Rembrandt, c.1648


This morning we had one of those leisurely breakfasts that goes on for some hours. The pleasure of being two philosophers who love each other comes into its own at such times. There are philosopher couples who indulge in the swordplay of argument with their spouses. Jerry and I don’t argue. At least not in the sense of wanting to score points off each other.

What we do with each other is think aloud.

Today the talk turned to Jesus. In the politics of religion, that’s a sensitive subject. With us, it’s not. We’re interested in the question of how to relate to God. That’s very different from the question of whose religion is “best” or (what comes to the same thing) which one has the strongest battalions.

We both take as obvious the Socratic principle:

better to lose the argument and win the truth 

than win the argument and lose the truth.

So now, Jesus. What’s the truth and what was the argument about? Jerry records a few arresting one-on-one conversations with Jesus in his book, God: An Autobiography, as told to a philosopher. Among other things, Jesus says that he was the messiah, the promised deliverer whom the Jews awaited. While of course they never got together as single collective will to “kill” Jesus (some were followers, some opponents and most Jews were likely out of earshot) – the failure of the Jewish community to recognize Jesus as the messiah does count as a “mistake.”

What kind of a mistake? They were expecting a messiah like Bar Kochba who rose up in 135 C.E. to restore the kingdom and throw off the Roman yoke. That wasn’t what Jesus advised. He seems to have said to his co-religionists:

  • Pay your taxes to the occupying power and don’t get into tragic misadventures.
  • You don’t have forces capable of bringing down Roman legions.

That was sure true. Had Jewish patriots not fought their way to disastrous defeat, the Second Temple would not have been destroyed in 70 C.E. and, after Bar Kochba’s last stand, the people never exiled nor the land rechristened “Palestine,” in pointed reference to the sea coast people who show up in the Bible as Goliath or Delilah or in David’s military campaigns.

On the other hand, even if more Jews had followed Jesus’ advice, and seen his uniqueness more accurately, it’s not clear to me that the ignominy of the centuries could have been avoided. The followers of Jesus, who offered full convert status even to those who did not observe all the commandments, were peeling off the Gentile “Friends of God” from the synagogues. In the politics of religion, the more success they had in winning non-Jewish converts, the more likely they would have been to become the breakaway sect that eventually they were. That would have given momentum to those in the movement who wanted to banish Jewish practices altogether and make conversion to observant Judaism the capital crime it finally became in Christendom.

And even if Jewish authorities of the day had deemed Jesus the messiah, some hotheads would have pursued rebellion anyway and met with Roman iron. That’s how people are. And, looking ahead five or six centuries, the followers of Muhammed would be imposing their hegemony on the region no matter what the Jews decided about Jesus.

The traditional Christian view of Jesus – as the savior of humanity from Original Sin that, were it not for his crucifixion, would have sent the whole human race to hell — was never an option for Jews since they don’t hold those doctrines. Did Jesus hold them? I don’t see where. They enter the doctrinal field from Paul, so far as I can see.

Back to Jesus. If accepting him as the promised Deliverer wouldn’t have delivered his people from the Romans, the future Christians, or the Muslims – from what would this man have delivered them if they had “accepted” Jesus?

From Jerry’s report of his Divine/human conversations, I get the picture of Jesus as a man who loved himself as God loved him, so well that the barriers of self-contempt, which remove the rest of us from God, did not work like that for him. Most of us, young and old, blame ourselves for what we did, good or bad, and also for what we didn’t do. Jesus merged with God precisely because he did not do this.

He became filled with God as a result. Their wills merged. What he did, God did, and vice versa. When he said, “the Kingdom of God is within you,” that’s what he meant. And it enabled him to be a conduit to God from then on.

What houses of worship does Jesus frequent today? From Jerry’s conversations, it appears that he hangs out in synagogues. Like my Temple Judea. That’s where he liked to be when he was on earth. That’s where he still likes to be.

Jerry once stepped into a synagogue where the child of a cousin of mine was to have a bar mitzvah. As soon as he was inside the sanctuary, he felt almost knocked over by the Shekinah, the Divine Presence.   And he was equally struck by the seeming fact that the Jewish congregants inside didn’t seem to notice. They just went about greeting each other, nodding and chattering as if everything was going on as usual.

As it was.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Jesus

  1. Jerry Schmoyer says:

    Very interesting and well-developed thoughts. I always enjoy your insights – they give me something new to think about.

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