Was Jesus really rejected by the Jews of the first century? The best way to answer that question is to look at the first-hand documents of that time. They are primarily the New Testament, but also the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and some rabbinic sources. Since there is so much material, we will only be able to look at a few references. But these references will give us a first-hand glimpse of how Jewish people in the early days of Christianity actually viewed that carpenter from Nazareth.
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. Below are some examples:
At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. (Luke 4:42–44)
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God… (Luke 5:1) Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him.(Luke 8:40) Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak. (Luke 12:1)
All of these rapt listeners were Jewish! This was not unusual. In addressing the crowds, Jesus acted much like other rabbis and teachers of the first century.
Unlike other teachers, there was something striking about the way Jesus taught. For example, we are told that in the synagogue at Capernaum, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22).
In the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus contrasted the well-known scribal interpretations of Torah with his own: “You have heard that it was said... But I tell you...” (Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28, etc.). The response to this was not disdain, but amazement:
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (Matthew 7:28–29)
What then was the difference? Other rabbis of his day instructed by quoting the opinions of previous teachers; at no time did any teacher arrogate authority to himself as did Jesus. But the “man in the street,” hearing Jesus declare, “But I tell you…” sensed that there was something different and unusual about him.
The second-century Jewish historian, Josephus, also noted these reactions:1
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.
Far from “rejecting” Jesus, it seems as though many first-century Jewish people eagerly desired to learn from him!
Since modern-day Judaism is derived from the sect known as the Pharisees, it is important to note its response to Jesus.
While much has been written concerning the Pharisees, there are not many accurate accounts. In fact, this sect was quite varied, including such groups 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, while dealing largely with the House of Shammai, reflects many varieties of Pharisaism.
The New Testament mentions a few times when Jesus was invited to a meal with Pharisees, but it was probably a very common practice. One instance is recorded by Luke:
Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. (Luke 7:36)
By the end of the meal, a lively discussion was taking place:
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49)
And “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee…” (Luke 14:1), he had the opportunity to teach on tzedaka, charity towards the poor.
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 time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” (Luke 13:31)
Jesus frequently discussed the Kingdom of God with the Pharisees. It was one of his key teachings: “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied…” (Luke 17:20). The Pharisees were intensely interested in what Jesus had to say.
They were also interested in Jesus' answer to another important question:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them [Jesus and the Sadducees, another sect in first-century Judaism] debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus,“is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:28–34)
Indeed, the Encyclopedia Judaica notes that “Pharisaic doctrines have more in common with those of Christianity than is supposed.” (Vol. 13, column 366). Do these conversations give the impression that all the scribes and Pharisees rejected Jesus?
Three outstanding Pharisees mentioned in the New Testament are shown in a positive relation to Jesus. One of them, Nicodemus, is described as “a man of the Pharisees…, a member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1), the Sanhedrin. 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 might have been for reasons 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. Jesus addressed himself to this issue, and Nicodemus listened.
Nicodemus recognized Jesus as one sent from God. Jesus’ reply to this ruler of the Pharisees was, “unless a man 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 condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” (John 7:51). And for this, he was challenged, “Are you from Galilee, too?”2 (verse 52) Does this perhaps indicate that Nicodemus took Jesus’ claims to heart?
Joseph of Arimathea
A second outstanding Pharisee mentioned in the New Testament is Joseph of Arimathea. He too was a disciple of Jesus:
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. (Matthew 27:57)
Again we find a man who was “a prominent member of the Council [the Sanhedrin], who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). Luke describes him as "a good and upright 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:
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus.… He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night.… Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. (John 19:38–40)
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:
“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against 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, so much so that they could not help being impressed with him. To say that there was wholesale rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leadership is to ignore the documented facts.
Not only did common people and Pharisees come to believe in Jesus as Messiah, but many of the priests in Jerusalem did as well: “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). These priests belonged to the Sadducean sect, an aristocratic group who did not believe in resurrection, angels, or spirits.
