12/22/2014 09:33 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 8) -- Why the Jews Didn't Accept Jesus as the Messiah

One of the most vexed questions for my students over the years was why the Jews never accepted Jesus as the Messiah or as God. So I sat down and wrote out the following explanation that tried to shed some light on this question for them.

In essence, the reason why the Jews did not accept, indeed, could not accept, Jesus as a divine Messiah was that accepting him as God would have gone against the entire Jewish tradition. The Jews were monotheists, who believed in only one God. Throughout antiquity they were continually surrounded by peoples who were polytheists, who believed in many gods. It was precisely their monotheism, their belief in only one God, which set the Jews apart from all other peoples in the ancient world.

In the face of centuries-old political pressure and religious persecution, the Jews struggled to maintain their belief in one God, thereby preserving what they felt was a special revelation made to them by God. Polytheistic religions, which worshipped many gods, were, to the Jews, idolatrous.

This is the reason they could not accept Jesus as God. Accepting him as a divine being would have meant that there were two Gods, not only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their traditional God, but also Jesus, whom they were now being asked to accept also as God.

Accepting him as divine would, therefore, have been tantamount to repudiating the most basic belief of Judaism, monotheism, and surrendering to the pagan belief of polytheism. All the persecution the Jews have undergone over the centuries was because they had the courage to hold on to their most sacred belief and were even willing to die for it.

Jews and Muslims believe that the belief in the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), Mary, the angels and saints is simply a thinly disguised form of polytheism. Scholars of religion maintain that the belief in Mary as the mother of Jesus is only a variation on the Earth Mother Goddess worship widespread throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The angels and saints are minor deities in the Christian pantheon.

Moreover, there was nothing in Jewish religious tradition that suggested that the Messiah would ever be a divine being, for that would have gone against the notion of monotheism. Rather, the Jewish Messiah would be a human being, a holy person, to be sure, but a human being nonetheless.

The Old Testament honorific title, the "Son of God," did not mean to the Jews what Christians understand by this phrase. To Jews, this term simply designated men who were to be accorded reverence because of their unique relationship to God, but not because they were supposed to be divine beings. When Christians read the term "the Son of God" in the Old Testament, they're simply reading a later Christian understanding of that term back into the Old Testament, which did not have this Christian meaning at all.

To Christian claims that Jesus fulfilled all the Old Testament messianic prophecies, the Jews responded that, on the contrary, he had fulfilled none of them. The prophecies Christians cite as proving Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews dismissed as either too vague in nature to refer specifically to the Messiah; referring to someone other than the Messiah; as quotations wrenched out of context; as not fulfilled by Jesus at all; or as inventions inserted into the New Testament to create the impressions that Jesus had fulfilled certain Old Testament passages when, in fact, he had not.

Furthermore, not only did the Jews not accept Jesus as the Messiah in the Christian sense as a divine being, but they also refused to accept him as the Messiah in the traditional Jewish sense as a political deliverer from centuries of oppression by various foreign powers. According to their messianic prophecies understood in this Jewish sense, Jesus failed to fulfill any of these as well.

Jesus was not the only Messiah rejected by the Jews. There were other Messiahs as well, both before and after the time of Jesus whom the Jews also rejected, not only in the ancient world but through the intervening centuries as well, perhaps a few dozen of them.

This raises the theory of whether the New Testament itself is anti-Semitic, since the traditional Christian understanding of the Jewish treatment of Jesus is based solely on the New Testament. Those who contend that the New Testament is anti-Semitic advance the following argument:

The very people to whom Jesus belonged and who could have validated his claim of being the Jewish Messiah rejected him completely. This rejection of Jesus by his own people was both a great embarrassment and a grave threat to the Early Church, since the continuation of the Jews as the Chosen People drew into question the legitimacy of this new Church as the new People of God.

Therefore, according to this theory, the Church had to undermine the continued legitimacy of the Jews as God's Chosen People by inventing a number of biblical passages which were given divine authority by being falsely attributed to Jesus himself.

There is the famous anti-Jewish libel in the Gospel of John. This provided the Church's explanation for why the Jews rejected Jesus as God's son, and why Jesus himself had rejected the Jews. The Jews were said to be the incarnation of the devil, for who else would murder God's son?

"Why do you not understand my speech? Because you are not able to listen to my word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. . . . . . He who is of God hears God's words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God (John 8: 43-44, 47).

