Provoked to Jealousy
Recently a friend of mine asked me to read and review David Klinghoffer’s Why The Jews Rejected Jesus. This was no academic exercise since my friend is Jewish. If Klinghoffer’s arguments were correct, there was no room for Jesus in a Jewish world. I happily took on the project because it reminded me of a very important passage in Paul. In Romans Paul suggests that the behavior and beliefs of the Gentiles should provoke the Jews to jealousy, causing them to turn to Yeshua as their Messiah and accept the Gentiles who were joining the Way with open arms. If Klinghoffer is right, there is absolutely no reason for a Jew to recognize Jesus as anything but an affront to Judaism. Certainly, there are no grounds for Paul to appeal to Gentile believers to act as provoking agents for change.
Before we look at Klinghoffer’s arguments, we need to say something about the fundamental premise employed by most Christians regarding the “salvation” of the Jews. That premise is really quite simple: Jews need to become Christians. In other words, Jews need to give up their Judaism and “convert” to Christianity, adopting Jesus as the savior of the world and, consequently, their personal savior as well. A great number of Christian evangelistic efforts are aimed at precisely this “conversion” experience for Jews. Implied in this stance is the idea that Judaism has been replaced by Christianity, that Israel no longer has a unique function in the world and that God’s plan is proceeding with the help of Gentile Christians (although eventually all really righteous Jews will somehow be “saved”). The age of Israel has come to a close. These are the days of the ascendancy of the Gentile “church.” Jews need to join Gentiles, not the other way around.
Of course, a more informed reading of the New Testament throws a lot of cold water on this evangelical fervor. Nowhere in the writings of the apostles is there any suggestion that Jews need to be converted to Christianity. In fact, it is rather common these days to point out that there are no references to “Christianity” in the New Testament and none of the New Testament authors, or Jesus Himself, ever called themselves Christians. Paul has the right nomenclature when he says that he is a follower of the “Way, a so-called sect of Judaism.” If Kinghoffer wishes to press the point that Christians today generally expect Jews to abandon their history in order to “convert” to a new religion, he is unfortunately generally correct. This has been the stance of many Christians, even though it is clearly not based on Scripture. I have no rebuttal for Klinghoffer’s objection at this point. I have only apologies. Christians over the course of thousands of years have contributed significantly to the implicit anti-Semitism in this theology bent. It’s time to ask forgiveness and get on with Paul’s assignment – provoking to jealousy.
What reasons does Kinghoffer give for the Jewish rejection of Jesus? A brief history of Judaism introduces the first reason for rejection. Judaism is a religion of the book, specifically the Torah. Jesus, according to Christian understanding, rejected the Torah. Anyone who rejects the Torah cannot be considered a candidate as the long-awaited Messiah. Therefore, the Jews were justified, and right, to reject Jesus. Klinghoffer argues that it is a good thing the Jews rejected Jesus since their rejection resulted in the formation of Christianity and its positive impact on the world, a sort of twisted-around ethical rational. Of course, Christian teaching that Jesus abolished, completed or removed the necessity of Torah would certainly be grounds for a Jewish rejection. As Heschel points out, “A Jew without Torah is obsolete.” But the Christian claim that Jesus rejected the Torah stands of shaky ground, depending on a replacement theology that cannot be justified from the New Testament text. Klinghoffer includes both written and oral Torah in his charge, but apparently he is willing to accept the Christian interpretation of the crucial New Testament passages rather than actually examine the passages from their Jewish perspective. If the common Christian interpretation of “law versus grace” were correct, then Klinghoffer would also be correct. Jews should refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah. But the common Christian interpretation is not correct (as is clearly the case from the evidence that thousands of Torah-observant Jews did accept Jesus as the Messiah). If Klinghoffer bases his analysis on the Christians after 200AD, we must agree. But after 200AD the Christian church was a very different animal than its original form following the death and resurrection of Yeshua. Since rejection of “Jesus” depends primarily on what Jesus taught, Klinghoffer’s argument is insufficient. No Jew could accept the “Christian” version of Jesus and remain Jewish, but the Christian version of Jesus isn’t the Jesus of Scripture.
The second reason Klinghoffer offers is suspicion about the reported miracles of Jesus. He questions the actual occurrence of the miracles recorded in the gospels but suggest that, even if they did occur, they are not convincing proof that the Christian claim about Jesus is true. Why does he suggest this? He asserts that there is little independent evidence for the claims of miracles (and if they really did happen, he expects to find a much wider acknowledgement) and he states that the Hebrew Scriptures suggest that false prophets will be able to perform miracles. Therefore, Jews would be suspicious of any miracle-worker unless that miracle-worker backed up his performance with other indisputable evidence. Klinghoffer outlines what that evidence must be in subsequent discussion.
