Messianism, Pharisaism, and the Development of Christianity

A review of Ellis Rivkin, What Crucified Jesus?

by Howard Clark Kee, Ph.D

At a time when the Roman Catholic Church has once more taken action to remove anti-Judaism from Christians’ understanding of the death of Jesus, it is highly commendable that Eugene J. Fisher, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has participated in the reissuing of a set of perceptive essays by Ellis Rivkin, What Crucified Jesus? (New York, NY UAHC Press, 1977)  Dr. Rivkin is the Adolph S. Ochs  Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

In these studies Rivkin persuasively shifted the focus from the question “who” was responsible for the execution of Jesus to the basic issue of “what” had developed in Judaism and in the wider Roman world of the first century of the Common Era that led to this tragic event. The subtitle of the book indicates the important factors in this development: “Messianism, Pharisaism, and the Development of Christianity.” It is these features which are analyzed in Rivkin’s essays, which draw heavily on the evidence from Josephus’ writings.

He makes the point that because Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God and claimed to be the Messiah, Son of Man, he was perceived as a threat to the political order in the region, which was based on Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Roman imperial powers in order to maintain order. The political implications of Jesus’ message resulted in a trial before the °regional council, the synedrion, the name of which was transliterated by the rabbis as Sanhedrin, after the failure of the First and Second Jewish revolts against the Romans. The authority of the council was in regard to social and political issues. The synedrion was presided over by the high priest – an appointee of the Romans – and it “had no authority over religious matters” (50). As for the coming of the kingdom of God which Jesus announced that “of necessity (it) would displace the kingdom of Rome” (53). Thus it had revolutionary implications for the procurator and the high priest if the crowds were to join this movement (61).

It was before this body, established by the Romans, that Jesus was examined on political, not religious grounds, since this council had no authority on religious matters, as the Sanhedrin did in the period following the destruction of the temple and the launching of the rabbinic movement: “No institution of Judaism had anything to do with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus” (73). What crucified Jesus was the Roman imperial system, operating through those who were willing to serve on the council of collaborators with the Romans (77).

In an essay, “Anti-Semitism in the New Testament,” Rivkin points out that the Roman imperial system not only crucified Jesus but shattered the Jewish leadership and institutions. Texts “filled with hostility” should therefore be read “as time-bound and human-bound” (128) – read in the unique historical context which gave rise to them – in contrast to those parts of the New Testament which should be read as “the record of God’s effort to lift human beings out of the realm of the tragically human into the realm of the serenely divine” (128). He goes on to describe Reform and Orthodox Judaism – as well as Christianity in the New Testament – as forms of what he calls “mutation revelation,” in all of which are displayed “divine  light and the human prism” (147). The direct experience of God in both Jewish and Christian traditions is the highest value which they offer, and should not be obscured by the elements of conflict which reflect the period of their historical origins. Rather than choosing as normative one of these options, Rivkin is convinced that there have been and will continue to be various revelations “until the ushering in of the Messianic Age gives us, at long last, the fullness of God” (151).

Rivkin perceptively analyzes “The Meaning of Messiah in Jewish Thought” (155-181). He notes that there was in Judaism of the first century, no comprehensive agreement on the issues as to whether Messiah would renew the Davidic dynasty, whether his role would be primarily cultic, and whether God’s plan for his people was linked to the prophetic promise. During the long period in which Israel was dominated by “Pentateuchalism and Aaronide absolutism” (158), as affirmed in Sirach 46- 49, the Pharisees claimed the right to interpret and to supplement the Law of Moses, and that if their perception of the law were internalized in the conscience of the individual,. ..the Heavenly Father would reward one’s loyalty with immortality” (167). The Pharisees acceded to Roman nile, and only reluctantly supported the Jewish revolt against the Romans, never linking it with messianic expectations.

It was in the tradition of the apocalyptic hopes expressed in the book of Daniel and other pseudepigraphic writings announcing the soon coming of the rule of God (170), that Jesus appeared and is represented in the New Testament. It was the Pharisaic belief that the heavenly father would reward the righteous with eternal life and resurrection which was taken up by the followers of Jesus, who perceived him to be the agent through whom God’s new law was conveyed to the new covenant peoples and by whom the kingdom of God had been brought near. The early Christian use of the language of the kingdom had clear political implications in the opinion of the Roman authorities, however, and it was with the aim of repressing this movement that Jesus was crucified. That is “What Crucified Jesus.”

