First, about the title. Some will either feel offended or correct me for being historically wrong, since we all know that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. Although I am a Christian, this essay will eventually come around to a Jewish psychological perspective to try to explain the necessity of their removing Him as a problematic influence. This has relevance not only for the ancient Israelites, but also to both subsequent as well as current Jews, who generally still do not accept Jesus as their Messiah. It may also be relevant to atheists, who “kill” Jesus in their disbelief of God, His Father. If we assume that the coming of Jesus was “part of God’s plan” for the Jews, He would certainly not be surprised about their rejection of Jesus, as God had a larger idea to forge, that of universal salvation for all people. I will later try to explain why the theological concept of replacement theology (also know as supersessionism) is not quite accurate for what came to occur, since God thinks longer and deeper than we can about what we need from Him.
I will start with my sense of what the Bible tells us about the often strained relationship between Jesus and His fellow Jews. We must always remember that the Gospels were written by four men who wrote at least thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and each author had his own interests and biases. For example, in John’s Gospel, there is the repeated use of the phrase “the Jews” in a derogatory sense, even though it is likely true that the author was himself a Jew. There are repeated episodes of Jesus being questioned by the Pharisees, which repeatedly provoke them to want to kill Him. Even His own people in Nazareth are disgruntled enough to want to banish Jesus, who apparently was not always His own best salesman. It seems unlikely that the Romans were at all knowledgeable about Jesus until during the Passover that became Holy Week, since they are not mentioned in any accusatory or threatening manner beforehand. What we do not know from the Gospel accounts is whether there were any other provocative statements or actions by or about Jesus which would have garnered the consternation of His own people besides His actions at the money-changers’ tables at the Temple. Even eyewitness testimony can not include everything that happened during Jesus’ ministry. As we all know, the Bible is not videotape.
In the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers are also sometimes not safely kept. Stephen gets stoned by other Jews while Saul condones this punishment out of his righteous indignation that any Jews could accept Jesus as their Messiah. Saul’s zealotry is curbed only by divine intervention in invoking his temporary blindness but evolving sense that the Gentiles must be included in the Christian fold. Jewish Law was, if not abandoned, then certainly trimmed as the primary premise for obtaining God’s favour. Paul has some luck converting Jews to the new Christian faith, although by the middle of the second century, the schism between Jews and Christians had already hardened. Last year, I read Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho (written in ca. 160 CE), which at times almost mocks Judaism in its perceived insufficiency to remain relevant to the Christian cause. Soon enough, Christians largely left the Jews behind as their numbers swell into the millions within the Roman Empire, as though the two monotheistic groups unwittingly wind up in divorce court with no final settlement beyond the acrimony. There is nothing else like the angst of feeling left behind.
Next, a little bit of history concerning the Israelites, about which I am admittedly too sketchily informed. As some of us learned in Sunday School, they were repeatedly dominated or enslaved over a lengthy period of time: (by) the Pharoah in Egypt, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, Alexander the Great, Seleucus, the Romans, and, later on, the Muslims, Christian crusaders and, of course, the Nazis. Jews, understandably, did and do have a persecution complex, about which scholar David Carr writes at length in his fine book, Holy Resilience (2014). There is both the history of mistreatment as well as any currently perceived hostilities that have congealed to form a traumatic response style to perceived threats. The current expansion of Israeli settlements is designed to buttress them against Palestinian assaults. Israel is surrounded by other countries seen to be perennially hostile, a reflection of Moses’ dilemma prior to the Exodus. This has formed a psychological persona of perpetual victimhood, which, unfortunately, is well deserved. Hitler echoed the late-life anti-Jewish diatribe by Martin Luther to justify rounding up Jews into ghettos and abolishing their rights. This Jewish need to cling to something religiously certain for them in the face of frequent persecution contributed to some of their skepticism against Jesus, an evolving sense of Him as being what Freud called ego alien to their traditional Judaism. Jesus thus became not quite one of them, a spiritual stranger, ultimately one to be rejected and vanquished.
Next, I want to talk about the psychological necessity of idols. The Old Testament describes the Jews’ difficulty with letting go of their idols prior to the Babylonian exile, the best known being Baal. The Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, as we know, worshipped a panoply of gods and goddesses over many centuries, and regularly indulged in sacrifices to appease their gods. We being monotheists, we see no need for such sacrifices, and the Jews eventually gave up their idols after the Babylonian exile and their sacrifices after the destruction of their second Temple in 70 CE. What Jews called “the Law” became a somewhat detailed written description of what Yahweh could provide and expected from them. Thus, the writing of the Old Testament during and after the Babylonian exile superseded the Jews’ need for either idols or sacrifices after the Second Temple was destroyed. They had something else, the Scripture that told stories the idols and the sacrifices could not tell, stories about God and their own people. The Torah and the Talmud became readable “idols,” being more specific than stone or wooden objects invested with supernatural influence. You might ask how books can be idols, but then, how is anything else an idol? We invest meaning in all sorts of objects—for example, jewelry, marriage licenses or stop signs. This is one way we are different from other mammals, which can not assign meanings to objects. The Bible as a whole provides a path away from wooden or stone idols toward a readable linkage to God, who is considered to have at least inspired its writing. It is thus more human than idol objects, and certainly we are attracted to reading about ourselves.
