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Who is Jesus?


I recently wrote a review of a book on Jesus by Shmuley Boteach which I am sharing here. In Kosher Jesus, he argues that “Jesus was a wise, learned rabbi who despised the Romans…worked to rekindle Jewish observance of every aspect of the Torah…was willing to die to end Roman dominion and renew Jewish sovereignty in ancient Israel.”

The question, of course, is to whom is he appealing? Does he really think Jesus existed as portrayed in Christian sources? If so what could he possibly have to offer Jews that is not already on record from our own great leaders of the century he is supposed to have lived in? Perhaps out of his genuine friendship and affection for his Christian admirers Shmuley is trying to remove the 600-pound gorilla in the room, the fundamentally different way Jews and Christians see the character of Jesus Christ. He wants Christians to understand Jesus was not God but a nice loyal Jewish boy (forgive me, I can’t stop myself recalling the line from the Monty Python movie, Life Of Brian, “He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy”). And, as a sop, he wants Jews to stop thinking of Jesus as a heretic and the founder of a religion that persecuted them for two thousand years. Not only, but he has endowed him with a totally unsubstantiated title.

He leans heavily on the work of Hyam Maccoby, an English academic (one of my teachers and a grandson of the Kamenitzer Maggid), who masterfully showed how little in the Gospels made any historical sense and how contradictory and improbable their narratives were. Judea at the time was choc-a-bloc with radicals, rebels, saints, charismatic healers, and Teachers of Righteousness (to use Dead Sea Sect terminology), any one of whom, or even a combination of whom, could have served as a model for someone intent on creating a new movement designed for the Roman Empire.

The Gospels were written in Greek some hundred years at least after the purported events. The words attributed to Jesus contained nothing that would in any way have been offensive to the Pharisee, Rabbinic school of Judaism. Politically, the Jews at the time were as divided as today between the peace party and those refusing to compromise. No one would have objected to somebody claiming to be the Messiah, which to them was simply the term used for an anointed leader who would throw off the occupation and restore Jewish sovereignty. After all, many of them supported Bar Kochba, who tried to do just that in 132. The proof of the pudding was in the eating. If you won, you’d be the Messiah, and if you failed, a corpse. Neither was being the “Son of God” a problem, because the Bible calls us all sons and daughters of the one God. And for any human to have claimed he actually was God would, in the eyes of his contemporaries in Judea, simply have consigned him to the ranks of the delusionary.

Since Geza Vermes, the Regius Professor at Oxford, wrote Jesus the Jew in 1973, academics have been trying to recast Jesus as a Jew. But it is all rather fanciful, because we have absolutely no direct, firsthand evidence whatsoever that Jesus actually existed. The Gospels were written for a gentile audience. Josephus, who might have been a contemporary and refers to him, never met him, and his record is not to be relied on. The Apostle Paul, whom Maccoby cast as the founder of Christianity, only met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. We have no more facts about the actual man said to be Jesus than we do about Noah. The Gospels are important documents, but not proofs of existence. I am not talking about the legacy or about the significance of the myth, simply the facts. Orthodox Jews often refer to uncensored scurrilous Talmudic references, usually in code, but we don’t know when they were written and whether they reflected later tensions.

A lot of people were trying to make the world a better place as the Roman Empire began to unravel. If you read Daniel Boyarin, particularly A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, you will know that it was almost impossible to tell many Jews from many Christians or Nazarenes in the sectarian turmoil, splits, and persecutions of those days. It wasn’t really until Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325 that the dividing lines were finally drawn between Jews and Christians and between those who believed Jesus was a man and those who believed him to be God.

I felt, reading this book, the way I did after reading Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. You can make out a case for almost anything, but since there are no supporting facts at all, it’s all theory. I do not believe there is any point in trying to recast a religion’s “myths” or narrative. The issue surely anyway is not the story but the message and the measure of a religious person is how he behaves.

Whoever we are, we believe what we are taught, conditioned, persuaded and we act on the basis of those convictions. Variety in itself is healthy. What we religious folk, must do is stop persecuting people for thinking differently, not try to persuade them to change their ideas. That is why Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik ‎(1903–1993) laid his ground rules for interfaith that still define the dominant Orthodox position. We should engage in mutually beneficial interaction over causes and matters of joint concern. But to try to engage in Theological Disputation is pointless. I would only want to qualify this by saying it is always beneficial to study other points of view and “know what to reply even to the Epicurian” (Avot 2.14).

