other historical information, scholars estimate that at the time of Stephen’s death the number of Jewish converts to the Christian faith was around 25,000.2 Even after Stephen’s stoning and the ensuing persecution, the number never ceased to increase. The story of Acts is regularly punctuated by the same recurrent observation, noting the always increasing success of the gospel among Jews (Acts 8:5-12; 9:31, 35, 43; 11:20-21; 14:1; 16:5; 19:9, 20, etc.). At the end of Acts, the brethren of Jerusalem are glad to count in Palestine “many myriads of Jews . . . who have believed” (21:20). We know that the Greek word “myriad” used here actually means 10,000. Therefore, we can very easily estimate that the number of Christian Jews had exceeded at least three times 10,000. This represents more than half the number of inhabitants of Jerusalem at that time. This signifies that the great majority of Jews (and in certain places their totality) had recognized Jesus as their Messiah.
Therefore, we can say both that the Christians contending that the Jews failed to recognize Jesus and that the Jews who think they had all the reasons to reject him are wrong. The historian Jules Isaac would have a good reason to note his embarrassment: “With rare exceptions, wherever Jesus went the Jewish people took him to their hearts, as the Gospels testify. Did they, at a given moment, suddenly turn against him? This is a notion which has yet to be proved.”3 Later in his demonstration, Jules Isaac concludes: “The Gospels give us good reason to doubt that this [the rejection of Jesus by the Jews] ever happened.”4
A Predicted Messiah
Actually, this Jewish welcome should not be surprising. Since the beginning, the Gospels present Jesus’ coming as the ultimate fulfillment of the lasting hope of Israel.
First, the time was ripe. In Jesus’ time, there was a strong expectation for a Messiah. This is known not only through the testimony of the Gospels and the historians of the time but also through the Dead Sea Scrolls, which show that the Jews oppressed under the Roman yoke were expecting the Messiah to come soon.
By consulting the Scriptures, particularly the prophecy of the 70 weeks found in Daniel 9, they could easily conclude that the time had come.5 This passage in Daniel is the only one which speaks directly and absolutely about the Messiah and also indicates chronologically when he should come. “From the time when the word was announced that Jerusalem will be built again to the Messiah, the Prince, there are seven weeks and 62 weeks” (Daniel 9:25, literal translation). Two landmarks are given here which allow us to situate this event in history:
The word that announces the reconstruction of Jerusalem. This refers to Artaxerxes’ decree in 457 B.C.E. This was the third and last of such decrees (following those of Cyrus and Darius, see Ezra 6:14). This decree was the decisive one and the only one to be followed by a blessing (Ezra 7:27- 28).
The subsequent time period of 69 weeks (7 plus 62) which, in the prophetic context of Daniel and according to the most authoritative and ancient Jewish interpretations like those of Saadia Gaon, Rashi, and even Ibn Ezra,6 must be understood as weeks of years. This period of time comes out to be 69 times 7 equals 483 years long.
This means that the coming of the Messiah was predicted to occur 483 years after 457 B.C.E. which brings us to the 27th year of our era. It is superfluous to remind ourselves that this date coincides with the appearance on history’s stage of Jesus of Nazareth as he began his messianic ministry to the people of Israel (Luke 3:21- 23). This is also the year when Jesus introduces himself as the anointed Messiah, the one that fulfills the prophecy:
As His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. . . . And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled” (Luke 4:16-21).
Jesus here identifies himself as the Messiah awaited by all. His numerous miracles, his exemplary and extraordinary life, his exaltation of the Torah, and his teaching being so deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, confirm it. This is the response that he gave to John’s disciples when they came to him in order to inquire whether he was indeed the Messiah announced by the prophets: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them’” (Matthew 11:4, 5).
Even Jesus’ death carried a special meaning; it was understood in relation to the sacrifices offered on the altar of the Temple. Indeed, this interpretation was already indicated in the promise of the first pages of Genesis. In the very heart of the curse that follows the fall of Adam and Eve, God sows a word of hope. Someone born from the seed of the woman would crush the head of the Serpent, the archetype of evil, while being at the same time hit at the heel (Genesis 3:15).
