When we explained to Politico that in fact, it was a different Messianic organization that had invited Mr. Santorum to speak to their conference, they agreed to take our name out of the headline and substitute “Jesus Jews” for “Jews for Jesus.”
The name of our organization, Jews for Jesus, is one of our greatest assets; it immediately lets people know who we are, where we stand and who we serve. Not only that, but the name is so easy to remember. And because Jews for Jesus is so easy to remember, many use it as a generic term, particularly in the press. The truth is, whenever “Jews” and “Jesus” are mentioned in the same sentence, controversy ensues.
I have observed an entirely different group of “Jesus Jews” in the headlines over the last few months. These are Jewish people who are trying to make Jesus more widely understood and embraced within the Jewish community—but not as the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Throughout history, there have also been those who have written, not to inspire faith in Jesus, but to recast Him as a Jew worthy of respect by other Jews. Various Jewish scholars and authors have attempted to domesticate Jesus for a non-believing Jewish audience—and many have found their motives and loyalty to the Jewish community called into question as a result. A notable example of this is famed Yiddish author Sholem Asch, who in 1939 wrote a novel about life of Jesus titled The Nazarene. As a result, The Forward, the major Yiddish newspaper in New York City fired him. For the rest of his life, Asch had to face suspicion and the disapprobation of many in the Jewish community because he had written favorably about Jesus.
More recently, “celebrity rabbi” Shmuley Boteach got himself into hot water by writing a book entitled Kosher Jesus. Boteach’s depiction of Jesus is a far cry from the Son of God we read about in the New Testament, yet Rabbi Shmuley has been excoriated in the Jewish press and even threatened with excommunication for insinuating there is anything whatsoever kosher about Jesus. Don’t feel too bad for the rabbi; I am sure the controversy/publicity didn’t hurt his book sales.
Vanderbilt University professor and Jewish scholar Amy Jill Levine has recently co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament. This version, meant especially for Jewish readers, includes footnotes and commentary by numerous Jewish scholars who are not followers of Jesus. Says Levine, “If I want to understand Jewish history, then the New Testament is one of the best sources that I’ve got.” But she also pointed out that just as Jesus argued with the Jewish leaders of His day, “You can’t be more Jewish than to argue with fellow Jews.” No doubt she’s found herself arguing even more than usual since the publication of her controversial New Testament.
Just a few weeks ago, Susan Perlman and I attended a lecture by Daniel Boyarin (noted professor of Talmudic culture at University of California Berkeley) held at the Jewish library here in San Francisco. The subject was Boyarin’s latest book, Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. The room was packed, mostly with San Francisco Jews who listened eagerly as the professor argued the premise of his book; the Jesus of the New Testament, the Christian Jesus, is very Jewish indeed.
“My Christian friends often ask me why the Jews didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah,” explained the professor. “I tell them ‘who do you think did accept him?'” In fact, Boyarin’s book goes further than most, claiming that such doctrines as the virgin birth, the Trinity, Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead were not ideas foreign to Jewish theology and the messianic expectations of the first century A.D. The audience was stunned. “I am not saying I believe Jesus was the Messiah,” explained Boyarin. “I don’t. What I am saying is that believing he was the Messiah and everything that the New Testament gospels teach about him was an acceptable view in the Jewish community of the first century.”
But the professor had his own way of categorizing “Jesus Jews.” Like so many other Jewish scholars, professor Boyarin was positive toward Jesus but not at all happy with the apostle Paul. According to him, Paul was the guy that took the New Testament teaching in a non-Jewish or even anti-Jewish direction. He argued that the apostle John was actually referring to followers of Paul in the book of Revelation when he called them “a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). He claimed John was referring to Paul’s followers that way because they didn’t keep the Torah and they proselytized others. Someone in the audience asked him what he thought of Messianic Jews. He responded, “certain Messianic Jews are very sincere people. They are more Jewish than a lot of other Jews I know. They keep the Sabbath and keep kosher. I accept them just like I accept some other Jews who believe that their rabbi, Menachem Scheerson of the Lubavitch sect (of Judaism who died in Brooklyn in the 1990s), was the Messiah and is coming back again.”
He went on to say he didn’t like or accept the Jews for Jesus because they are deceptive and they proselytize other Jews just like the apostle Paul did. Of course I would have loved to challenge him, but it wasn’t possible at that point. It would seem that, for the professor at least, some “Jesus Jews” are okay and some are not.
My guess is that the more widely his book becomes known, the more likely it is that Daniel Boyarin will be castigated as a kind of “Jesus Jew” himself. A majority of Jewish leaders still consider it “spiritual treason” for anyone Jewish to bring the person of Jesus to the attention of other Jews, as watered down a version of the real Jesus as it may be. But Jewish fascination with Jesus will continue, because there is something about Him that is not only appealing, but life changing. More books will be written, more discussions about Jesus will take place in the Jewish community—and that should encourage all of us who pray for the salvation of Israel. It should also give us greater boldness to teach and proclaim the real Jesus, whom Jews and everyone else should follow.