Returning Jesus to Judaism
“The Jews murdered Jesus; the Savior of the world.” The cross, the crusades, and the conversions. The destruction of the Second Temple. Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Martin Luther later taught on “the Jews and their lies.” And then there was the Hitler with his Final Solution to the Jewish problem. Even today, there is a line of teaching that the Church has replaced Israel (known as the Doctrine of Supercessionism).
But Jesus was Jewish, or at least a “token Jew.” However this is far from the truth. There was absolutely nothing token about Him. The reality is that Jesus was King of the Jews. The fact that Jesus came from Jewish lineage is indisputable. The purpose of this teaching is to return the “Christian Jesus” to His appropriate Jewish context so that we can properly bridge the relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities.
Jesus will be the first to tell you that He came for His own…“but to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16). He also conveyed that He must go to other sheep not of this fold (John 10:16). That is to say, He came to be the Messiah for all nations, to include both Jews and gentiles. During the time of Jesus, it was common practice for the kohanim, or priests, to sacrifice seventy animals representing the gentile nations (Numbers 29:12-40). So, it should be no surprise that any good Jewish Savior would be willing to make a provision of sacrifice for the non-Jewish nations.
Why is returning Jesus to Judaism so relevant? It is not relevant to the gentile who embraces Jesus’ eternal sacrifice, teachings, provisions, and privileges to all who call him Savior. These people are good to go. However, it is extremely germane to the global Jewish community who have suffered “in the name of Jesus.”
Christianity was a deeply Jewish phenomenon in the first century, leading into the second century. In the beginning, we understand Jesus was Jewish, the Apostles are Jewish, and everyone who argued with Jesus and did not followed him was, well, Jewish. Those who followed Jesus, and were not Jewish, sought whether they needed to convert to Judaism in order to truly follow Him and His teachings. So, in fact, there was a conundrum. Many in the Jewish establishment did not follow Him, and those non-Jews who chose to follow Him, were unsure if they were required to convert to Judaism.
Jesus was first and foremost, a student and lover of the Torah and Moses. Very few Jewish scholars would disagree with this. Jesus attended synagogue with His parents and made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the high holy days. Among the four sects of Judaism: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots; Jesus identified as a Pharisee.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, a central truth in Rabbinical Judaism. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees did not enjoy “hard power” with the occupying Romans. The Pharisees were the Rabbis who thrived in groups of teaching or the early “yeshivas.” They had great popularity and support on the ground as local leaders. They avoided the political fray, and elitism of the Sadducees who represented the establishment. The High Priest Caiaphas, was an example of the Sadducee sect.
The Pharisees’ message and doctrine appealed to the ordinary people of the day. That is why Jesus’s message took off – he spoke plainly to the common people. He was viewed as an early populist. Jesus went about teaching and preaching the Kingdom of God in towns and villages and His fame spread among the land (Matthew 9:26,31,35).
Jesus would have quoted Hillel, a prominent Pharisee of His time, whose teachings are still studied today in the Pirket Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, and other sage Jewish publications. Jesus would have been around twelve years old when Hillel passed. Yet, Jesus was educated on the doctrine and wisdom of Hillel. Additionally, as we know, Jesus was an ardent student of the written and oral law. Many of Jesus’s sayings, such as “turn the other cheek”, and “love your neighbor as yourself” came directly from the law.
We then have to ask, why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees? According to Dr. Henry (Hillel) Abramson, a well-known Hebraic professor, Jesus was somewhat “rebellious” concerning the Pharisees’ teachings and doctrine. A little known fact is that the Rabbis’ held ultimate authority in interpretation and dissemination of the Torah and as stewards of Temple affairs. We know that Jesus was more concerned about God and man’s relationship with God than the Pharisees’ doctrine.
Jesus, in typical Jewish Rabbinical fashion, challenged the status quo. As a popular Jewish saying goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.” The New Testament account in Matthew 9:34 emphasizes how many Pharisees sat under the same instruction, yet had different conclusions and results concerning Jesus. These teachers were considered mishpacha, or family to Jesus. As with all families, healthy debate and discussion is always present. This disagreement and division led to a Jewish breakaway movement that, to this present day, shows no sign of slowing down. We now know this as the “Parting of the Ways.”
In contrast, the Essenes were kind of the weirdo types who took numerous daily mikvahs (ritual purification baths), ate, slept, and worked on writings that would later be discovered as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a place called Qumran. Further evidence of an Essenes community is found in Jerusalem, near Mount Zion.* The Zealots, on the other hand, were the Jewish rebel forces who took on the Romans, or at least, gave it their best shot. They would not hesitate to kill their own Jewish brethren if they failed to support their fight against the Romans, or stood in the way of their mission.
The Jewish Jesus message of good news rapidly spread under a prominent religious, educated, zealous, Pharisee. This man, Saul of Tarsus, is commonly thought of as one of the ten most influential Jews in world history. He is more affectionately known in New Testament theology as the Apostle Paul. Saul was chosen by Jesus to spread the gospel of Jesus after his life changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
The Jewish character of Jesus has been lost in translation among the gentile nations who have historically outnumbered the small Jewish population. The parting of the ways for Jews and Christians began to widen as new believers were not familiar with Synagogue life, Jewish law, observance of feasts, and High Holy days. Paul, as a Jewish leader, was betwixt as to the application and implementation of Jewish law as God fearing gentile converts came to Jesus. Issues such as cleanliness and circumcision had little relevance to the original “sheep of other pastures.” The Jews also had their own form of jurisprudence, civil law, and distinct court system under Roman rule. Early gentile believers, or Christians, did not have those privileges.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, for example, as in the case of John whom Jesus loved, other circumcised Jews began to depart from the practices of Judaism and Temple life. Excommunication out of the synagogue, jurisprudence, and Jewish family life was an oxymoron. After all, Jesus was a Rabbi, and their teacher; He was a miracle worker. “We are all Jews.” What was the problem?