The principle of salvation through sacrifice is here suggested. It is not an accident that right after the curse, God makes this symbol concrete through the clothes of skin (Genesis 3:21). In a dramatic gesture, God comes down and Himself cuts garments for Adam and Eve. For that purpose, God does not choose linen or cotton or another vegetative material. He chooses the animal. A specification that implies the death of the animal, the first death, the first sacrifice designed to relieve Adam and Eve from their feelings of shame, to help them survive before God, before themselves. The function of the sacrifice was then to point to the future event of messianic salvation.
It would be an error to try to interpret Israel’s sacrifices from a magical perspective. They were not a simple ritual gesture meant to appease an angry God. We are also in the wrong if we attempt to interpret them from a psychoanalytical perspective, as a transference device allowing repressed violence to be expressed. In biblical thinking, the salvation process does not move upwards from the human sphere to the divine, but on the contrary downwards from God to mankind. In that perspective, the institution of the sacrifices should be understood along the lines of Yehezkel Kauffman’s demonstration, as a symbol of the divine movement towards humans, as humans of the hesed (grace) of God.7 Hebrew thought is events-centered. In the Bible, the sacrifices are part of the covenant ceremony through which God binds Himself for the future and promises hope (Genesis 8:20-22; Genesis 15; Exodus 12:22, 23). The sacrifice therefore is not magical nor psychological in nature but is a sign announcing an event to come. Hope in Hebrew is essentially of a historical nature.
It is therefore not surprising that Isaiah 53 uses a reference to the Levite sacrifice in order to describe the coming of the Messiah, savior of Israel and humanity: “Surely He has borne our griefs . . . But He was wounded for our transgressions, . . . as a lamb to the slaughter, . . . His soul an offering for sin, . . . for He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4-7, 10, 11).
A passage in the Midrash alludes to a tradition according to which, because of Isaiah 53:4, the Messiah was to call himself a leper: “The masters [Rabbana] have said that the leper of the school of the Rabbi . . . is his name, for it has been said: ‘He has borne our diseases and he has borne our sufferings, and we have considered him as a leper, smitten by God and humbled.’”8 A characteristic invocation in the Midrash refers to this same text: “Messiah of our justice [Mashiach Tsidkenu], though we are Thy forebears, Thou art greater than we because Thou didst bear the burden of our children’s sins, and our great oppressions have fallen upon Thee. . . . Among the peoples of the world Thou didst bring only derision and mockery to Israel. . . . Thy skin did shrink, and Thy body did become dry as wood; Thine eyes were hollowed by fasting, and Thy strength became like fragmented pottery—all that came to pass because of the sins of our children.”9
We can also recognize a similar correlation in the wording of the prophecy of the 70 weeks which links the coming of the Messiah and the atonement of sin (Daniel 9:24). This process was directly tied into the ritual of the sacrifices (Leviticus 4-7; 17:11). This affinity has also caught the eye of the rabbis of the Talmud: “R. Eleazar in the name of R. Josei: ‘it is a halakha [a principle] regarding the Messiah’; Abbai answered him: ‘we then do not need to teach all the sacrifices because it is a halakha which concerns the messianic era.’”10
Therefore Christians were very much within a Jewish framework when they identified Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, their Messiah as: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; Apocalypse 5:6, 9; Hebrews 9:28; etc.).
He had come at the fullness of time and in the appropriate manner as was announced by the prophecy and symbolized by the sacrifices at the Temple. It is noteworthy that this is the only Messiah of history who so consistently has been related to the prophetic statements of the Hebrew Bible concerning the Messiah. Jewish scholar Schonfield boldly recognizes: “It is needful to emphasize that neither before nor since Jesus has there been anyone whose experiences from first to last have been so pin-pointed as tallying with what were held to be prophetic intimations concerning the Messiah.”11 Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth was recognized by many Jews, maybe even the majority of his contemporary Jews, as the Messiah that they had been awaiting. Certainly this historical fact does not prove in an absolute manner his messianic identity, but it does show that the events which had just occurred had won the Jewish people over.