Howard Clark Kee
Professor of Biblical Studies, Emeritus, Boston University


Jesus, a Galilean Jewish Teacher

By Anthony Saldarini


Modern Christians spontaneously think of Jesus first as the son of God, a savior from sin and the divinely sent founder of Christianity. They often lose sight of the human Jesus who was the son of a Galilean carpenter and a popular Jewish teacher and reformer. When they do, they often fall into anti-Semitism because they assume that all first-century Jews should have recognized and accepted this divine figure and attribute Jesus’ execution to culpable rejection and ill-will on the part of Jews. Detaching Jesus from his people, Israel, and from his historical place in first-century Judaism allows some Christians effectively to deny Jesus’ Jewishness and to label Jews as evil or deviant. Thus, the way Christians imagine Jesus to have lived greatly influences their attitudes toward Jews and their theology of Judaism.

Jesus was a popular teacher in northeastern lower Galilee (the Esdraelon Valley) during the first half of the first-century CE. He was a reformer who sought to increase his fellow Jewish Galileans’ adherence to their traditions and to enliven their relationship with God. The central symbol for his reform was the political image of the kingdom of God, a symbol which connotes God’s rule over Israel in the present and God’s eventual triumph over all evil powers, including the oppressive Roman empire. The norms which governed this renewed Israel were drawn from the Biblical tradition and given a particular emphasis and application for the Galilean community. Some of the themes are: care for the poor and needy, reliance on God, de-emphasis on honor and human authority, and just social relations. Jesus’ program offered healing for weak, sinful humans and hope for the Galilean farmers who had no control over the economy or government. Jesus based his program on God’s faithfulness and active presence as protector of Israel. As such, his teaching was quintessentially Jewish.

Though modern Christians often understand the kingdom of God as innocuously spiritual, this political metaphor implied that the current human rulers were illegitimate or seriously deficient. Thus Jesus’ religious program was profoundly political. Jewish writings of the period, especially apocalypses, are filled with criticism against Israel’s leaders for corrupting and misleading the people and with protest against violent and oppressive imperial powers from Babylon through the Romans. Since religion is integral to daily social relationships, economic ties and political arrangements, Jesus’ teachings concerning God’s will for Israel involved major changes in social and political relations, changes which threatened the wealth, power and influence of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, and the Roman Empire which had appointed him. Consequently, when the governmental authorities had the chance to eliminate him during a visit to Jerusalem, they did so with alacrity. Day by day in Galilee, the ‘scribes, who were the local officials charged with keeping records, administering justice and educating the people, came into conflict with Jesus’ growing popular influence and authority. The Pharisees were a politically and socially active reform group, greatly respected in Israel. Despite substantial areas of agreement with Jesus they inevitably came into conflict with him over how Jewish life was best lived. The Pharisees sought to establish and protect Israel as a people holy to God through faithful observance of the ritual purity regulations reserved by the Bible for the priests in the Temple. They also stressed tithing produce and Sabbath observance as central to covenant fidelity.

The customs and culture of the village and town communities where Jesus taught were based on traditional practices and relationships. Within the villages the elder male members of the most prominent or wealthy families would have been in charge because they had the most honorable positions and were the most respected members of the community. They saw to the settling of disputes, the planning of communal events and the maintenance of relations with outside governmental authorities. The arrival of a traveling teacher or of an official from Jerusalem or Herod Antipas could either enrich and support the ways of a village or upset them. The gospel instructions concerning preaching in villages envision both acceptance and rejection (Mark 6:8- 13). It is easy to imagine the elders of a village eagerly accepting or resenting and disagreeing with the teaching of a stranger such as Jesus or of a Pharisee for that matter.

Jesus’ influence and authority among the people were popularly granted, not officially recognized by the political, religious powers. He was one of a number of prophetic or messianic holy men who functioned as intermediaries between God and his people. Some of the people recognized Jesus as someone who could help renew Israel’s covenant with God and as a guide to rectifying strained and unjust relationships with the Roman and Jewish governments. Jesus’ program for the renewal of society through a reinvigorated commitment to God’s kingdom and renewed bonds among humans appealed strongly to the outcasts, poor and powerless who were not incorporated fully into the social and sacred system of Judaism. His popularity with the crowds, their eagerness to hear him and experience his power, and the opposition of the authorities all fit within the context of Galilean Jewish farmers who had been conquered by Rome, were sternly ruled by Herodian proxy of Rome (Herod Antipas) and suffered heavy taxes with no avenue of appeal or control over their own society.


