Throughout almost the entirety of the 2000 years since the death of Jesus, the explicit refusal on the part of the mainstream of Jewish thought to recognize the Christian church’s claims regarding the ostensible Son of God has sat at the heart of Western Civilization’s perpetual identity crisis. Without Jesus and the church created in his wake there would be no Western Civilization—at least bearing no resemblance to the one we see now—and the establishment of the Christian church could only have been possible through an overt break with the Judaic tradition to which Jesus himself belonged. Nevertheless, the question of the Jews’ intransigence has never been far from the forefront of religious thought, from the relatively benign late classical dialogues on through to the far more contentious and deadly persecution of Jews through the middle ages on up to the 20th century.
As the starting point for his discussion, David Klinghoffer points to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The question not only of Jewish culpability in Jesus’ death but the persistent Jewish resistance to Christian entreaty sticks like the proverbial thorn in the side of modern interfaith dialogue—thankfully, much less contentious a field than it once was, but still of vital importance, as the controversy over Gibson’d religious polemic indicates. The Jewish rejection of Jesus, Klinghoffer argues, points to an essential insecurity at the heart of Christian theology: the failure of Jesus and his immediate followers to make the case to Jesus’ own people. Why else would the eventual mass conversion of the Jewish race be so intimately important in the cosmology of evangelical Christians contemplating the end times? There is a strong feeling of unfinished business.
Klinghoffer makes it clear that the question of Jewish rejection is nowhere near as simple as such a blanket phrase implies. Considering the state of mass communication in the first century, it is unlikely that many Jews outside the region immediately surrounding Galilee would even have heard of Jesus until well after his death. Jesus himself chose to begin his ministry far from the population centers, and the circumstances surrounding his death were obscure to all but those immediately involved in the interplay between local Jewish temple politics and Roman colonial rule. Even in the years and decades following the crucifixion, the news of his ministry would have passed slowly through the word-of-mouth of his followers. The apostles spread out across the Mediterranean carrying Jesus’ words to Jewish communities across the diaspora—not all Jews were hostile, but the vast majority turned a deaf ear on these early proselytizers. It was Paul who influenced the early church to focus their efforts on the gentile community, an effort that required the church to turn away from a strict observation of Mosaic law. The early church stuck out on its own, and while sects of fully observant Jewish Christians remained for a few centuries, the mainstream of Christianity lost no time in sundering associations with Judaism. It was at this point, just a few hundred years after Christ’s death, that the delineation between Judaism and Christianity became codified, and the battle lines for two millennia of conflict where drawn.
But the question remains: why? Klinghoffer suggests a number of answers to this question, but returns throughout his narrative to a very simple formulation: Christian theology offers an insufficient foundation to reject Mosaic law. Of course, non-Jews would find it far easier to accept Christ if they had no attachment to the acquired traditions of thousands of years of religious law and observance: if you accept that Christ is the Messiah, it’s simplicity itself to work your way backward in such a way as to make your interpretation of the Torah fit this conclusion. If, however, you already believe in the law as it was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; if you live your life according to these rules in order to signify your obeisance to God under his covenant with the people of Israel; it would take a great deal of proof to be convinced that this previously established covenant, which God himself assured would never be broken, had indeed been abrogated through the coming of the Messiah (a Messiah whose life, coincidentally, hardly resembled the foretold Messiahs of the Torah). Klinghoffer takes great pains to illustrate the firm exegetical foundation on which the Rabbinical rejection of Jesus stands. Christian theologians have been no less ingenious throughout history in their attempts to convert and convince, but the fact remains that their attempts to meld the incongruities of the Old and New Testaments always began from prior assumptions regarding Christ’s significance, whereas Jewish rebuttals stood on much firmer and far more consistent ground, taking nothing for granted except for the assumed consistency of the Torah.
It would be interesting to read a comparable volume written from the Christian perspective. Klinghoffer is very much a Jew, and the overall effect of his masterly summation of centuries of debate is to point successfully to many serious deficiencies of Christian theology both ancient and contemporary. However, he stops just short of saying that Christianity is explicitly based on faulty foundations. Judaism isn’t a maximalist creed: unlike Christianity and Islam, in the Jewish cosmology it is not necessary for non-Jews to cede the primacy of Jewish beliefs to live righteous lives. While Klinghoffer does point out that—contrary to conventional wisdom—Jews are perfectly capable of proselytizing and converting outsiders if they wish, he does point out that Judaism is not perhaps the most appealing creed for a potential convert. It is enough that the Jews remain as they have always been, set apart from the mainstream of the world, a “kingdom of priests”, as God Himself said at the very beginning of the Sinai Covenant. It was from Judaism that the concept of monotheism spread across the world, first through Christianity and then through Islam. It is of little matter, Klignhoffer concludes, that the specifics of Christian and Islamic worship differ significantly from Judaism. As he quotes rabbi Elijah Bemamozegh (1823-1900):
For insomuch as priests are ordained only for the sake of the laity, the priesthood of Jews presupposes a mankind in whose service the Jews have been placed by Providence . . . Israel calls the Lord its God because in worshipping Him it worships the God which it has been called upon to make known to all men. . . . We affirm that . . . Providence recognizes equally Jews, Greeks and Barbarians—in a word, all races and peoples, who ought to be perceived as one though without losing their individual identity.
While this vision of ecumenical equality, appealing as it may be, is unlikely to be accepted as a basis for interfaith dialogue, it does offer a crucial glimpse into the enigma of Jewish exceptionalism. It isn’t hard to see just why the Jews throughout history have overwhelmingly rejected, and continue to reject Jesus: they don’t need Jesus. Their claim on divine inspiration predates those of just about every other religion. From that perspective, it’s easy to understand why the defining characteristic of Jewish history has always been a well-developed sense of patience.