Theological Rivalry

Ecce Homo
Rembrandt 1655

The other day, Jerry said to me over brunch, “Why don’t Jews move to claim Jesus as their own?”

I thought about that a minute, then answered, “The evangelicals are the most significant American voting bloc that still supports Israel. It would offend them if Israelis ‘welcomed home’ a Jesus who didn’t come attached to Pauline doctrines.” (I had in mind Original Sin and expiation for that through the crucifixion of Jesus — who is understood as God incarnate. So far, I’ve not seen either of these doctrines even indexed in any Jewishly-authored, authoritative book on Judaism.)

But then I thought, after all, maybe that’s not too daunting an obstacle. Maybe, despite all the unspeakably sad history — the theology of contempt and the politics of persecution — maybe a slow change is under way. Some of it may be occurring on the level of theology, but more probative are the changes taking place on the real ground where “the historical Jesus” — in contrast to “the Christ of faith” — actually lived and died.

Israeli scholars and archeologists are teaming up with their Christian counterparts to unearth the concrete circumstances and controversies of Roman-occupied Judea and of the synagogues in the non-Jewish communities of the surrounding Roman empire. More and more, the blanks are being filled in.

For civilizational self-understanding – 

and possible renewal –

this is an exciting time.

Item: were the Jews of that time, who lived outside Judea, narrow-minded, xenophobic and closed in upon themselves, as is sometimes charged? I don’t know Paula Fredriksen’s religious affiliation, but she’s got a Viking name. Her book, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation tells the different story uncovered by recent archeology. The names of synagogue sponsors, engraved on their ancient walls, included leading non-Jewish officials like mayors and their deputies. Festivals of the Jewish calendar year were observed publicly, with townsfolk and local notables participating. 

Not having any doctrine of Original Sin, nor its accompanying doctrine of universal damnation, Jews in non-Jewish communities felt no spiritual obligation to try to convert these “Friends of God,” as they called Gentile sympathizers to Judaism. Many rabbis held that “the righteous among the Gentiles has a share in the world to come.” It was a different story when envoys from the new Jesus movement began to make inroads on that Gentile population. The Jesus people did require total commitment, which included giving up all pagan practices. The effective missionary efforts of the Jesus followers drained synagogues of political backing and financial support. Conflict and mutual recriminations followed predictably.

Item: was Jesus the first to perform miracles? Like Paula Fredriksen, David Flusser – a Jewish Israeli – held a professorship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Right now, I’m reading his book, Jesus. Like Rabbi Irving Greenberg who spoke on the topic in my presence – and like me – Flusser had no difficulty believing that Jesus worked miracles or rose from the dead.

Under the laws of nature such things aren’t possible, you say? How should I know what’s possible under the laws of nature? I haven’t taken the complete inventory of nature’s laws nor do I know whether all of them are physical. If you do, good for you! 

Flusser tells that miracle workers were revered as intimates of God – the way the body servant of a king is deemed closer to his lord than even the highest court official. As a miracle worker, Jesus was clearly outstanding, though Flusser names a number of others of the period, who are still remembered for the miracles they did. 

In fact, Flusser himself was so obsessed with, and in love with Jesus that (as I was once told by an Israeli colleague) his colleagues at Hebrew University used prankishly to call him on the phone pretending to be Jesus.

Item: was all-inclusive love, as one of God’s requirements, unheard of until introduced by Jesus? Flusser cites a number of contemporary sources that show “the new sensitivity of the Jews in the Greek and Roman period” where “[b]ecause of the difficulty of knowing how far God’s love and mercy extended, many concluded that one ought to show love and mercy to all, both righteous and wicked. In this they would be imitating God himself.” What is unique in Jesus is not the teaching of unbounded love per se, but its intensity — and perhaps its manifest embodiment in that teacher.

Item: did Jews abandon Jesus at the time of his arrest? Was the mob that shouted “crucify him!” representative of Jewish opinion at that moment in time? Or were they a mere motley crew mostly incited by the same priests who had turned him over to the Romans? Flusser points out that, according to gospel accounts, temple guards had been reluctant to arrest Jesus in broad daylight – even though he was overturning currency-exchange tables and openly creating a violent disturbance – because they feared the outnumbering crowds that followed him.

Incidentally, Flusser thinks that the self-serving Judas was unlikely to have hanged himself but that he certainly would have had to leave town in a hurry. (As in, if you’ve turned a Jew over to the Romans, don’t let the sun set on you in Jerusalem.)

For reasons rather too intricate for me to recap here, Flusser finds the account of the crucifixion in Luke’s gospel more likely to be accurate than the ones in the other gospels and Luke (who elsewhere is no friend of the Jews) describes “the sympathy of the Jewish crowd at the crucifixion …” (See Luke 23:26-27.) As for the priests, who condemned Jesus and incited the mob outside Pilate’s headquarters, they belonged to the sect of Sadducees, which denied the afterlife, expected no messiah, were widely disliked as collaborationist and cruel, and did not survive as a Jewish denomination after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

What’s the upshot? Here’s how Flusser sums up his findings: “Perhaps tension between Christians and Jews and Jewry was once historically necessary for the development of Christianity as an independent religion. Now the scaffolding can confidently, but unfortunately too late, be removed. … Anti-Judaism stood godfather to the formation of Christianity. We have tried to show this on the basis of one example [the sympathetic Jewish crowds], and through this wanted to do our Christian brothers a good service.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

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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