The Turning Point in Western History: just Western history? Why the Some Jews Rejected Accepted Jesus, David Klinghoffer
Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the title may be another story.
Prolific Jewish writer David Klinghoffer admits that his most recent and most provocative book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, could have been titled Why the Jews Who Rejected Jesus Did So. The fact is that two thousand years ago, Jewish rejection of Jesus was by no means unanimous or universal. There were a variety of Jewish people who accepted Jesus as Messiah, just as there are today.
Granted, these Jews were a minority, but they were a vocal, fiercely dedicated minority who ended up significantly influencing the world as we know it. And so perhaps a good question to ask is, “Why did some Jews accept Jesus?” Did they have a psychological need to pin their Messianic hopes on someone? Were they so unfamiliar with the Torah and the prophets that they all made a serious error in judgment? Were they just being rebellious against the religious authorities of the time?
If Jesus was the Messiah, then the Jews today are in big trouble, as all their ancestors have been for the past two millennia, along with a lot of gentiles.…Even setting aside the belief that the disposition of one’s immortal soul depends on recognizing him in this role, if Christians are right about Jesus, then many generations of Jews and other peoples have missed out on the very climax of history, the ministry and death of Jesus Christ. It happened, but we weren’t paying attention.1
This begs the converse of Klinghoffer’s if-then hypothesis: If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, then what are we to make of the millions of people worldwide who have believed in Jesus over the centuries? Are they likewise in “big trouble”?
Klinghoffer reasons that the modern Jewish religion, and Western civilization itself, is built upon a negation. “The argument, in effect, is that Jews reject Jesus because they are already Jews, and the mark of being a Jew is that one rejects Jesus.”2 Due to this rejection, Klinghoffer writes, Christianity went to the Gentiles and hence, civilization as we know it developed.
So Klinghoffer claims that it’s fine for Gentiles to follow Jesus, but Jews should not. Further, the Western world should be thankful to the Jews for rejecting Jesus. The logical inconsistency of this point should be obvious. If Jesus isn’t the Messiah, then nobody should believe in him. And alas, Western civilization is built on a falsehood.
David Klinghoffer does us all a favor by raising two issues, the first being one of truth claims. In a recent interview he stated, “I…hope that my book will remind believing Christians of the most important thing we have in common: a belief that there is such a thing as religious truth in the first place.”3 We would agree. When it comes to the Ten Commandments, and other certain ethical standards, Jews and followers of Jesus have much in common. But as for the second issue he raises (Is Jesus the Messiah?), we must defer to Sholom Alechem’s statement made via a villager to Tevye as he tries to settle a dispute in Fiddler on the Roof, “They can’t both be right.”
Perhaps an examination of the first-century Jewish perception of Jesus will shed some light on who initially didn’t reject him and why this choice to believe in Jesus is still a valid consideration for Jews today.
Why “Ordinary People” Accepted Jesus
According to Klinghoffer,
If you were going to set up a new Jewish charismatic movement that departed in certain key ways from biblical authenticity, the Galilee was the place to do it.…Jesus’ fellow Galileans, the first to hear his message, were famous for being on average less knowledgeable about the Torah than their fellows to the south in Judea.4
One can only speculate as to who would be Klinghoffer’s modern-day equivalent to the Galilean Jews. Reform Jews? Jews who don’t read or speak Hebrew, or who don’t study Torah in its original language? But that question aside, it’s true; 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 to Jesus’ teaching.5
The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, likewise noted this:
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.6
What drew these Jewish listeners to Jesus? Surely the works he performed, such as healings, would attract many people. But his teaching was also extraordinary.
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). Other rabbis of Jesus’ day instructed people by quoting the opinions of previous teachers; at no time did any teach out of his own authority like Jesus did. 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.).
One of David Klinghoffer’s central premises is that the Jewish people rejected Jesus because he rejected the oral Torah.
What Jesus rejected was the oral Torah that explains the written Torah. Essential to rabbinic Judaism, this concept of an oral Torah recognizes the Pentateuch as a cryptic document…It posits that the Bible’s first five books were revealed to Moses along with a key to unlock the code.
