In this article, Clive Lawton looks at Jesus and Christianity from his personal viewpoint as a Jew.
By Clive LawtonLast updated 2009-06-23
In this article, Clive Lawton looks at Jesus and Christianity from his personal viewpoint as a Jew.
My first encounter with Jesus was in primary school Nativity plays. Teachers desperately - kindly - tried to find me theologically uncontroversial roles - a sheep or a donkey perhaps - but, in the end, they all had to face up to the limits of Jewish-Christian togetherness, I helped with make-up or costume, and the line was drawn.
A few years later, my second encounter was furtive, clandestine. Officially withdrawn from my school assemblies, which were all of a mainly Christian character, I was fascinated by the only thing that seemed to enliven my peers as they poured out of the school hall. "We had a parallel today." Years later, I found out that the word was 'parable', but they might have been right in the first place, even so.
So I snuk in in the hope of 'having a parallel' too. And sure enough, I struck lucky. I don’t remember which it was, but I do remember huge disappointment. It was just another of the commonplace midrashim or hasidic tales I'd been brought up on - "There was once a king..." or "A rich man had two sons..." The only difference was the tedious, pedestrian insistence with which the headmistress explained us all to death after telling it.
Then a slightly more organised encounter - the back page of the Eagle comic. For a long time, the back page serialised great lives - Gordon of Khartoum, Nelson, Henry the Fifth, Jesus. Jesus in this comic strip story glowed amongst the glowering Semitic throng. Though I didn't recognise myself or any of my family in the crowd, I knew enough to recognise that anyone who didn't follow this blond, hunky but gentle, apotheosis was obtuse, stupid or, like the Mekon from Mars on the front page of the Eagle, simply committed to evil. However, having been nurtured in the business of living in two worlds, none of this impacted on the warm, coherent, joyous, Pharisaic inheritance than I was living in mid-20th century Britain.
Years later, I was at secondary school. My dearest friends were a Baptist and a Christadelphian. Somehow I felt I owed them the respect of reading the New Testament so that I'd know what moved them. So one weekend, going at the same pace as an orthodox Jew says his prayers or anyone might read a light novel on holiday, I whizzed through the Book. It was so Jewish! The arguments, the examples, the proofs, the preoccupations - I recognised them all as belonging more to my world than anything I had yet identified as Christian.
While reporting back to my friends about my impressions, I speculated on what might have happened to Jesus's children. "He didn’t have any. He was unmarried," they chorused. "Of course he was," I said. "I've just read it." But they were convinced - and so I had to reread and, sure enough, nothing.
It took me some years to realise that I was so convinced Jesus was married because it didn't explicitly say he wasn't. From my point of view, from the Jewish point of view, to get to 30 and not be married requires comment and explanation!
And the reason I made such unexamined assumptions was because I recognised Jesus's life described in the Gospels. I even felt immediately comfortable with the oh-so-Jewish, unselfconscious telling of the same story in four different gospels, from four different contradictory angles - as a tiny fraction, a glimpse into the world of the Talmud, snatched out and wondered over, a brief second in the span of time.
I easily recognised the Last Supper as most probably a Passover Seder (especially since Easter coincides with Pesakh), but had to wonder how come Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem, according to the Gospels, about six days earlier, but with all the crowd behaviour of six months earlier, the festival of Sukkot - Tabernacles - when we wave palm branches and sing Hoshana - Save us?
I was even more puzzled by why everyone seemed to get so heated about whether or not Jesus thought he was the Son of God - aren't we all? - or even the Messiah - might not anyone be? And each gospel had its own angle, its own story. I could see, even at 17, what Matthew was doing. He was proving that all the prophecies relating to the Messiah were manifest in Jesus. Virgin birth? Tick. White donkey? Tick. Hanged on a tree? Tick. But I'd never been taught as a Jew to pay much attention to these details of messianic credential. How will we know the Messiah? Easy. The world will be at peace. Cross.
I could see Luke floundering in Jewish preoccupations he couldn't fathom. What were they all squabbling about? But with Mark and John, I felt more at home.
The world Mark describes sounds not dissimilar from the world I know from the Talmud and the Midrash, those compendia of rabbinic debate, quoting about 1000 rabbis, spanning nearly a 1000 years.
I recognised the pleasure in argument and verbal honing, the clever use of prooftexts, the camaraderie and generosity underlying disagreements, as the rabbis call them, for the sake of Heaven. I couldn't detect anything much Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark which couldn't also be found in the mouth of some rabbi - I want to say, some other Rabbi - in these great treasure stores of the Jewish relationship with revelation.
John's worldview is different. But I recognised it too. It carries all the cheerful anachronism of Midrash to prove its point. Just like John's contemporaries, the Rabbis of the Midrash, could have the twins, Jacob and Esau, struggle in Rebecca's womb as they respectively passed Houses of Study and gambling houses, despite the fact that they didn't - couldn't - have existed back then, mere historical precision is not the point. It's not so much the story of Jesus but a commentary, a didactic, a polemic on the story of Jesus.
By the time John writes, decades later, nuances are resolved into simple clarities. Them and us. 'The Jews' are now clearly the villains of the piece. Pilate - vicious, nasty, oppressive Pilate - nearly qualifies as a proto-Saint. In Mark, 'the Jews' includes Jesus and the disciples and just about everybody else. In John, they become the enemy.
But that's clearly not how Jesus saw them. The Scribes and the Pharisees are his natural peers and he is clearly at home amongst them. The Pharisees were worker-teachers, proletarian democratisers of the tradition, cultivating the synagogue, prayer and good deeds as the means by which any Jew could secure salvation and by which the messianic age would be hastened. And not just any Jew.