A Messiah Who Has Survived
There were a great number of Messiahs in Israel’s history. From Bar-Kokhba to Shabbathai Tzevi, and nowadays to Rabbi Schneerson, a multitude of Messiahs drew crowds to themselves. Yet history does not retain them as Messiahs anymore. Each movement was a short-lived flame which did not extend its light beyond the space and time of those Messiahs. The fact that Jesus is the only Jewish Messiah that we still talk about, the only one to have exceeded the frontiers of space and time, constitutes an interesting fact which merits consideration. We can recall here the point made by the Pharisee Raban Gamaliel, disciple of the great Hillel, who made reference to the Messiahs of his time in order to set a quality standard: “If this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it” (Acts 5:38, 39). Gamaliel called upon an old rabbinical principle, traces of which can also be found in a proverb pronounced by Johanan, a sandal maker of the twelfth century: “Any community that is inspired from heaven will establish itself but what is not inspired from heaven will not.”12
To the question we asked at the beginning, whether a Jew could believe in Jesus as the Messiah, we can therefore without any doubt answer with a yes. This can be done at least for three reasons:
1. Jesus was recognized as the Messiah by the majority of Jews of his time.
2. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is based upon holy Scriptures and fits Jewish tradition perfectly.
3. Jesus is the only Jewish Messiah to have survived and outgrown his respective space and time.
The belief in Jesus as the Messiah is therefore not incompatible with the Jewish identity. The reason for its rejection during the better part of the past 2,000 years is therefore to be sought outside Judaism and more precisely in regards to Christianity. According to Jules Isaac, it is the rejection of the law by Christians which prompted the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. “The Jewish rejection of Christ was triggered by the Christian rejection of the Law. . . . The rejection of the Law was enough: to ask of the Jewish people that they accept this rejection . . . was like asking them to tear out their heart. History records no example of such a collective suicide.”13
On the other hand, Albert Memmi suggests that the Jewish resistance to the Christian message is a natural reaction to the Christian anti-Semitism: I was telling to my school comrades the story of a Jesus that betrayed his people and his religion . . . But also I had just received, because of him, a serious beating in a small church situated in a mountain town. For 2,000 years Jesus has represented for Jews the continual pretext of a continual beating they received, a drubbing in which they often found death.14 . . . When you are oppressed you cannot completely accept the customs and values of your oppressor, unless you abandon all pride and trample upon your own heart. And this rejection may occur despite the fact that those customs and values may be beautiful in themselves and even superior to one’s own.15
In other words, Christianity, whose goal was to witness for the Messiah to the world and primarily to the Jews, has become, through Christians’ abandoning of the law and their rejection of Jews, the main obstacle to their acceptance. Furthermore, by rejecting the law and oppressing the Jewish nation in the name of Jesus, we can say that probably Christianity has sacrificed a great deal of its own identity.
1All biblical quotations are from the New King James version unless otherwise noted.
2Richard L. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 311.
3Jules Isaac, Jesus and Israel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 101.
4Ibid., p. 132.
5This Jewish consciousness of the plenitude of time is most powerfully exhibited by the Essenes. See William H. Shea, Selected Studies on Prophetic Interpretation, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1982), pp. 89-93.
6See Miqraoth Gdoloth, ad loc.
7Toledot haemunah hayisraelit, vol. 3, book 1, p. 80 (cf. pp. 443, 444).
9Pesiqta Rabbati, Pisqa 37.
10Zebahim 44b, Sanhedrin 51b.
11 J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot. A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus (New York: Bernard Geis, 1966), p. 36; quoted in Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1984), p. 248, n. 93.
12Pirqe Aboth IV:14.
13Jules Isaac, Genèse de l’Antisémitisme (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1956), p. 147; as translated in Jacques Doukhan, Drinking at the Sources: An appeal to the Jew and the Christian to Note Their Common Beginnings (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1981), p. 25.
14Albert Memmi, La libération du juif (Paris: Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 1972), p. 215.