Why Jews Don't Accept Jesus

David Klinghoffer explains what he wishes Christians understood about the Jewish rejection of Jesus--in the 1st century & today.

BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips and Laura Sheahen


Continued from page 1

LS: And your book says first-century Palestine was full of would-be Messiahs--a lot of people going around [like Jesus] with healing powers and other things.

Right. For Jews to give up the unique relationship with God that we have on the basis of a plausible, but by no means the only plausible, interpretation of scripture, is asking a lot.

There are one or two verses in the Hebrew Bible that some Christians will point to as showing that the laws were going to be transcended or discarded. But if you look at the context, those verses, to my mind, don't indicate that.

But even if you thought the Christian interpretation was plausible, it's only a couple of verses. To base a decision to give up Torah on a couple of ambiguous verses in


is not, to me, a serious response for a Jew. For a Christian, who defines his spirituality through the lens of the New Testament, it's different. The Christian prioritizes the new over the old.

LS: What do Jews believe the Messiah will be like, and how does Jesus differ from this?

The Messiah will change the world. There won't be any question about whether he's come.

LS: It will be completely obvious?

Yes. There's no indication that it will be a test if someone accepts him. In my book, I make the analogy of seeing a woman who's clearly pregnant, and then later her stomach is flat. There's no need to ask, "Did you have the baby?"

The trite response is, "Jesus didn't bring world peace." That's just the beginning. Ezekiel describes the third temple being built in the time of the Messiah--things anyone with eyes can verify.

Some Christians will say, it's a two-part process.

LS: Or they'll say it's metaphorical.

Well, if it's metaphorical, then everything's up for grabs. They'll be inconsistent about what's literal and what's metaphorical; Jews have a tradition that tells us what to understand literally and what figuratively.

LS: So the Christian interpretation of the rebuilt temple being Jesus' resurrection--that kind of symbolic, metaphorical reading--just doesn't work in terms of Jewish beliefs about the Messiah? You're saying the actual temple will be there. It will be an actual stone building?

There's no question. In the

last chapter of Ezekiel

, he describes a temple in great detail, down to exact measurements. The measurements are all wrong if it's supposed to be the First or Second Temple. So either he's describing something that's never going to happen or something that will happen.

Christians and Jews who take prophecy seriously can't understand his very architectural description as a metaphor. It clearly hasn't happened yet.

RP: I had never realized that Jesus was censored from the Talmud. You write that all mentions of Jesus were removed in the 16th century to avoid Christian wrath. I wonder if we would have been saved a lot of interfaith relations problems later if he had been left in. How did that happen and why?

There are a handful of references to Jesus in the pre-censored text of the Talmud. I struggled with whether to bring this up in my book, because some of them are off-color and offensive, certainly to Christians.

RP: Offensive because of the way Jesus is depicted?

The Talmud described his being punished after death--in a way that is clearly meant to be a metaphor. The story is a vision of villains suffering in hell, and one is of Jesus in hell [for 70 years]. It's clearly a metaphor, because Jews don't believe people suffer in hell longer than a year.

LS: So Jews believe people suffer in hell for a year?

Up to a year, if you've committed evils and haven't repented. In Jewish terms, it's not possible for Jesus to have been in hell 70 years after he died. It's clearly meant as a metaphor.

Nevertheless, I struggled with whether to bring things like that up at all. Why hurt the feelings of Christians? In many ways, it's the most religious Christians who are our very best friends--because they are friends of Israel and are on our side morally. But I ultimately decided that you can't write an honest history of the Jewish-Christian debate about Jesus without bringing up some disturbing things. The truth is, anti-Semites are already aware of this.

LS: What do Jews wish Christians understood about their feelings about Jesus?

I'd like them to understand that there is a serious and pretty massive response to Jewish arguments on behalf of Jesus. The story I tell in the book about being evangelized--that happens not infrequently. My friend Michael Medved, who speaks to a lot of Christian groups, tells me he gets asked about five times a week by Christians, in effect, "You seem like such a wonderful person, why don't you accept Jesus?"

It's not out of ignorance or impiety or not caring that Jews remain Jews. It's because we take the Hebrew Bible seriously. Christians, especially evangelicals--who also take the Hebrew Bible very seriously--should be able to understand that.

In a sense, I welcome Christian evangelism, because I think it's a very healthy challenge and prod to Jews. In my own case, my whole journey to Orthodox Judaism started because I got into an argument with a Jew for Jesus in 1982 on the UCLA campus. He argued with me about Isaiah 53 and showed me I didn't know anything about my inherited religion. I was disturbed by that, and it made we want to go out and learn more about the religion I'd been raised in.

For a lot of Jews it's the same. We sort of blithely go along and say, "To be a Jew means we don't believe in Jesus," which is nonsense. Christians, when they evangelize us in their sweet, respectful way-which is always the case in my experience-are challenging us to learn more about our own religion.

RP: At the same time, Jews spend millions each year on counter-missionary efforts. I doubt whether most Jews would say, "evangelism is a blessing."

I'm friendly with the guys at Jews for Judaism. They do a great job. I don't mean this in an insulting way to Christians, but when your body gets an infection it produces antibodies, and the antibodies are good to have around. Jews for Judaism wouldn't exist if it were not for Jews for Jesus. Jews for Jesus doesn't have a lot of success attracting actual Jews. A lot of the people who attend Messianic synagogue are not Jewish by birth.

LS: There have been many recent debates about religion in the public square. But do Jews feel uncomfortable seeing a creche scene on someone's lawn, or a crucifix or painting in someone's home?

There are definitely Jews who, while driving around a non-Jewish neighborhood and seeing a depiction of the Nativity on someone's lawn, would think "Oh, it's evangelism." It's a minority of Jews, but there are some Jews who have a very thin skin about any hint of any religion whatsoever. Not that they would take offense at a crucifix in someone's home, but they might feel "they might try to evangelize me." There's a weird fear, as if Jews haven't learned how to say "no thank you." I don't understand the fear, but it's definitely there.

LS: For many Christians, the Hebrew scriptural links are prioritized, as you said, according to how well they mesh with the story of Jesus. The interpretations are so ingrained. It's a big conundrum--how to gently explain to Christians that the evidence linking the Old Testament and New Testament isn't quite as self-evident as most Christians believe.

The only point where I disagree is "gently." My preference is for vigorous civilized debate in these issues.

LS: What about on a more personal level--when you're in someone's living room?

Yeah, for sure. We live in a really special time when Jews and Christians for the first time can discuss these questions in a spirit of friendship and love, not in a spirit of being threatened or angry. We should take that opportunity and not pretend it's still the Middle Ages when a Jew could get killed for saying the wrong thing.

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