The Jesus Problem

“Do Jews Have a Jesus Problem?” asks Jay Michaelson in The Forward, commenting on Peter Schafer’s recent book, Jesus in the Talmud.  Schafer thinks the rabbis of the Talmud saw Jesus, and Jewish believers in him, as a threat. So they wrote what essentially was a “counter-story” to the gospels. 

This is quite different, says Michaelson, from the conclusion of another Jewish Jesus-book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus by David Klinghoffer.  For Klinghoffer, the Jewish rejection of Jesus was not because of who Jesus was but because of who Jews were, and are: a chosen nation, not a people of universalism.

Michaelson’s “Jesus problem” is not his alone.  There are many people, not only Jews, trying to figure out what to do with Jesus and some of them write books.  True, many Jews carry around the baggage of two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism (though I was fortunate enough to have been spared that in my Reform Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn). But then there are Gentiles who tell us that they are carrying around the baggage of their “fundamentalist” upbringing. So between Jesus and the year 2009, there is a lot of water under the bridge. Jesus himself, though, still remains a hot and sellable topic of books, films and blogs.

Who then was Jesus? According to whomever you consult, he was the Son of God, a good teacher, a rabbi, a deceiver, a psychedelic mushroom, a mystic, an ascetic, a gnostic, the first Reform Jew, the first liberal Christian, a product of someone’s imagination, a miracle-worker, a nice guy, a bad guy, an ascended master, a bad conscience, a conundrum wrapped up in a tallit.

Michaelson himself, in an earlier article with the tongue-in-cheek title of “How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in my Heart,” opts for a pantheistic, or panentheistic, view of Jesus: a “fully realized being” who knew he was God and that everything else is God, too. To Michaelson, this makes more sense than the strange if not nonsensical doctrines of the virgin birth, hell, original sin, atonement, etc.

Put aside for a moment the question of whether those sorts of ideas are really nonsensical and whether so many people in the world are really opting for idiocy.  What Michaelson wants is to be able to learn from (and simultaneously differentiate himself from) Christian teachings.  In the Forward article he says;

I want to understand Christ the way Christians do — not to become one of them, but in order to enrich my own religious life. I want to learn from them how to have a personal relationship with a personal, humanized, embodied God who cares, and who saves. I want to experience Jesus as a human being enlightened enough to see everyone as holy, even the impure, the leprous and the marginalized. And I want to follow his example, seeing all my fellow human beings and myself as sons and daughters of God.

There is a real question here whether Christians in fact view Jesus in this way. Historically, to Christians Jesus came to make us holy because we are in fact sinful rebels against God. He came to make us sons and daughters of God because we are prodigals who have wandered, sheep who have left the fold, usurpers of God and followers of ourselves, or of Baal, or (today on NPR) of Thor.

From where does Michaelson garner his picture of Jesus? The Jesus problem is not so much figuring out anti-Semitism or Jewish identity but figuring out Jesus. “And God created man in His own image” says Genesis.  “And men created Jesus in their own image,” comes the echoing answer, “a Jesus without sin, atonement, virgin birth, resurrection, deity, a Jesus who suits their religious sentiments.” The question is, which is the real Jesus? And where is he to be found (one suggestion: read the New Testament)?


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Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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