Anthony Saldarini
Professor of New Testament Boston College

The Death of Jesus in Light of the Political Options for First Century C.E. Judaism

By Howard Clark Kee

The historical evidence from Christian, Jewish and Roman sources points to the fact that Jesus was put to death by the Romans on the political charge of his aspiring to be “King of the Jews.” This is reported to have been the accusation posted on the sign above the cross as he was executed (Mk 14:64). The political rhetoric of Jesus is evident in all four gospels, where he is reported as proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God and claiming an essential role in its establishment. What is envisioned is not simply a political entity, but a means by which the rule of God over the creation will be evident and actualized. In the Song of Moses, the activity of Yahweh in liberating his people and establishing them in a new land is seen as culminating in God’s enduring presence among his people, so that “The Lord will reiea forever and ever” (Exod 15:19). This is perceived to be in the process of actualization when David is acclaimed by Saul as king (1 Sam 24:20), and is confirmed by God through the prophet Nathan as enduring “forever” (2 Sam 7:13-16). The everlasting endurance of this rule of God is affirmed by the psalmist, as in Psa 145:13- “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”

The nature of the kingdom of God and the possibility of its enduring forever were severely challenged after the tribes of Israel and then the tribes of Judah were taken into captivity The uncertainty continued when their land was controlled by the pagan powers: first the Persians and then the hellenistic rulers after Alexander the Great. The persistence of the hope of the kingdom of God is apparent, however, in the vision described in Daniel 7, in which the successive world empires (pictured as horrendous beasts) are overcome, and replaced by one who comes “like a human being’-literally, “like a son of man” (7:13). God’s rule over the created order and the whole of humanity is expected to be accomplished through his chosen agent, and will be universal and everlasting (7:14).

The successful uprising of the Jews under Mattathias and his sons, as reported in the Books of Maccabees, developed in response to the efforts of the hellenistic rulers to impose on the Jews their culture and the cult of their veneration of the rulers as divine (1 Macc 1). The success of the Maccabean rulers in freeing their land from pagan domination and worship was given support by fostering good relations with other Gentile powers, espe¬cially the Romans (1 Macc 8) and the Spartans (1 Macc 14:16-24). These developments around 140 B.C.E., and especially the military victories, were celebrated as the work of angels that God has sent to aid his “holy people,” by which they were able to strike down their adversaries (2 Macc 15:16). In achieving this military victory the soldiers “fought with their hands and prayed to God in their hearts” (2 Macc 15:24-27). In 63 B.C.E. this triumph was completely countered, however, when the Romans began their takeover of the Middle East. In keeping with Roman policy cities and provinces that had been conquered militarily were granted limited autonomy, but with no features of what we would call civil rights. The religious life of the Jews was able to continue through Roman permission for the priesthood to operate the temple in Jerusalem and to obtain support from the contributions of pious Jews across the ancient world. Ongoing supervision of regional affairs there, as across the empire, was by the establishment of local councils of socially significant individuals who were willing to collaborate with the Romans. Such councils were called the boule or the synethion (which became transliterated by Jews as Sanhedrin). Legal and judicial powers rested in the hands of these councils, but their decisions were based on two factors: the maintenance of ultimate power by the Romans and the relative autonomy of the council with respect to regional law and tradition. It was in this socio-political structure that Jesus was examined.

According to the Law of Moses, acts which challenged the religious base of the people of Israel-such as blasphemy, idolatry sorcery violation of the sabbath or promoting worship of other gods (Lev 24:13-16; Num 15:32-36; Deut 13:6-11)-were to be punished by joint action of the community i.e., hurling stones at the violator in order to crush them to death. The prime instance of this in early Christianity is the account of the stoning of Stephen for his work to extend participation in the people of God to those ethnically and ritually excluded by Mosaic Law (Acts 6:8-7:53). It is reasonable to assume that the Jewish membership of the council could have found Jesus guilty of violations of Jewish law or tradition and executed him by stoning.

All the historical evidence points, however, to his having been executed instead by the Romans on a political charge, which is evident in the inscription on his cross: “The King of the Jews.” It was Pilate who made the charge explicit, so that the decision to execute him was made by the central political authority-the Roman procurator-on a political charge: the establishment of a Jewish kingdom. The central evidence for the political basis of the execution of Jesus is the Roman mode of execution: the cross. The Jewish authorities, who were collaborating with the Romans by serving in the council, chose not to exercise their legal rights by stoning Jesus to death as a violator of Jewish law. Instead, he died by crucifixion as one charged with political revolution against the Romans Christians continue to use political imagery when they pray, “May your [God’s] kingdom come.

