JESUS: "KING OF THE JEWS”?
Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The story of the followers of Jesus, in one sense begins with something that, ironically, Pilate said about him. One of the facts that seems to emerge from the stories about Jesus, the earliest ones which we incorporate into the gospels, is that he is crucified with a placket on the cross which says, "the King of the Jews." What could this possibly mean? From Pilate's point of view..., here is someone who was a potential leader of an insurrection against Rome. And he wants to send a sarcastic message. He has chosen the most humiliating form of death which is available..., which is reserved for slaves. It's a shaming, and that wants to put a certain spin on what's happening to the public who see it. So, he's saying, "This is what happens to a King of the Jews." [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“The followers of Jesus, who don't go away as they're supposed to ... have to deal with that fundamental question, - what does this mean that the one that we had all of these expectations about has been crucified? How do we deal with this, not merely the end of this life, but the shameful end of this life? And, the amazing thing is, they said, "Hey, Pilate's right - he was the King of the Jews, and moreover, God has vindicated this claim, that he is the King of the Jews, by raising him from the dead." Now, this is where the Jesus movement properly understood, which is to become Christianity, begins, with trying to explain that hard fact....
“The first interpretation is okay, "Pilate killed him but God raised him from the dead". That's the very beginning of it all. That is an act of interpretation, that is to say, "this wasn't final." A second bit of interpretation is to say, yes, "King of the Jews," what could this mean? It obviously does not mean, "King of the Jews," in the way that a generation later, Bar Kochba would try to be King of Israel and restore the political kingdom of Israel, liberated from the Romans. It couldn't mean that, so what does it mean? And so the early Christians, as proper Jews, they begin to search the scriptures, [looking for] what clues are hidden here which no one has noticed before.... They begin to find promises in scripture of an anointed king who will come at the end of days, a notion which they share with many other Jews, at the same time. So, this is where it all begins, with this kind of interpretive process, which of course goes in many different directions.”
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ;
Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ;
Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ;
Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org
Early Christians Use Hebrew Scriptures
Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “We have in the four gospels of the New Testament, passion narratives, narratives of Jesus' suffering and death. Outside of the New Testament canon, we have only one more extensive narrative of Jesus' suffering and death, and that has appeared in the Gospel of Peter. Now it was known in ancient times that there was such a thing as the Gospel of Peter. Eusebius of Caesarea, the earliest church historian at the beginning of the 4th century, tells about the fact that there was a Gospel of Peter which was used by some communities in Syria.But no one really knew what was in this gospel until at the end of the last century papyrus was discovered, which was a small amulet that a soldier had been wearing around his neck and which was given into the tomb of this soldier, and when it was opened up it turned out to be a text that told the story of the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus. But it is told in such a way that one can assume that it was not dependent upon the canonical gospels that we have. But that at least part of this gospel goes back to the same story, but draws from the oral tradition of the telling of that story, or from some older gospel as somescholars believe that is preserved here. What is interesting in this Gospel of Peter is that it shows in some instances more clearly the direct dependence of the passion narrative upon the prophecy and psalms and suffering servant stories of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore gives us an insight in the development of the passion narrative.... [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“I don't think that [in the period following Jesus' death] the disciples now were trying to look for the right stories in the Hebrew Scriptures [to explain his suffering and death.] But rather that these texts from the Hebrew Bible were already a part of their regular reading of texts, were already a part of their worship service. We know that in the Jewish synagogue scriptural text would be read and would be interpreted. So the disciples of Jesus must have lived in those texts and must have brought an understanding of the explanation of suffering on earth with them that was already part of their worship life, of their discussions of their meditations at the time. So it's not like someone who tries to go back now and says, "let's find the right text or scripture that would fit." But it's rather that out of the deep involvement in a religious tradition that was anchored in the worship life of Jewish communities, these stories about Jesus arise that now use the same words, the same language, the same images, in order to describe Jesus' suffering.
