Responses to Jesus: The Jewish "No!
and the Christian "Yes"
By Robert Anderson
is the central argument of this paper and the firm conviction of its
author that both the Jewish "No" and the Christian "Yes" are valid
responses to the Church's proclamation that centres upon Jesus of
Though such an assertion may surprise
some and disturb others, there is nothing novel in it. It is no less
than the logical outcome of the increasing number of individual Church
and ecumenical statements that have appeared during the past three or
four decades. Nor is anything new in what is written here. The issue of
whether the Church may legitimately continue to entertain exclusivist
claims has been canvassed by many leading Christian scholars in recent
The publications in which their
contributions have appeared are, in the main, not readily accessible to
the general church community and, as a consequence, there has been
little if any open discussion of the matter.
It is probably also correct to say
that there has been a reluctance on the part of some scholars to seek a
more public forum because of the heavy investment that so many
Christians have in the traditional claim that redemption is through
Jesus Christ and through him alone. The mid-third century dictum of
Cyprian of Carthage that "Outside the Church there is no salvation"
continues to bubble along just below the surface.
Moreover, there is easy recourse to
certain New Testament texts which appear to offer unequivocal biblical
support for the exclusivist point of view. Some of these are dealt with
a little later in this paper.
The Jewish "No"
There is no question at all that the almost unanimous response of Jews
throughout our common history has been a resounding and emphatic "No" to
whatever form it was in which they were faced with Christian claims.
That Jesus' compatriots should
respond in this way is something that the Church, in general, has found
difficult to comprehend. Indeed, it has not only been difficult, it has
been disturbing to the point where it has been met with charges of
Jewish recalcitrance, obstinacy and blindness. Is it possible that the
savage vehemence of the language of such ecclesiastical leaders as the
fourth-century John Chrysostom and the sixteenth-century Martin Luther
betrays some sense of insecurity, some niggling doubt about their own
Despite all the confidence of the Christian claims, despite all the
vicissitudes of Jewish history, despite every pressure on them to
convert, this ancient people continued to express their identity and to
practice their faith.
To their opponents this has been a
clear sign of innate obduracy, if not of divine rejection. Since the
time of Augustine the Church had become accustomed to interpreting the
precarious and often degraded position of Jews within Christendom as
divine retribution for their negative response to Jesus. Even as noble a
spirit as Dietrich Bonhoeffer found no difficulty in linking Jewish
suffering to their rejection of Christ. Only their conversion could
release them from this divinely ordained state.
The point I am making is that,
overall, the Church's attitude to Jews and Judaism has not been divorced
from its own self-understanding. Seldom has Judaism been allowed to have
an integrity of its own. All too often it has been seen as the obverse
of Christianity, of what Christianity is not. Even this article, with
its concentration upon the Jewish "No", runs that same risk.
What may redeem it, to some degree at
least, is that space will be given to an examination or description,
albeit a very brief one, of Judaism in its own right. But, for the
moment, we note that for a Christian it is not possible, as it is for a
Jew, to break the nexus between Christianity and Judaism. Why this
should be so is not difficult to fathom. It comes down to this: Jesus
was a Jew.
It is a commonplace of modern New
Testament studies to emphasise the Jewishness of Jesus. It is refreshing
to be reminded that he was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and that he died a
Jew, albeit at a very early age, on the Roman charge of sedition.
The emphasis in any scholarly study
of Jesus is now placed on those aspects of his life which see him in
solidarity with his own people, at one with them in worship in synagogue
and temple, and engaging with others, not least Pharisees, in
argumentation about the proper interpretation of Torah.
But not only was Jesus a Jew, so too were his initial disciples and his
earliest followers. Here was a positive Jewish response to him that must
be permitted to qualify what was said at the beginning of this paper.
But who was the Jesus, what was the Jesus to whom some of his fellow
Jews responded and who later were prepared to carry a message about him
to others, even beyond their own homeland? The confidence and
forcefulness with which the Christian Church has proclaimed its message
of Jesus as Universal Redeemer, Son of God and the Christ has served to
obscure the fact that what cannot be ascertained are such central issues
as Jesus' self-understanding, what he claimed of himself and what he set
out to accomplish. What can be said with some measure of certainty is
that it is highly unlikely that he saw himself as the Saviour of the
world or Son of God in its later acquired sense or even as the Messiah
All of these are claims that have
been made about him by those who have seen in his crucifixion something
more than our ordinary death and who sensed his ongoing presence beyond
that tragic event. In other words, the Jesus who is and has been
proclaimed by the church is, as Paul van Buren has aptly put it, "the
testified-to-Jesus", first by his earliest followers and then by their
But a distinction has to be made
between those two groups, that is, the earliest proclaimers and their
successors. The former made their claims about him in the context of
their own Judaism. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles we are
informed that these earliest believers continued to worship in the
Temple. Though their proclamation of Jesus and their claims to heal in
this name did arouse opposition from time to time, there is no
indication that at an early stage there arose the kind of tension that
was to lead eventually to a parting of the ways.