For Jesus, oral Torah was a man-made accretion without transcendent authority.…This explains why he felt it was appropriate to teach solely on his own authority, rather than by citing sages.7
If Jesus was who he claimed to be, would he need such a key to interpret Scripture? Or would his own understanding of Torah be sufficient. In any case, far from “rejecting” Jesus, it seems as though many first-century Jewish people resonated with the accessibility of his Scripture interpretation. Their response was not disdain, but amazement.
Klinghoffer may argue that these people who were impressed with Jesus’ teaching didn’t know Torah well enough to refute him. But really, should the fact that followers of Jesus included people who were “on average less knowledgeable about Torah” or simply “just Jewish” automatically disqualify his message from being called truth? After all, today Jesus would be commended for being able to communicate with all kinds of people. From what we know about Jesus, he purposely chose the company of tax collectors and audiences of sinners. It is recorded that Jesus himself said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17).
Besides, it wasn’t just the “rustic” Galileans who followed Jesus, nor is it true that most followers of Jesus were ignorant of Torah.
Why Some Religious Leaders Responded to Jesus
The New Testament records that Jesus wasn’t completely scorned by those who were more learned:
One of the teachers of the law came and…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)
Even though Jesus disregarded much of the oral code of the rabbis, he took the Law and the Scriptures seriously. In fact, the obedience to the Law that Jesus commands was even more stringent than what was previously required. Jesus looked past the external aspects of obedience and got down to what was in the heart of people. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, he said that to even look at another woman in lust is to commit adultery, and to bear anger against someone is akin to murder.
Jesus’ point was that all people are sinners in need of a radical redemption. He decried the hypocrisy that existed among some in religious leadership, but he said he didn’t “come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17). The Encyclopedia Judaica notes that “Pharisaic doctrines have more in common with those of Christianity than is supposed…” (Vol. 13, column 366).
We can see that not all Pharisees were at odds with Jesus’ teaching; the New Testament even mentions a few times when Jesus was invited to a meal with Pharisees (Luke 7:36). By the end of the meal, Jesus had encountered and exonerated a woman, a sinner, who came to honor him, and after she departed a lively discussion took place:
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49)
But even despite this, there were Pharisees who responded positively to Jesus. The New Testament records three religious leaders in particular who had positive interactions with Jesus: Nicodemus, who came to Jesus one night to ask him about the kingdom of God and later took up Jesus’ cause in public;8 Joseph of Arimathea,9 who helped Nicodemus prepare Jesus’ body for a Jewish burial, and even the great Gamaliel, the rabbi of the House of Hillel, who defended Jesus’ disciples before the Sanhedrin, saying,
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 acquiesced. To say that there was wholesale rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leadership is to ignore the documented facts. Luke records that certain Pharisees came to Jesus, warning him to flee from King Herod. They were intensely interested in his and his disciples’ safety:
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)
What they didn’t realize at the time, was that Jesus’ whole purpose in coming to earth was to die.
Why Jewish People Still Accepted Jesus After his Death
Klinghoffer maintains that the main reason for Jewish rejection of Jesus is because Jesus disavowed the oral Torah, but the New Testament demonstrated that the Jewish leadership rejected Jesus because he claimed to be God.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Therefore they picked up stones to throw at him… (John 50:58, 59).
Columnist and rabbi Shmuely Boteach concurs:
Ultimately, the Jewish distaste for Christianity is because Jesus’ followers insisted that he was divine. Period. Every other objection pales into insignificance.10
It was these claims that caused Jesus to be rejected and executed. And the story of Jesus could have easily ended with his death…except for the fact that he rose again from the dead, a resurrection that was witnessed and attested to by many, even former skeptics.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the New Testament tells us that on Shavuot “…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.11
Even priests in Jerusalem accepted Jesus as Messiah: “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.
How did the priests 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. What a furor this must have caused! The tearing of this dividing curtain directed their attention to Jesus as the atonement for sins. This led 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 70 C.E. was the beginning of the end for the Sadducees. In 90 C.E. the famous council at Yavneh restructured Judaism into a religion without sacrifice. While Klinghoffer states that Jesus’ followers wanted to do away with the Law, it’s interesting to note that ultimately it was the Jewish leadership who rearranged Judaism’s requirements. Without the Temple, it was necessary for the Council to create a substitute for God’s way of forgiveness, so prayer and mitzvot became acceptable alternatives for sacrifice.