Howard Clark Kee
Professor Biblical Studies Emeritus Boston University, Boston, MA

“Christ Killer” Mythology and the Tragedy in the Balkans

By: Michael A. Sells

June 28, 1989 was the 60th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo in which Serb Prince Lazar was killed fighting the Ottoman Turks. The momentous celebration of this event was appropriated by militant religious nationalists and ultimately directed, with tragic power, against Slavic Muslims in Bosnia.

In the 19th-century, Serbian religious nationalists reconstructed the Kosovo legend to depict Lazar explicitly as a Christ figure, partaking in a last supper surrounded by knight disciples, one of whom was a traitor. Lazar’s death was the “Serbian Golgotha,” and the Serbian nation as a whole died with Lazar. The Slavs who converted to Islam were accused of betraying Lazar, and in doing so, betraying their Slavic race. Race and religion were intertwined: to convert from the Christian religion was to transform oneself into a Turk. Serbia would not be resurrected until it was purified from the traitors within, the “Turkifiers.”

The masterpiece of Serbian nationalist literature is The Mountain Wreath, a poetic drama published in 1857 by a Montenegran Serbian Orthodox bishop known as Njegos. It opens with Serbian calling for the “cleansing” the nation of non-Christians. Muslim leaders are summoned to the court of the Serb Vlad (Prince-Bishop) and ordered to convert. The Muslims suggest instead a “godfather” (Kum) ceremony through which blood-feuds in rural Montenegro were healed. When Serb elders reply that the godfather ceremony requires baptism, the Muslims suggest that the Christian children could be baptized while the Muslim children would have a ritual tonsure. The overture is rejected and the Muslims are reviled as Christ killers and as the “brood of the accursed Muhammad” and “spitters on the cross.” The Mountain Wreath culminates with a celebration of the Christmas slaughter of the Slavic Muslims–men, women, and children–and the annihilation of their mosques. The Serb warriors returned to take communion without going to confession, showing the sanctifying nature of their act.

The Serbian province of Kosovo, “the Serb Jerusalem,” contains not only the site of the famous battle, but also monasteries of the medieval Serbian kingdoms. After the death of Yugoslav President Tito, tensions intensified in Kosovo between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. The Serbian Orthodox Church charged repeatedly that the largely Muslim Albanians were committing “genocide” against Serbs in Kosovo. Although human rights researchers and Serbian police reports disputed such a charge, Serbian intellectuals repeated it in their famous “Memorandum” of 1986.

As the 600th Lazar’s day (Vidovdan) commemoration approached, Serb clergy presided over the disinterment of Serb victims of Nazi and Ustashe killings in WW2, uncovering with them the repressed memories of WW2 horrors. Meanwhile, the relics of Lazar were transported with religious and national fervor around the boundaries claimed as the Greater Serbia and throughout Kosovo. On June 28, 1989, more than a million people gathered at Kosovo to view the passion play, glimpse the relics of Lazar, and hear Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic threaten war. Mythic time, collapsed into the present through the passion play, combined with the resurrection of the all-too-real genocide of World War II and with inflammatory charges of contemporary genocide against Serbs in Kosovo province. Sacred time (1389) and sacred space (reclaimed by Lazar’s relics) became the matrix for a mass-psychology of fear and hatred.

In Bosnia, Serb soldiers wore shoulder patches depicting the battle of Kosovo, made their captives sing songs about the battle of Kosovo, and decorated themselves with medals named after Milos Obilic, the Serbian knight-apostle who assassinated the Sultan Murat in revenge for the death of Lazar. While Croatian militias did not appeal directly to the Kosovo mythology in their attacks on Muslim community, they were influenced by it through the popular novels of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric who proclaimed the view of Slavic Muslims in The Mountain Wreath to be the immutable “voice of the people.”

The vast majority of the civilians placed in concentration camps were Muslims. Islamic cultural and sacral heritage, including ancient masterworks of South Slavic architecture, was systematically dynamited. Evidence of 500 years of shared Muslim-Christian civilization was the object of particularly thorough destruction. As Muslim villages fell, Serbian nationalists posted on the Internet verses from The Mountain Wreath depicting extermination of the Turkifiers.

Leaders of the NATO alliance adopted the history, constructed by militant Serbian religious nationalists, that antagonism between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans was “age old” and inevitable. Whether such religious nationalism remains a dominant force depends in part whether NATO political leaders continue to adopt as fact the mythologized history that was manipulated by militants to motivate and justify their violence.

The abuse of the Christ story has primarily been used to justify attacks on Jews. That a chillingly similar abuse of the Christ story is a largely unacknowledged component in the persecution of the Bosnian Muslims shows that the issue, as it has been engaged in Explorations, has implications for relations with Islam as well.


