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Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History

Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History

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by David Klinghoffer

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Why did the Jews reject Jesus? Was he really the son of God? Were the Jews culpable in his death? These ancient questions have been debated for almost two thousand years, most recently with the release of Mel Gibson’s explosive The Passion of the Christ. The controversy was never merely academic. The legal status and security of Jews—often their


Why did the Jews reject Jesus? Was he really the son of God? Were the Jews culpable in his death? These ancient questions have been debated for almost two thousand years, most recently with the release of Mel Gibson’s explosive The Passion of the Christ. The controversy was never merely academic. The legal status and security of Jews—often their very lives—depended on the answer.

In WHY THE JEWS REJECTED JESUS, David Klinghoffer reveals that the Jews since ancient times accepted not only the historical existence of Jesus but the role of certain Jews in bringing about his crucifixion and death. But he also argues that they had every reason to be skeptical of claims for his divinity.

For one thing, Palestine under Roman occupation had numerous charismatic would-be messiahs, so Jesus would not have been unique, nor was his following the largest of its kind. For another, the biblical prophecies about the coming of the Messiah were never fulfilled by Jesus, including an ingathering of exiles, the rise of a Davidic king who would defeat Israel’s enemies, the building of a new Temple, and recognition of God by the gentiles. Above all, the Jews understood their biblically commanded way of life, from which Jesus’s followers sought to “free” them, as precious, immutable, and eternal.

Jews have long been blamed for Jesus’s death and stigmatized for rejecting him. But Jesus lived and died a relatively obscure figure at the margins of Jewish society. Indeed, it is difficult to argue that “the Jews” of his day rejected Jesus at all, since most Jews had never heard of him. The figure they really rejected, often violently, was Paul, who convinced the Jerusalem church led by Jesus’s brother to jettison the observance of Jewish law. Paul thus founded a new religion. If not for him, Christianity would likely have remained a Jewish movement, and the course of history itself would have been changed. Had the Jews accepted Jesus, Klinghoffer speculates, Christianity would not have conquered Europe, and there would be no Western civilization as we know it.

WHY THE JEWS REJECTED JESUS tells the story of this long, acrimonious, and occasionally deadly debate between Christians and Jews. It is thoroughly engaging, lucidly written, and in many ways highly original. Though written from a Jewish point of view, it is also profoundly respectful of Christian sensibilities. Coming at a time when Christians and Jews are in some ways moving closer than ever before, this thoughtful and provocative book represents a genuine effort to heal the ancient rift between these two great faith traditions.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
In a book that is part religious history, part rhetorical argument, National Review columnist and Orthodox Jew David Klinghoffer reopens debate on the thorny issue at the heart of Jewish-Christian relations: the messiahship of Jesus.

Drawing on Jewish tradition and Scripture itself, Klinghoffer examines the Messiah of prophecy -- a title with a complex history and very specific criteria for fulfillment -- and introduces us to Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic but little-known figure who lived in first-century Roman-occupied Palestine, a land awash in would-be Messiahs and teeming with natural-born skeptics. Viewed from a contemporary perspective, this obscure Galilean -- who attracted fewer followers than John the Baptist and who exhibited none of the manifestations of the Messiah-king -- was an unlikely claimant to the title.

Yet, according to the author, Jesus was not rejected because he claimed to be the Messiah (he never did!), but because he jettisoned the oral Torah that contained the cultural directives observed by pious Jews. This flouting of the law led to his death -- a death Klinghoffer freely admits was orchestrated by the Jewish leaders of the day.

