Jesus certainly faced backlash, and even rejection, from the Jewish leaders of his time. The first-hand documents of the first century, including the New Testament, the writings of Josephus, and other rabbinic sources give us a glimpse of how Jewish people in the early days of Christianity actually viewed Jesus of Nazareth.
How Ordinary People Reacted to Jesus
The New Testament, our primary source of information on the life of Jesus, records many times when the am ha-aretz (roughly translated, the “man in the street”) listened with anticipation to Jesus' teaching:
And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:42-44)
While the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret . . . (Luke 5:1)
Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him (Luke 8:40)
In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another (Luke 12:1)
Unlike other teachers, there was something striking about the way that Jesus taught.
All of these rapt listeners were Jewish! In addressing the crowds, Jesus acted much like other rabbis and teachers of the first century. But unlike other teachers, there was something striking about the way that Jesus taught. The reaction of the crowds signifies this. For example, when he preaches at the synagogue in Capernaum, “they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).
Jesus contrasted well-known interpretations of the Torah with his own, saying, “you have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28). The crowds were amazed at his teachings. No other rabbi of his day arrogated authority to himself as Jesus did. But in hearing Jesus declare, “But I say to you,” the am ha-aretz sensed there was something different and unusual about him.
Josephus also noted these kinds of reactions:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles.1
While we often hear about those who rejected Jesus, it seems as though many first-century Jewish people actually eagerly desired to learn from him!
Jesus and the Jewish Leaders of the First Century
1. The Pharisees
Modern-day Judaism is derived from a sect in Jesus’ day known as the Pharisees. Their reaction to Jesus is important to note. While much has been written concerning the Pharisees, there are not many accurate accounts. In fact, this sect was quite varied, and included groups such as the House of Shammai, which tended toward a strict interpretation of the Torah; the House of Hillel, which was more lenient in its interpretation; and those with mystical leanings. The New Testament, dealing largely with the House of Shammai, reflects many varieties of Pharisaism.
The Gospel of Luke records a time when Jesus ate a meal with the Pharisees: “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table” (Luke 7:36). By the end of the meal, a lively discussion was taking place, and the other guests wondered, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49).
Luke also records a time when certain Pharisees came to Jesus, warning him to flee from King Herod. They were intensely interested in his safety as well as in that of his disciples:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” (Luke 13:31)
Many Pharisees were intensely interested in what Jesus had to say.
Jesus frequently discussed the kingdom of God with the Pharisees. It was one of his key teachings. Many Pharisees were intensely interested in what Jesus had to say. They were also interested in Jesus' answer to what the most important commandment is (Mark 12:28-34). One of them even replies, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Indeed, the Encyclopedia Judaica notes that “Pharisaic doctrines have more in common with those of Christianity than is supposed” (Vol. 13, column 366). These conversations certainly do not give the impression that all the scribes and Pharisees rejected Jesus.
2. Jesus and Nicodemus
Nicodemus is described as “a man of the Pharisees” and a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin (John 3:1). This is possibly the Nicodemus who is referred to in the Talmud as “Naqdimon ben Gorion” (e.g., Ket. 65a, 66b). The New Testament records that he came to see Jesus during the night. This may have been for the purpose of secrecy, or perhaps Nicodemus followed the rabbinic practice of studying by night as well as by day.
However, we are certain that Nicodemus was a leader from the ranks of the Pharisees who had a deep interest in the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus recognized Jesus as one sent from God. Jesus’ reply to this ruler of the Pharisees was, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus, puzzled, considered the teacher's remarks.
But Nicodemus’ respect for Jesus was not merely a private matter. He took up the cause of Jesus openly before his colleagues, saying to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51). And for this, he was challenged, “Are you from Galilee, too?”2 (John 7:52).
After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus “brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds” and ensured that Jesus’ burial was in accordance with Jewish customs (John 19:39). He was a Pharisee who was deeply invested in Jesus’ life and teachings.
3. Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea
“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus.” (Matthew 27:57)
Again, we find a man who was “a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). Luke describes him as "a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50). It is not surprising to read later that Joseph, along with Nicodemus, took part in preparing the body of Jesus for burial, as another person who saw the unique nature of Jesus.
4. Jesus and Gamaliel
Several years later, when the disciples began to preach openly about Jesus, they were apprehended and taken before the Sanhedrin. There, none less than the great Gamaliel took up their cause. The rabbi from the House of Hillel solemnly warned the Sanhedrin:
So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God! (Acts 5:38-39)
The Sanhedrin, as history points out, accepted his counsel.
