Within New Testament studies, many biblical scholars have embarked on what is called “The Third Quest” for the historical Jesus, a quest that has been characterized as “the Jewish reclamation of Jesus.”
Rather then saying Jesus broke away from Judaism and started Christianity, Jewish scholars studying the New Testament have sought to re-incorporate Jesus within the fold of Judaism.(1) In this study, scholars have placed a great deal of emphasis on the social world of first- century Palestine.
Some of the non-Jewish scholars that are currently active in the Third Quest are Craig A. Evans, I. Howard Marshall, James H. Charlesworth, N.T. Wright, and James D.G. Dunn. In his book Jesus and the Victory of God,Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2, author N.T.Wright says that the historical Jesus is very much the Jesus of the gospels: a first century Palestinian Jew who announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God, performed “mighty works” and believed himself to be Israel’s Messiah who would save his people through his death and resurrection. “He believed himself called,” in other words says Wright, “to do and be what, in the Scriptures, only Israel’s God did and was.” (2) Despite the fact that there has been a lot of work to recover the Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus continues to be a stumbling block to Jewish people. Let me go ahead and give some of the reasons for this.
Stumbling Block #1: Anti-Semitism
In relation to this topic, I think there is a lot of truth in these set of comments:
As Philip Yancey says,
“Is it possible to read the Gospels without blinders on? Jews read with suspicion, preparing to be scandalized. Christians read through the refracted lenses of church history. Both groups, I believe would do well to pause and reflect on Matthew’s first words, “a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” The son of David speaks of Jesus’ messianic line, which Jews should not ignore; a title without significance for him.” Notes C.H. Dodd,”The son of Abraham speaks of Jesus’ Jewish line, which Christians dare not ignore either.” (3)
Jaroslav Pelikan also makes a significant comment:
“Would there have been such anti-Semitism, would there have been so many pogroms, would there have been as Auschwitz, if every Christian church and every Christian home had focused its devotion and icons of Mary not only as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven but as the Jewish maiden and the new Miriam, and on icons of Christ not only as Pantocrator but as Rabbi Jeshua bar-Joseph, Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth?” (4)
For many Jewish people, Jesus is the source of anti-Semitism. They tend to see the polemical exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees (as in John’s Gospel) as one of the main reasons his followers have so much hatred towards Jewish people. Granted, there has been much work done on this topic. But to see an overview of the history of anti-Semitism and the Church, see this resource. Many Christians have responded by saying “No true Christian would be anti-Semetic.” Maybe so. But the damage is done and many Jewish people have not recovered. So this is a huge stumbling block to Jewish people.
Stumbling Block #2: Supersessionism
You may say what is Supersessionism? In this article, Michael Vlach says two points that stand out about Supersessionism are the following: (1) national Israel has somehow completed or forfeited its status as the people of God and will never again possess a unique role or function apart from the church; and (2) the church is now the true Israel that has permanently replaced or superseded national Israel as the people of God. Supersessionism, then, in the context of Israel and the church, is the view that the New Testament church is the new Israel that has forever superseded national Israel as the people of God.
Does this matter? Well, I know some Christians don’t know much about this. But others are aware of it and do hold to this position. Just think if you were trying to tell a Jewish person about why Jesus is their Messiah (the Jewish Messiah) and you said, “By the way, I do think national Israel has no future in the plan of God. Your people and land have no future as well.” This will probably cause your discussion with Jewish people to end very quickly.
Stumbling Block #3: What about the Torah?
Many Jewish people think the giving of the Torah is the supreme revelation to them at Mt. Sinai. And if there is any religion or faith that says the Torah has been replaced or changed, it is heresy. From my own experience, many Christians have not taken the time to do the research on this issue and have an overly simplified view of the subject. Comments like “We are no longer under the law, but now under grace” doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the topic. I will go ahead and punt to Sam Nadler’s detailed work on this subject.
Stumbling Block #4: A Divine Messiah and Idolatry
Over the years I have heard several objections from Jewish people. Keep in mind, there are many Jewish people who are not overly religious. Hence, they are not Orthodox in practice and belief. But for the ones who are Orthodox, they have spent some time learning from counter-missionary organizations like Jews for Judaism and Outreach Judaism. Hence, they know our arguments and tend to be ready to give their own apologetic as to why we are wrong about our claims about Jesus being the Jewish Messiah. In other words, the entire belief in Jesus’ deity is a Christian invention that developed much later in church history. Therefore, Christian theological concepts like the incarnation, the virgin birth, the Trinity, etc. are totally foreign to both Judaism and the Jewish Scriptures (The Old Testament). For many Jewish people, it is a great delight to call Christians “idol worshipers.” I have already written about this topic here.
Stumbling Block #5: A Dead Messiah
“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)
For the disciple of Jesus, His death is a “ransom” (Mark 10:45), “reconciliation” (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Col. 1:22), and “redemption” (Rom. 3:24; 8:23; Eph. 1:7, 14; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:12–15). Jesus is also called the “Suffering Servant” (Acts 3:13; 8:32ff), and the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19). While the Christian community takes these truths for granted, the majority of the Jewish community asserts that Jesus’ death automatically annulled the possibility of Him being the promised Messiah of Israel. How has a dying Messiah been received by the Jewish community throughout history? Perhaps a couple of comments can shed some light on this issue:
“Jesus mistake was that he thought he would be the Messiah, but when he was hanged his thought was annulled.” (R. Shimon ben Tzemah Duran (1361-1444)
“We are obligated to believe that a Jewish man will come who will begin to save Israel and will complete the salvation of Israel in that generation. One who completes the task is the one, while the one who does not complete it in that generation but dies or is broken or is taken captive (Exod 22:9) is not the one and was not sent by God.” (R. Phinehas Elijah Hurwtiz of Vilna (1765-1821), Sefer haberit hashalem (Jerusalem, 1990), 521 (5)
Christians tend to cite Isaiah 52:13-53 and Psalm 22 as a slam dunk for a suffering/atoning Messiah. But Rabbinic Judaism sees the Isaiah texts (and for that matter most of the Servant Songs) as being about Israel. Also, for Jewish people, no man can atone for anyone else. Once again, I have written more about this here:
In my opinion, answering Jewish objections to Jesus is one of the most challenging aspects to the field of Christian apologetics. Michael Brown has written more on it here. The best thing to do with any Jewish person is to build relationships of trust. Never assume anything. Always follow the example of our Lord by asking questions. And always remember that all Jewish people come to faith just like anyone else. They must be open to the truth and God’s Spirit must open their eyes (2 Cor.4:4-6).
1. Craig, W L. Christian Reasonable Faith, Wheaten, ILL: Crossway Books. 1984, 240-241.
2. Sheller, J. L., Is The Bible True? How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of the Scriptures, New York. Harper Collins Publishers. 1999, 191.
3. Yancey, P. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1995, 55).
5. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference, (Portland: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 2001), 21.