How then did Jesus of Nazareth become the divine centerpiece of Christianity? The credit goes to St. Paul, who, after suffering rejection by his fellow Jews, brought Jesus' message to the Gentile world, where it found a more enthusiastic reception. From there, early Christian writers were eager to shoehorn the words, works, and events of Jesus' life to "fit" the prophecies in the Old Testament. And the rest, as they say, is history! Putting an interesting twist on his treatise, Klinghoffer points out that the Jewish rejection of Jesus had life-changing cultural repercussions. The argument goes like this: If the Jews had accepted Jesus and if Paul had not converted the Gentiles, the Jesus cult would have quickly disappeared, leaving only the traditional Judaism of today. There would be no Christianity, no medieval Europe, and no Western civilization as we know it. The Jews inadvertently performed a mitzvah for the world! Anne Markowski

Were the Jews responsible for the Jesus' crucifixion? Was the Nazarene the Messiah prophesied in the Torah? Why did the Jews reject him? For nearly 2,000 years, Christians and Jews have been arguing over the divinity of Jesus, a debate recently intensified by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. David Klinghoffer's Why The Jews Rejected Jesus offers a fresh, revelatory view of this historic controversy. Klinghoffer argues that opposition to Jesus arose not because of his rebellious activities but because of his individualistic, often unorthodox interpretations of the Law. But Jews didn't reject Jesus' claim to be the Messiah, because Jesus never directly asserted that he was. They did reject the teachings of Paul, which were clearly intended to found a new religion.
Publishers Weekly
The provocative title of this unfocused book implies that it contains an answer to the question of why the Jews rejected Jesus. Indeed, Klinghoffer, whose memoir The Lord Will Gather Me In was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, buries several answers in this study's dense verbiage, but the reader has to struggle to locate them. After numerous citations, many from obscure sources, demonstrating erudite research, Klinghoffer reveals that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was "the founding act of Western civilization." It facilitated the development of Christianity and Islam as mass religions. Thus, according to Klinghoffer, the rejection of Christ was a "civilization-creating act." He arrives at this determination by examining "God's perspective," "God's intention," "God's purposes" and "God's plan." This remarkable display of chutzpah leads Klinghoffer to assert that the Jews are the "priesthood" and the Christians and Muslims are the "laity." Before making his pronouncement, Klinghoffer reviews Jewish history from the year A.D. 27 to modern times. At times, he criticizes Jewish liberals and secularists, and raises hard questions about the directions modern Judaism has taken. Some readers may find that the effort required to read this book is rewarded by its piquant conclusion: that the trajectory of Western history would have been entirely altered if the Jews had accepted Jesus. (Mar. 15) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
So why did the Jews reject Jesus? According to Klinghoffer, a contributor to the National Review, Jesus rejected the oral Torah-traditions the rabbis traced to God on Mount Sinai-and failed to fulfill scriptural predictions of the Messiah's accomplishments. Furthermore, St. Paul rejected the written Torah and thus moved the first-century Jesus Movement from a Jewish sect to a new religion. Klinghoffer concludes that "no authentic Messiah would inspire a religion that ended up calling upon the Jews to reject the manifest meaning of Sinai." However, he reasons that the Jewish rejection of Jesus resulted in a blessing for the world, as the new religion converted the pagan Roman Empire, which gave birth to Western civilization and ultimately to American democracy. Klinghoffer may be fairly faulted for denigrating Reform Judaism and for averting his eyes from the potential dangers of an alliance with Dispensationalist Evangelical theology, but in all other respects he has written an engaging, well-informed, and soundly reasoned book. Essential for every Christian and Jew who cares about the relations between the two faiths and highly recommended for all libraries.-Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The operative word is the fifth one of the title: Why the Jews rejected-instead of killed-Jesus. Klinghoffer (The Discovery of God, 2003, etc.) has a lot of well-meaning, goodhearted Christian friends who wonder why he, an observant Jew, doesn't accept Jesus as his personal savior. This is an apologia, a 200-page answer, to those friends' queries. The crux of the matter is that Jesus of Nazareth didn't accomplish what "the promised Messiah had been advertised as being destined to do from Daniel back through Ezekiel and Isaiah and the rest of the prophets." He didn't, for example, rule as a successful king and establish world peace. Klinghoffer takes readers on a cook's tour of Jewish-Christian history, showing not only why many Jews in the first century didn't hop on the Jesus train, but also why Jews in the medieval and modern periods have resisted Christians' often coercive, sometimes violent attempts to convert them. He has spiced up an otherwise historical account with the polemical claim hinted at in the Cahill-esque subtitle. If most first-century Palestinian Jews had accepted Jesus, then Paul would never have spread the Good News to Gentiles, and, in consequence, Christianity would have simply remained a Jewish sect and would have been overtaken by normative, rabbinic Judaism, eventually dying out. Europe, then, would have remained pagan, America might still be in the hands of indigenous people, and so on. This is all singularly silly, and its placement at the very beginning may well turn off some of the very readers Klinghoffer presumably wants to reach, his well-meaning Christian friends with their question about the Jews and Jesus as the Messiah. His book, to be sure, isn'tflawless. And that it does fill a real hole in the religion shelves, and that the fumes from Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christare sure to further pique readers' interest, make its flaws all the more disappointing. A readable, though also tendentious, foray into Jewish-Christian relations. Agent: Mildred Marmur/Mildred Marmur Associates
From the Publisher
“A bold and provocative claim, made with sharp prose and brutal honesty.” —D.C. Examiner