By: Michael A. Sells
Emily Judson Baugh and John Marshall Gest Professor of Comparative Religions Haverford College, Haverford, PA
*A full discussion of the above issues appears in Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Jesus the Jew and His Religion

Geza Vermes
Fellow of the British Academy,
Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies, University of Oxford

When Jesus The Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Collins, London, 1973/Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993) first appeared in print, I claimed in all honesty that it was the work of detached scholarship, written without denominational bias. If it was a “Jewish” book, this was because it was based on “a specialized knowledge of the history institutions, languages, culture and literature of Israel, of the age in which (Jesus) lived.” I fear that a fair number of Christian readers never really believed this statement, and suspected a hidden agenda in the book. Yet, having recently published the third volume of the trilogy The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993), I still wholeheartedly maintain that the fundamental inspiration of this research was to set the historical record straight concerning Jesus of Nazareth.

The main problem facing a sympathetic, yet religiously detached, historian who confronts the New Testament is this. The pocket book which contains the Christian Scriptures offers two different pictures of Jesus. The Gospels of Matt, Matthew and Luke, notwithstanding all their subsequent theological coloring, still allow a genuine glimpse of a first century C.E. Jewish holy man, preacher, healer, exorcist, delivering ad hoc moral exhortations to Galilean peasants and fishermen in the context of an intense expectation of the impending arrival of ‘the Kingdom of God’. By contrast, the letters of Paul and the Fourth Gospel sketch an increasingly other-worldly redeemer figure, the center of the preoccupations of the primitive Church. When one sketch is superimposed on the other, it becomes clear that they have little in common.

Jesus the Jew set out to explore the figure of the historical Jesus against the backcloth of the political and social history of inter-Testamental Galilee and against Jewish Charismatics. Honi, the first century B.C.E. rain-maker, was one of them and so was also Hanina ben Dosa, who in the first century C.E., cured the sick and the needy and earned the reputation of being a benefactor of mankind The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels is perfectly at home in their company and, in turn, they provide his picture with genuine credibility. What is more, when several of the titles given to Jesus in the Gospels, such as Prophet, Lord and even Son of God, are examined historically, they are all applicable to a holy man of this type. Hence, it would seem, Jesus can best be defined as an outstanding Galilean charismatic Hasid.

I know that my insistence on viewing Jesus in exclusively Jewish religion-cultural and exclusively Semitic (Aramaic-Hebrew) linguistic context contradicts present day trends concerning a thoroughly Hellenized Judaism and a deeply Hellenized Galilee, with Cynic-type street preachers propounding, not a Jewish eschatological message about the Kingdom of God, but words of wisdom of universal nature. I believe these trends are misconceived. Apart from Greek cities and the very top layer of the population (people like Josephus and Justus of Tiberias), Hellenization in the cultural-educational sense was superficial in Palestine. No one is going to believe that Jewish children were brought up on a mixture of Homer and the Bible in Jewish schools!

The spread of the Greek language in the Aramaic or Hebrew speaking hinterland must have been equally limited.

As for the latest Cynic trend among New Testament scholars, I go along with Anthony Harvey’s view that “there is no evidence of any kind (and, many would say, little probability) that Cynics ever penetrated into Galilee and Jerusalem or that Jesus could ever have encountered them.” Henry Chadwick, one of the greatest living experts on Christian antiquity, sees the weakness of the Cynic theory not just in the lack of evidence for Cynics in Galilee, but in “the under- weighting of texts pre-supporting dissimilarity.” With gentle British sarcasm he remarks, “We do not hear of missionaries copulating in the streets.”

My claim that Jesus was an outstanding Galilean Hasid immediately provoked the question: Do you mean to say that Jesus was just one of the Hasidim and nothing more? But those who accuse me of such reductionism ignore the Postscript of Jesus the Jew, which speaks of the “incomparable superiority” of Jesus when his teaching is taken into account. Untouched in that volume, the message of Jesus was subsequently investigated in three lectures on The Gospel of Jesus the Jew in 1981 and more fully in The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Fortress, Minneapolis, 1993). The reconstruction of the genuine preaching of Jesus constitutes a grave challenge to historians because of the nature of the Synoptic Gospels. They incorporate many successive layers of tradition and contemporary New Testament specialists often shy away from what they see as a frightening conundrum Yet if a comprehensive recreation of the message is beyond our means, it is not unreasonable to expect that by approaching it dynamically and critically within the evolution of the religious thinking of Judaism from the Hebrew Bible, through the Aprocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, rabbinical literature, synagogal liturgy and early Jewish mysticism, and focusing also on internal consistency something reliable and significant can be determined as far as the main lines of Jesus’ teaching were concerned.

