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Jesus for Jews

Yellow Crucifixion, Marc Chagall (1943).

That Jesus lived and died a Jew would hardly be regarded as news by most educated Jews and Christians today.  Still, while the historical Jesus is ever-elusive, the figure of Jesus, for Jews, has become more accessible.  The pronounced decline of Christian anti-Semitism in our day has allowed for more freedom to discuss not only the tortuous and changing relationship of Jews to the Church, but also to its founder and the central figure of its concern: namely, Jesus. 

Relevant Links
The Jesus Question  John T. Pawlikowski, Jewish-Christian Relations. Back on the agenda in certain Jewish circles, the question is now being asked in collaboration with Christian scholars.
How It Began  David Novak, New Republic. Peter Schafer’s examination of anti-Christian passages in classical Jewish sources is rigorous, candid, and, perhaps unexpectedly, hopeful.
“Rabbi Jesus”  Raphael Ahren, Haaretz. Fending off scathing criticism, an Orthodox rabbi asserts his words were manipulated and emphasizes the “fundamental differences” between Judaism and Christianity.

The past half-decade has seen a spate of books on the topic written by Jews, with titles like The Misunderstood Jew and From Rebel to Rabbi.  In 2007, the Christian scholar Peter Schafer published a challenging study on the place of Jesus in the Talmud.  The newest entry in the field is a collection of essays edited by Zev Garber, The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation.

While the collection is composed in part of papers presented at a 2009 symposium, the word "reclamation" is a tip-off that the editor's interest in the subject is not merely academic. The Church's task, as represented in this volume, is to foster a more positive and respectful relationship with those who, according to the book's dedication, "practice the faith of Jesus." For Jews, acknowledgment of Jesus' Jewishness opens the door to a deeper and more constructive relationship with those who, in turn, "believe by faith in Jesus." In short, reflection on the Jewishness of Jesus promises to serve as the basis for enhanced Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The contributions to the volume are quite varied. The first section, "Reflections on the Jewish Jesus," focuses primarily on the historical relationship of Jesus to the Jewish communities of his day and the reception of his teachings by Jews living during and shortly after his lifetime.

The second section of the book, "Responding to the Jewish Jesus," provides a glimpse into the long history of Jewish attitudes toward Jesus and Christianity and Christian attitudes toward Judaism. These attitudes are, needless to say, quite at odds with those that Garber seeks to promote. Over the centuries of Christian oppression and Jewish cultural resistance, most "dialogue" took the form of polemic and disputation, in which each side caricatured the other's beliefs. Eugene J. Fisher's essay, which closes the section, suggests that such caricatures, born of ignorance as much as animosity, have not disappeared in spite of the more congenial circumstances in which we now live.

Having written in the past about Christian misconceptions of Judaism, Fisher here turns his attention to Jewish misunderstandings of Christ, Christianity, and Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries. Noting that Catholic education about Jews has changed dramatically since the Second Vatican Council, he calls upon Jewish educators to improve education about Christianity. Because so little is taught about Christianity in Jewish schools, Fisher argues, "many Jews in this country gain what they think is an understanding of Christianity from the media or stories handed down from the shtetls."

Most directly pertinent to Garber's program is the third section of the book, "Teaching, Dialogue, Reclamation: Contemporary Views on the Jewish Jesus." Most interesting, from a Jewish point of view, are the essays of Steven Leonard Jacobs and Shaul Magid on recent Jewish efforts to bridge the gap with Christianity by recognizing Jesus as a legitimate and important Jewish figure. As Magid points out, such efforts began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when liberal Jews sought common ground with liberal Protestants by holding up Jesus as a paradigm of Judaism's ethical tradition. Such an understanding made sense for Jewish reformers who identified with Jesus' critique of the orthodoxy of his time, and it was well suited to an American landscape dominated by liberal Protestants—particularly Unitarians—who viewed Jesus above all as a teacher of ethics.

In today's cultural milieu, in which even liberal Judaism is quite varied and evangelical Christianity is on the rise, some Jewish thinkers have sought instead to engage with the messianic and Christological elements of Jesus' figure. Yitz Greenberg, for example, has proposed viewing Jesus as a "failed messiah"—the term "failed" being used here not in a pejorative sense, but as an indication that Jesus' redemptive work is incomplete. According to this view, Jesus takes his place among many Jewish leaders who were not able to complete their missions, including Moses, Jeremiah, and Bar Kokhba, leader of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the second century C.E. 