“Klinghoffer’s frank conviction lends his material urgency and narrative verve.” —Washington Post

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chapter one

Before Christ
Judaism in the Year 27

One of the curious things about Mel Gibson's Jesus movie, The Passion of the Christ, is the part the Jewish priestly establishment, headquartered in the Jerusalem Temple, plays in arresting Jesus and turning him over to the Romans. As viewers, we are supposed to be moved by this to personal repentance, recognizing our own sinfulness in the act of betrayal and violence. But the villainy of Gibson's Jews is hard to recognize because it makes no obvious sense. We are intended to believe the Temple priests are after Jesus because of a big dangerous following that's going to crown him Messiah, but nowhere in the film do these massively numbered followers ever make an appearance. From all the evidence of The Passion, you would think Jesus had about ten disciples, twenty maximum. So why were certain Jews so intent on seeing him dead? Gibson leaves us with no clear idea.

Much the same difficulty is posed by the Gospels themselves. From a straightforward contemplation of the text, it is not immediately clear what gets the Jews who object to Jesus so worked up. If we try to read the Gospels together, imagining them as forming a single integrated story (to the extent possible, since they are marked by disagreements as to narrative detail), we find the Jews mounting an emotional staircase leading from initial warmth, to puzzlement and perplexity, to distress, to self-righteous annoyance, and finally to a murderous rage.

When Jesus begins his ministry around the year 28, teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, the congregation at first "spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded from out of his mouth."(1) Then, on hearing more of his preaching, "all in the synagogue were filled with wrath."(2) Other Jews, however, were moved to follow him, and on one occasion his disciples and others stood about as he sat on a mountain—the Sermon on the Mount—at which "the crowds were astonished . . . for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."(3) The Pharisees, a Jewish faction whom we'll meet shortly, get wind of the interest and controversy Jesus is stirring up. They "murmur against his disciples," who are judged to be morally unsuitable.(4) When these self-righteous Jews find him overseeing the disciples, who are plucking grain in seeming violation of the Sabbath, "the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him."(5) When Jesus heals a man on a Sabbath, the same Jews again "went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him."(6) When Jesus seeks to justify himself, citing the authority of God, his "Father," then "the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God."(7)

We need to step back from our assumptions about the Gospel text. Through familiarity with the general story line—we all know Jesus had detractors among his fellow Jews—we tend to assume it was only natural that small-minded bigots would take offense at this spiritually uplifted, transcendent being. But if you try to imagine reading about the Jewish reaction to Jesus without bringing to bear the cultural background of Christianity, you'll see that, as one might say of characters in a novel, the outrage of Jesus's fellow Jews seems distinctly undermotivated. They want to kill him because he healed a man by faith on the Sabbath—something in itself that Jewish law does not forbid? Or because he called God his "Father"—when God is called "Father" of the Jewish people and of their kings many times in scripture and liturgy? What's the big deal?

