Jewish perspectives on the key claim about Jesus.
by David M. | April 20 2018
Jewish scholars have become increasingly fascinated by the person of Yeshua (Jesus) in the last hundred years. None deny his Jewishness. After all, Jesus was born to a Jewish mother, lived in Israel, celebrated Jewish holidays, and taught a group of Jewish disciples. Modern Jewish theologian and Rabbi Pinchas Lapide notes:
The love of Jesus and the academic interest in him and his impact were implanted in me by Jewish teachers like Joseph Klausner, for whom Jesus was “the most Jewish of all Jews,” Martin Buber, who perceived him as “his great brother,” and Leo Baeck, the last luminary of the German school of rabbis, who in the year 1938 at the time of the Nazi Kristallnacht managed to write of him: “We see before us a man who according to all the signs of his personality discloses the Jewish character, in whom the purity and worth of Judaism is so specially and so clearly revealed.”1
The main areas of debate and speculation among Jewish scholars about Jesus concern his words. Which did he actually say, and which, if any, were added later by other writers who wanted to put forth their own versions of his message? And what does this mean for his claim of resurrection from the dead?
Did Jesus live? No dispute. Did he die? Absolutely. Yet one issue which is rarely examined by Jewish scholars is the historical event upon which his message stands or falls: his resurrection from the dead. It is the belief in this event which his first-century followers took to heart and boldly proclaimed to the rest of the world. It is the central claim of the New Testament. Paul put it this way: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:19–20).
Most Orthodox Jews could reject the resurrection of Yeshua on the basis that they do not accept the idea of a Messiah who dies and is then resurrected. However, in 1996, a curious situation developed in the Orthodox community. The Lubavitch Chasidim were hailing their rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as King Messiah. He had died two years earlier, yet they were expecting him to rise from his grave. Other Orthodox Jews found this notion to be an embarrassment. Then, the membership of the Rabbinical Council of America (1,000 Orthodox rabbis) passed a resolution stating:
There is not and has never been a place in Judaism for the belief that Mashiach ben David will bring his Messianic mission only to experience death, burial and resurrection before completing it.2
In response to this, noted Orthodox rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik (Yeshiva University dean and head of Rosh Yeshiva in Chicago) stated that he did not believe Menachem Schneerson to be the Messiah. He said that the idea of a Messiah who dies and is later resurrected “cannot be dismissed as a belief that is outside the pale of orthodoxy.”3
This quote fueled the controversy even more, as Lubavitch rabbis were quick to embrace his words and non-Lubavitch rabbis were just as quick to explain how Soloveitchik’s words were taken out of context. Despite this open debate among the Orthodox concerning resurrection, Yeshua remains a non-candidate for the position of Messiah.
For most non-Orthodox Jews, however, there are a variety of other reasons to reject the resurrection of Yeshua.
The Jewish atheist, for example, will categorically deny the supernatural. Along with the parting of the Red Sea, the provision of manna in the wilderness, and the sun standing still, resurrection is not a possibility.
Others are more pragmatic and espouse that since they have never seen anyone rise from the dead, it is simply not logical to believe in such a thing.
Finally, there is a cultural response from the Jewish community which often makes the issue a moot point long before it is ever taken seriously. Namely, “We Jews don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead because Jesus is not for us Jews to consider—period.”
But whether or not the rabbis or the secularists or agnostics permit us to believe in Yeshua, that does not make the resurrection false. As with any historical event, the resurrection of Yeshua must be explored and examined based on the weight of the evidence. It is not logical to say that it is okay for Gentiles to believe in the resurrection, but it is not acceptable for Jews to believe. Either it happened or it didn’t. As Maimonides once declared,
A truth, once it is established by proof, neither gains additional force from its acceptance by all scholars, nor loses any force if all reject it.4
So, exactly what evidence is there to support the claim that Yeshua rose from the dead?
Some people will automatically question the “agenda” and “bias” of the New Testament. But this attitude often stems more from our modern age of cynicism than from any familiarity with the New Testament itself. It is amazing that so many people who have little direct knowledge of the New Testament have dogmatic ideas about its contradictions or its historical inaccuracy. Familiarity with the New Testament should be the starting point of any discussion about Yeshua.
The first four books of the New Testament are called the Gospels, the biographies of the life of Yeshua. Each one gives the account from the writer’s vantage point, and all four mention the resurrection.
When Yeshua was on the cross, his followers were defeated and faithless as they did not understand the necessity for his death. After the resurrection, Yeshua physically appeared to them, and from then on, we see changed behavior in their lives. No longer were they cowardly and bumbling, but rather, they were transformed into bold proclaimers of the message of the resurrection.
Following the Gospel accounts is the book of Acts, which records the history of the first generation of Jewish followers of Yeshua who began to take the message of the empty tomb around the world. The remainder of the books in the New Testament (with one exception) consist of instructional letters, in which the resurrection is mentioned repeatedly as the basis for this faith.
History, it is said, is written by the winners. But at the time of the writing of the New Testament, the followers of Yeshua were a small, persecuted minority. They were hardly the group in power, but still, they felt compelled to promote the belief that Yeshua rose from the dead. Why else would the New Testament contain such embarrassingly truthful events of the fear, faithlessness, and sin of the very community which was promoting this message?