A similar perspective is offered by Byron Sherman, who identifies Jesus with the "Joseph messiah," a leader who, according to one Jewish tradition, is to arrive on earth before the final redemption by a messiah descended from King David. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Matt, taking a different approach, suggest that Jesus be viewed as a tzaddik, a righteous individual who, according to Hasidic tradition, embodies the divine. Much as Greenberg and Sherman accept Jesus as a messiah but not the messiah, Schachter-Shalomi and Matt accept the possibility that Jesus represented a type of divine incarnation without viewing his incarnation as the unique event of Christian doctrine.

It may certainly be argued that beliefs such as these are not beyond the pale of traditional rabbinic Judaism. Yet it is difficult to imagine that they will be widely accepted within the Jewish community any time soon, making them a questionable basis for genuine inter-communal dialogue. Moreover, as none of the Jewish thinkers cited in these essays accepts the core Christian doctrines of the resurrection and full divinity of Jesus, the gulf between mainstream Jewish and Christian views of Jesus remains quite wide.

This does not mean that genuine, respectful, and productive interfaith dialogue is an unattainable goal. On the contrary, the very concept of interfaith dialogue presupposes the existence of religious difference—often fundamental, irreconcilable difference—in the midst of which it is still often possible to find considerable common ground. For Christians, reflection on the Jewish identity of the incarnate Christ may serve as a foundation for dialogue with today's living Jewish community. For Jews, learning to understand and respect Christian views about Jesus—without necessarily accepting them—may be more fruitful than attempting to claim him as one of our own.

Eve Levavi Feinstein is a College Fellow in Harvard's department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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Independent Patriot on June 15, 2011 at 8:07 am (Reply)
Jews' perspective on Jesus was not written by Jesus but by how we were treated by those who supposedly espoused his beliefs, so a Jewish perspective on Jesus would be interesting.I think, quite frankly, that none of us know what Jesus really taught or thought or felt beyond what the oral history of Christianity says. Remember the Gospels were supposedly not written down for over one hundred years after Jesus' death. I think what would be interesting in trying to understand Jesus is to look at the geopolitics of the time: Just what would a religious Jew, possibly Rabbi, be thinking and hoping for at that time under Roman oppression? What would be his ultimate goal? What would be the hopes for his people? To acknowledge the basis of Christianity without understanding the people who brought it into being is like not understanding the basis for the American Revolution.Unfortunately that has been exactly what has been done for 2000 years.

Maybe this would be an interesting read on the subject:
David on June 15, 2011 at 8:54 am (Reply)
The gulf between mainstream Jewish and Christian views of Jesus may remain quite wide today, but the Evangelical Christian view is that one day all Jews will view Jesus as their Messiah.
george on June 15, 2011 at 10:42 am (Reply)
"Matt...suggest that Jesus be viewed as a tzaddik" - Really Matt? And that's based on a reading of the "New Testament" that reads as a treatise on anti semitism. With Jews like Matt, Noam Chomsky and Finkelstein its surprising the Gd doesn't flood us out again (luckily He promised not to).

Isn't it clear that Jesus was a reform Jew with delusions of grandeur? Think a religious Chuck Shumer and you have the modern day Jesus.

Let's get back to real Judaism, all!
Steve David on June 15, 2011 at 12:35 pm (Reply)
Jesus isn't worshiped by Christians because of what he said (since he said nothing new), but of who he allegedly was (the messiah). We Jews know that the condition of the world since his advent has never justified such an appraisal of him.

Furthermore, if there was an historical Jesus, he was born and died a Jew. Jesus was never a Christian and never called himself a Christian; he did not preach a new faith. The founder of Christianity, following the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus, was actually his apostle Paul.