While the debate over miracles begins to sound a bit like the scientific materialism of a contemporary worldview, the real motivation behind Klinghoffer’s objection is not necessarily the miraculous but rather that character and teaching of the miracle-worker. In other words, since Klinghoffer believes that Jesus rejected the oral Torah and quite possibly some of the written Torah (although he seems ambivalent on this), such a rejection brands Jesus as a false prophet and therefore vitiates any claims based on miracles. No miracle-worker can be considered orthodox if he censures any part of the larger Torah. This reasoning is quite myopic since it also disqualifies as Jewish every Karaite Jew (orthodox Jews who hold that only the written Torah is authoritative). It reveals Klinghoffer’s real objection, an objection that undergirds all the other arguments. To be Jewish is to embrace Torah. If Jesus did not embrace Torah, then no Jew can accept him as the true Messiah.
The third justification for rejection comes as a result of Klinghoffer’s analysis of “fulfilled prophecy” in the gospels. Noting that the authors of the gospels take great liberties with the Hebrew text, modifying it to fit their purposes, Klinghoffer suggests that these men did not acknowledge the historical application of the texts in question. Their use of Hebrew texts is therefore disqualified, demonstrating that any orthodox Jew would recognize this fallacy and therefore reject the supposed claim. According to Klinghoffer, Jews of the first century would have understood that these prophecies applied to Israel or some other historical figure and could not have applied to the man, Jesus. Klinghoffer focuses especially on Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. His conclusion is that the authors of the gospels would clearly have been seen as manipulators of the text and therefore illegitimate in using these prophecies. But Klinghoffer acknowledges that by 70AD there were many thousands of followers of Yeshua within Israel. Are we to assume that all of these followers were somehow duped by a few devotees of Jesus? The evidence demands more explanation than this. Furthermore, Klinghoffer points out that rabbinic exegesis does not follow the patterns of contemporary Western exegesis, but he apparently forgets that the gospel authors were doing precisely what the rabbis had done for hundreds of years, that is, using texts from Hebrew Scriptures as midrash.
In concert with this claim is the suggestion that Jesus is rejected because he does not come with the required rabbinic pedigree. Klinghoffer suggests that Jews would refuse to accept his teaching because it had no authoritative history behind it. This fact is openly acknowledged in the gospels, and (as Klinghoffer points out) many Jews did reject Jesus on this basis. But does that make them right in doing so? Where was the pedigree for Moses or Elijah or Hosea or Jeremiah? This point is true, but extremely weak.
Klinghoffer’s rational for rejection continues with the claim that the Messiah must come with power at the end of history and change the face of the world. Jesus obviously did not do this. The nations did not flock to Zion to worship the true God. Klinghoffer acknowledges the rabbinic insight that there are two Messiahs, ben yosef and ben david, but he claims that there is no rabbinic reaching that a dead Messiah (ben yosef) will somehow become the triumphant and victorious Messiah ben david. Even the resurrection is insufficient to overcome this objection since interpreting the resurrection as a proof that Jesus is the Messiah requires a re-interpretation of Scripture outside the Jewish understanding of the text. In other words, to view Scripture as prophecy fulfilled by Jesus requires “opening the minds” of those who would believe and this “makes sense only if what [Jesus] meant to do was found a new religion” (p. 87). Klinghoffer notes that Jesus did not mean to found a new religion. Therefore, the manipulation of the text by his followers is invalid. In this specific case, “the resurrection works as a proof that Jesus was ‘the Christ’ only if you have already accepted his authority to render interpretations of scripture contrary to the obvious meaning of the words” (p. 87). But this requires Klinghoffer to ignore the standard PaRDeS format of Jewish Scripture, employed by countless rabbis to demonstrate that the surface meaning (the “obvious” meaning) is not the only level of meaning of a text. New Testament authors employ rabbinic techniques in the same way that the rabbis did. Klinghoffer ignores this fact because interpreting the text is not the real issue here. The real issue is the overthrow of Torah. Therefore, he can assert that no verse in the prophets “unambiguously” presents the resurrection as a criterion for recognizing the Messiah. But lack of ambiguity does not prevent Jewish rabbis from applying texts to new situations, so Klinghoffer’s claim, even if true, is irrelevant. Therefore, his further claims that there were not enough witnesses to the resurrection or the resurrected Christ to suppose the event even occurred is also irrelevant. Even Jewish law requires only two eyewitnesses to establish a fact. Klinghoffer’s discussion of the resurrection sounds much like modern critics of the miraculous. He reveals his real motivation when he says, “Later generations of Jews were asked by Christians to give up the whole structure of their faith, the Sinai covenant, centered on the commandments that God had given them to believe would be eternal (p. 88). “So how could his resurrection demonstrate that God has cancelled Sinai?” (p. 89). “The Jewish rejection of the Jewish Jesus was one thing, with its own reasons. The Jewish rejection of the Christian Jesus, the Jesus of the church once it had been established under gentile auspices, is quite another” (p. 89). To which I can only add, “Yes, Jesus was Jewish and a careful examination of the New Testament without the Christian paradigm will demonstrate that he is aligned with Torah. And Yes, the Christian Jesus is not Jewish and Jews are perfectly correct in rejecting him.” The issue is not what the church says about Jesus the Jew. The issue is that the church has denied Jesus his Jewish lifestyle.
