Jesus in Modern Judaism
The name Jesus means different things to different people. To some, He is a great prophet, teacher, or leader, but others use His name as a curse. While some have never heard His name, to others He is very precious.
How do Jewish people today look at Jesus—His name, His person, and the effect He has on their thinking and lives? Some of their views are changing. This change of attitude may be the result of current cultural conditions and a growing awareness that many born-again Christians, because of their relationship with Jesus, have a genuine sense of kinship with and appreciation for the sons and daughters of Abraham.
The Jewish Memory of Jesus
When many Jewish people think of the name Jesus, it stirs memories of unpleasant circumstances and events. Unfortunately, it was in the name of Jesus that their forefathers were persecuted, their families were separated, and hundreds of thousands were put to death. In that sense, the name of Jesus is offensive to these people.
They have heard from childhood the stories of terrible hardships brought upon their people by the Crusaders, as they marched across Europe slaughtering entire Jewish villages in the name of Jesus and calling Jews “Christ killers.” At the same time, those armies were on their way to “free” Jerusalem from the “infidels.”
History also recalls the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1492 and brought death, deportation, and separation of Jewish families unless the Jewish people agreed to be baptized as “Christians.”
Then there is the haunting memory of the horrible Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany, in which nearly 6 million Jewish people died. In the minds of many Jewish people, Adolf Hitler is portrayed as a Christian; therefore, these deaths are seen as the result of Christian hostility toward Jews.
The lot of the Jewish people has not been easy, and in many cases and places it still is not. Moses foretold that when the Jewish people were scattered among the nations, they would face difficult days:
And the Lᴏʀᴅ shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other … And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest; but the Lᴏʀᴅ shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind … In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were evening! and at evening thou shalt say, Would God it were morning! (Dt. 28:64–65, 67).
A common conclusion among Jewish people is that for 2,000 years Jesus and Christianity have brought them little but trouble. To them, the name of Jesus has meant heartache. A rabbi once said, “If Christianity has nothing more to offer than it has for the last 2,000 years, I want nothing to do with it.”
Nevertheless, God’s Word promised that there would always be a remnant of Jews who would believe in the Lord: “Even so, then, at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). A remnant of believing Jews was present in Paul’s day, and the same is true today. In the last few years, that remnant has grown far beyond anyone’s expectations. There are thousands of Jewish believers in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah in the world today.
Several factors have contributed to the growth of this remnant. For instance, the ghettos and Jewish communities, where Jews lived in proximity to one another, have all but disappeared. Also, Jewish people have taken advantage of new opportunities in the work world. Thus, multitudes of Jews have moved to new locations worldwide, dispersing the population to all corners of the earth.
The desire to pursue further education has caused hundreds of thousands of young Jewish people to relocate away from their home communities. Living away from the influence of the home and family, many Jewish youths are exposed to influences that cause them to drift into secular Judaism or completely abandon the religion of their birth.
Secular Judaism has little spiritual vitality to offer these highly motivated young people. Thus, their youthful interests often turn to their work and the pursuit of material satisfaction that often seems to be the goal of this world.
As these young people have drifted from their Jewish moorings, assimilation has become a major problem for the Jewish community. Mixed-religion marriages are a major factor in the assimilation process, and, once married to Gentiles, both parties tend to either neglect their religious upbringing or go their separate ways religiously. When children are born, religion becomes an issue, and an entirely new situation arises. This has led many to seriously consider the message of Christians regarding Jesus as their Messiah. Consequently, the number of Jewish believers has dramatically increased.
Finally, there is a great fear of the rapid decline of the Jewish population and Judaism.
World Jewish population is now hovering at 13 million, three million less than at the outbreak of World War II. These figures were released by Sergis Della Pergola, head of Hebrew University’s Institute for Contemporary Jewry. Pergola revealed that Israel, with 4.4 million Jews, now ranks second to the US, where Jewish population numbers 5.6 million. France is in third place with 530,000 Jews, followed by Russia with 410,000, Canada with 350,000, and the United Kingdom with 300,000. Pergola pointed out one reason for the decline in the Diaspora Jewish population as the 50 percent intermarriage rate in the US, and even higher rates in part of Europe.
With the growth of the remnant of Jewish believers, segments of the Jewish community have become alarmed and have begun to take action. For example, the Lubavitcher sect within Orthodox Judaism has developed programs to reclaim Jews who left Judaism to follow Jesus. To gain some perspective of the views of this movement on the Jewish community, we need only consider the comments of a leading Lubavitcher polemicist. Rabbi Toviah Singer claims, “More Jews have come to Christ in the last 19 years than in the last 1,900 years.” His statement is an admission of the effect the gospel is having on Jewish people today. In his tape series entitled “Let’s Get Biblical,” Singer spends hours and goes into great detail trying to win these “wayward” Jews back to Judaism. Rabbi Singer is so passionately against Jews becoming believers in Jesus that he has devoted his life to lecturing across the United States, seeking to bring them back into the fold.
