Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Arguing with Jesus

Jay Michaelson has an interesting column in the Forward about the flood of recent books by Jews seeking to argue with Jesus and Christianity:

[T]hese past few years have seen a small mountain of Jesus books arrive on my desk, most of them not worthy of review. Screeds about how Jesus got Judaism wrong, or how Christians got Jesus wrong, or how much better we are than they are…

Kindly he attributes this literary trend, such as it is, in part to me:

Surely, some of the Jesus fad is due to the success of David Klinghoffer’s 2005 book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. (Answer: We’re the chosen people — a nation, not universalists.) But I think a lot of it is also due to our increased confidence as an assimilated minority in the United States. Where once we could have been tortured or burned for not accepting Christ, now we can publish books criticizing him.


I appreciate the reference, and the second point — about Christian America’s remarkable openness to disagreement — is correct. But I would slightly modify Jay’s answer to the question posed by the title of my book. Judaism’s universal message is a big part of the reason Judaism stands stubbornly apart from Christianity.

In my book, I narrate the 2,000-year history of the Jewish-Christian debate about Jesus. In the course of that history, Jews have offered many different objections to the claims Christians advance on Jesus’ behalf — that he was the promised Messiah, the son of God, who frees us from the “curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:13), meaning the curse of God’s Torah.
But if I were talking to a Jew in real life who was attracted to Christian faith, a conversation I’ve had many times, the very first thing I would say to him is that God must have created Jews for a reason, with some mission of benefit not only to ourselves but to the world.
That mission requires that we be distinct, in the role of priests to mankind. That is the traditional Jewish belief, and it is universal in nature in the sense of being relevant to humanity as a whole. God, seemingly, has an interest in seeing us fulfill that role through history.
Every Jew who has ever accepted Jesus has abandoned this “clerical” role in order to join the “laity.” The earliest Christians were Jews and not one of them has Jewishly identified descendants today, as far as anyone can tell. No community of Jewish Christians or so-called “Messianic Jews” has ever survived intact for generations. They always, always, always intermarry and disappear into the wider Gentile world.
Understanding how other faiths fit into God’s scheme to bring man closer and closer to Him is a question to which I don’t have an entirely satisfying answer. But the eternal existence and integrity of the Jewish people — maintained by Jewish law, the grammar of our special relationship with God — is the single most fundamental precondition of the success of that divine plan.
That’s the most basic reason that a Jew cannot accept Jesus.
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posted May 1, 2009 at 9:36 am

This coming week’s gospel lesson really addresses that point. In John 10 Jesus talks about having sheep not from this fold/pen that he must lead also. He says, “they will listen and their will be one flock and one shepherd.” Now, John is later (~90AD) and it could be said that he was justifying the results of the first century, but that sounds a bunch like Paul (~50AD) when he says in Christ there is no Jew or greek, male or female,etc. It also would reflect the much earlier gospel’s (~60AD) focus on the faith of “stray” gentiles and Acts’ comments about “God-fearers”.
Now I know that you were very rough on Paul in you book. The closest I could say to being offensive, but being fair Paul is pretty offensive to traditional Jewish understanding. Wrestling with the role of the Jews and their large scale non-accpetance in the book of Romans, Paul explains it as “God has bound all men over to disobeidience so that he may have mercy on them all.” An expression of the core understanding of by Grace Alone. Ultimately all people must give up their understood “special status” and find themselves at the foot of the cross. The cross levels all of our conceits. Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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Anton C.

posted May 1, 2009 at 10:31 am

This is a hot button topic used to sell books and differentiate authors from the vast multitude of people writing books on religion these days. The sheer number of recent religious publications is amazing. There are so many books I want to read but just don’t have the time. Some of the reasons given for “rejecting” Jesus (really rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, not his message) drift towards tribal, “us versus them” pretensions. I would prefer to believe that people are simply embracing 4,000 years of beautiful Jewish literature art and faith and not fighting some epic battle of survival against a rapacious religion. Simple answer: “I’m happy in my religion, Thank you.”