In the next chapter, we'll see what reasons the Jews would really have had for turning away from, or against, Jesus. In the chapter after that, we'll address the question of whether or not they can be justly accused of having him killed. For now, we need to understand who those Jews actually were. Pharisees? Herodians? What do these names denote? When "the Jews" finally succeed in having Jesus arrested and brought to trial, his persecutors are described as priests and elders. It's impossible to understand how, at this initial stage, the Jews would actually have perceived Jesus without first having a sense of their context--historical and religious. We need to clarify how, historically, the Jewish people got to where they were in the year 27, the year before Jesus started his preaching career. And we need to know what their religion taught them to believe on four key points of special relevance to Jesus and his teachings.

The overall reception of Jesus among those who knew of him—doubt turning to outright hostility—was only in keeping with a general Jewish tendency evident in the nation's past. The Jews are an acidic people, inclined to debate and question. Their inherent, inherited skepticism may account for the fact that among ancient peoples they were the first to successfully critique and forever pull away from the dominant polytheism of their world. Jewish literature, preeminently the Bible, scorns the inadequate beliefs and customs of other peoples, though not limiting its thoroughgoing critique to non-Jews. On the contrary, in Hebrew scripture, the Jews themselves come in for the roughest treatment—their moral and other intellectual failings are held up for withering scrutiny. In short, as Jesus discovered if he didn't already know it, any claim you place before the Jews will be savagely critiqued. Of all the insults that their enemies through the millennia have leveled at the Jews, one thing they have never been accused of being is credulous.

Yet at the same time, they were not nihilists or cynics. With them, certain beliefs remained constants. It has been suggested that an indication of Judaism's plausibility as an account of God and man is this fact: that a skeptical people have nevertheless retained an unbroken tradition of faith in central doctrines. Strikingly, their belief system relied on an account of mass revelation. Jewish history begins at Mount Sinai, by traditional calculation in the year 1312 BCE. At Sinai, says the Bible, God spoke to some two million Jews. There is no record of dissent among the Jews, in any generation until very recently, on this basic point. The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus agreed that Torah—a word designating the first five books of the Bible but also a vast explanatory tradition—was received at Sinai by the children of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was this same "teaching" (which is what Torah literally means) that the Jews carried with them through history. They still possessed it in the year 27.

Let us, then, briefly review Jewish history from this perspective--as a narrative of the polarity between creed and critique, skepticism and secure knowledge.

Who were the people who gathered at Sinai to become the first Jews? Before the event of Sinai, there were no Jews per se. For it is the acceptance of the Torah that defines the Jewish people, in much the same way the publishing of the Declaration of Independence defines the American nation—so that before 1776, there were no Americans. Centuries before Sinai, God had made a covenant with Abraham, who by tradition was born in 1812 BCE. The patriarchal family under his grandson Jacob lived in the land of Canaan but went down to Pharaoh's kingdom initially to escape a famine and ended up dwelling there as slaves. After leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah at Sinai as free men, they resettled in Canaan.

There, Jacob's descendants finally established their own kingdom, that of King David and his son Solomon. The latter built God's Temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. But very quickly the kingdom split—around 900 BCE—into rival states: Israel in the north and Judah in the south, centered on Jerusalem. It was, right at the beginning of Jewish statecraft, one of the most painful instances of the people's factionalism, with both kingdoms arguing that they were the rightful inheritors of biblical tradition.

Hardly two centuries later, the northern kingdom was conquered and taken away to captivity in Assyria. These were the fabled ten lost tribes. Two centuries later, Judah was overthrown by Babylon, the Temple destroyed. The Judahites were themselves led off to captivity on the banks of the Euphrates River. Seventy years later, after Babylon was conquered by Persia under the Jewish-friendly king Cyrus, the Jews returned and built a second Temple.