I respect and value all religions that try to make this world a better place and increase love between humans. I despise any religion that tries to impose its worldview on others. It doesn’t matter who that religion has as a founding figure, or what tales it tells. No committed Jew is going to follow Jesus as a role model over Hillel, who said virtually the same things. Just as no believing Christian is going to take Hillel over Jesus. So why the need to pretend that Jesus existed and that he was a rabbi, or a shoemaker, or a financial advisor?

It’s as idiosyncratic a book, as its author who ranks Maimonides on a higher level than Hillel. We contentious Jews can’t even agree amongst ourselves about our own religion, let alone someone else’s. His potted history is too simplistic, with the odd mistake and debatable judgments. For example, it was not Pompey who started using the term “Palestinia” instead of “Judea”, it was Hadrian. Pharisees and Sadducees did indeed on occasion cooperate despite their differences, as the Mishna Yoma shows.

It is, however, fascinating how someone supposedly born of Jewish parents in Judea should be transformed into a blond Aryan, born in a Dutch barn surrounded by Scandinavian pines. We do indeed create gods in our own image. The long history of Christian persecution and anti-Semitism cannot entirely be blamed on a single mythical narrative. It is the continuous teaching that nonbelievers are inferior subhumans that is the source of most evil in our world, regardless of which religion.

Still, like all his books, it’s a fun romp and an easy if controversial introduction to a contentious issue.

12 thoughts on “Who is Jesus?

  1. Do you include Judaism in the religions that teach that nonbelievers are inferior subhumans and the source of most evil in our world?

  2. Unfortunately I have to admit we do indeed have our fanatics who denigrate non-believers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. And they do this despite all the sources that that say every human being is judged according to his or her actions.

  3. Thank you for your very wonderful blog and insightful commentary.
    Very interesting idea that anybody who restores Jewish sovereignty ( a political achievement), is thereby entitled to call themselves Messiah. Would this perhaps imply that those who established the modern state of Israel are Messiahs in a sense? Or, because, political sovereignty cannot be guaranteed forever, is there no hope of a Messiah?

  4. This is my first post on your blog, but, I have been a reader for awhile. Even though I'm not a Christian (and, I'm not sure how much of a Jew people would consider me, as I wasn't raised in a secular home, but, I'm interested in learning more about my roots, which is why I come to your blog, and other places about Judaism), but, I do quite like learning about ancient history, and, I find early Christianity (and that time period) quite interesting. I don't think we can just say "Jesus didn't exist" or he was "created" by various early Christian communities in antiquity, from what I've read of it, I quite like Geza Vermes take on Jesus, but, at the same time, I like what April DeConick (a great scholar on early Christianity and Gnosticism) said, which was when dealing with the Jesus, we're dealing with memories, with all the problems that it entails, so, it does take painstaking research to dig through the sources (the New Testament Gospels, plus the ones that didn't make the final cut) to give us a picture of the Jesus that walked around some 2000 years ago.

    This site has a good roundup of most, if not all, of the Historical Jesus, theories, (the author of that site also has another cool site,

  5. I loved this blog, Jeremy – it was erudite and stimulating but more than this it reminded me of Hymie Maccoby with whom we had mutual friends. Whenever I came up with anything I thought was relevant and interesting he made ash un blotte of me and my theories. I loved it. How wonderful to remember him. Thank you.

  6. Shmuely Boteach is just one more Jewish fool to fall into the Trojan Horse trap of the likes of Glenn Beck, John Hagee,and others of today's evangelicals. R'Riskin was another popular Jewish personality to recently praise "Rabbi" Jesus, despite, after the fact, denials. (What was he doing at some Evangelical meeting talking Jesus anyway?)
    Just imagine the glee and envy the Crusaders, Inqisitors, Martin Luther, and the vast other antisemitic personalties who sought to get the Jews to convert to their Jesus, now feel by seeing the inroads made with just a little cash and lovin by present day evangelical Christians.
    Popular Jewish personalities are "cleaning up" and touting Jesus. Imagine what that can do to Jews with a bit of uncertainty or shaky grounding. (not to mention what it can do to the Jew who falls in love with a Christian and the raging hormones are just looking for a way "in."
    ("Hey, Shmuely Boteach 'kashered' Jesus; why can't I?" [listen to those hormones go])
    Evangelical Christian pro Israel love of Jews is a Trojan Horse. BEWARE!!!