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posted May 3, 2009 at 1:03 am

The Jay Michaelson article was interesting, especially since he seems himself to be somewhat secularized. I’ve noticed this trend myself, and it is probably true that in the tolerant atmosphere of America, the authors feel comfortable and safe in expressing themselves. Which is as it should be. The motivations aren’t quite clear to me, though, even after reading the article, David’s book (which I read about a year ago), or the current post. Is the idea to help strengthen fellow Jews against possible proselytism? Or to dissuade Christians from their own faith? Or to vent? Or what?
I guess the analogy for a Christian would be if Mormons became a majority of the population. They accept as a prophet someone not recognized by other churches, which is analogous to the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Another analogy would be Islam, with its claim of prophethood for Muhammad. I imagine if, say, a Methodist lived among a majority of Mormons or Muslims, he might become a bit paranoid after all the years of being asked (often aggressively, perhaps) why he didn’t accept Joseph Smith or Muhammad. Of course the Jewish experience has historically been much harsher than this. One can understand the feeling.
Having said that, outside of Evangelicals, most Christians in the US right now don’t evangelize Jews to a noticeable extent, and the Jewish population is notoriously secular and non-observant. Also it’s interesting that in tone, some of these books seem to slide over from “Here’s why Jews don’t accept Christ,” to “This is why you Christians made a huge mistake.” Either of which is anyone’s prerogative, of course–I just don’t quite see the motivation, especially for those not practicing their own faith (this appellation does not, of course, apply to all of the writers in question, especially not David).
I actually read David’s book and found it interesting, but I was not (as a Christian) convinced. Really, though there will always be some Jews and Christians who convert to the other’s religion, I think that dialogue of this sort is not really possible. To argue Talmudically, as David does (and does well, I think), is really beside the point for several reasons:
1. The Talmud was not written down until between two and five centuries after the time of Jesus of Nazareth. Also, Josephus, Philo, and other Jews contemporary with Jesus give information about Judaism that seems somewhat different from normative Rabbinical Judaism. Finally, of the five major Jewish or quasi-Jewish sects of the time (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Samaritans–a sixth non-Talmudic group, the Karaites, may trace their origins to this era, though that’s uncertain), only the Pharisaical (which was the proto-Rabbinical) group actually accepted the Oral Torah. Thus, it is difficult to know just what Jewish practice and Biblical interpretation of the First Century C.E. was actually like. Many scholars point out that it is all too easy to project Talmudic, Rabbinical Judaism back into the First Century, when in fact the milieu was most likely at least somewhat, if not extremely, different. Thus, e.g., if one says that a certain interpretation of the Tanakh would not have been accepted in the First Century because such an interpretation is negated by the Talmud, this is at best anachronistic, and at worst wrong.
2. As David pointed out a few threads back, the Tanakh as it is by itself is puzzling and not very uplifting. It needs an interpretive framework. There’s the rub. The early Christians, in light of their experiences of what they perceived to be the Risen Christ, interpreted the Hebrew Bible through the lens of their faith in Christ. The Jews who did not convert, in light of their experiences of the fall of the Second Temple and their dispersion (again) from the Holy Land, as well as the traditions of the Elders, the Scribes, and the men of the Great Assembly, came to codify and write down the Oral Law as the Talmud, the Midrashim, and so on, and interpreted the Tanakh through this different lens. Thus, for example, argument between Jews and Christians as to just who the “suffering Servant” of Isaiah is, is impossible. Jews would argue that it is the Jewish people itself, in light of the Talmud; and Christians would argue that it is Jesus of Nazareth, in light of the New Testament and Church teaching. The point that’s easy to miss is that if you read Isaiah without an interpretive framework, the suffering Servant could be anyone, including Israel, Jesus, Bar Kokhba, Sabbatai Zvi, or one of us, for that matter. The commitment to the authority of the Talmud or Church Tradition is made prior to interpretation of the Old Testament. Therefore, it is generally impossible to argue that the other side is wrong, because it’s not about who the suffering Servant (as one of many possible examples) “really” is, but what faith commitments one has made in light of which one makes this interpretation. In this respect, as Jacob Neusner has said, Jews and Christians talk about different things to different people.
3. Finally, it irked me a bit that David seemed unclear or inconsistent in what he was trying to do. He said early on in the book that his purpose was not to convert or give offense to Christians, but to explain why their Jewish brothers and sisters did not accept Christianity. At many points, however, he seems almost to be attacking Christian belief in such as way as to argue to Christians that they are wrong, and should change their beliefs accordingly. Which is his right and prerogative; but he should have been more explicit and consistent about it.