In this period, from shortly before the exile of the ten tribes until shortly before the fall of the First Temple, from the eighth to the sixth century BCE, there arose the classical tradition of Hebrew prophecy. We may instinctively conceive of the prophets as men who foretold the future, but this is not really what prophecy is about. The prophets did limn future events, but they were much more concerned with self-critique: rooting out falsehood, demanding an adherence to religious truth. A modern writer, Norman Podhoretz, points out that Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the rest had as their overriding goal to free the Jewish people from a tendency to revert to the paganism of their ancestors or of the peoples around them. While this may make them seem bound by time and place—certainly today no one worships Ashera trees or idols to the god Baal—Podhoretz makes clear that idolatry manifests itself in every age, in one form or another. The essence of idolatry is setting up spiritual authorities in competition with, or to the negation of, God. Today, we might identify it with a strain of secularism, which has all the elements of a religion but one, a deity. The other pagan hallmarks are there: relativism, nature worship, sexual corruption, and a willingness to sacrifice children to the cause.

Jews have been fighting idolatry in its guises since their inception as a people. Typically, it was other Jews who were the advocates of spiritual deviance, and sometimes it was not at all obvious that they advocated the worship of other gods. In Jeremiah's time, in the lead-up to the destruction of the First Temple, certain false prophets took it as their main theme to assure the people that despite moral turpitude, they would enjoy peace. But a "peace" that does not satisfy God's will to see evil rooted out is not true peace. They made phony promises, saying, "'Peace! Peace!' But," declared Jeremiah, "there is no peace . . .  We may hope for peace, but there is no goodness; [we hope] for a time of healing, but behold, there is terror."(8)

Terror came, the Temple fell and was rebuilt. Later, through the conquests of Alexander the Great, the new Jewish land passed from Persian overlordship to Greek. At Alexander's death, in 323 BCE, his empire was divided. Initially the Jewish land was assigned to the Greek kingdom of the relatively easygoing Ptolemies. Subsequently it changed hands, coming under the power of another inheritor of Alexander's realm, the Seleucids.

Again we see the Jewish critical habit. The story is told in the biblical section called the Apocrypha, the first and second books of Maccabees (not found in Jewish Bibles). The Greek Seleucid kingdom was headquartered in Syria under the rule of the tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes. A Jewish elite in Jerusalem with social-climbing ambitions, wishing to emulate the Greeks with their cosmopolitan culture (Hellenism), began introducing elements of Greek secularism in the fields of athletics and education.

At first, the rewards of Hellenism were enjoyed only by an informally organized upper class. This self-consciously sophisticated smart set exercised in the new Greek gymnasium—naked discus throwing was the sport of choice. Jewish priests abandoned their sacerdotal duties and donned the latest Greek fashions. Embarrassed by the traditional ways of their ancestors, the chic urbanites even went so far as to have their circumcisions effaced through cosmetic surgery. They ended up opening Jerusalem's gates to Antiochus, who sacked the Temple treasury (where poor Jews had their money on deposit). To the applause of the radical Hellenizers, Antiochus outlawed Judaism altogether. Books of the Torah were burned, circumcision became a capital crime, and a pig was offered on a new pagan altar in the Temple itself.

The "critique" of Jewish Hellenism came from the party of the conservatives, the Maccabees, who revolted and initiated a civil war. The conflict pitted traditional religious values against secular values (the gymnasium, immodest dress or lack of dress, and other Greek fashions). While the progressives were driven as much by social ambition as by principle, the conservatives had numbers and passion on their side. They were ready to die in defense of their tradition. It is the victory of these religious fundamentalists, their establishment of the Hasmonaean dynasty, that Judaism celebrates at the holiday of Hanukkah.

The Jews kept on guard against departures from inherited truths. The essential conservatism of the Jewish religion combined naturally with the Jewish inclination to fierce ideological combat to produce frequent disturbances of the peace.