“[For example], the question of the suffering servant is very closely connected with Isaiah 53. And Isaiah 53, in most Christian churches, is usually the text from the Old Testament that is read at Good Friday as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus. Who the suffering servant was has been the subject of debate among Old Testament scholars. Is it the prophet himself who depicts himself as the suffering servant? Or, which is perhaps the most likely solution, that ultimately the suffering servant is Moses. And it tells a different aspect of the story of Moses, not Moses as the leader who leads the people out of exodus, but Moses as the one who dies eventually and who is not able to see the Holy Land, and Moses about whom the book of Deuteronomy says, his tomb could not even be found....
“This story has very deeply influenced the Jewish tradition before the early Christian period with respect to the understanding of the suffering of the righteous person. How can it be understood that the righteous in this world have to suffer? And the answer to this was found in the story of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And that is the story to which the Christians apparently went very early at this stage, to find an understanding of what the suffering and death of Jesus meant and signified.
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ;
Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ;
Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org
Jewish Revolts and Wars
There were many uprisings by the Jews during the period of Roman rule. In the A.D. 1st century there were conflicts between the Essenes, the Pharisees and the Hellinized priests that ruled the Temple. Messianic fervor led to several uprisings that eventually forced the Romans to put down two major Jewish revolts, in A.D. 70 and A.D. 125, the destroy the Jewish Temple and disperse the Hebrew population. It has been suggested that if the Jews hadn’t revolted there would have been no Jewish diaspora and history would have been very different.
In A.D. 64, Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Jews. Shortly afterwards there was a Jewish revolt that lasted from A.D. 66 to 73. Six Roman legions (35,000 men), Rome's most modern weaponry and siegecraft, and the leadership of two future Roman emperors to put down.
In A.D. 66, there was a Jewish revolt at Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. At that time bandit-guerrillas were at the height of their power and they were everywhere. A leader named Manahem took control of the temple area by driving out the Roman troops and executing the high priests. The same year there was also a major revolt in Caesara that led to the death of 20,000 people, nearly all of the Jews that lived in the city.
Nero dispatched Vespasian and a large Roman force to Judea (Israel) to put down the rebellion. Halfway through the war Nero was overthrown and Vespasian was proclaimed emperor by the Roman army. Nero died in A.D. 68, when the Jewish revolt had escalated. Vespasian didn’t last long. He was succeeded by his son Titus.
Second Jewish War Prompts Christian-Jewish Split
L. Michael White at the University of Texas told PBS: “The one thing that does happen in the second revolt, though, is [that] the self-consciously apocalyptic and messianic identity of Bar Kochba forces the issue for the Christian tradition. It appears that some people in the second revolt tried to press other Jews, including Christians, into the revolt, saying, "Come join us to fight against the Romans. You believe God is going to restore the kingdom to Israel, don't you? Join us." But the Christians by this time are starting to say, "No, he can't be the messiah -- we already have one." And at that point we really see the full-fledged separation of Jewish tradition and Christian tradition becoming clear. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program, University of Texas at Austin Frontline, PBS, April 1998 \=/]
“There are a number of important discoveries that have been made from the period of the second revolt which show us precisely the kind the things that were going on: coins, for example, struck by the rebel forces under Bar Kochba which say things like - "the year one of the redemption of Israel." They really think they have established the new kingdom. Others show the temple restored. And maybe they thought they were going to rebuild the temple. \=/
“We have to remember that one of the stimuli to the second revolt was the suspicion on the part of many Jews that the Roman emperor Hadrian had plans to build a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem itself. And of course that would have been an anathema to any faithful Jew. So the idea of restoring the kingdom was really more than just a spiritual exercise, it was a political reality in their mind. \=/
