Jesus through Jewish Eyes: Rabbis and Scholars Engage an Ancient Brother in a New Conversation

Beatrice Bruteau, editor
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001) 191 pp.

In the preface to Jesus through Jewish Eyes, editor Beatrice Bruteau offers her motivations behind this compilation: “Let me say at the outset, so that there be no misunderstanding, encouraging conversion of Jews for any form of Christianity is not one of them.”1

Bruteau says she wants to put “Jesus on a level playing field with other Jewish teachers, without any special claims or privileges, in the give-and-take of Jewish learning and debate, and let us see what happens.”2 But in any discussion about Jesus, one discovers that he is more than just an interesting person. He is hard to explain away. And we are left asking the question: Who exactly is Jesus?

Many of Bruteau’s contributors are rabbis. I think it is fair to say that most rabbis have a commitment to Jesus not being the Messiah. In light of that, it is interesting to see the “new wave” of Jewish books about Jesus and the New Testament that have been published in recent years. Other than Michael L. Brown, none of the new wave authors (as far as I know) has come to believe in Jesus as their Messiah. But they have certainly opened up the debate.

The first selection in Bruteau’s collection is “Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus” by Rabbi Michael J. Cook [Professor, Intertestamental and Early Christian Literatures, Hebrew Union College]. Cook doesn’t just level the playing field—he bulldozes it. He writes, “Excluded, then, are views about Jesus that may have been held by his Jewish followers, by Paul, and by any Gospel writer who might have been Jewish; also views of modern-day Christians who fancy themselves Jews (i.e. self-styled ‘Hebrew Christians,’ ‘Jews-for-Jesus,’ and ‘Messianic Jews.’)”3 Since Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and John were Jewish, and Luke might have been, Cook leaves us with no first-person narratives of Jesus’ life. It’s like trying to navigate the New York subway system for the first time—without a map.

Among Cook’s conclusions:  “Jesus could hardly have imagined himself divine, for this clearly would have carried him outside the bounds of his own Jewish affiliation.” This conclusion about how Jesus viewed himself does not square with the first person account in the New Testament Gospel of John. Here, the Jewish religious leaders confront Jesus and ask, “Are you greater than our Father Abraham? … Who do you think you are?” (John 8:53). Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth… . Before Abraham was born, I AM!” (John 8:58). Jesus invokes the name “I AM” for himself, the same name that God calls himself in Exodus 3:14.  And the Jewish leaders in hearing his response take it as blasphemy, because the very next verse says, “At this, they picked up stones to stone them …” (John 8:59), in accordance with the Hebrew Scriptures: “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him” (Leviticus 24:16).  This same scenario transpires when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), which is then followed by the picking up of stones.

In “Talking Torah with Jesus,” Rabbi Herbert Bronstein [Professor and Senior Lecturer, Religion, Lake Forest College, Illinois] says “I believe I could ‘talk Torah’ with Jesus almost as easily as I could with my own spiritual ancestors, the Pharisees.”4 But after delineating his common ground with Jesus, he concludes, “But along with all Jews I cannot think of Jesus as any more than a son of God, or a child of God created in the image of God, than any other of God’s children, and I am so bold as to say that Jesus would have agreed with this.”5 That is a bold statement, considering this dialogue between the Jewish leaders and Jesus at his trial:

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the [Messiah], the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered (Matthew 26:63-66).

Jesus wasn’t just saying he was a son of God or a child of God, as we hear many say today—he clearly stated that he was the son of God. Rabbi Bronstein does not take the Matthew account into consideration when coming to his conclusions about Jesus’ intent. Perhaps he does not see those words as truly coming from Jesus.

To show us the so-called “historical Jesus,” some scholars have taken it upon themselves to decide which words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament are “authentic” and which are not. A group of biblical scholars formed the Jesus Seminar in 1985 and reached the controversial conclusion that only eighteen percent of the Gospel sayings attributed to Jesus were actually spoken by him!6

Rabbi Daniel F. Polish [Congregation Shir Chadash, Poughkeepsie, New York], in “A Jewish Reflection of Images of Jesus,” acknowledges the difficulties of “finding” the historical Jesus:

The challenge itself is a daunting one. Various Christian writers have struggled to identify a historical Jesus only to yield an array of varying and contradictory depictions. One group of scholars has sought to identify the ‘authentic words’ of a historical Jesus in the Gospels only to settle on a virtual handful of utterances from the abundant statements attributed to him. A historical Jesus is difficult enough for a faithful Christian to delineate. How much the harder for a Jew conditioned to be skeptical in this particular realm.7

Rabbi Laurence Edwards [Congregation Or Chadash, Chicago] makes the same point in “‘How Do You Read?’: Jesus in Conversation with His Colleagues.” He writes, “Every act of historical reconstruction is partly an act of imagination. It therefore depends in large measure on the desire of the one doing the imagining to ‘read’ the evidence in a particular way.”8 Has anyone ever searched for the historical Moses? Should someone decide what Moses really said and rewrite the Pentateuch?