  7. Anonymous:
    Certainly Secular Zionism believed it was ushering in a new just socialist era, a repudiation of the Ghetto but precisely for that reason they refused to give it any religious association. On the other hand Religious Zionists still call the founding of the State "Reyshit Geulah" the beginning of Messianic redemption. Of course this is why the Satmar chassidim and their looney fringe Neturei Karta claim that Zionism is an arrogant attempt to take over God's role in deciding when the Messiah will come (not to mention Chabad's insistence mainly in Israel that the late Rebbe was/is the Messisah!!!).

  8. David:
    Welcome and thanks for contributing to the discussion! The fact is that we can only try to reconstruct or imagine a historical Jesus. If one is predisposed to do so because of a Christian commitment I can accept that as easily as I can accepting Moses as a historical Jew. But if like me you are a natural born/educated sceptic with no predisposition to accept Christianity , I see no good reason, nor any objective empirical evidence to accept a myth even if a good theory could explain its possible origins.

  9. Josh:

    Interesting angle. I slightly disagree about the Trojan Horse. Yes theologically you are absolutely right. The Evangelicals look forward to the Second Coming and Rapture and that requires a sort of "Ethnic Cleansing" or non Christians in the battle between Gog and Magog

    at Armageddon or Megiddo. And we should not be encouraging that at all. But politically Israel is so hated irrationally and viscerally by so many in the world today I believe having any friends be they Evangelicals, Hindu or Tea Part loonies is no bad thing under present circumstances.


  10. Answer to R' J's reply:
    Sure, let's have friends – even goyim, but don't get into bed with them, or their god (i.e. Jesus). If you agree that Pas Akum threatens intermarriage (ain't that the reason our sagesw give?), just imagine what polishing Jesus' image does.
    To what part of the Trojan Horse do you "slightly" not agree. (If one's unmarried daughter came home "slightly" pregnant would that be better or different than not so slightly pregnant?) A Trojan Horse is what it is, as its own complete entity. Evangelical Christians want Jewish souls; Mormons still baptize Jews in abstentia (Beck is a Mormon). A rabbi who promotes Jesus at any level gives credibility to Christianity and that credibility is a slippery slope.
    By the way, In this weeks Parsha , Shemos, did the enslaving Pharoah's like or hate the Hebrews? Did it matter in the end? Did Haman like or hate the Jews? Did it matter in the end? Did Hitler like or hate the Jews? Did he matter in the end? The Czar -Did he like or hate the Jews? Did it matter? Where did these characters and the likes of them through out history ultimately wind up?
    The Holocaust happened only recently, 70 years ago; essentially the entire world (certainly Europe) abetted the destruction of the Jews (How about Pres Roosevelt sending the Ship St. Louis back for the destruction of the escaping Jews?). They hated us then. Do you really believe something has happened since then that has changed their attitude in reality? Don't deceive yourself, the Jew is still hated; a repeat Holocaust is always a potential (Can you believe that as of this moment, Iran with its blatant threat of wiping out Israel, is still building a nuclear weapon?)
    Somehow, I don't think that being hated by the goyim really matters; or being liked by goyim who want to consume your yiddisher soul really is a difference. In fact, from a spiritual, theological point of view the Hitlers and Hamans are a bit more benign: they destroy one's Jewish body, the yiddisher soul lives on forever. On the other hand, the Jew who gives up his soul is lost forever.
    The Jew does not really need "friends". The Jew needs God (not Jesus), and the Jew needs to follow God's Torah; and the Jew needs the power through military might to gain the nations' respect, and to help demonstrate the truth of the Jewish Torah so that all the nations will come to the true God. Then those who bless the Jew will themselves be blessed. Somehow, I believe that this is genuine Jewish philosophy.
    Until then,I maintain my warning: Beware the Trojan Horse of those who seek the Jewish soul!

  11. Josh:

    I agree with your general premise that we should behave in the correct way, follow our tradition regardless of what non-Jews think of us. The only "slightly" I was referring to was the benefit Israel derives from having a powerful non-Jewish lobby in Washington actively campaigning for it at a time when there is so much pressure the other way.

    History has plenty of examples on non-Jews helping us for whom we have been most grateful, Cyrus for letting the Jews return, Alexander for not trying to impose Greek culture on us, Julian for restoring Jewish rights in Eretz Yisrael, Cromwell (himself a very frum Christian) for allowing Jews to return to Britain, the Balfour Declaration even Truman for voting for the State.

    And if you look at Devarim 4.6. you will see that the Torah itself considers it important that we receive approval of our ways from non Jews. I fear the expectation that that particular pasuk hopes for, no longer holds true.

    We are indeed responsible for doing what we can for our own fate. We cannot rely on miracles. We must not forget that twice before the Almighty Hid His Face and we lost our land.


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