As children, my sister and I often argued over what we would watch on television at 8 o’clock on Friday nights. While our parents were usually at services, we were home trying to decide between Our Miss Brooks, a situation comedy about the trials and tribulations of a high school English teacher, which she preferred, and Crossroads, a series of dramas about the experience of clergymen, which I preferred. Interestingly, my sister became a teacher, and I became a rabbi.
She was older and usually got her way, but I prevailed one night, and Crossroads it was.
I remember a scene where a young boy in a baseball cap asked his priest: “Father, what’s the difference between you and Rabbi Silver?” The priest gave the boy a sympathetic look and said, “Think of it this way, son. We are both in the same league; it’s just that we play for different teams.”
Since that night I have wondered: did the priest mean that he and the rabbi both pursued the same objective in different ways? Or did he mean that they were in competition with one another? The question remains with me and lies at the heart of my inquiry into the role of the Christian Messiah.
A famous author wrote, “…One need only read the lives of Jesus written since the sixties and notice what they have made of the great imperious sayings of the Lord, how they have weakened down His imperative world-condemning demands upon individuals, that He might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals … “
How correct the author seems! We have seen since the nineteen sixties Jesus made into a jeans-wearing modern, very much like us in many ways, yet with a message and a mission which set him apart. We have seen since the sixties Jesus Christ popularized with music and visual effects designed to capture both the imagination and the entertainment dollar.
The author’s statement about what has been done with Jesus since the sixties is not surprising until we realize that the author is Albert Schweitzer, his statement published in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and his reference is to the 1860s, not the sixties of the last century.
In his famous study, Schweitzer concluded that the historical Jesus is largely beyond discovery. More than a century later Geza Vermes’ 25-year study of the life and times of Jesus yielded a similar conclusion. He wrote: “Certainly unless by some fortunate chance new evidence is unfolded in the future, not a great deal can be said of Jesus at this distance of time that can be historically authenticated.”
To this day “the Quest” remains fraught with uncertainty. One of the reasons the historical Jesus is so elusive is that the Gospels (even the similar accounts of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke) disagree on many details. Vermes contended that the Gospel do not “provide more than a skeletal outline of Jesus as he really was.”
To this Samuel Sandmel added: “We cannot be precise about Jesus. We can know what the Gospels say, but we cannot know Jesus.” Though the historical Jesus is largely unknowable, we can and must deal with the image of the personality, teachings, and influence of Jesus which has come down to us. As Schweitzer wrote, “Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time, but his spirit, which lies hidden in his words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct.”
Of course, Schweitzer wrote as a Christian. We Jews too, though, must deal with the influence of Jesus more than the elusive historical figure whom centuries of dedicated research have failed to fully reveal.
Without denigrating in any way the figure who inspires the Christian religious experience, we acknowledge frankly that we Jews do not see Jesus as Christians do.
Simply stated, the basic Christian concepts which Jews do not accept are:
- That Jesus was God’s anointed, the Messiah whose coming many Jews longed for both at the time Jesus lived and during other periods of Jewish history.
- That the martyr’s death of Jesus in any way effects atonement for the collective sins of humanity or for the sins of an individual.
- That God became or is likely to become incarnate in any human form, making any human being a suitable object for worship.
- That, as Paul contends in his Epistles, the life and death of Jesus rendered the elaborate system of Jewish law functionally useless.