In his essay, “What Manner of Man?,” Rabbi Howard Avruhm Addison [Gershom Scholem Professor of Jewish Spirituality, Graduate Theological Foundation, Indiana] seems to accept the authenticity of the words of the Gospels and wrestles with their implications:

What manner of man was this? When his intimates returned to his tomb, his body was nowhere to be found. Some would proclaim him the Messiah risen from the dead. Personally, I am not sure what can be believed. I look around and have yet to glimpse a lion lying down with a lamb. There still seem to be more swords than plowshares, more spears than pruning hooks. But our sages speak often of techiyat hat metim, resurrection of the dead (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1), so why shouldn’t his devotees believe that he has been the first to rise? They say that he will return to establish God’s kingdom visibly on earth. Many others think the anointed One, son of David, has yet to come. Who’s right? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”9

In the final entry, “Listening to Jesus with an Ear for God,” Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro [founding rabbi, Temple Beth Or, Miami, Florida] asks and answers a series of questions:

Do I believe Jesus lived? Yes, Jesus was from Galilee, son of Mary and Joseph … Do I believe Jesus was a Jew? Yes, Jesus lived and taught totally within the framework of Judaism … Do I believe Jesus was God-intoxicated and filled with Ruach haKodesh, the Holy Spirit? Yes  … Do I believe Jesus was crucified by the Romans? Yes… . Do I believe Jesus was literally resurrected on the third day? No… . Do I believe Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God through whom comes redemption from original sin and eternal life in the world to come? No. As a Jew, I do not believe in original sin and have no need of a Messiah’s redemption. As a Jew, I continue to await the coming of a Messiah whose kingdom is of this world, and who will do what the prophets said he would do: bring peace to Israel and the world.10

So it appears that Rabbi Shapiro believes the Gospel accounts up to a point. But he does not believe the four Gospel writers’ claims that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, such as this account from Luke:

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! (Luke 24:1-6)

Shapiro, like other rabbis, does not believe in the doctrine of original sin, yet he does not grapple with passages of Scripture like Psalm 51:5, where King David cries out, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).

Neither does Shapiro believe that we have a need for a messiah’s redemption.  He does not address Hebrew Scriptures such as Isaiah 53:5, that believers in Jesus interpret as stating that Messiah would provide atonement for our sins: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah penned those words several hundred years before Jesus’ birth.

Shapiro’s views on redemption do not square with many Jewish scholars  who agree that the Hebrew Scriptures are the story of our redemption—from sin in the Garden of Eden, from slavery in Egypt, from captivity in Babylon, from persecution by the wicked Haman in Persia. Of whom was Job speaking when he declared, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth” (Job 19:25)?

Job saw his need of a redeemer. In fact, as he contemplated facing God Almighty, Job said this: “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to mediate between us [between Job and the Almighty], someone to bring us together” (Job 9:32–33).

Could Jesus be that mediator, the one whose death dealt with our need for atonement so that we can enter into a full relationship with our Creator in this life and in the life to come? This brings us back to our original question: Who exactly is Jesus? Is he the filtered, watered-down “historical” Jesus, or is he the one presented in the Gospel accounts in the New Testament? Nineteen rabbis and scholars interviewed by Bruteau offer their opinion. Why not decide for yourself?


1 Beatrice Bruteau, editor, Jesus through Jewish Eyes: Rabbis and Scholars Engage an Ancient Brother in a New Conversation (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001) p. vii. [Note: Unless otherwise specified, all subsequent footnotes are from this book.]

2 Ibid., p. viii.

3 Michael J. Cook, “Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus,” p. 3.

4 Herbert Bronstein, “Talking Torah with Jesus,” p. 49.

5 Ibid, p. 59.

6 Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 42–43.

7 Daniel F. Polish, “A Jewish Reflection of Images of Jesus,” p. 96.

8 Laurence Edwards, “‘How Do You Read?’ Jesus in Conversation with His Colleagues,” p. 137.

9 Howard Avruhm Addison, “What Manner of Man?,” p. 106.

10 Rami M. Shapiro, “Listening to Jesus with an Ear for God,” pp. 168-69.