“Now among the letters found in the cave of letters is at least one from Bar Kochba himself. And it's a very interesting letter because it's addressed to Bar Menachem and it asks his friends and followers to bring certain things to the caves. So they're expecting to hold out for quite some time. Among the things he asks them to bring are myrtle leaves, citrons, palm branches. In fact it sounds like they're preparing to celebrate a passover meal. The expectations of the second revolt are much like those of the first revolt against Rome, namely that God would bring deliverance and establish the kingdom. \=/
Christianity Separates from Judaism
Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “... Christianity, in its earliest beginnings, is part of Judaism... it is a sect, among a number of varieties of Judaism in the Roman Empire. But it is also clear that at a certain point, they develop a consciousness which takes them outside of the social orb of Judaism. They're no longer part of the local Jewish community, they're a separate community, meeting in little household groups, all over the city. And, it's apparent, at least from the time of the Emperor Nero, that outsiders also view them as distinct. So that when Nero is looking for scapegoats upon whom to put blame for the fire in Rome in 64, he zeroes in on the Christians. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]
“So, obviously they are recognized as a distinctive group. How did this happen? What is involved in their separation? The one thing I think we have to recognize is that it doesn't happen all at once. It does not happen in the same way in different places, nor does it happen at the same time. For example, as late as the 4th and 5th century, we have evidence of Christians still existing within Jewish communities, and we have evidence of members of Christian communities participating in Jewish festivals. The preacher of Antioch and later of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, complains in a series of eight sermons to his congregation, that "you must stop going to the Synagogue, you must not think that the Synagogue is a holier place than our churches are." This clearly indicates that the break between Judaism and Christianity, even as late as the 4th century ... still is not absolute, is not permanent. Yet, on the other hand, we can see even in Paul's letters, which are the earliest literature we have from the early Christians, that the social separation in the communities he founded has already taken place. They're not meeting with the Jews. They're meeting in various households. So it's a varied change. It doesn't happen all at once and it doesn't happen in the same way, everywhere.
“By the same token, you can see different attitudes towards the Jewish community in various writings of the early Christians. So that for example, in the Gospel of John, the Fourth Gospel, you have some of the most vehement statements against the Jews. [This is] very strange because all of the characters in the Fourth Gospel are Jewish. It seems to be an intra-Jewish dialogue going on, but it's obviously a very vehement dialogue, a very polemical dialogue, and clearly represents... [that] somewhere there has been a very painful separation of one group of Jews who followed the Messiah, Jesus, from other Jews, and there is great hostility as a result and tremendous feelings of persecution, which are enshrined in this piece of literature.
“Paul, on the other hand is firmly convinced that the present separation between Jews and gentiles cannot be permanent in God's plan, that the promises which God has made to ancient Israel will be kept. He cannot have abandoned his people, Israel, even though, for the moment, most Jews have not accepted Paul's message, nor the message of other Christian Apostles. Paul still believes that there will come a time when God will do something else unaccepted and novel -- as novel as the notion of a crucified Messiah -- and thus, he says, all will be saved. So the attitudes within the Christian movement towards their parent religion, as we would call it, Judaism vary across a wide spectrum.”
Jesus, Jews and the Jewish Messiah
Many Jews regard the belief that Jesus was the Messiah as wishful thinking and based on misreading of the scriptures (namely that when the Messiah does come he is supposed to usher in the end of the world). Militant Jews rejected Jesus because he was unwilling to take up arms against the Romans.
Jesus was a Jew who told his contemporaries that he was not out to destroy Judaism but to fulfill it. He universalized the nationalist teachings of Judaism. First he taught Jews and later turned to Gentiles.
From the Gospels it appear that Jesus considered himself, and was considered by many Jews to be the Jewish Messiah. There is little in his teaching that contradicts the established Jewish religious ideology of his time. He certainly would not of thought of himself as belonging to any other religion but Judaism. Jews discounted Jesus as the messiah when he died at the hands of the Romans instead of taking them to paradise.
