Christians often ask why Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus. Author David Klinghoffer offers his answer in a polemic against Christianity entitled, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.” Published in March of this year, the book has captured the Jewish community’s attention as the most current and comprehensive Jewish answer to the question posed in the title–though perhaps not in the manner Klinghoffer intended.
In the Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Doubt,” currently running on Broadway, the headmistress of a parochial school accuses the parish priest of pedophilia and tells him she intends to expose him. “But you have no proof,” protests the priest. “No,” replies the headmistress, “but I have my certainties.”
And so it is with Mr. Klinghoffer. He has his certainties that Jesus must not be the Messiah and so he searches for evidence in a most creative way.
The intersection of faith and doubt in the human heart is a tender place. But when doubt is wielded as a polemical weapon against faith, scoring points is like shooting fish in a barrel. The fish don’t shoot back.
The Bible tells us, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Measuring matters of faith with an empirical yardstick means trusting solely in our limited senses. This inevitably precludes humility–the necessary lens through which we can focus on spiritual truths without distortion.
Klinghoffer is a journalist whose prose is eminently readable, but he is not a scholar. His wit and ability to turn a good phrase make for good reading, but they cannot compensate for a lack of carefully constructed arguments. The book is therefore fraught with errors of fact and logic.
Yet many who cannot truly allow themselves to consider whether Jesus is the Messiah will use this book to buttress their disbelief. Some will accept the book’s specious arguments. Others will be satisfied to believe the book has sufficiently confirmed their disbelief without even reading it for themselves.
In the introduction Mr. Klinghoffer offers an interesting anecdote that provides insight into his own lack of objectivity by relating a story that started him on his quest.
“In 1983, I was a high school senior in Southern California, taking classes at UCLA. There I met a Jews for Jesus missionary called Sid who had set up a table with pamphlets on Bruin Walk. In a forty-five minute conversation, he convinced me that I didn’t really understand my own reasons for not being a Christian.”
Notice how he perceives the problem. Not, “I realized I didn’t know enough to say whether Jesus was the Messiah,” but “I didn’t really understand my own reasons for not being a Christian.” This is not a man on a search for truth. Obviously Sid’s arguments for the Messiahship of Jesus shook Mr. Klinghoffer’s preconceptions. But rather than question those preconceptions, he looked for ways to shore up his certainties. And that is the problem with so many people today.
If Jesus really is the Messiah it means that our people, our rabbis have been wrong for 2,000 years. Apart from the Holy Spirit of God, it seems impossibly disloyal for our people to imagine such a thing. So when disbelief is challenged, many people look to “the experts” to make them secure in what they don’t believe. That seems to be the purpose of this book–yet many of Klinghoffer’s statements are illogical or just plain inaccurate.
For example, Klinghoffer states, “If you value the great achievements of Western civilization and of American society, thank the Jews for their decision to cleave to their ancestral religion instead of embracing the rival teachings of Jesus and his followers.” In other words, had the Jews not rejected Jesus, Christianity could not have become such a powerful force for good in the Western World.
There are so many logical inconsistencies with this premise that it is hard to know where to begin. First, it was because some Jews *did* believe in Jesus as Messiah that His message was brought so enthusiastically to the Gentile world. The book of Acts makes this clear.
Perhaps the book would be more truthfully titled, “Why Most of the Jewish Leadership Rejected Jesus.” This is really Klinghoffer’s main point. He rightly asserts out that Jesus rejected the Jewish leadership, and rejected their oral tradition (because it led the people astray from the Scriptures). By rejecting rabbinical authority as the proper interpretation of Torah, Jesus set Himself on a collision course with them. Yet it is to these very rabbis that Klinghoffer appeals throughout the book, using arguments built on a bias and a vested interest in disproving Jesus’ Messiahship.
Despite the acknowledged fanciful statements and even misstatements, and the clear historical errors that the Talmud (oral law, rabbinical commentary) contains concerning Jesus, Klinghoffer draws upon it rather than the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life. Yet if the rabbis were correct in their assessment of Jesus as a false Messiah, how could Klinghoffer argue with a straight face that it is a good thing so many in the West have come to believe in Him? Why is he satisfied for so many to believe a lie? How can that be good by anyone’s standards?
Further, Klinghoffer ignores the evidence of the New Testament and contends that most Jews in the first century never even heard of Jesus, and that the rabbis really paid very little attention to Him. His argument is from silence, based on the fact that the Jewish historian Josephus did not mention Jewish followers of Jesus in his list of Jewish sects in the first century. Then Klinghoffer wrongly attributes a statistic to the second century church father Origen–claiming that Origen noted there were fewer than 144,000 Jewish believers in Jesus in Israel by then. However, Origen said precisely the opposite. He was criticizing those who believed that the prophecy of 144,000 believing Jews in Revelation 7 had been fulfilled in their time. Origen’s comment was that, in fact, there were far more than 144,000 Jews who believed in Jesus.
One of Klinghoffer’s strangest offerings is the colorful notion that Paul was not a rabbi or even a Jew–but in fact a Gentile. He declares Paul a liar and a fraud, based on the certainty that no one who knew what it was to follow the Law could talk the way Paul did about it. We are accustomed to Jewish polemicists blaming Paul for all that they believe to be wrong with Christianity, and he is often seen as a traitor to Judaism. Nevertheless, reputable scholars of every stripe have always accepted that Paul was a Pharisee before his conversion.
There is a logical fallacy known as “special pleading,” and Klinghoffer’s book is rife with it. Special pleading is a common human failing. We place our own arguments in the best possible light; then we construct our own representation of our opponent’s case as weak and fragile so that we can gleefully smash it. We convince ourselves (and others) that it is the opponent’s actual argument we have destroyed, rather than our own facsimile.
A rabbi once said that for the skeptic there are no answers, for the believer there are no questions. I don’t believe the second half of that premise. We are allowed to pose sincere questions, and we should not be threatened by others who pose questions or challenges to our faith. But we should be able to point out the difference between those who are ask genuine questions because they want meaningful answers and those who merely want to justify their disbelief. God grant us the humility of faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.