No doubt, many among the religious leaders took note of the man Jesus, his teaching, his life, and the unusual circumstances surrounding his death. They could not help but be impressed with him. To say that there was a wholesale rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leadership is to ignore the documented facts.
5. Jesus and the Sadducees
Not only did common people and Pharisees come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but many of the priests in Jerusalem did as well: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). These priests belonged to the Sadducean sect, an aristocratic group that did not believe in resurrection, angels, or spirits.
Many priests and Levites came to trust in Jesus as the Messiah.
But how did the priests and Levites come to this belief? They had certainly heard the preaching of the apostles, but they had also seen the curtain in the Temple torn from top to bottom at the time of Jesus’ death. Many would have likely seen it as a miracle, and the tearing of this dividing curtain directed their attention to Jesus as the atonement for sins. This led many priests and Levites to trust in Jesus as the Messiah.
The destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 was the beginning of the end for the Sadducees, and by A.D. 90, the famous council at Yavneh restructured Judaism into a religion without sacrifice. Without the Temple, it was necessary for the council to create a substitute for God’s way of forgiveness, and the role of the priests and Levites became unnecessary.
As for the followers of Jesus, the destruction of the Temple provided even stronger grounds for their belief, as Jesus had prophesied this very destruction, “I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).
Jesus and the Jewish Diaspora
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, how did the nation respond to the preaching of his followers?
On Shavuot, which came 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus, Peter stood up to preach in front of about 3,000 people (Acts 2:41). These 3,000 people represented Jewish people from all over the Diaspora who had come to Jerusalem for the holiday. Many who heard the message believed in the risen Jesus, and Jewish people continued to come to faith in Jesus throughout the Diaspora.
Objections to Jesus
While we have seen ample evidence that Jewish people of Jesus’ time did in fact accept him, still some emphasize that Jesus’ time was one of tension and conflict with the Jewish community:
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. (Matthew 21:45-46)
Jesus also pronounced a series of woes against the teachers of the law and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites (Matthew 23). At Jesus’ trial, the High Priest calls Jesus a blasphemer (Matthew 26:65). All these examples have caused some to conclude that Israel did reject Jesus, saying that Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish community was one of mutual animosity and hostility.
But there is more to this than meets the eye.
Jesus did disagree with some Pharisees, but this was a “family matter.” For example, the Houses of Shammai and Hillel, within the Pharisaic camp, were often at odds with one another. The Talmud also mentions seven classes of Pharisees, but only approves two of them: “the God-fearing Pharisee,” after the manner of Job, and “the God-loving Pharisee,” after the manner of Abraham (Sot. 22b).
According to an article in the Jewish Encyclopedia, even the Midrash (Pest R. XXII) charges certain Pharisees with hypocrisy: “wearing tefillin and tzitzit, they harbor evil intentions in their breasts” (J.E. 1905, Vol. IX, p. 665). This same article acknowledges that “otherwise the Pharisees appear as friends of Jesus (Luke 7:37, 13:31) and of the early Christians (Acts 5:38, 23:9).”
The Pharisees and Sadducees were also at odds with each other, and with the am ha-aretz who were considered to be ignorant of the Torah (John 7:49).
The conflict between Jesus and some others is not unusual when it’s looked at against the backdrop of first-century Jewish life.
Did the Jewish people actually reject Jesus?
Many Jewish people of Jesus’ time did believe him and accept him as the Messiah. And many of his contemporaries did not. But this is not surprising—it has always been a minority of our people that followed the precepts of the Torah and the exhortations of the prophets:
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. (Judges 2:11; a constant refrain in the Book of Judges)
I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:18, during the time of Elijah the Prophet)
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. (Hosea 6:6-7)
In fact, such attitudes are true not only of our own people, but of all people, Jewish or Gentile:
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)
Since when has truth been determined by a majority vote?
Since when has truth been determined by a majority vote? The message of Jesus is as challenging and relevant to Jewish concerns today as it was in the first century. The words of Rabbi Gamaliel continue to echo down through the centuries:
“But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
1. The version used here was first suggested as a likely original, uninterpolated text by the late Joseph Klausner (former professor at Hebrew University) in Jesus of Nazareth (London, 1929), pp. 55ff. The common version found printed in most editions of Antiquities (XVII) is now recognized to have undergone interpolation.
2. Jesus’ first followers were from Galilee. The Judeans regarded the Galileans as less educated and cultured than themselves. Thus, the import of the remark is, “Are you now also one of his disciples, one of those uneducated Galileans?” (See the Talmudic references in Erub. 53a–b.)