By the time Jesus comes along, the Jews’ devotion to the Torah (most famously, the 613 laws) had been cemented as, in essence, a religious lifestyle which clearly distinguished them from both the preceding cultures mentioned above as well as their current pests, the Romans, who were still primarily pagans in the old tradition. The Romans tolerated these Jews, but clearly did not understand them, since their gods and goddesses were designed mainly to influence things like the weather or other more impersonal matters. There was no “having a personal relationship” with these gods, nor was there any godly wrath to punish wayward disobedience. The Jews had stepped out of this old tradition because God told Abraham there was a different way, a viable relationship with a divine being. Over the centuries from the Babylonian exile until the time of Jesus, all of this came to be taken for granted by the Jews, that their Scripture had come to form a unique tradition of its own about the world, who created it and what might happen. None of the older traditions had a coherent Genesis story about the creation of the world that people could read, study and even memorize. The Jews had evolved into living idols of their own, internalizing (or, in Freudian language, introjecting) God as whom He seemed to be. The Old Testament was a combination of both intricate and broader stories to be nearly worshipped, a commonly-held and shared religious history over a tremendously long period of time. The Jews felt special because God said so, and they fashioned a way of life that highlighted this singular specialness. They still do, visible in synagogues on Fridays or Saturdays every week. Why change what works?
Two vignettes in John’s Gospel (which may be my favourite) illustrate how alarming it becomes for the Jews as Jesus chips away at their tradition. In one instance, other Jews encircle Him to ask “For how long are you going to keep a grip on our soul? If you are the Anointed (the Messiah), tell us forthrightly.” To this, Jesus replies “I have told you, and you do not have faith” (10:24-25) In a second instance, other Jews seek to kill Jesus because He not only breaks the Sabbath, but also “calls God His own Father, making Himself equal to God” (5:18). In these and other instances, Jesus seeks to change what about Judaism, for Him, does not quite work: the mere tenacity of the Law. It is not often mentioned that Jesus only rarely quotes the Old Testament verbatim, but rather alludes to its figures (Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and Noah) when needed. Jesus tells His brethren that He is not a book to be read and studied, He is something more: a direct bodily linkage to God, which they do not think is possible, at least not yet.
Two other well-known Gospel episodes near the end of Jesus’ ministry solidify the Jews’ resistance to Him, both theologically and even more so psychologically. The examples of the resurrection of Lazurus in Bethany while Jesus travels to Jerusalem as well as His provocative overturning of the money-changers’ tables at the Temple presses His purpose “in their faces” to raise the stakes to ask a basic question: Who am I to you, and what am I trying to do within our Jewish context? No one had raised a dead person after four days before, and Jesus used the Temple episode to give the clergy a clear reason to at least arrest Him, sooner than never. I think we blame Judas Iscariot too harshly—-he was paid by the clergy to tell them where Jesus was hiding, (perhaps) that is all. Jesus gave the clergy a clear choice between hoarding wealth from “service fees” and accepting His supernatural capacity to affect people outside their domain. Did the Jews kill Jesus out of their sense of envy that He was closer to God than they were, after ca. 1,800 years?
In addition, there is also the Jewish concept of the Messiah, which has not changed since the time of Jesus, this confirmed by listening to rabbis on YouTube. Their sense of the Messiah is that He could not exist in human form, due to God’s divine nature. Our Christian Trinity (which I also do not accept) is rejected for the same reason, that God can not be “divided.” For Jesus to be crucified as the ugliest death would not befit a Messiah for them. The Jews do not believe in any Second Coming of the Messiah nor Paul’s justification by faith. Rather, the Jewish Messiah would usher in both world peace as well as what they call “the ingathering of the exiles,” along with the resurrection of all the dead. A third Temple would also be built. Because none of these events have occurred since Jesus’ crucifixion, our Christian sense of the Messiah is rejected. Obviously, this concept comes to the fore after Jesus dies and is resurrected (the latter of which is also dismissed by His brethren), yet, because His body is never found, a seed of doubt as to their sense of the Messiah is planted, allowing some Jews to accept Jesus for the next hundred or so years. I will discuss the current phenomenon of Messianic Jews a little later, as perhaps they are the way to answer the question Christians always want to ask the Jews, namely, “Where is your Messiah, after nearly 2,000 years?” I don’t think God expected them to have to wait quite so long.
