British Broadcasting Corporation Home

Jesus from a Jewish perspective

By Ed Kessler

One of the certain facts about Jesus was that he was a Jew. He was a child of Jewish parents, brought up in a Jewish home and reared among Jewish traditions. Throughout his life, Jesus lived among Jews and his followers were Jews.

No other Jew in history has rivalled Jesus in the magnitude of his influence. The words and deeds of Jesus the Jew have been, and are, an inspiration to countless millions of men and women. Strange, is it not, that Jews have given little attention to the life and teaching of this outstanding Jew? Yet, this is true because the Christian followers of Jesus came to cherish beliefs about his life that no Jew could hold.

When the Church persecuted Jews in an effort to convert them, Jewish indifference to Jesus turned to hostility. It is a sad fact of history that the followers of this great Jew have brought much suffering upon the Jewish people, so that for centuries it was very hard for any Jew even to think of Jesus without difficulty. Up until recently, most Jews have chosen not to think of him at all.

Now we are witnessing a significant change and although Jewish indifference to Jesus has not by any means disappeared, the signs are encouraging.

Jesus and his family would have been observant of Torah, paid tithes, kept the Sabbath, circumcised their males, attended synagogue, observed purity laws in relation to childbirth and menstruation, kept the dietary code - one could go on. While the Gospels record disputes about Jesus' interpretation of a few of these, the notion of a Christian Jesus, who did not live by Torah or only by its ethical values, does not fit historical reality.

There is no official Jewish view of Jesus but in one respect Jews are agreed in their attitude towards Jesus. Jews reject the tremendous claim, which is made for Jesus by his Christian followers - that Jesus is the Lord Christ, God Incarnate, the very Son of God the Father. On that belief, Jews and Christians must continue to respectfully differ. Jews believe that all share the divine spirit and are stamped with the divine image and no person - not even the greatest of all people - can possess the perfection of God. No one can be God's equal.

Jesus lived his life not as a Christian but as a Jew, obedient (with very few exceptions) to Torah. Yet within a few years after his death, the Jewish followers of Jesus espoused a rather different kind of religion from that followed by most Jews. Judaism, like Islam after it, is strongly rooted in religious law; Christianity ceased to be so. Judaism, also like Islam, has a strong belief in the unity of God; Christianity came to place such great store in Jesus and subsequently in the doctrine of the Trinity that it has seemed to many other monotheists to be, in essence, a refined form of polytheism. Gradually, Christian religion came to look less like an authentic, even if eccentric, form of Judaism, and more like a completely different religion.

During the Second Temple period, there were many internal arguments about what it meant to be Jewish. Did religious law permit one to acquiesce in Roman occupation, or to fight it? How did the law reconcile justice and mercy? These must have been common debates, which one can see mirrored in the gospels' accounts of Jesus' disputes with contemporary religious leaders.

We cannot be certain of Jesus' views, for the gospels are a highly interpretative genre of literature, coloured by their contributors' and editors' reflections on events that had happened 40 and more years before, in the light of the momentous events that had occurred in the intervening years. Even so, his attitude towards dietary laws recorded in Mark's gospel shows little interest in the minutiae of what they require that Jews eat and drink. This unusual interpretation eventually became common for Christians: certainly the food laws gradually became a thing of the past, as accounts in Acts and the Pauline letters illustrate. Moreover, although Jesus' message of the kingdom of God was clearly within mainstream Jewish tradition, the Christological references about him and his meaning are less so.

The belief that Jesus was God is an impossibility for Jewish thought. But not so the belief that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. Several Jews have in the course of 2000 years, claimed to be the Messiah - sent by God to inaugurate God's kingdom on earth. Simon Bar Kochba in 132 CE and Shabbetai Zvi in 1665 CE are two examples among many. But the association of Messiah with terms like Son of Man and Son of God, which developed a profusion of meanings, soon led to exalted claims for Jesus that few Jews felt able to follow. Even within the New Testament this is so; by the time of the full-blown Trinitarianism of the 4th century creeds this gap was unbridgeably wide.

Jesus was put to death by the Romans on the charge that he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus made it clear to Peter that he regarded himself as the Messiah (Mark 8:29) as he did to the High Priest (Mark 14:62). Some Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah, believing that he would redeem them from the bitter yoke of Rome and bring the messianic age. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem he was acclaimed, "blessed is the Kingdom that comes, the kingdom of our father David" (Mark 11:10). Other Jews rejected the claim.

The charge against Jesus on the cross and his mockery as 'King of the Jews', his execution between two villains, the appearance of the royal messianic motifs - these all suggest that Pilate faced a man charged with sedition. Jesus was not crucified because he denied his Jewishness, abandoned the Scriptures, or disowned his people. He remained a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew from Galilee and was executed for political rather than religious reasons.

To claim to be the Messiah, if it was an offence against Judaism at all, was certainly not (as the Gospels contend) an offence against Jewish law for which Jesus could have been put to death. The Gospels say that Jesus' claim to be the Messiah was blasphemy, but in Jewish law, blasphemy was to curse God using God's sacred name. Jesus did nothing of the sort. For Jews, history has shown that Jesus was not the long-awaited Messiah, for Jews were not delivered from the yoke of Roman bondage and the Golden Age did not come. However, some Jews have suggested that Jesus was following in the footsteps of the biblical prophets (cf. Mark 6:15, Matt 21:11).

"What commandment is the first of all?" he was asked. Jesus answered as any Jew: "the first is: Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31). Every Jew will recognise in Jesus' answer the Shema, a Jewish declaration of faith, which is recited at every Jewish service, day and night. The famous command of Lev. 19:18 is also a fundamental precept of Judaism.

It was in his attitude towards the Torah that Jesus seems to have departed from the Judaism of his time. In their teaching, the rabbis would state, "thus says the Torah." Jesus showed independence by standing above the Torah and speaking as one "having authority". (Mark 1:22) He dared to base his teachings on "I say to you" and it was this daring which brought him into conflict with contemporary Judaism.

It is highly improbable that Jesus told his followers to ignore the Torah; rather, he emphasized that "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21) i.e., follow the deepest instinct for truth and love in your heart for therein, not through Torah, lies salvation. This was a courageous message; one which made some Jews unbounded in their devotion to him and others to regard him as a heretic.

Geza Vermes and Ed Sanders are two scholars who in recent years have drawn wide attention among Christians to Jesus' Jewish origins, though Christians earlier in the 20th century (R. T. Herford, George Foot Moore) had also explored this trend, which has now become widespread and crucial within Jesus studies. At least until the 1970s, it was common for New Testament scholars to portray Jesus as a kind of prototype exponent of idealism. Many betrayed an instinctive antisemitism. They depicted Judaism at the time of Jesus as 'late Judaism' (Spätjudentum), as if Jewish religion had ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, or should have. This position was based on the conviction that post-exilic Judaism had ossified and betrayed the prophetic faith of Israel. It contends that Jesus stands outside such a hardened, legalistic religion, a stranger to it, condemning the scribes and the Pharisees who were the fathers of Rabbinic Judaism and who have thus misled modern Judaism into perpetuating this sterile, legalistic religion.

Jesus was a Jew, not an alien intruder in 1st-century Palestine. Whatever else he was, he was a reformer of Jewish beliefs, not an indiscriminate faultfinder of them. For Jews, the significance of Jesus must be in his life rather than his death, a life of faith in God. For Jews, not Jesus but God alone is Lord. Yet an increasing number of Jews are proud that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew.

Skip to top

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.