But Isaiah prophesied hundreds of years earlier that an individual would someday come as an asham, a guilt-offering (Isaiah 53:10). And Jesus said his own death would be an atonement for sins.
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)
The crisis of 70 C.E. became an opportunity for many Jewish people to put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, even after he was no longer visibly present on earth, because he had spoken of these things.
Throughout the centuries since, many learned Jewish people, even rabbis, have recognized Jesus as Messiah. Take for example, the Apostle Paul (see side piece), who was a persecutor of Jewish believers in Jesus before he had a personal encounter with Yeshua.
Often stories of rabbis who embrace Jesus get lost and their names and work discredited in the Jewish community. After all, the Talmud, which was written down after the death and resurrection of Jesus, is in some ways a polemic directly against Jesus. For rabbis to look beyond the Talmud and recognize that the Scriptures themselves point to Jesus as Messiah, does not bode well for their status. And yet despite the hardship incurred, the list of rabbis and Jewish intellectuals who have accepted Jesus is impressive.12 Take for instance Daniel Zion, the chief rabbi of Bulgaria, who helped save hundreds of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Or Auguste Neander, historian and respected professor of the last century. Or Leopold Cohn or Max Wertheimer, or any number of names you may not recognize because the Jewish community considers them traitors.
Conclusion: An Individual Choice
David Klinghoffer may claim that the messiahship of Jesus is not something that causes most Jews any consternation. But the mere presence of his book would seem to indicate otherwise. The Jews who accepted Jesus in the first century ended up turning the world upside down. Western civilization isn’t based on a rejection, but on an acceptance of Jesus’ unique claims by many, and originally, most of these believers were Jewish.
One major product of Western civilization has been the recognized importance of individuality, including the power and duty of the individual to assess truth claims and determine for himself or herself what is true. Today, both Jews and Gentiles are faced with a decision to make: Is Jesus the Messiah or isn’t he?
Klinghoffer describes Jesus as “foxy” and “ambiguous,” ignoring Jesus’ own plain words about himself:
“I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) [emphasis added]
So much for Klinghoffer’s idea that Jesus is sufficient for Gentiles but not for Jews. Klinghoffer fails to appreciate that, “For the early Christians, as for Christians today, the person of Jesus Christ was revelatory also of the history and sacred writings of Israel, of which he is the fulfillment.”13
Many Jewish people of Jesus’ time didn’t accept him. But it has always been a minority of our people that followed the precepts of Torah and the exhortations of the prophets. 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? It’s up to each of us to look at the reasons for and against belief in Jesus and make up our minds.
The words of Rabbi Gamaliel continue to echo down through the centuries:
“But if it is from God…you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Editor’s Note: Much of the material for this article comes from “Who Rejected Jesus?” by Dr. Louis Goldberg, available at: http://www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/3_8/rejected
- Klinghoffer, David, The Turning Point in Western History: Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, 2005, New York: Doubleday, p. 39
- Klinghoffer, Ibid. p. 43
- 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). Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak… (Luke 12:1).
- Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, 1965, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 18:63-64
- Klinghoffer, Ibid., p. 55
- 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, perhaps for secrecy, or perhaps Nicodemus followed the rabbinic practice of studying by night as well as by day. Nicodemus had a deep interest in the biblical concept of the kingdom of God. Jesus addressed himself to this issue, and Nicodemus listened. Jesus said, “…unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Jesus was describing a far-reaching redemption that his death and resurrection would accomplish. Though Nicodemus was puzzled by his remarks, he recognized Jesus as one sent from God. Later, the New Testament records that Nicodemus 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?” (verse 52)
- Joseph of Arimathea was 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 a Jewish burial (John 19:38-40).
- In the Name of the Father, Jerusalem Post, 21 April 2005.
- “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).
- See Rabbis Meet Jesus the Messiah, South Africa: Messianic Good News, no date given, various authors.