For brevity’s sake, I will link together the general Jewish responses to Jesus and the Apostles as well as Paul, Stephen and subsequent early Christians. What Jesus rarely mentions and Paul eventually sets aside altogether are the basic tenets of the Jewish faith. In Jesus’ case, He assumes this is common knowledge and practice, in Paul’s case because not only has Jesus not emphasized what is already well-known, but because he understands where Jesus is going, as it happened to him. Paul was stopped literally in the middle of the road, temporarily blinded and transformed. Jesus told Paul what he was to do, pushing him far beyond what Paul had understood about his cherished Judaism, which, ironically, would get him into much trouble with the very brethren who once respected him. Jesus never does this to any other fellow Jews, either individually or collectively. Rather, He is merely disbelieved and ultimately disowned by His own people. I think what Jesus is telling them is our Judaism is not enough, it is too narrow and even idol-prone in its tenacious preoccupation with how we think God works in our world. Jesus tries to push them out toward the edges of where Judaism meets God (whom He knows), but they resist this “suggested journey of faith.” That this occurs repeatedly over several years, whether within his own community in Nazareth or in Jerusalem, renders Him as ego alien to other Jews, meaning You are not one of us anymore. In social psychology, it is the one who perturbs the group to which (s)he belongs that requires the most certain expulsion. It could be said that it was the Jews and not the Catholics who invented ex-communication, since Jesus became intolerable as one of their own. If Jesus were a member of the Mafia who, under threat of lengthy imprisonment, told the police all he knew about their organization, they would want to kill him. We hate those who have belonged to us and later turn against us. The Pharisees and Sadducees envied not only Jesus’ popularity amongst the common Jewish people, but they also envied his wisdom, His many miracles and His apparent direct connection with the God they had laboured to serve for so many centuries. Intense envy can make men do things they would not otherwise do. That Paul was later beheaded and nearly all the Apostles were martyred by fellow Jews is our Christian tragedy, but a Jewish necessity.
There is also the psychological impact of martyrdom, both after the death of Jesus as well as the Apostles (most of whom were apparently martyred) and others later on. God would well understand how martyrdom would influence both the Apostles and later followers, but, more importantly, He would know that this would provide a lingering sentiment for subsequent generations. Scholar Bart Ehrman, in his new book, The Triumph of Christianity, attributes the explosive growth of the Christian faith over the first several centuries in part to persistent miracles, to which I would add the not-so-subtle impact of martyrdom. I am not sure whether other Jews would be that familiar with martyrdom in individual cases, but they would certainly understand collective suffering for their faith, from Eygpt onward. Christians wear crosses as an introjection of what we could never witness: the martyred suffering of Jesus, which still reaches us, at least at Eastertime, all these years later. For those of you who are familiar with medical aspects of crucifixion or the Shroud of Turin, this may be the fountainhead of Christian introjection, when even Scripture dropped away and Jesus became only the Son of God.
So, what am I saying? I am saying that Jesus over years stretched Judaism to nearly the breaking-point, not that it would cease to exist bur rather to where it might travel beyond merely laws and culture. He was not telling his brethren to reject their faith, but to supplement it with a more expansive sense of purpose. Thus, He was advocating religious addition and not subtraction, though Jesus was rejected by their lack of Spiritual geometry, being unable to traverse the human to truly find the divine. They rejected Jesus as a turncoat, not quite a false prophet, but someone whom they could not comprehend, either theologically or psychologically, breeding intensely hostile resistance. I am speaking mostly of the Jewish clergy, and not the common people, who tended to find Jesus to be a curiosity if not more. Once Jesus was gone, subsequent generations had no literal figure to consider, and most people had no Gospels to read—-rather it became all word-of-mouth, which I think handicapped Paul with his fellow Jews. They had the Torah and all he had was his own transformative blindness. I often think of the title of a book I read several years ago, namely, No One Sees God.
I am not talking about replacement theology as some sort of “Christian improvement” on Judaism—-it is not about trading one model for another of the same brand of car. If Jesus were a snake that shed its skin, He would still be a snake. Christian faith is an outgrowth of Judaism, and would not exist without it. We Christians are given too little Jewish history, and are biased against Jews for killing Jesus, even now, despite ongoing ecumenical efforts since the Catholic Church worked to mend fences fifty years ago. Atheists “kill” God (and hence Jesus) because they can not find Him, and are angry because He does not readily explain Himself to we impatient humans. As I discussed in my own book, Once Every Day Becomes Easter (2015), the perpetual gap between the human and the divine never really shrinks, until and unless God surprises us with a fresh and undeniable example of Himself. Messianic Jews found Jesus over the past 45 years by finally reading the New Testament but keeping their Judaism intact. Apparently they are not always treated kindly in Israel.
Finally, for me what really matters is how well or poorly each and all of us can introject God and Jesus into some kind of working muscular faith. Any religion can provide useful material and ideas to aid our efforts, though I can’t say all religions are of equal value to me, or even denominations within Christianity. It is not that all or none suit me, nor does “post-denominational” quite suit either, since we all have unproven biases about God. If there was an announced death of theology, regardless of the religion, I might well clap more than a little over that. God is who He is, and all our theology will never affect that, not even once. It is our Spiritual task to pull Him inside us and keep Him there, for as often and as long as we can. Always remember: God, through Judaism, gave us Jesus.