The new Jewish movement led by Jesus, became outnumbered by those wanting a taste of this new phenomenon. They heard the Jewish Apostles preach and witnessed wondrous miracles in the name of Jesus. His crowds of up to five thousand people and miracles of multiplication could not be refuted. Healing lines grew, the demon possessed were freed from torment, and Jesus taught as one having authority. But wait. All Rabbis had authority, right? This exceptional Rabbi taught with authority from above, he was set apart from the others, as signs, wonders, and miracles followed Him. There was overwhelming evidence of Jesus and His powerful ministry. His existence and work in the first century could not be disputed.
So, why isn’t Jesus accepted as the Messiah among the Jews of the past and the Jews of today? In the beginning, Jesus’s followers were Jewish believers and converts to His teachings. Among the masses, there were many who claimed the role of Messiah then, as well as today. Early Rabbis and synagogues were faced with the dilemma of allowing Jesus’s Jewish followers to worship alongside non-believing Jews. The Jewish leaders decided that the two could not co-exist. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, expressed the greatest displeasure over the ruling. In 200 C.E. came the Mishnah, or a written redaction of Oral Torah. It is comprised of major Rabbinic works which include legal interpretation not recorded in the Torah, or Five Books of Moses. T he introduction of the Mishnah may have put the nail in the coffin concerning the parting of the ways between Jewish believers in Jesus and Jews today.
According to traditional Jewish teaching, Jesus did not meet or exceed the Messianic expectations outlined in scripture. While He is considered a prophet and sage, even quoted by Jewish scholars and included in the Pirket Avot, Jesus still failed to meet expectations. He did not gather the Jews from around the world in one place called Israel (Isaiah 43:5-6). He did not bring world peace, end hatred, suffering, or disease (Isaiah 2:4), and He did not conquer Israel’s enemies. He did not build the Third Temple. He was not seen as a universal savior, nor one who made atonement by wiping clean (a Yom Kippur upgrade of sorts) mankind’s sins by the shedding of His blood (which makes atonement Leviticus 17:11). Finally, Jesus did not spread the universal knowledge of the God of Israel, fulfilling the essence of the Shema which stated “He is one and His name shall be one.”
The covenant, stewardship, Torah, laws, education, economic advancement, science, arts, priesthood, spreading of the monotheistic belief in one God was given at Mount Sinai, to a group of people, which would eventually become known as the Jews. The Jews would be persecuted and reminded of Jesus’s death for centuries. Yet, the Jew who started it all identified with persecution, suffering, taking in His body the hatred for the one God of Israel and this peculiar people. Jesus was both student and teacher of Judaism, lover of Torah, lover of God, and lover of His people. He was both physically and spiritually circumcised in covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A Jew rich enough to offer the good things of God and heaven to all of mankind.
The Holocaust demonstrated the hatred for God; it was not a defense of Christianity. True Christianity loves Israel, respects and learns from the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim), and the sages. The endurance of the Israelites and Jewish people is a living validation of their relevancy and the importance for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. The Jews continue to survive. Their purpose, and contributions are revolutionary. The shekinah glory of God pours through the reading of Torah, the prayer of Shema, the kindling of the Shabbat lights, the beauty, and unified identification of the high holy days and feasts.
The law is a good thing. People need guidelines and boundaries. They help preserve and keep a people and nation on course. However, not everyone wants these Jews and their laws. Jesus did not have problem with God’s laws; oh how He loved His law. He had a problem with the assumed theological authority by the so-called spiritual leaders. These leaders would not allow the Torah reading without Rabbinical commentary or authoritative dictates.
What about Isaiah 53, and the fulfillment of prophecy? Conventional “Christian” are right–Jews are wrong! Funny thing, the older a child becomes, the wiser his parents are. Judaism holds the parental role for Christianity. The Rabbi and disciple of Rabbi Hillel, Ben Bag Bag, admonished his students as it pertained to Torah. He said “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it, reflect on it and grow old and gray with it, for nothing is better than it.” There is no such thing as secular Judaism. A Jew has an obligation to observe the Shabbat, pray the Shema, and fulfill his covenant with Hashem. He or she also has an obligation to pursue mitzvoth and the mission of Tikkun Olam (repairing of the world). The Jewish role and its significance has not gone away. Christians, oftentimes excuse themselves of Biblical study and works under the interpretation of “grace.” Jews are not all wrong and Christians are not all right. Each person must face the issue of Jesus in their own spiritual quest.
Shalom Jesus, welcome back to Judaism. We can learn from you. There is no longer fear of this Jesus when we understand Him as He really is. Jesus is the chief Jew among Jews. His example was as the ‘captain of captains” of spirituality, mitzvot, and miracles. The time has come in Judaism to reexamine this beloved, controversial Jesus who’s following show no signs of slowing down.
*Jesus and Archaeology-James H. Charlesworth, William B. Eardman’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids Michigan. 2006