There were others that were considered the Messiah. In A.D. 132, a leader named Kochva, set up a Jewish state supported by 200,000 soldiers that endured for three years. Hailed as a messiah, Kochva reportedly rode a lion, fought in the front lines with his soldiers and defeated an entire Roman legion before he was brought under control.
Today Jews regard Jesus as an admirable Jew, a teacher, a reformer but not the Son of God. But that wasn’t always the case. For many centuries he was considered an apostate for claiming to be the Messiah. Christians had a hard time dealing with Jesus’s Jewish roots. For many centuries Christians denied that Jesus was a Jew and often chose to view him as Greek or Roman before considering him a Jew.
Were the Jews Responsible for Jesus’s Death?
The issue of who was responsible for Jesus’s death is a topic of dispute and controversy which has shaped the relationship between Christians and Jews: was it Pontius Pilate and the Romans or Jewish leaders or both? Jesus was viewed as a threat to both the Romans and the Jewish aristocracy. He criticized Jewish priests and prophesied the Jewish Temple would be destroyed. His following was small but committed. It was gaining new converts all the time and was beginning to be perceived as a threat to the status quo. Scholars say it is not surprising that the Romans and the Jewish aristocracy both condemned Jesus and tried to eliminate the threat he presented.
Traditionalist Christians have traditionally put most of the blame on Sanhedrin, which they say had selfish reasons to order Jesus’s death and pressured the Romans to hand out a death sentence. It has been argued that the Jewish high priests pushed for Jesus death to nip the upstart sect at the bud or use it as a scapegoat to take the heat off the entire Jewish community. In Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion”, Caiaphas and other high Jewish priests are made out to be conniving, ill-willed, petty despots.
Ordinary mobs rose up against Jesus. According to Matthew a Jewish mob demanded that Jesus be put to death, crying out, “His blood be on us and on our children.” When Pilate asked the mob what should be done with Jesus and “what evil hath he done?” The mob shouted, “Let him be crucified.” This episode of the Jesus story has been used back up the accusation that Jews were Christ killers and has been used to justify persecutions, pogroms and mass murder of Jews.
When analyzing these events it is important to take into consideration the time and place and the agenda of the Gospel writers, The Gospels were written a century to two centuries after the death of Jesus at a time when Christianity competed with Judaism for followers and the writers of the Gospel had reasons to portray Jews in the worst possible light.
Early Christian and Jew Animosity Exaggerated
Professor Eric Meyers told PBS: “One of the awful aftermaths of the first war with Rome was that Jews and Christians - or the followers of Jesus or the Jesus movement, as you might call it - took different directions. Not all of them, of course. I believe that many followers of Jesus stayed in the land. Some went to Trans Jordan. Some went off to the Diaspora lands and made their new way, and the gentile church evolved. But for the Jewish followers of Jesus and their Jewish compatriots, many of them reestablished themselves in the Galilee, and other parts of the east. And I believe they lived side by side for several hundred years in that area with one another, and it's a story that can be told only very invisibly through archaeological inferences and through some literary sources.... [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]
“You have the beginnings of a gentile church outside of Israel. But I'm not sure that the tensions that most people associate between Jews and Christians really occur before the fourth century, when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire, under Constantine. I think all of these tensions are exaggerated. This was an internal family war between cousins and brothers and sisters and people like that. But the tensions, I think, have been grossly exaggerated, and you only need to turn to some of the great multi-religious and multi-ethnic cities of the east to see that Jews and Christians managed to get on for longer periods than most people assume....
“Most of the gospel and traditions of early Christianity were written down after the first war, and they reflect a period of theological disagreement. And the new narrative history that evolved, in the form of the New Testament, tells a story of a broken relationship, and that's part of the sad story that evolves between Jews and Christians, because it is a story that has such awful repercussions in later times. But it is not necessarily reflective of all of the local situation in the first three centuries.” Sporadic references to Jesus in the Talmud are less than complimentary.
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018