The only "place" that Jesus could ever have in Judaism is to be regarded as a charismatic preacher of his time, whose followers have devoted the past 2,000 years to blaming us for his death. Their relentless persecution of the Jews in the name of their "God of Love" has resulted in the murder and suffering of untold millions of our ancestors.
Madel on June 15, 2011 at 1:12 pm (Reply)
The REAL problem with Jesus and the Jews is Rabbinic Judaism's adoption of a moshiach as the Talmudic alternative to Jesus, who would cure the world's ills. I just read a newly-published, brilliant novel, HAAZINU (Listen Up), published by Israel's Gefen Publishing House, where the author, Yerachmiel ben-Yishye, turns the whole messianic concept satirically on its head, propounding that the Torah's blessings of health, peace, and prosperity are within our own reach, at any time we choose, if we would only follow G-d's laws. Now that's the right answer to the Jews' fascination with Jesus!
David Cook on June 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm (Reply)
The Biblical narrative has central characters to the overarching story. A primary character of the Biblical narrative is the promised Moshiach. The Moshiach is mentioned in the beginning in the book of Genesis and throughout the Tanach. Yeshua the Mosiach made His advent into visible human history in the fullness of time, as foretold by the Jewish prophets. The prophet Micah foretold that Moshiach would be born in Bethlehem the city of David. Micah gives us this insight of Moshiach that He has existed since the ancient days. See Micah 5:2.
ms. k on June 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm (Reply)
Hi Eve, kol hakavod (I remember you from your TA days when I was at the Div school).
Of course, I should read the book, but based on your review I find it hard to believe Fisher's stance about Jewish misconceptions about XTY, at least from the mainstream (liberal) American culture most of the Jews I know grew up in (including my own). Aren't we Jews so completely indoctrinated by Christian ethics in America, to the point where we assimilate the Christian with the Jewish and call it Judaism, until we look deeper and see it's not quite so? Have we not sort of "syncretized" the two religions so that we can sleep better at night knowing we're all the same?
Or maybe a better question is: Are Jews any more uninformed about various religious tenets than the rest of Americans? A friend and I joke that we went to Div school to be able to discuss religion on a higher level; now we just have no one to talk to.
Madel on June 15, 2011 at 3:14 pm (Reply)
Ms. K and Eve: read that novel HAAZINU (Listen Up)I mentioned above, and you'll really have something to talk about!
Ben S on June 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm (Reply)
There is no need to blur the lines between Christianity and Judaism to feel more a part of the "culture around us". Christianity believes Jesus is god, son of god and Messiah in one (it's all in the book of JOHN in New Testament) Judaism believes in the One Infinite Eternal G-d that gave the Torah at Mount Sinai to the Jewish People. Messianic Jews and Missionaries often try to Judaicise Jesus to attract Jews, no need to further that here. I suggest more reading from books such as You Take Jesus I'll take G-d or V'da Mah Shetashiv , all available on and Barnes and Noble on the web.
Patrick on June 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm (Reply)
I think a lot of these comments are missing a key point in this article: "the very concept of interfaith dialogue presupposes the existence of religious difference"

Thus I'm not sure where phrases like "Judaicise Jesus to attract Jews" (Ben S.) are coming from. If religion and history is a subject that interests you, then you might want to read the books discussed. That, in my understanding, was the point of the article, not to attempt to convert anyone.
Aharon Michael ben Chunnah HaLevi on June 15, 2011 at 9:24 pm (Reply)
This was an interesting, if predictable essay. Some very good points are made. On those we can agree, but lets discuss the points of difficulty in the essay without prejudice here.

"The pronounced decline of Christian anti-Semitism in our day has...": This is a uniquely American situation and observation. It does not yet apply in Europe, Africa, Middle East or South America, hardly touched by Vatican II. In fact, anti-semitism rates in the US have mildly declined, increased in Canada and skyrocketed in Europe.

"The Church's task, to foster a more positive and respectful relationship with those who, according to the book's dedication, "practice the faith of Jesus.": While this may be true for some Christians, but official statements made by both the Pope, several famous clergyman indicate there is an interest in "prepping Jews" for an acceptance of Christian views on the events of the "end of days". Outside of learned Orthodox Jews, few Jews realize that Judaism posits its OWN version of the "end of days" - and it radically differs from Christian views. Jews are under no obligation to politely go along with divergent views that prejudice our own interests and heritage.

