There are approximately 6.7 million Jewish people in the United States 1 out of about 14 million worldwide. 2 It’s fair to say that most of these do not embrace Christian belief, nor believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Radio talk show host, Dennis Prager, explains, “Judaism does not believe that Jesus was the Messiah.” 3 Furthermore, when a Jewish person embraces Jesus, most Jews feel he or she is no longer Jewish. Why do most Jews reject Jesus? Furthermore, why do many Jewish people take exception to those who do embrace Jesus? People arrive at their religious beliefs for many reasons: family upbringing, moral values, history and traditions. Many reasons for not embracing Jesus can be grouped into three categories: cultural, historical, and religious.
Cultural reasons most Jews do not believe in Jesus
Many Jewish people will explain that they do not believe in Jesus simply because they are Jewish. They were raised being taught that Jews do not accept Jesus, while Christians do. As a minority in a society considered at one time as Christian, this one belief has come to define the most significant difference between Jews and Christians in the West. Moreover, if a Jew embraces Jesus, they have converted to Christianity and are no longer Jewish. “Jews should call themselves by the name of the faith whose religious doctrines they now embrace.” 4 At one point in history, such converts were considered lost to the Jewish community, even apostates. For a Jewish person to consider faith in Jesus, he or she must consider the social stigma they face from friends, family and the larger Jewish community. Would a rabbi ever agree to marry them? Would they ever be allowed to make Aliyah? Would they be prohibited from joining a synagogue? These are the implications many Jewish people face on considering Jesus.
When a Jew embraces Jesus, he or she is no longer Jewish
The fact is, most Jewish people hold that a person is Jewish according to their birth and not according to their religious belief. The 2013 Pew research study of Jews in North America found that 22% of Jewish-Americans have no religious belief whatsoever. 5 Moreover, 62% believe “that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.” 6 For centuries, Orthodox Judaism has maintained that a person is Jewish according to their maternal lineage (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 68b). Being Jewish refers to an ethnic or genealogical lineage. Judaism refers to a family of religious beliefs (Orthodox, Reform, Conservative) for which there are diverse opinions.
In fact, a significant segment of American Jewry hold that a Jew who has embraced Jesus is still Jewish. “34% [of Jewish-Americans] say a person can be Jewish even if he or she believes Jesus was the messiah.” 7 The question remaining is not “Can a Jew embrace Jesus and remain Jewish?” but “Is Jesus the promised Jewish Messiah?” If He is, then how does the God of Israel expect His people to respond to that truth?
Historical reasons most Jews do not believe in Jesus
It is said that the history between the church and the synagogue has been written in blood and punctuated in violence. It seems from the foundation of the early church, Christians have accused the Jews of rejecting their Messiah and killing the Son of God. Consequently, early Christian leaders held that God has rejected them. Augustine wrote, “Jews have been scattered throughout all nations as witnesses to their own sin and to our truth…Scatter them abroad, take away their strength. And bring them down O lord.” 8 Such inflammatory language was echoed through the centuries as Christian leaders maintained that the Jewish people were scattered and preserved in order to be punished for rejecting Christ. Down through the ages, atrocities, murders and massacres were justified on this basis.
For centuries Christians have tried to convert or kill the Jews
On May 27, in 1096, over 600 Jews were massacred in Mainz at the start of the first Crusade. 9 In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the order to banish the Jews of Spain unless they converted at sword point to Christianity. Even the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, late in life, was unreserved in his venomous language calling for the destruction of German Jewry. “First, set fire to their synagogues … Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.” 10 Many historians maintain that fifteen centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment laid the foundation of the worst atrocity Jews have endured—the Holocaust. Holocaust survivor Rose Price recalls when the camp guards struck her, they told her they were following Jesus’ orders. 11
These many atrocities and this tragic legacy are a stain on those who call themselves Christians and identify with those who claim to share the same faith. However, we must ask ourselves, is any of this what Jesus taught his followers to do? Is there a single New Testament writer who advocated violence and called for injury to the Jews? Jesus himself declared, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, ESV). Contrary to the early church fathers, Paul declared that God has not rejected the Jews. “Has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite” (Romans 11:1, ESV). It is clear that this tragic legacy of those who identify themselves with Jesus does not follow the instructions of Jesus or the New Testament writers.
We must ask the question: What did Jesus truly teach?
Throughout history, people have carried out violence and injustice in the name of liberty, democracy and social justice. From Khrushchev to Khomeini, from Mao to Machiavelli, religious and political leaders have justified their means under the banners of noble principles and religious causes. None of their crimes reflect the merit of these principles. Rather, they reflect their evil agenda. We must ask the question: What did Jesus truly teach? Why did so many first-century Jews follow him and establish a community of Jewish following? In spite of what people have done in the name of Jesus, is he the Messiah?