The salient points are as follows:

Jesus did not reject the Jewish Law. He sometimes disagreed with its interpretation or application by some of his contemporaries, but they also disagreed among them7selves. As an heir of the prophetic tradition, he concerned himself above all with the Torah, inasmuch as it revealed a divinely ordained behavior towards men and towards God. He did not break the Sabbath or oppose the food laws as such. He clashed with others in cases of conflicting religious duties: they opted for one alternative and he for the other. But surely no Gentile Christian would ever have made Jesus proclaim that “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the Law to drop”! Yet it is in Luke (16:17) that this saying is found. Where Jesus truly excelled was in his emphasis on the inner moral and religious significance of the Mosaic commandments, thus disclosing their ultimate purpose, an uninterrupted life of holiness before the Face.

The symbolic framework of Jesus’ message was the Kingdom of God, a mysterious reality which he never bothered to define. Neither did he assert, or even suggest, when this Kingdom would materialize. For him, the only task of real significance was what he and his companions were to do in the present, convinced as he was that it was already part of the eschatological age. How figurative this “Kingdom” imagery is may be seen from Jesus’ lack of interest in a “royal” God, or a heavenly war lord. His God, the one depicted in many parables is a forgiving and caring Father. For Jesus, “the eternal, distant, dominating and tremendous Creator is also and primarily a near and approachable God” (The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 180).

For Christianity, as creeds, dogma and councils show, Jesus is the object of religion, but in the earliest Gospel account he is first and foremost a religious man. The dominating feature of his religion was an undiluted eschatological enthusiasm in which future had no place, and everything had to be centered on the lived moment. His religion begins with teshuvah, or turning (repentance), feeds on einunah, or faith- trust, and expresses itself in the imitation of God: “Be merciful as your

Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). This is an individualistic religion in which the penitent outcasts, the publicans and prostitutes, gain precedence over those professing bourgeois respectability.

In my judgment, oceans seem to separate the God-centered (theocentric) and existential religion, preached and practiced by Jesus, from Christocentric and dogmatic Christianity. The death of Jesus on the cross demanded an increasing exaltation of a Galilean holy man. The itinerant preacher, this familiar figure in Capernaum, Chorazin and the lakeside, would have been mystified by the Church’s creeds, defining him as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father”. He would have been equally nonplussed if told that he was the founder of Christianity for “if he meant and believed what he preached, namely that the eternal Kingdom of God was truly at hand, he simply could not have entertained the idea of…setting in motion an organized society intended to endure for ages to come” (The Religion of Jesus the Jew, pp. 214-5).

Jesus challenges both Jews and Christians. Jews will have to confront the age-old taboo on Jesus, already declared “absurd” in Ha’amtz, a leading Israeli newspaper by Magen Broshi in his review of The Religion of Jesus the Jew. As for thinking Christians, the greatest challenge which they have to confront comes not from materialism, agnosticism or atheism, but from within: from Mark, Matthew and Luke through whom speak the chief challenger, Jesus the Jew. Whether this challenge will be accepted only time will tell. But meanwhile, in the closing words of The Religion of Jesus the Jew: The magnetic appeal of the teaching and example of Jesus holds out hope and guidance to those outside the fold of organized religion, the stray sheep of mankind, who yearn for a world of mercy, justice and peace lived in as children of God.

A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People


Since its inception in 1969, the Christian Scholars Group has been seeking to develop more adequate Christian theologies of the church’s relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people. Pursuing this work for over three decades under varied sponsorship, the members of our association of Protestant and Roman Catholic biblical scholars, historians, and theologians have published many volumes on Christian-Jewish relations.

Our work has a historical context. For most of the past two thousand years, Christians have erroneously portrayed Jews as unfaithful, holding them collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and therefore accursed by God. In agreement with many official Christian declarations, we reject this accusation as historically false and theologically invalid. It suggests that God can be unfaithful to the eternal covenant with the Jewish people.

•We acknowledge with shame the suffering this distorted portrayal has brought upon the Jewish people.

•We repent of this teaching of contempt.

•Our repentance requires us to build a new teaching of respect.

•This task is important at any time, but the deadly crisis in the Middle East and the frightening resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide give it particular urgency.

We believe that revising Christian teaching about Judaism and the Jewish people is a central and indispensable obligation of theology in our time. It is essential that Christianity both understand and represent Judaism accurately, not only as a matter of justice for the Jewish people, but also for the integrity of Christian faith, which we cannot proclaim without reference to Judaism.