"Eugene J. Fisher's essay, ...suggests that such caricatures, born of ignorance as much as animosity, have not disappeared in spite of the more congenial circumstances in which we now live.": This is a patently Christian view. Given the many fauz pas, mean-spirited statements, and supersessionist leanings made by Christian clergy, people and institutions in recent times, especially anti-Israeli/zionist positions, there is a reasonable amount of Jewish distrust, rather than animosity. Trust needs to be earned, and little has been achieved or done on the grass roots level to help Jews. Collegial academics meeting semi-annually cannot do much but share philosophy. However, having said that, 70% of the religious hate crimes, reported in the US alone, are against Jews by people coming from a Christian culture and background. Given the comparative rate of only 7% agains Muslims, where the US is at war in at least 3 Muslim countries, begs the question: why is anti-semitic hate crimes so high in the US which portrays itself as philo-semitic?

"Noting that Catholic education about Jews has changed dramatically since the Second Vatican Council, he calls upon Jewish educators to improve education about Christianity.": The issue here is assymmetry. First, Catholics represent only 1/2 of Christians, we still have issues with other half, so the Church does not establish credibility for all who claim to be "Christian". Jews come in contact with many Christians, so not so benign as American Catholics. Jewish education is not well understood in Christian circles. Our curriculum is crammed with studies on Law, History, Philosophy, Grammar, etc. At Yeshiva University, classes go until 8 pm, and Jewish high schools often go until 6 pm, leavng little room for ad hoc subjects. These institutions also happen to be predominantly Orthodox, as Conservative and Reform Jews have few high schools, and the few non-Orthodox colleges already meet the essay's goal. Among the Orthodox, whose families preserve their individual and collective histories far better than the non-orthodox, include a lot of "teaching about Christianity", much of it not positive. Given the lack of engagement between Christians and Orthodox Jews, and the tendancy of the Orthodox to maintain a specifically Jewish world view (where repentence is defined as something more than putting pieces of paper in the Western Wall, where acts of good count more than good words), this attitude will change slowly, and not only due to Jewish resistance to the sometimes insincere motives of some Christians.

"... recent Jewish efforts to bridge the gap with Christianity by recognizing Jesus as a legitimate and important Jewish figure.": This is a loaded and not universally held view. It also has not been established as a fact, yet. An important figure, yes, in terms of the forces unleashed against Jews and Judaism - for 19 centuries. Legitimate? I ask by what standard? One could argue Jesus was a heretic, that undercuts claims of legitimacy. Some say he misled Jews to leave the faith, and if so, that is a major sin not to be respected. Classed as a prophet? Not when propjec died out 300 - 400 years before him. No one claims he was not a Jew. The question among Jews is - what kind of Jew? What did he do positively for Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people? History has a verdict, and it is not kind.

"... none of the Jewish thinkers cited in these essays accepts the core Christian doctrines of the resurrection and full divinity of Jesus, the gulf between mainstream Jewish and Christian views of Jesus remains quite wide.": Why does this gulf even need to be bridged? That is the question

"This does not mean that genuine, respectful, and productive interfaith dialogue is an unattainable goal.": Is dialogue the goal, or are the fruits of dialogue the goal? I respect anyone who respects me. I have no tolerance for those intolerant of me, and last I checked a majority of worldwide Christians are still dedicated to eliminating Jews as a living people, nation and religion, by conversion, if not by historically unsuccessful "other solutions".