But how did the priests and Levites (a specialized division of the Temple workers) come to this belief? No doubt they had heard the preaching of the apostles, but there may have been a more obvious reason. The New Testament records that at the death of Jesus, the curtain in the Temple at the entrance to the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom. Had it been torn from the bottom up, it would easily indicate some person's activity. But “…the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom…” (Matthew 27:51; emphasis added). What a furor this must have caused among the priests! It would certainly have been quite difficult to explain. In fact, many likely saw it as a miracle. The tearing of this dividing curtain directed their attention to Jesus as the atonement for sins. This led many priests and Levites to put their trust in Jesus as the Messiah whose death had opened the way to God.
The destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 was the beginning of the end for the Sadducees as a sect of Judaism. 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. Thus 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. Had Jesus not prophesied about the destruction?
“I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2)
Had not Isaiah prophesied hundreds of years earlier that an individual would someday come as an “asham,” a guilt-offering?
“…if he made himself an offering for guilt…” (Isaiah 53:10)
And had not Jesus described his own death as an atonement for sins?
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
Such points did not fall on deaf ears; the crisis of A.D. 70 became an opportunity for many Jewish people to put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
Jews from the Diaspora
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, how did the nation respond to the preaching of his followers? Several accounts are very noteworthy. We’ve chosen a few as examples: On Shavuot, which came fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Peter stood up to preach. The New Testament tells us that “…about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41) These 3,000 represented Jews from all over the Diaspora, who had come to Jerusalem for the holiday.
Shortly afterward, though the disciples were arrested and detained, an additional 2,000 Jews responded to the message that Jesus was Messiah of Israel: “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” (Acts 4:4)
There are ample instances of the acceptance of Jesus by his people. Some, however, have chosen to emphasize Jesus’ times of tension and conflict with the Jewish community. They refer to such passages as Matthew 21:45–46:
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Also mentioned is Matthew 23, in which Jesus pronounces a series of woes against “teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (verse 13ff.) A third passage of conflict is at the trial of Jesus, when the High Priest tears his robe and calls Jesus a blasphemer. (Matthew 26:65)
Some have therefore concluded, on the basis of such passages, that Israel did reject him, saying that Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish community was one of mutual animosity and hostility. But there is more to these passages than meets the casual eye. Jesus did disagree with some Pharisees, but this was basically a "family matter.” For example, we have already discussed the Houses of Shammai and Hillel who, within the Pharisaic camp, were often at variance with one another. The Talmud also mentions seven classes of Pharisees, but in fact 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).”
Conflict in first-century Judaism was not limited to disputes among the Pharisees alone. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were at odds with each other, and with the am ha-aretz, those “men in the street” who were considered to be ignorant of the Torah. We see this in the New Testament, where some Pharisees refer to their non-schooled brothers as “…this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” (John 7:49)
The conflict between Jesus and some others is not unusual when looked at against the backdrop of first-century Jewish life.
What's the truth?
Yes, many Jewish people of Jesus' time did believe in him and accept him as the Messiah. And yes, many of his contemporaries did not. But this is not at all surprising. It has always been a minority of our people that followed the precepts of Torah and the exhortations of the prophets:
And the Israelites did what was offensive to the LORD. (Judges 2:11; a constant refrain in the Book of Judges)
I will leave in Israel only seven thousand—every knee that has not knelt to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:18, during the time of Elijah the Prophet)
For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings. But they, to a man, have transgressed the Covenant. (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 mankind to find a man of understanding, a man mindful of God. All have turned bad, altogether foul; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2–3)
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. Then, as now, substantial numbers of Jewish people are being challenged to make a decision. And some are coming to believe that Jesus is in fact who he claimed to be: the Messiah of Israel.
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 (formerly professor at Hebrew University) in Jesus of Nazareth (London, 1929), pp. 55ff. The common version found printed in most editions of Antiquities (xviii) 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.)