Moreover, since there is a unique bond between Christianity and Judaism, revitalizing our appreciation of Jewish religious life will deepen our Christian faith. We base these convictions on ongoing scholarly research and the official statements of many Christian denominations over the past fifty years.

We are grateful for the willingness of many Jews to engage in dialogue and study with us. We welcomed it when, on September 10, 2000, Jewish scholars sponsored by the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore issued a historic declaration, Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity. This document, affirmed by notable rabbis and Jewish scholars, called on Jews to re-examine their understanding of Christianity.

Encouraged by the work of both Jewish and Christian colleagues, we offer the following ten statements, for consideration of our fellow Christians. We urge all Christians to reflect on their faith in light of these statements. For us, this is “a sacred obligation.”

1.  God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever:  For centuries Christians claimed that their covenant with God replaced or superseded the Jewish covenant. We renounce this claim. We believe that God does not revoke divine promises. We affirm that God is in covenant with both Jews and Christians. Tragically, the entrenched theology of supersessionism continues to influence Christian faith, worship, and practice, even though it has been repudiated by many Christian denominations and many Christians no longer accept it. Our recognition of the abiding validity of Judaism has implications for all aspects of Christian life.

2.  Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew: Christians worship the God of Israel in and through Jesus Christ. Supersessionism, however, prompted Christians over the centuries to speak of Jesus as an opponent of Judaism. This is historically incorrect.  Jewish worship, ethics, and practice shaped Jesus’  life and teachings. The scriptures of his people inspired and nurtured him. Christian preaching and teaching today must describe Jesus’ earthly life as engaged in the ongoing Jewish quest to live out God’s covenant in everyday life.

3. Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today: Although today we know Christianity and Judaism as separate religions, what became the church was a movement within the Jewish community for many decades after the ministry and resurrection of Jesus. The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Roman armies in the year 70 of the first century caused a crisis among the Jewish people. Various groups, including Christianity and early rabbinic Judaism, competed for leadership in the Jewish community by claiming that they were the true heirs of biblical Israel. The gospels reflect this rivalry in which the disputants exchanged various accusations. Christian charges of hypocrisy and legalism misrepresent Judaism and constitute an unworthy foundation for Christian self-understanding.

4. Judaism is a living faith, enriched by many centuries of development: Many Christians mistakenly equate Judaism with biblical Israel. However, Judaism, like Christianity, developed new modes of belief and practice in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple. The rabbinic tradition gave new emphasis and understanding to existing practices, such as communal prayer, study of Torah, and deeds of loving- kindness. Thus Jews could live out the covenant in a world without the Temple. Over time they developed an extensive body of interpretive literature that continues to enrich Jewish life, faith, and understanding.  Christians cannot fully understand Judaism apart from its post- biblical development, which can also enrich and enhance Christian faith.

5.The Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians: Some Jews and Christians today, in the process of studying the Bible together, are discovering new ways of reading that provide a deeper appreciation of both traditions. While the two communities draw from the same biblical texts of ancient Israel, they have developed different traditions of interpretation. Christians view these texts through the lens of the New Testament, while Jews understand these scriptures through the traditions of rabbinic commentary. Referring to the first part of the Christian Bible as the “Old Testament” can wrongly suggest that these texts are obsolete. Alternative expressions — “Hebrew Bible,” “First Testament,” or “Shared Testament” — although also problematic, may better express the church’s renewed appreciation of the ongoing power of these scriptures for both Jews and Christians.

6. Affirming God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish people has consequences for Christian understanding of salvation:  Christians meet God’s saving power in the person of Jesus Christ and believe that this power is available to all people in him.  Christians have therefore taught for centuries that salvation is available only through Jesus Christ. With their recent realization that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is eternal, Christians can now recognize in the Jewish tradition the redemptive power of God at work. If Jews, who do not share our faith in Christ, are in a saving covenant with God, then  Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ.

7. Christians should not target Jews for conversion: In view of our conviction that Jews are in an eternal covenant with God, we renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews. At the same time, we welcome opportunities for Jews and Christians to bear witness to their  respective  experiences of God’s saving ways. Neither can properly claim to possess knowledge of God entirely or exclusively.

8. Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God:The New Testament contains passages that have frequently generated negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. The use of these texts in the context of worship increases the likelihood of hostility toward Jews. Christian anti-Jewish theology has also shaped worship in ways that denigrate Judaism and foster contempt for Jews. We urge church leaders to examine scripture readings, prayers, the structure of the lectionaries, preaching and hymns to remove distorted images of Judaism. A reformed Christian liturgical life would express a new relationship with Jews and thus honor God.