"For Jews, learning to understand and respect Christian views about Jesus—without necessarily accepting them—may be more fruitful than attempting to claim him as one of our own.": This baffles me. Why should it matter whether Jews respect views about Jesus? Christians do not respect Jewish laws, beliefs, peoplehood or nationhood, outside of the US. Should not the issue of what Jesus did wrong, what he failed at, what he caused be of central concern to Jews still struggling with the legacy of anti-semitism institutionalized in Western populations that resist Jewish presence?
Yoel Mechanic on June 16, 2011 at 12:42 am (Reply)
If one comes to believe the New Testament is unreliable, then one will be free to selectively reconstruct the persona of Jesus based on speculation. Perhaps that Jesus will be appealing to even religious Jews. Now isn't that exercise a waste? That is a fantasy Jesus. why bother. The NT Jesus directly contradicts the Hebrew Tenach. why would one want to construct a make-believe Jesus in the name of "reclamation"?
JMR PhD on June 16, 2011 at 12:51 am (Reply)
We must remember that historically the whole New Testament was written to Jews, by Jews, about a Jew. The earliest messianists were convinced by their own experience with the ruach haqodesh *from the earliest period* that Jesus was unique, divine, and the one who appears in many near death experiences--a universal experience, not just to Christians. A monumental work showing this is L. Hurtado, Lord, Jesus, Christ, 2005.
BBco on June 16, 2011 at 6:52 pm (Reply)
Reading the comments is a clear indication of the degree of understanding or respect between the two communities. The only understanding our respective groups can arrive at, is to agree to do no intentional harm to one another. We can never agree on who Jesus is, nor should we try. He is either "The Messiah" or something less, thus the impasse.
Eliyahu Konn on June 18, 2011 at 8:48 am (Reply)
As an Orthodox Jew I question which figure. As Oxford scholar James Parkes noted (Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue), the 1st century historical Ribi Yehoshua was pro-Torah while the 4th century Christian version & Church was rabidly "antinomian." See History Museum pages,

If focus were directed on the pro-Torah historical Ribi, then I agree it could well serve as the basis for enhanced Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Paqid Yirmeyahu on June 20, 2011 at 1:46 am (Reply)
Everyone ignores the diametric opposite natures of the 1st century real (historical) Ribi, a pro-Torah Pharisee, versus the 4th century Hellenist Christian redacted "makeover" (counterfeit) known as Yeshu, an anti-Torah (antinomian) Hellenist Christian man-god. Discussions like this that assume the two opposites are both Yeshu (or calling both by a Hebrew name, Yeshua and the like) are an exercise in nonsensical obfuscation. James Parkes has demonstrated their oppositeness (The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue). "Historical Jesus" is an oxymoron. For historical Ribi Yehoshua, see the History Museum pages of

Discussions will never get anywhere until this distinction is meticulously respected.

Contrary to the article--and paper apparently--"That [Yeshu] lived and died a Jew" is increasingly seen by educated Jews and Christians as a colossally misleading confusion of historical documentation with Christian redacted Hellenism.

The linchpin of Christian theology is that their Yeshu is,le-havdil, the historical Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua (rather than their own redacted make-over counterfeit). Jews and Orthodox rabbis who perpetuate this linchpin deception are preaching the most fundamental Christian Gospel.
David on June 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm (Reply)
In response to Paqid, Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus lived and died as a Jew, but also that Jesus lived and died and lived again as the Son of the God of Israel.
Maruli Aritonang (i'm an Indonesian) on August 9, 2011 at 5:53 am (Reply)
Interfaith dialogue is quite sensitive. Each has to have strong foundation about its own faith.
Eliyahu Konn on August 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm (Reply)
David, your statement shows that you are completely lost when it comes to history, Judaism, Torah, the prophets, science, and discrete mathematics. Re-read Paqid Yirmeyahu's comment. You are saying the earth is flat. They had faith that the earth was flat but finally they admitted that no one ever fell off the edge of the earth. No edge of the earth. No Jxsus. Ribi Yehoshua is not Jxsus. Jxsus is the poster-boy for the most pernicious identity theft of all time. Ribi Yehoshua, a Torah observant Jew, had his life story stolen by the hedonistic, idolatrous Roman Hellenists and they systematically killed off all the Jewish witnesses. Ever wonder why the Christians killed so many Jews? Can't have the Torah observant Jews around much less those that follow the true Mashiach, Ribi Yehoshua. That would reveal the counterfeit "Messianics," the Christians. But now the historical facts are being brought to light.
PAthena on November 10, 2011 at 11:02 pm (Reply)
See Geza Vermes, the leading scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on Jesus the Jew. It is proof positive that the New Testament account of Jesus is a Hellenistic account, making Christianity a mystery cult, but one open to anyone, unlike most mystery cults. Jesus is portrayed at the Last Supper, supposedly Passover, as having distributed matzos to his companions as his body, and the wine as his blood. But the drinking of blood is forbidden to Jews, which is why kosher butchery removes blood from the animal. Jesus would no more have said to think of the wine as his blood, than he would have said to think of a ham as his body.
Drinking blood, however, was a pratice among many cults, including the Orphic mysteries.C2

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