The rule of the Hasmoneans faded into that of the brutally dysfunctional Herod family, a client regime of the now dominant power in the Mediterranean world: Rome. Gone murderously mad in his later years, Herod slaughtered his wife and two male heirs. Altogether, it would be hard to imagine a more mendacious, jealous, backbiting, paranoid family. The acidic Jews objected to Herod on a variety of grounds, one being that he wasn't, strictly speaking, considered to be a Jew himself (his mother was an Arabian, his father an Idumaean, both doubtful converts), another being that he sought to eviscerate the religious authority of the rabbis, or Pharisees, by having them all (or almost all, says the Talmud) murdered. But the Jewish critique of Herod extended to more detailed matters, like the huge figure of a golden eagle (possibly symbolizing the Roman Empire) he affixed above the Great Gate to the Temple. A couple of rabbis encouraged their students to lower themselves by ropes and cut down the offending graven image—which they did, only to be caught by the king's soldiers before finishing the task and subsequently burned alive.

At his death, King Herod left upon the throne his son Aristobulus. This king was too wicked to be tolerated even if the alternative was direct Roman rule, for which the Jews finally opted. Rome absorbed Judea as part of the province of Syria, policed by Roman centurions who kept an eye on the Jewish population, not least on their Temple, from the sinister adjoining aerie of the fortress Antonia.

The Jews, not surprisingly, were restive with this situation. For the Roman occupiers, supervising them was no easy job, not least on the three yearly pilgrimage holidays when Jews from across the country and everywhere in the Diaspora flocked to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices in the Temple. Most of the pilgrims came armed and ready to find offense in Roman conduct. The Romans obliged. On a certain unlucky Passover, an imperial soldier mooned the assembled worshippers, showing them his rear end and making an obscene noise. The crowd went wild with indignation, the procurator sent in troops to put down the possible uprising, and a reported thirty thousand Jews died in the crush.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

David Klinghoffer, a columnist for the Jewish Forward, is the author of in The Lord Will Gather Me In and The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism. He lives on Mercer Island, Washington, with his wife and children.

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Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a rabbi who has been a student of Christianity since I was 8 years old. I've read a lot of articles, books and talked to a lot of people, trying to better understand the phenomenon which this book describes. This book is by far, BY FAR, the best I've come across. The style is clear, concise and poignant. The author doesn't shy away from some pretty remarkable hypotheses, but always with accompanying proof. I've always considered myself somewhat knowledgeable about the origins of Christianity and its break from its 'mother'. But Mr. Klinghoffer taught me a lot more, and any open-minded reader hopefully will have a similar experience. Definitely a must for synagogues, churches and academic settings. Rabbi Cary Kozberg Columbus, Ohio
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You will find yourself thinking about things you never would have considered before. Read with an open mind and do you research.
Aggie2010 More than 1 year ago
While I don't like the title (I think the word "rejected" is a bit harsh and has a negative connotation to it), this was a very interesting read. I learned a lot about Judaism, Jewish history, as well as Christian history. It was interesting to read why Jews of Jesus' time didn't believe that he was the Messiah, why Jews after Jesus' time to modern times do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and how Paul changed the early "Jewish Christian" movement into what we now know as Christianity. He uses scripture after scripture to make his points and relies on the writings of Jewish and Christian scholars and historians. I also appreciated that he incorporates Christian counter arguments to the points he is making and answers those Christian arguments with scripture and historical facts. I will admit that some parts were a little hard to get through. Some sections got bogged down in history and some of the subject matter went over my head. While you may or may not agree with him, it is an incredibly fascinating read. It really makes you question and re-evaluate what you know.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a well written factually based book that can open your eyes and your mind.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I am a Jew, I fervently believe this book is a must read for all sincere christians who want to understand why Jews do not see Jesus as the Messiah prophesized in the Hebrew Bible.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a student of religion and this short book taught me more about the birth of Christianity and the interaction with Jews, than all other books combined.