"The righteous of all nations will inherit the World to Come," they taught. They claimed that God silenced his angels in heaven when they tried to praise him at the downfall of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. "There will be no rejoicing in my heavens at even the necessary destruction of my creatures", I learnt as a Jewish child, as those Pharisaic teachings rolled through the millennia to me.
These Pharisees taught the people in the marketplaces. The best of them had huge followings. They were ambivalent about eschatological talk. Would it distract ordinary folk from living the good life in the here and now? Would it stir up unnecessary conflict with the Roman rulers and occupiers? If all Jews could be helped to make the best of the world they lived in, wouldn’t the coming of the Messiah look after itself?
Inheriting the prophetic tradition, they condemned hypocrisy and the excesses of the Temple industry. They loved the Temple and felt it to be the pinnacle of what was possible in God kissing the lips of the Jewish people and, through them, the world. But they certainly did not always condone the behaviour of the priests and their priestly party, the Sadducees. Indeed, the Talmud records an occasion one Sukkot, the festival of Tabernacles, when the obviously Pharisaically-educated and inspired crowd pelted the high priest as he mis-performed part of the ritual which had popular significance.
Passions ran high in those days. Religious details mattered. And they still do. When I read the account of Jesus being expelled from the synagogue for preaching something the crowd didn't like, I didn't even realise this was supposed to be controversial. I bet the Jewish Jesus - the one I recognise - would have been back the following week arguing the toss all over again.
So, who then, do I, a practising Jew, think Jesus was? Even that question, of course, is Jewish. A Christian would be as interested, even more interested perhaps, in who Jesus is, not who he was.
But before I answer, I have to say that this is not the kind of question that Jews would ever bother to ask ourselves. After all, how often do Christians challenge themselves with questions as to where they would place Muhammad in their pantheon? Most Christians, quite reasonably, would say, "He doesn't come into our frame of reference." For the sake of peace and goodwill between communities, they might concede or agree that Muhammad was a good man or a great prophet or whatever, but it wouldn't be a Christian statement. So it is with Jews and Jesus.
So, from my very Jewish take on the world, who - what - was he?
Over the years, my view of Jesus has become a little more subtle than it was thirty and more years ago, when hardly anyone would listen to my insistence that Jesus was really very Jewish. Nowadays, the comment hardly raises an eyebrow - well, in Britain anyway. Since then, I’ve read a Hebrew translation of the Lord's Prayer and it sounds exactly like all those prayers that my prayer book is full of - selected quotations from the Psalms, knitted together to build to a crescendo of equilibrium between God's responsibilities to us and ours to Him, as best expressed through our dual duty to God and humanity.
I've looked more closely at Jesus's reported challenges to the religious teachers and authorities of his day and I can find nothing much shocking. Argument and polemical exaggeration are the stuff of Jewish debate. If a teacher condemns something and says it doesn't matter in comparison to something else, you shouldn't take their comments out of the context of how they actually behaved or what they said elsewhere. They may have just been making a point.
Those who enshrined the prophecies of Isaiah in the canon of the Bible - the Rabbis - didn't think he was urging the end of sacrifices just because he attacked those who offered sacrifice without also amending their moral behaviour. His statements are polemical and are making the strong - and who could disagree? - point that the ritual is a bit pointless if it doesn't lead to a concomitant improvement in behaviour.
I read Jesus and get his point exactly. Ritual is pointless without it having an impact on behaviour. When Mark, for example, says that Jesus's comments that eating the right foods doesn't make you righteous inside indicates that he thus declared all foods 'clean', he doesn't explain that those listening to him - even his own closest disciples - didn't understand it that way. Later, in the Acts of the Apostles, they still debated whether or not converts to Christianity should observe the dietary and other laws.
Similarly, Jesus's comments on Shabbat observance are the very stuff of Pharisaic dispute. We know so much about Pharisaic dispute because the rabbinic tradition did not suppress opinions which didn't chime with the consensus. All the variant opinions are recorded in the Talmud. Disagreeing wasn't a crime. Nor was claiming to be the Messiah - as several failed claimants have done before and since.
So it's fairly easy to see Jesus as a Pharisee from the Liberal wing, probably heavily influenced by the Messianic fervour that was current and, apparently deeply impressed by John the Baptist who may have been associated with the Essenes or some other such separatist sect. He was deeply bothered by the Temple excesses of the time, didn't want to get involved in the politics, and wanted the people to be take themselves seriously as being able to bring about God's kingdom on Earth by right living.
But I can't see Jesus as the Messiah we Jews are waiting for. And nor, as the Gospel accounts themselves make clear, could the disciples who knew him once he was executed. After the crucifixion, the disciples did not sit around calmly and reassure each other that all was going according to plan. They were instead understandably devastated. This was not the messianic plan. Nothing in Jewish teaching had suggested the execution of the Messiah. Not one of them was able to come up with the idea that this was all as it should be. It wasn't. They had invested their faith in this man and he was now dead.
And this is the fresh mystery at the heart of the Christian story - and one which raises no echoes or meaning for Jews. Something happened back then that first Easter that persuaded those disheartened followers that what they'd been expecting and waiting for, what they believed Jesus was about despite - or because of? - their years of living in his company and hearing his teachings - wasn't the point after all. It was all entirely different to the way Jews had understood the idea of the messiah for centuries... and still do.
And fair enough. But you'll have to understand when we Jews look at the claims made about Jesus with incomprehension and remain true to our own tradition. After all, Jesus did.