Of course, I guess one could argue that Jews and Christians do make some really incompatible claims. If Judaism is correct, then Christians have screwed up royally by worshipping a mere human being as God Almighty. Conversely, if Christianity is correct, then God did, in fact, come among us as a man, and the Jews rejected Him. That sounds harsh, either way. However, God, as I envision Him, at any rate, knowing how people are, is OK with us fallible mortals. I don’ t think (if the Jews are right) that God is going to send us goyim to Hell (neither do the Jews, if I understand correctly); nor do I think that, if the Christians are right, that the Jews will be condemned to perdition (I wish I could say that most of my fellow Christians don’t believe this, either, but, alas, all too many do. I certainly don’t share this belief, nor do I think that the majority of my Catholic coreligionists do, at any rate),.
Having said all of this, I actually tend to agree with David’s belief that the Jews are a “kingdom of priests”. The main difference is that Christians believe that they exercised this priestly function by preparing the way for Christ and that they completed it in the coming of Christ, himself a Jew.
Now this is just my own theorizing, but I’m inclined to think that the continuation of the Jewish people after the coming of Jesus was, as it were, to keep us Christians honest. If all the Jews had been either converted or eliminated, it would have been all too easy for Christians to jettison the Tanakh altogether. If this had happened, Christianity would have tended to turn into just another mystery religion, or a dualistic, Hellenistic religion. That there was a strong temptation towards this is indicated by the popularity of Gnosticism for several centuries. Since the Jews stubbornly stayed around, however, it was not possible for Christians to ignore or forget their Jewish origins. Also, the existence of the Jewish people served as a salutary rebuke to the Christians. If they’re not converting, what are we doing wrong? Thus, the Jews have always provoked Christians to explore their heritage and to think through their own faith in a deeper way. Of course, it is also true that God is true to the covenants He makes, and thus the Jews are still His chosen people, as even Paul acknowledges.
Finally, I think David’s hypothetical response to a Jew about to apostasize is interesting, and indicates the differences between the Jewish and Christian worldviews, which I think are greater than both Jews and Christians often want to believe. He says that a Jew who converts is failing to fulfill his duty as a priest to the human race. If a Christian were talking to a fellow Christian considering leaving the faith, he would probably seek to understand his motives and ask him why he, as in individual, wanted to convert. What his “role” as a Christian is would be secondary. My understanding, based on many books by Jewish authors I’ve read (one that springs to mind is Prager and Telushkin’s Why the Jews?), if I remember correctly, though oversimplified, is that Judaism places greater value on orthopraxis (what you do), and Christianity places greater value on orthodoxy (what you believe). Thus, it is not totally unusual for an agnostic (or even atheist) Jew to nevertheless practice the Law, including kashrut. For a Christian, this would be unintelligible, since he would tend to say it’s better to believe, even if you don’t carry out your beliefs, than not to believe and carry out your religious obligations, anyway. Of course, both Jews and Christians would agree that ideally you should do the right thing, and should do it for the right reason, as well–the issue is which is considered more important or foundational.
In any case, I assume that leaving the “priesthood” for the “laity” would be true for a Jew for conversion to any non-Jewish religion, not just Christianity, from David’s perspective. Ironically, plenty of Jews have joined non-Christian religions. Michael Wolfe springs to mind as a convert to Islam, and (as someone who has studied Buddhism intensively over many years) I have noticed that the number of Jewish converts to Buddhism is enormously out of proportion to their percentage of the population.
Having said all of this, and lest I be unclear, as a Christian myself I have great respect for the Jewish tradition and have every desire to live and let live. We are all, ultimately, on the same team as fellow members of Abrahamic faiths.

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 3, 2009 at 1:53 am

Thanks, Turmarion, I do appreciate your thoughtful and measured responses even (especially?) when you disagree with me.

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posted September 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Re: “No community of Jewish Christians or so-called “Messianic Jews” has ever survived intact for generations.”
Incorrect. See
“Syrian Malabar Nasranis are the descendants of the Jewish diaspora in Kerala who were evangelized by St. Thomas in the Malabar Coast in the earliest days of Christianity. The community also comprises several ancient Christian settlements in Kerala. It has been suggested that the term Nasrani derives from the name Nazarenes used by ancient Jewish Christians in the Near-East who believed in the divinity of Jesus but clung to many of the Mosaic ceremonies. They follow a unique Hebrew-Syriac Christian tradition which includes several Jewish elements although they have absorbed some Hindu customs. Their heritage is Syriac-Keralite, their culture South Indian with Semitic and local influences, their faith St. Thomas Christian, and their language Malayalam.”

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