The streets of old Jerusalem

Why Didn’t Our Ancestors Follow Jesus?

We investigate a conspicuous problem with the claim that Jesus is the Messiah.

by Rich Robinson | February 20 2024

The Problem

“The failures of Jesus’ contemporaries to accept him as the Messiah must be something that requires a bit of explaining for Christians.”1 —David Gresham, the stepson of Christian writer C. S. Lewis, who became more involved with Judaism after the death of his Jewish mother.

One Answer

Have you ever known all Jewish people to agree on anything?

OK, you were probably expecting a better answer. Let’s provide some.

What Kind of Messiah Was Jesus?

Most Jewish people at the time of Jesus were expecting a different kind of Messiah than what Jesus presented himself as. Given that the Jews were living under the oppression of Rome, the latest in a series of overlords, people wanted the kind of Messiah who would bring down Rome and restore Israel’s national sovereignty. A few points about this:

  • It’s often pointed out that there were other ideas about the Messiah that floated around besides the “warrior” model. But let’s be honest. For the average “man (or woman) on the street,” a warrior Messiah was the kind that they would have wanted to see.
  • At Hanukkah2 some confronted Jesus demanding to know if he was the Messiah or not. Given the Hanukkah story, they were likely thinking of the Maccabees (who had heroically fought back against the political and religious oppression of the Greeks). They likely assumed that if Jesus was really the Messiah, he’d be a super-Maccabee (though still only a human being).
  • But on the contrary, Jesus taught that being the Messiah meant that he would suffer and die in order to atone for our sins. This was rooted in the Tanakh. Jesus would be fulfilling the role of the “suffering servant” of the book of Isaiah. And Jesus said that he would rise from the dead, and then he did.
  • This would not have been welcome news to most Jews. Rising from the dead or not, who wanted to see a Messiah who suffered—at the hands of Rome, no less—and then died?
  • Even Jesus’ own disciples had a problem with it. When Jesus told his disciples that his job as Messiah was to suffer and die and be raised, Peter rebuked him to his face: “Far be it from you Lord! This shall never happen to you!” They only started to embrace the idea after they saw Jesus raised.

What Kind of People Are We?

A further reason that the people in Jesus’ day didn’t follow him had to do with basic human nature.

Jesus pointed people to an uncomfortable fact, one that we might agree with in theory but rarely talk about: people sin. (If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need Yom Kippur, right?)

Why would we need (or want) an atoning Messiah?

Even in the Tanakh, most Jewish people were not following God at any given point in time. The prophets of Israel rebuked both the leaders and the people for violating Torah and its ethics—in other words, for their sins. And wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to think about our own sins and could instead focus on getting rid of our oppressors?

Accepting a Messiah who called out our sins and said he was going to die as an atoning sacrifice was never going to be popular. Doesn’t Yom Kippur take care of our sin every year? Why would we need (or want) an atoning Messiah?

A couple of points about this:

  • First, why emphasize sin so much? Why did the prophets call out Israel, their leaders, and the people? Why did Jesus do the same? Because sin is a greater problem than even the Roman oppression or Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. After all, what made Pharaoh to be a slave master? The sin in his heart. What made Caesar and Herod into oppressors? The sinful desire for power at the expense of others. What makes you and me mistreat others or fail to act on their behalf? Nothing but our own sinful inclination. Sin is a spiritual disease that affects each one of us. (For a thought-provoking song about sin, listen to Bob Dylan’s “Disease of Conceit.”)
  • Second, what Jesus was doing was getting to the root of this world’s evil. In the words of a famous comic strip character, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”3 Jesus came to atone for our sins by his death, allowing us to become better people who center on God and others instead of on ourselves, bringing about reconciliation between people at many levels.

What Kind of Leaders Did Jesus Encounter?

Maybe the average person didn’t enjoy confronting their sin or believing in a sacrificed Messiah, but what about the Jewish leaders?4 Shouldn’t they at least have known what the Scripture taught and thus believed in Jesus?

The two main groups of Jewish religious leaders in that era were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. A few points here:

  • The Sadducees controlled the Temple establishment. They kept close ties with Rome (some would say they collaborated with Rome), and they were aristocrats, removed from the common people. Most priests who served in the Temple were Sadducees.
  • The Pharisees, on the other hand, were popular with the people. To our eyes today, they appear more “religious” while the Sadducees seem more “secular.” The Pharisees had their own traditions on interpreting the Torah, which were widely held and practiced, and they were very concerned about ritual purity.
  • Jesus came in conflict with both groups, but especially with the Pharisees. He criticized their hearts, for example, calling them “hypocrites” (e.g., Matthew 23:15). He also criticized their practices for being burdensome and frequently ostentatious (e.g., Matthew 23:1–7).

Today, we might want to defend the Jewish leadership in that era from Jesus’ criticism. But the popularity of Jesus in his own time suggests that many found his criticisms warranted. And it’s well known that the Pharisees and Sadducees (and other Jewish groups) criticized each other frequently. So, Jesus was hardly alone in being critical.

The established leaders didn’t follow a Messiah who didn’t affirm their leadership.

But the point is that it’s just not surprising that most of the established Jewish leaders didn’t follow a Messiah who was not affirming of their leadership. Even the best of us harbor sin in our lives (there’s a reason we have Yom Kippur). And leaders tend to want to preserve their leadership, power, and influence.

In the case of the Pharisees, they were concerned that Jesus’ popularity was detracting from their own influence. This is hardly unusual in the world of religious and political leadership. But for this very reason, most Pharisees—there were exceptions—were not inclined to become Jesus’ followers nor to accept him as the Messiah. That would contravene both their own sphere of influence as well as their own understanding of who and what the Messiah was supposed to be.

Therefore, to say that “at least the leaders should have believed in Jesus” is a conclusion that goes against the facts on the ground.

Are We Different Now?

So, we can see three reasons why Jesus was not accepted as the Messiah by most Jewish people even in his own time:

  1. Jesus did not meet the expectations of what the Messiah was meant to be.
  2. Following Jesus involved the uncomfortable fact of confronting the sin in their hearts.
  3. Even the leaders were not willing to follow Jesus.

It’s important to point out though that many Jews did become his followers. In fact, the early movement of believers in Jesus was at first exclusively a Jewish one.

It’s also important to note that the history of Israel as recorded in the Tanakh is also an uncomfortable one. Our ancestors did not usually follow God. It was their failure to do so that eventually led to the Babylonian captivity.

Were we any different in the first century? Are we any different today?

No, we’re not. But still God loves us. He loves us enough to send us a Messiah who would lay down his life for our sins.



1. P. H. Brazier, A Hebraic Inkling: C. S. Lewis on Judaism and the Jews (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2021), 5–6.
2. See John 10:22, where it is called “the Feast of Dedication.”
3. Pogo, an opossum. Google him.
4. Rabbis as we know them today didn’t yet exist, though the title “rabbi” was used of various teachers.