This "Jews as devils" passage claims divine authority by being placed on the lips of Jesus. The three other Gospels, written closer to the time of Christ's life, attribute no such saying to him about such a startling claim. Such a passage, it is argued, was a later invention of the Church to discredit the Jews, for if Christ had indeed uttered these words, one of the earlier Gospels would have certainly mentioned it.

The various negative Gospel accounts of the Pharisees as the opponents of Christ, and Christ's denunciations of the Pharisees as hypocrites and oppressors of the Jewish people (e.g., Matthew 23:13-39) are, according to this view, also historical falsifications. These hostile depictions of the Pharisees are creations of the period decades after Christ's death when the Early Church was in conflict with the Pharisees because of the Church's claim of having replaced Judaism.

It is argued that this later mutual recrimination and hostility between Judaism and the Early Church were backdated to the time of Jesus when such hostility had not yet arisen. The Church could thereby strengthen its case against the Jewish leaders by having Jesus himself denounce them, when, in fact, he had not.

The following Gospel chapters are often cited as containing negative portrayals of the Jews: Matthew 12, 21, 23, 27; Mark 14,15; Luke 11, 22, 23; and John 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 18, and 19.

In depicting Christ's Crucifixion by the Romans, this theory alleges, the writers and editors of the Gospels distorted what actually happened. The Jews were made responsible for the execution of Jesus, not the Romans. And not simply the Jews who were standing before Pontius Pilate, but all Jews, everywhere, then and forever.

To fix this blame of collective guilt on the Jews, the following verse was invented and put into the mouths of the Jews: "His blood be upon us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25). This quotation has come down the centuries as the principal accusation against the Jews and the greatest reason for Christian hatred of them - the Jews as Christ killers. This is the passage which legitimized the persecution, torture, and murder of Jews by Christians for 2,000 years.

The Gospels are the only sources of information on the Crucifixion and the events leading up to the death of Christ. According to this theory, these sources are not concerned with historical accuracy, but are, rather, works of religious teaching and propaganda, designed to strengthen the Christian faithful in their belief and devotion.

With respect to the trial of Jesus before Pilate, there is no official transcript of the proceeding, no reliable testimony, other than the Gospels themselves, which have their own agenda. That agenda was that the Early Church needed to placate the Romans.

This desire stemmed from Rome's hostility toward the Jews because of the Jewish War against Rome from 66-70 CE, which culminated in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE. The resultant Roman anti-Jewish feeling tended to make every Jewish group an object of Roman suspicion, hostility, and hatred.

This Roman hatred of the Jews explains why the Early Church wanted to distance itself from the Jews in the eyes of the Romans, who might otherwise be tempted to see the Church as just another Jewish sect, a splinter group, which might promote further resistance against Rome.
The Church, therefore, needed to send a signal to the Romans that it was not such a Jewish sub-group, but an entirely different religion, which was not subversive to the Roman Peace. It took pains to make this clear to the Romans by other New Testament passages, notably "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21) and "Slaves, be subject to your masters" (Ephesians 6: 5). In other words, this new Church was saying that one should pay taxes to Rome and that slavery was acceptable.

Because of this need for Roman acceptance and support, the Church also tried to conciliate Rome by minimizing the responsibility of Pontius Pilate for the execution of Christ. It did this by placing all the blame on the Jews. The Roman governor, Pilate, is portrayed as virtually blameless throughout the entire affair: he is a just man, an innocent victim who tried his best to have Christ released, but is finally thwarted by the angry mob.

This sympathetic portrayal of Pilate as a righteous man who most reluctantly yields to Jewish pressure is contradicted by two contemporary Jewish authors, who depicted him as exceedingly brutal and cruel toward the Jews. (Philo, Embassy to Gaius; and Flavius Josephus, Jewish Wars, 2; Jewish Antiquities, 17-18.)

The Gospel of Luke (13: 1-2) also makes mention of a group of Galileans killed by Pilate. Pilate was finally recalled to Rome after killing a group of Samaritans. It was thought that his continued presence in Judea would provoke further Jewish rebellions. These negative portrayals of Pilate contradict the positive image of him as set forth in the Gospels.

The theory that the New Testament is anti-Semitic finally claims that the tradition of Western anti-Semitism, from the Christian persecution of the Jews over the centuries to the Nazi Holocaust itself, is completely unthinkable without the religious and theological justification provided by the New Testament.

Far from making persecuting and murdering Jews a crime, an immoral deed, or a sin, the Gospels were responsible for making such deeds acts of Christian virtue. To the extent to which this claim is true, the New Testament deserves much of the blame for the fate that has been visited upon the Jews since the death of Christ.