9. We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people: The land of Israel has always been of central significance to the Jewish people. However, Christian theology charged that the Jews had condemned themselves to homelessness by rejecting God’s Messiah. Such supersessionism precluded any possibility for Christian understanding of Jewish attachment to the land of Israel. Christian theologians can no longer avoid this crucial issue, especially in light of the complex and persistent conflict over the land. Recognizing that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in peace and security in a homeland of their own, we call for efforts that contribute to a just peace among all the peoples of the region.

10. Christians should work with Jews for the healing of the world: For almost a century, Jews and Christians in the United States have worked together on important social issues, such as the rights of workers and civil rights. As violence and terrorism intensify in our time, we must strengthen our common efforts in the work of justice and peace to which both the prophets of Israel and Jesus summon us. These common efforts by Jews and Christians offer a vision of human solidarity and provide models of collaboration with people of other faith traditions.

We urge all Christians to reflect on their faith in light of these statements

For us, this is a sacred obligation

Signed by the Christian Scholars Group

Jesus, The King of The Jews

In the last centuries before the Common Era, it was the Greek and Roman authors who used the term, Jews (Ioudaioi), with reference to those diverse religious groups scattered throughout the Mediterranean world which claimed continuity with the beliefs and practices of ancient Israel. Following their lead, around the turn of the era, Jewish writers began to use the term as well. It appears in inscriptions from this period and, for example, in the writings of Philo of Alexandria particularly in his explicitly apologetic writings: Flaccus, and On the Embassy to Gaius. Philo Is using “Jews” as a term for those of his tradition that is understood and employed by his Gentile readers. In one place the Jewish historian, Josephus, uses “Jews” with reference to proselytes (Antiquities 13.258), where he is describing those who as non-Israelites accepted circumcision and became “Jews in other respects.”

In the first three gospels, “Jew” is a rare term, and occurs only on the lips of Gentiles, except when Jews are mimicking them. Never in Matthew, Mark or Luke is Jew a self-designation of those who were born in and identify with the traditions of Israel, and it is never used by Jesus. In the New Testament, it first appears when spoken by the magi, who came from Persia or Mesopotamia seeking Jesus, who is said to have been divinely destined to be “King of the Jews” (Mt 2:1-2). Significantly, the priests of whom he inquired recalled the prophecy (Micah 5) that one born in Bethlehem was to be a “ruler who will govern my people, Israel.” “Jews” also appears in Mt 27:11, where Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews,” and adds “who is said to be the Christ.” The term is conceived as a purely political designation.

In clear contrast to this terminology are the deliberations of the regional council of Jewish leaders. In Jerusalem and throughout the empire these councils served as advisory agencies for the Roman officials in charge of the area. In their examination of Jesus, the council’s discussion (Mt 27:57-68) has to do with religious issues and Jesus’ alleged relationship to God (“Son of God”). There is evidence elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 7:58) that a violator of Jewish religious standards (Stephen) could be executed by mass action, in which the crowd hurled large stones and crushed to death the guilty one. This mode of group action for dealing with a violator of Israel’s covenant is prescribed in Deut 21:20. In the case of Jesus, however, the responsibility was shifted to the political leader, Pilate (as reported in the oldest of the synoptic gospels: Mk 15:19) again identified Jesus as “King of the Jews.” The call from the council for his death by crucifixion implies a violation of Roman law, rather than of Jewish law, which could have led to his death by stoning. The political nature of the charge against Jesus is confirmed in the account of this event by the Roman historian, Tacitus, who reports the crucifixion as the result of a sentence by Pilate (Annals 15.4). The gospel accounts underscore this by their descriptions of Jesus’ being mocked by the Roman soldiers as “King of the Jews” (Mk 15:18) and by the inscription on the cross thus designating him (15:26; Lk 23:36-38).

It is only in the later polemic of early Christian writers against the Jews that Pilate declares Jesus’ innocence and the Jewish leaders are reported as accepting responsibility for Jesus’ death (Mt 27:24-25). In the oldest traditions, both the charge that Jesus was “King of the Jews” and the resulting death penalty and mode of execution conform to Roman legal and governmental policy. Responsibility for this political decision and action rest with the Roman regional governor, Pontius Pilate, not with the Jewish authorities. It is completely a distortion of the evidence to place the blame for the death of Jesus on “the Jews,” implying that all were responsible for his execution.

Howard Clark Kee

Professor Emeritus, Boston University