Another cause for alarm to Jewish polemicists is the Russian Jews’ inquiry into religious options other than Judaism. These people have been denied the practice of their religion for two generations, and as they leave the former Soviet Union, their thirst for the knowledge of God opens opportunities for believers to bear witness of their faith.
An Awakening Among Bible-Believing Christians
In spite of elements claiming Christianity has caused the Jewish people much grief over the centuries, there is a growing awareness among contemporary Christians of the obligation to love, befriend, and support God’s Chosen People. In other words, we are seeing a return to the relationships that have been biblically mandated.
Response from the Jewish community, as well as from individual Jewish people, is becoming increasingly positive. Realizing that there are those who call themselves “Christians” and those who truly are Christians often results in a reassessment of what true Christianity is all about and exposes them to real Christian love. In a recent poll, more than 90 percent of Hebrew-Christians questioned declared that it was the genuine love of a Christian, shown over an extended time, that eventually caused them to turn to Jesus.
As believers, we must remember that the message of the cross has been an offense and a stumbling stone to Jewish people (see 1 Pet. 2:7–8). However, our methods of sharing that gospel need not be offensive. The gospel should always be shared with a genuine attitude of love—to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Jesus in Modern Jewish Scholarship
The New Testament church was begun by and consisted primarily of Jews and/or proselytes to Judaism who trusted in Jesus. Throughout the book of Acts, we read of Jewish believers. Wherever the gospel was preached, Jewish people responded. In fact, one of the first controversies in the church concerned whether Gentiles should be permitted to be part of the assembly and, if so, on what basis (see Acts 15). Even after the church became largely “gentilized,” there was a significant remnant of believing Jews. That remnant was very important to the apostle Paul.
In his final days, Paul was a prisoner in Rome, bound in chains because of “the hope of Israel” (28:20). After he preached to some Jewish people who failed to heed his message, Paul said, “Well spoke the Holy Spirit by Isaiah, the prophet, unto our fathers, Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive; For the heart of this people is become obtuse, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (vv. 25–27).
Paul was deeply concerned that his beloved people were rejecting the gospel.
Since Paul’s day, the gospel has been preached primarily to the Gentiles. For the last 1,900 years, the church has remained overwhelmingly Gentile, with, of course, a continuing remnant of Jewish believers whom the Scriptures promised to those who shared the claims of Christ.
For centuries, Jewish writers had little or nothing to say about Jesus. However, in the last century, Jewish scholars have begun to look at the evidence about Him, which has led to dialogue on certain aspects of His life and ministry. Studies have centered on areas where themes could be held in common, rather than on issues that would divide. Most modern Jewish scholars, however, pursue only the so-called Jesus of history, who, to them, cannot be the Jesus of the Christian faith. Their burden is to study the teachings of Jesus and learn how they fit into the rabbinic tradition.
- G. Montefiore (1858–1938) and Israel Abrahams (1858–1925) were among the early and influential authors who opened the door of dialogue by writing commentaries about Jesus. However, they were greatly influenced by European rationalism and the higher criticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. Others have followed, opening the way for discussion, but these scholars have tried to bring out the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby seeking only to reclaim Him for Judaism.
Although these writings did lead to dialogue, very little was accomplished, except for a few insights into the life of Jesus from within the Jewish tradition of His day.
Conclusions About Modern Judaism and Jesus
- Modern Jews and Judaism generally are wary of Christianity because of perceived historic opposition to the Jewish people. Therefore, the rabbinic Judaism of today wants little to do with a religion that has caused them so much grief and heartache.
- Jewish young people are sometimes confused religiously as they move away from their roots and traditions. Leaving close-knit communities, they suddenly become aware of a much broader world than that in which they were reared.
- Dialogues between most modern Jewish scholars and liberal Protestant theologians have produced little to bring Judaism and Christianity together. While some areas of understanding have been reached, there has been little progress overall.*
- God is doing a work among Jewish people today, even as Rabbi Singer admitted. The remnant of Jewish believers in Jesus is growing rapidly, as many caring Christians are prompted to share their love for Jewish people and present Jesus as their true Messiah. Perhaps this open door is another indication of our Lord’s soon return.
- Finally, these facts place a heavy responsibility on every Bible-believing Christian to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish people and love them to life in Jesus, their Messiah.