With this in mind, Klinghoffer proceeds to discuss Paul. Here the real argument comes boldly forth. Klinghoffer claims that Paul was a charlatan, that he probably didn’t read or speak Hebrew, that he could not have been a student of Gamaliel, that he was an apostate from Judaism, that Paul rejected the Jews in favor of the Gentiles and that it is Paul who is really responsible for the theology of the Christian church. “Acceptance of Paul, not Jesus, in other words, marks the breaking point between those who still practiced a version of Judaism and those who had abandoned their mother faith. Paul’s teaching spelled the end of any Jesus-based religion that could still claim to be ‘Jewish’” (p. 93). Klinghoffer does his best to cast aspersions and doubt on everything Paul claims about himself, including personal integrity. Why? Because Klinghoffer accepts the Christian interpretation of Paul’s letters, especially Galatians, as the repudiation of Torah. He reasons, correctly, that no Pharisee of the Pharisees could ever claim to be Jewish and at the same time reject the fundamental tenet of Judaism – Torah.
“The church stood at a crossroads. Under James and the circumcisers, it might have remained, in its attitude toward Judaism, what the Jesus movement had been during the latter’s own lifetime: opposed to the authority of the rabbis and of the oral tradition, but otherwise loyal to the practice of the commandments found in the written Torah. [note – in other words, they might be what Karaite Jews are today.] . . . Another faction in the church was developing under the influence of Paul. Rejected by the Jews, he took his preaching to the gentiles. In his hands, the message was suitably reshaped, the requirements of Torah jettisoned. . . . Notably lacking was the requirement to be circumcised” (p. 98). Klinghoffer considers the first Jerusalem council to be the turning point. Heavily influenced by Paul, he claims that James accepted this new direction and issued the four stipulations for the entry of Gentiles, none of which included Torah observance. “We have what is effectively the founding document of Western civilization” (p. 98). “With the demands of the faith whittled down to three – and two of these, the ones having to do with food, would themselves be lifted – the new church was all set to accomplish what it did: over the course of some centuries, convert all of Europe. Had the “circumcision party’ prevailed, the continent as a whole would have remained pagan, with all that implies. None of the achievements in culture, law, morality or science associated with the rise of the church would have taken place, at least not in the form in which we know them” (p. 99). Apparently Klinghoffer believes that the progress of Mankind is sufficient to outweigh Man’s abandonment of God’s instructions. I am not sure this is a very “Jewish” view of priorities.
Klinghoffer’s objection to Pauline Christianity is based on a misrepresentation of Paul, but it is a misrepresentation that the church has endorsed for centuries so his invectives against the Christianized Paul are understandable.
“[Paul] presented himself as an exponent of, and an expert in, their faith [the faith of the Jews], but what he really sought to so was undermine it from within. While maintaining, in broad outline, some of the major assumptions of Judaism, he otherwise wished to hollow out the accepted meaning of the Hebrew scriptures, replacing it with a new religion albeit fitted out in biblical trappings. This was internal subversion” (pp. 106-107). If Klinghoffer’s interpretation of Paul is correct, and it is what the Church taught for centuries, then Paul is guilty of sedition and every Jew on the planet should reject his portrayal of Jesus and the Church.
Klinghoffer’s opinion of Paul is formed through the eyes of Christian theologians. Therefore, Klinghoffer can say, “[The Jews of the first century] regarded him as a faker who didn’t understand the faith he so passionately critiqued. And they were right” (p. 115).
In the end, it comes to this: Christian rejection of Torah is grounds for rejecting the Christian Jesus. Anyone who claims otherwise does not understand the centrality of Torah in Judaism. So, where does this leave us? Are we doing all we can to reconcile with our brothers and sisters who have been faithfully serving God for thousands of years, or are we holding on to the “Christian” interpretation, insisting that they become idolaters in order to accept our Messiah?