That was a breach that occurred
because of one important factor, namely, the admission of gentiles as
members of the Jesus movement. When questions of Torah observance, not
least the practice of circumcision and the dietary rules began to take
centre stage, whatever tensions existed were greatly exacerbated.
When, in the post-79 period, Judaism
was faced with the monumental task of reconstruction, the issue of
Jewish identity assumed an importance that could not tolerate the kind
of compromises that would have accommodated the position adopted by some
of the embryonic church's leaders.
It is the development towards this
position with its concomitant apologetic and polemic that is reflected
in the writings of the New Testament, not least in the four gospels. In
these circumstances it is understandable that the Jesus portrayed is
made to serve the purpose of the writers and that he should be
represented less as a faithful Jew than as an adversary of his own
religion. What Jesus claimed for himself, how he understood his own
mission, whether as charismatic Galilean leader, internal reformer,
eschatological prophet or whatever, becomes obscured by the needs and
the outlook of the gospel writers and their communities.
This "testified-to Jesus" loses much
of his Jewishness and much also of any appeal to possible Jewish
followers. What is more, there arises within the splinter group, the
group that has been forced to break away from the parent body, a pattern
of claims and accusations which has come to be associated with the
outlook and behaviour of sectarian movements.
When recourse is had to certain New
Testament texts which appear to support an exclusivist Christian
position these must be examined in light of the context in which they
emerged. Statements attributed to Jesus such as his claim to be ". . .
the way and the truth and the life" without whom there is no access to
the Father (John 14.6) lose their exclusivist tendency when seen in the
context in which they arose.
The Jewish "Yes" to Judaism
Far more significant than the Jewish "No" to Jesus is the Jewish "Yes"
to Judaism. This is the affirmation of a continuing commitment to the
historic covenant and to the Torah of the God of Israel.
The importance of this latter point
has been implicitly recognised, at least, in quite a number of the
recent Church statements. There is a sense in which such an observation
tends to be patronising but it is a step in the right direction. Yet
there are two factors, in particular, that prevent the churches from
recognising the full significance of the continuing and persistent
Jewish "Yes" to Judaism. These factors are:
The age-old belief that in the
person of Jesus of Nazareth, the promises (predictions?) within the
Hebrew Scriptures (in this context the Old Testament) are fulfilled;
and the assertion that Judaism
served as a preliminary to the rise of Christianity, that it is a
truncated religion offering itself for fulfilment beyond itself.
The arguments against both of the
above positions are overwhelming but, necessarily, can be treated only
very briefly here.
On the first point, the links that
have been made between the two testaments, within the New Testament
itself and in Church teaching and proclamation, do not stand the test of
close scholarly scrutiny.
What we find might be put succinctly
in this way:
Certain texts or statements
within the Hebrew Scriptures which are entirely removed from their
initial context and pressed into a quite different service, for
example, the use of Isaiah 7.14 in support of a virgin birth.
Some Hebrew Bible passages that
provide the type of language that serves the purpose of the New
Testament writer; for example, the use of Isaiah Chapter 53 as
predictive of the suffering of Jesus.
Hebrew Bible texts which are
"played out" so to speak, as predictive of certain events in the life
of Jesus, for example, the association of his birth not with Nazareth
but with Bethlehem (Micah 5.2) and the use of Zechariah 9.9 as
background to a putative triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
The list and the examples might go on
and on. Taken individually these "non-fulfilment" texts lack consequence
but taken cumulatively they beckon us to change our approach
theologically. I should add that this altered theological perspective
provides no threat whatsoever to the fundamental truth of Christianity,
a point we shall come to a little later.
On the second point, that of the
"temporary" significance of Judaism within the divine purpose, what I
offer here are no more than a few pointers which may be helpful to
Christian readers who have not as yet considered these matters. The
brief observations are:
The categories of one religion
should not be used in any attempt to understand or describe another.
Many of the terms commonly used in Christianity may be misleading if
applied to Judaism and sometimes the same word may have different
connotations. A good example is "salvation".
Judaism is not some kind of
obverse of Christianity i.e. all the things that the latter is not.
Judaism is not a religion of
works-righteousness (Christian terminology) in contrast to
Christianity as a religion of grace. We worship and serve the same
God, the God of Abraham, Sarah and Jesus of Nazareth.
