Why did the Jews reject Jesus? Was he really the son of God? Were the Jews culpable in his death? These ancient questions have been debated for almost two thousand years, most recently with the release of Mel Gibson's explosive The Passion of the Christ. The controversy was never merely academic. The legal status and security of Jews--often their very lives--depended on the answer.
In WHY THE JEWS REJECTED JESUS, David Klinghoffer reveals that the Jews since ancient times accepted not only the historical existence of Jesus but the role of certain Jews in bringing about his crucifixion and death. But he also argues that they had every reason to be skeptical of claims for his divinity.
For one thing, Palestine under Roman occupation had numerous charismatic would-be messiahs, so Jesus would not have been unique, nor was his following the largest of its kind. For another, the biblical prophecies about the coming of the Messiah were never fulfilled by Jesus, including an ingathering of exiles, the rise of a Davidic king who would defeat Israel's enemies, the building of a new Temple, and recognition of God by the gentiles. Above all, the Jews understood their biblically commanded way of life, from which Jesus's followers sought to "free" them, as precious, immutable, and eternal.
Jews have long been blamed for Jesus's death and stigmatized for rejecting him. But Jesus lived and died a relatively obscure figure at the margins of Jewish society. Indeed, it is difficult to argue that "the Jews" of his day rejected Jesus at all, since most Jews had never heard of him. The figure they really rejected, often violently, was Paul, who convinced the Jerusalem church led by Jesus's brother to jettison the observance of Jewish law. Paul thus founded a new religion. If not for him, Christianity would likely have remained a Jewish movement, and the course of history itself would have been changed. Had the Jews accepted Jesus, Klinghoffer speculates, Christianity would not have conquered Europe, and there would be no Western civilization as we know it.
WHY THE JEWS REJECTED JESUS tells the story of this long, acrimonious, and occasionally deadly debate between Christians and Jews. It is thoroughly engaging, lucidly written, and in many ways highly original. Though written from a Jewish point of view, it is also profoundly respectful of Christian sensibilities. Coming at a time when Christians and Jews are in some ways moving closer than ever before, this thoughtful and provocative book represents a genuine effort to heal the ancient rift between these two great faith traditions.
The provocative title of this unfocused book implies that it contains an answer to the question of why the Jews rejected Jesus. Indeed, Klinghoffer, whose memoir The Lord Will Gather Me In was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, buries several answers in this study's dense verbiage, but the reader has to struggle to locate them. After numerous citations, many from obscure sources, demonstrating erudite research, Klinghoffer reveals that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was "the founding act of Western civilization." It facilitated the development of Christianity and Islam as mass religions. Thus, according to Klinghoffer, the rejection of Christ was a "civilization-creating act." He arrives at this determination by examining "God's perspective," "God's intention," "God's purposes" and "God's plan." This remarkable display of chutzpah leads Klinghoffer to assert that the Jews are the "priesthood" and the Christians and Muslims are the "laity." Before making his pronouncement, Klinghoffer reviews Jewish history from the year A.D. 27 to modern times. At times, he criticizes Jewish liberals and secularists, and raises hard questions about the directions modern Judaism has taken. Some readers may find that the effort required to read this book is rewarded by its piquant conclusion: that the trajectory of Western history would have been entirely altered if the Jews had accepted Jesus. (Mar. 15) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 06, 2006
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Excerpt from Why the Jews Rejected Jesus by David Klinghoffer
Judaism in the Year 27
One of the curious things about Mel Gibson's Jesus movie, The Passion of the Christ, is the part the Jewish priestly establishment, headquartered in the Jerusalem Temple, plays in arresting Jesus and turning him over to the Romans. As viewers, we are supposed to be moved by this to personal repentance, recognizing our own sinfulness in the act of betrayal and violence. But the villainy of Gibson's Jews is hard to recognize because it makes no obvious sense. We are intended to believe the Temple priests are after Jesus because of a big dangerous following that's going to crown him Messiah, but nowhere in the film do these massively numbered followers ever make an appearance. From all the evidence of The Passion, you would think Jesus had about ten disciples, twenty maximum. So why were certain Jews so intent on seeing him dead? Gibson leaves us with no clear idea.
Much the same difficulty is posed by the Gospels themselves. From a straightforward contemplation of the text, it is not immediately clear what gets the Jews who object to Jesus so worked up. If we try to read the Gospels together, imagining them as forming a single integrated story (to the extent possible, since they are marked by disagreements as to narrative detail), we find the Jews mounting an emotional staircase leading from initial warmth, to puzzlement and perplexity, to distress, to self-righteous annoyance, and finally to a murderous rage.
When Jesus begins his ministry around the year 28, teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, the congregation at first "spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded from out of his mouth."(1) Then, on hearing more of his preaching, "all in the synagogue were filled with wrath."(2) Other Jews, however, were moved to follow him, and on one occasion his disciples and others stood about as he sat on a mountain--the Sermon on the Mount--at which "the crowds were astonished . . . for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."(3) The Pharisees, a Jewish faction whom we'll meet shortly, get wind of the interest and controversy Jesus is stirring up. They "murmur against his disciples," who are judged to be morally unsuitable.(4) When these self-righteous Jews find him overseeing the disciples, who are plucking grain in seeming violation of the Sabbath, "the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him."(5) When Jesus heals a man on a Sabbath, the same Jews again "went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him."(6) When Jesus seeks to justify himself, citing the authority of God, his "Father," then "the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God."(7)
We need to step back from our assumptions about the Gospel text. Through familiarity with the general story line--we all know Jesus had detractors among his fellow Jews--we tend to assume it was only natural that small-minded bigots would take offense at this spiritually uplifted, transcendent being. But if you try to imagine reading about the Jewish reaction to Jesus without bringing to bear the cultural background of Christianity, you'll see that, as one might say of characters in a novel, the outrage of Jesus's fellow Jews seems distinctly undermotivated. They want to kill him because he healed a man by faith on the Sabbath--something in itself that Jewish law does not forbid? Or because he called God his "Father"--when God is called "Father" of the Jewish people and of their kings many times in scripture and liturgy? What's the big deal?