Religious reasons most Jews do not believe in Jesus
Rabbis, religious leaders and religious followers will respond to this question that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he did not fulfill the job requirements. “Judaism does not believe that Jesus was the Messiah because he did not fulfill any messianic prophecies. ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore’ (Isaiah 2:4).” 12 Far from establishing world peace, Jesus himself said he came to divide “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother” (Luke 12:53, ESV). In fact, there has been more bloodshed in the name of Jesus rather than peace. How can anyone argue that Jesus is the promised Messiah according to the Jewish Scriptures?
In the first place, it is important to understand all the prophecies describing the Messiah in the Jewish Scripture and not just selected passages. The Jewish Bible relates that the Messiah will first suffer and die for the sins of the world. “He [Messiah] was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people [Israel]” (Isaiah 53:8, ESV). When the Messiah does come, those who witness his arrival will see the wounds in his hands and his feet and weep rather than rejoice at his advent. “They will look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child” (Zech. 12:10, ESV).
Did Jesus fulfill the requirements for the messiah?
It was necessary for the Messiah to first come, suffer and die as an atonement for sin. By doing so, he brought peace between humanity and God. However, the Jewish Scriptures go on to explain that he will return and at that time establish peace on earth. If Jesus is the Messiah, then the God of Israel wants Jews and Gentiles to embrace him as their sin bearer. He came to preach life everlasting, not violence and bloodshed, especially against his own people. He will return one day in the future. Until then, he offers peace with God for those who will embrace him, Jew or Gentile.
Why some Jews do believe in Jesus
Given that the majority Jewish people do not embrace Jesus, and that Judaism as a religious system does not affirm Jesus as the Messiah—some Jewish people embrace Him, never-the-less. A Barna Study of Jewish Millennials, carried out in 2017, found that 20% of Jewish Millennials surveyed responded that Jesus was “God in human form who lived among people in the 1st century” 13 That may, or may not, be an indication of how many Jews in North America actually embrace Jesus as the Son of God, however it does indicate that emerging generations of Jews in their 20s and 30s are deciding for themselves who Jesus is.
How many Jews believe in Jesus?
Statistics of how many Jews embrace Jesus range wildly from 1.7 million Jewish adults 14 to 175,000 Messianic Jews in the US 15. Some have argued that these figures represent Jews who are assimilated, disaffected, and otherwise uneducated in Judaism. However, the historical record would disagree. Some who embraced Jesus are among the most educated in Judaism such as Israel Zolle, the chief rabbi of Rome during World War II 16; Isaac Lichtenstein, district rabbi of Tapio-Szele in Hungary, who after 35 years serving his synagogue, at age 60, publicly declared to his congregation he discovered Yeshua is the Messiah 17; and Leopold Cohn, the Grand Rabbi of Austria-Hungary. Even today, there are Jews with different degrees of educations and observance, courageous enough to explore whether Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah in spite of the dictates of traditions and religious authorities.
Does believing in Jesus matter to you?
The question for the reader is this: is your conscience obligated to religious authorities and their dictates, or are you willing to explore for yourself spiritual truth? Do you choose to examine the evidence of the Messiahship of Jesus? If He is the promised Messiah according to the Jewish Scriptures, does that influence your own beliefs about Jesus?
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
1. Dashefsky, A., & DellaPergola, S. (2012). Jewish Population in the United States, 2012 (Demographic No. 6-2012). University of Connecticut: North American Jewish Data Bank. Retrieved from http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=16135
2. Dashefsky, A., & DellaPergola, S. (2014). World Jewish Population, 2014 (Demographic No. 11-2014). University of Connecticut: North American Jewish Data Bank. Retrieved from http://www.jewishdatabank.org/studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=3257
3. Prager, D., & Telushkin, J. (1986). Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism (Reprint edition). New York, N.Y.: Touchstone. p. 87.
5. Stencel, S. (2013). A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Washington DC: Pew Research Center. p. 7.
6. Ibid. p. 8
7. Ibid. p. 58
8. Michael, R. (2008). A History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 29.
9. Green, D. B. (2014). This Day in Jewish History Crusaders Massacre the Jews of Mainz. Haaretz. Israel. Retrieved from http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/this-day-in-jewish-history/1.594057
11. Kenison, B. F. (2004). Forbidden Peace.
12. Prager, p. 87.
13. Barna Group. (2017). Jewish millennials: the beliefs and behaviors shaping young jews in america. Ventura, CA: Barna Research Group.
14. Carnes, T. (2013, October 1). National survey shows Jews leaving Judaism, assimilating, becoming Christians or “Nones.” Retrieved March 27, 2018, from http://www.nycreligion.info/national-survey-shows-jews-leaving-judaism-assimilating-christians-nones/
15. Posner, S. (2012, November 29). Kosher Jesus: Messianic Jews in the Holy Land. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/11/kosher-jesus-messianic-jews-in-the-holy-land/265670/
16. Goldman, S. (2016, March 4). After WWII, Rome’s Chief Rabbi Shockingly Became a Catholic. Tablet Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/196727/the-apostasy-of-rabbi-zolli
17. Sieger, M. (2016). Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein and the Discarded New Testament. ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Publication. Retrieved from https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v21-n07/rabbi-isaac-lichtenstein-and-the-discarded-new-testament/