Judaism is not a credal
religion. It does not contain dogma or doctrine except in the most
obvious sense of belief in the one, true God.
Though Judaism is bound to the
Hebrew Bible it is not bound by it in the sense that nothing has
happened since biblical times.
Judaism embraces all the
writings of the periods of the Sages, the Rabbis and their successors.
This material is found initially in the Mishnah, the Gemara
(together forming the two Talmuds) and the Midrashim.
- The Torah and its
interpreted expansion is not a "means of salvation" in a Christian
sense but is guidance in obedience to the God of the Covenant i.e. it
provides "the way to walk" (Halakhah).
Central to Jewish practice is
the sanctification of the Divine Name and the tikkun haiolam, �the
mending of the world�. This requires an active response.
The God of Judaism is the God
of love, of mercy and of justice. Repentance and forgiveness are no
less a part of Judaism than they are of Christianity. So too is the
hope of the establishing of the Kingdom (Rule) of God an essential
part of Judaism.
Again, this list could go on and on.
The chief purpose in what has been written is to counter the harmful
caricature of Judaism that is so often presented to Christians, and to
indicate that all these things that Christians hold dear are present in
Judaism, albeit expressed in different ways, but serving the same
purpose: the worship and service of the one, true God.
There is nothing lacking. Had Judaism
come to an end with the rise of Christianity the world would have been
immeasurably the poorer; so too Christianity, for the new relationship
increases our ancient debt.
Much more could be written on this topic, indeed, much more should be
written, but perhaps sufficient has been said to justify the assertion
that far more significant than the Jewish "No" to Jesus is the
continuing Jewish "Yes" to Judaism.
The Christian "Yes" to Jesus
By definition a Christian is a person who has said "Yes" to Jesus as the
Christ of God. I should wish to go on to say that it is "Yes" to Jesus
as the Christ for her or for him as a Christian. It is, above all else,
a faith statement and any principle of verification that may be applied
must operate within that circumscribed domain.
Moreover, what is meant by the title
�the Christ� is not necessarily immediately recognisable. It is, of
course, an important theological issue for the church but it is not one
that may, or should, be attended to independently of the context out of
which it arose and that context has religious, political and social
dimensions. Indeed, every claim about who Jesus is for the Christian
must be examined within that multifaceted context.
For example, of what importance is it
that at the time of the early Church it was customary for the Roman
emperor, upon death, to be deified or that the notion of a descending
Saviour God had currency in the Graeco-Roman religious culture of that
period as too the acceptance of hero virgin births then and earlier?
What, then, is the central
significance of the Christian's positive response? It is this: that the
God of Jesus and of his compatriots of all eras has become the God of
the nations, bringing to fruition the divine promise to Abraham (Genesis
12.3). The God of Abraham is also the God of the Christian.
In this sense there is fulfilment of
the ancient promise of the Hebrew Scriptures in what is centrally
witnessed to in the New Testament. When Jesus, as a Jew prays "Our
Father in heaven . . ." we pray with him what is substantially a Jewish
prayer. We are drawn into this experience but we come as later-carriers,
as those who have received more than they can ever give. For that reason
alone Christian mission to Jews is theologically untenable.
As Jesus included in his ministry a
call to the lost sheep of Israel, so is that call extended by the early
evangelists, not least Paul, to the lost sheep of the nations, to the
Gentiles. It is done in the name of Jesus upon whom may be conferred the
title, the Christ, the Anointed one of God, not in the sense of one who
is supposedly presaged in the Hebrew Bible but as one through whom
redemption has spread out to the nations.
This understanding of the role of
Jesus Christ does not call in question the Jewish "No" nor should it
ever trespass on the Jewish "Yes" to Judaism. Together we hope and work
for that messianic regime which is the fulfilment of the divine purpose
(see 1 Corinthians 15.20-28 for the poetic presentation of this hope).
No person's faith should ever be held at the expense of that of another
and most assuredly not at the expense of that of another community of
If we would allow our imaginations to
take us beyond the ancient biblical world with its religious signs and
symbols, however important, beyond the restricting world of a
"three-decker" universe with its heaven and earth and hell, beyond even
the world of Copernicus; if we would do that and reflect upon the nature
of the universe as we know it, upon its endless magnitude and infinite
diversity, then, surely our common response to God would be one of awe
and, above all else, one of humility. We would rejoice with the
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! �
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established,
what are human beings that you are mindful of them
(mere) mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8.1, 3, 4).
Robert Anderson is a minister of the Uniting Church in Australia and was
Professor of Old Testament Studies at Ormond College, University of