The best way to recognize that the New Testament is a historical document is to read it. It is hard to come up with any other conclusion. One of the most famous Jews of the twentieth century did just that. Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in the historical Jesus:
Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.5
The same documents which tell us that Yeshua lived also declare that he died and rose again. While no serious scholar doubts that Yeshua walked among us, skeptics (both Jewish and Gentile) frequently attempt to extract the real history from these documents and dispose of what they believe to be a myth.
We are left with the question: Were these first-century Jewish believers in Jesus the most brilliant deceivers in history, able to interweave truth and fiction in a way that has not been reproduced or uncovered by centuries of challengers, or were they simply sharing the historical events as they happened when they described the resurrection of Yeshua? Until a compelling and lasting alternative is produced, the New Testament must be taken seriously when discussing the resurrection of Yeshua.
Still, there are many counter-narratives and alternative explanations to the historical events, but each take a certain degree of faith to believe.
Jesus was stolen by the disciples. One popular theory, which is even mentioned in the New Testament itself as a charge by Jesus’ detractors, is that the disciples stole the body. It’s a convenient excuse and a conversation stopper—but it ignores the facts.
If the body was stolen, all that would be needed to disprove the disciples’ claim would be to produce the body. This did not happen.
If the body was stolen, the Roman guards at the site of the tomb would have seen and prevented it. Further, the stone covering the tomb would have taken several people to move—something the guards surely would have noticed.
Historically, we know that the early followers of Yeshua were persecuted for their belief. It seems unlikely that in the face of such dire consequences—even death—they would continue to deny that they stole the body. How often do people subjugate themselves to life-threatening consequences to defend what they know to be a fabrication?
Swoon theory states that Yeshua went to the cross, was pierced, but did not die—he merely fainted. Then after being placed in a tomb, bleeding and without food or water for three days, was revived and healed. Then he rolled away the stone, got past the guards, and told everyone that he had risen from the dead.
Hugh Schoenfeld in his book The Passover Plot, illustrates his theory that Yeshua planned to pretend to be the Messiah and fake his death through a drug, but the plan was thwarted when a Roman soldier struck a spear into his side. The body was hidden, and Yeshua’s followers mistook someone else for the risen Messiah. Schoenfeld gives no reason why he accepted much of the New Testament as the truth and why other portions were suspect. Perhaps he would have been better off denying Yeshua ever existed! But he knew, as all skeptics do, that the New Testament cannot be dismissed lightly.
Jesus’ resurrection was one of many resurrections. While Hugh Schoenfeld accepted most of the New Testament as reliable history, only to take a detour around the resurrection, another modern Jewish scholar presents an equally interesting hypothesis. Pinchas Lapide is an Orthodox Jewish scholar who has a very unorthodox view of the resurrection of Yeshua:
I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as an historical event.6
Lapide examined the New Testament and concluded that the recorded events are too rooted in history for there to be any major revisions or deceptions involved in the writing. He believes that Yeshua physically rose from the dead. In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Lapide regards Yeshua as a type of role model for Gentiles to prepare them for the coming of the Jewish Messiah. To reach this viewpoint, Lapide had to reject the very same documents which were the basis for his belief in Yeshua’s resurrection in the first place. Indeed, the New Testament mentions on virtually every page the fact that Yeshua is the promised Messiah, the one whose coming was foretold by Moses and the Jewish prophets.
Who is to say what’s true? After all, one can reason, even in contemporary times, we are presented with mysteries to which we probably won’t get answers: What happened to Amelia Earhart? Who killed Kennedy?
To some people, the controversy over these events is proof that we cannot possibly know for sure what happened concerning an incident that occurred almost two millennia ago.
However, the evidence for the resurrection of Yeshua goes far beyond the discussion of source documents and historical records. In fact, evidence is still being presented today as individuals are experiencing the changed lives resulting from that resurrection.
Yeshua’s death was not an accident—it was the very purpose of his mission. He willingly gave up his life as an atonement for sin. His words mean nothing apart from this final action. The “good news” is that the Messiah willingly stood in our place and, by dying, took the penalty for sin which rightfully belongs to each one of us. But he didn’t stay dead. By rising from the grave, he defeated the power of sin and death and enabled us to have a renewed relationship with God. And it is this power—the power of the resurrection—which is available to anyone who believes. This power has been changing lives for centuries.
There is only one reason why a Jewish person should believe in Yeshua—because of who he is and what he has done: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that [Messiah Yeshua] came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The claims of Yeshua stand alone, even when compared with the sayings of other religious leaders. And to punctuate his claims, there is a historical event that stands as a challenge. The New Testament does not present the resurrection of Yeshua as merely part of a creed that must be followed by insiders. It is presented to all people as a historical fact, and there are only two possible responses to it: either it happened or it didn’t.
What do you think? Will your conclusion be determined by the reflex of tradition? Will you dismiss the issue because of twenty-first-century presuppositions? Or will you choose to explore an ancient tomb—where all too few have dared to look?
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
1. Karl Rahner and Pinchas Lapide, Encountering Jesus-Encountering Judaism: A Dialogue (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1987), 104.
2. Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “1,000 Orthodox rabbis reject claim rebbe was Messiah,” Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, June 21, 1996.
3. Eric Greenberg, “Messiah Debate Swirls Anew,” Jewish Week-American Examiner, July 5, 1996.
4. Nathan Ausubel, The Book of Jewish Knowledge (New York: Crown Publishers, 1964), 485.
5. The Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929.
6. Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), 15.