Religion 101

Religion 101

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Five)

Aside from the several other frequent areas of confusion which sometimes puzzle newcomers to the study of Judaism (areas which I’ve been discussing in my last several blog entries), there is yet another hazy area that is often uniquely puzzling to specifically Christian newcomers: why, as they themselves often put it, don’t Jews “believe in Jesus”?

Such newcomers are often unaware of the fact that, even though the term Christ is indeed basically just Greek for the Hebrew term Messiah, Jews and Christians actually use these terms in very different ways — assigning very different meanings to this same single term, within their own very different religious contexts.


In other words, what Jews actually mean when they talk about their Messiah, and what Christians actually mean when they talk about their Christ, may in fact be two very different things altogether (at least insofar as those Jews, and those Christians, are concerned).

“Messiah” (from the Hebrew mashiach) and “Christ” (from the Greek christos) both literally mean “Anointed One.” But there, to a great degree — and as far as a lot of Jews and Christians themselves are concerned — their similarity ends.

In popular parlance, both “Messiah” and “Christ” are generally understood to essentially equate to something like “Savior.” But what, precisely, is meant by this? Just what kind of a savior are we talking about here? Who is this savior “saving” (or trying to save, or destined to save)?  And what, exactly, is this savior saving “the saved” from?


Aye, therein lies the rub. Jews and Christians typically answer these sorts of questions in very different ways. (And some Christians sometimes don’t quite realize, or appreciate, or understand this absolutely critical difference.)

Christians generally understand Jesus of Nazareth to have been the Messiah or Christ (e.g., “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” — so, no, “Christ” was not Jesus’s last name, but a title bestowed upon him by his followers, the first “Christians”). But by “Messiah” or “Christ,” they (Christians) have something very specific in mind. And what they have in mind is not really the same thing at all as what Jews specifically have in mind, when they for their own part talk about “the Messiah.” (And until this key difference is fully grasped, the two sides will just continue to unhelpfully talk right past each other.)


Christians traditionally believe that Christ (whom they identify as Jesus) is “the Savior” in a very specific sense. This uniquely Christian understanding of “Christ” (or “Messiah”) is that of a divine Savior of all humankind — a unique and literal “Son of God,” even an Incarnation of God himself (or of “God the Son,” the second divine Person in a three-part holy Trinity composed of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This divine Savior came into the world in order to save humanity from the wages of sin, which according to Christianity is death and/or eternity in hell.

While there are subtle variants, the basic and perhaps most common view among Christians is that Christ took the sins of the world upon himself, and died an “atoning death” as a kind of cosmic self-sacrifice (not unlike the animal and other forms of sacrifice offered to God by Jews of the time at the temple in Jerusalem, in order to atone for their sins).


The death of Jesus, in other words, paid the penalty for all human sin, making salvation possible for all human beings — “salvation” here being generally understood as freeing one from the condemning taint of sin, thereby enabling one to enter heaven and enjoy eternal life (a post-mortem fate which many Christians regard as therefore unavailable to the “unsaved,” meaning those who fail to take advantage of the salvation made available by the death of this uniquely Christian savior [e.g., non-Christians]).

(Even Christians themselves differ over precisely how one avails oneself of that salvation. For instance, Protestants maintain that it is accessed exclusively through faith alone in Jesus as one’s savior; by contrast, for Catholics, “good works” as well as adequate participation in the grace-channeling holy sacraments of the Church [baptism, communion, confession, etc.] also play an important part in the salvation equation.)


Christians further generally believe that Jesus (the Christ, or the Messiah) was himself miraculously resurrected from the dead following his sacrificial atoning death upon the cross (he was, after all, divine himself), that he subsequently ascended to his rightful place in heaven (as God the Son, part of that aforementioned divine Trinity), and that he will someday return to preside over Judgment Day, when the dead will rise and be ushered into eternal heaven, or hurled into eternal hell.

All of this, with some variation here and there (Christians actually being a more theologically diverse lot than is often recognized), is pretty standard traditional Christian fare.

However, what some Christians seem to varying degrees unaware of is simply that Jews basically buy “none of the above” — not even the fundamental presupposition that such a savior is needed in order to absolve humanity from sin in the first place, nor that a savior per se is in any sense a divine incarnation of God (or a literal Son of God), much less that Jesus of Nazareth was any such a savior at all.


All of that is simply nothing like what Jews themselves have in mind when they talk about a “savior” (or about “the Messiah”); their entire conception of such a figure is just vastly different, to begin with.  (And after all, as they often point out, Jews are the ones who actually came up with the whole “Messiah” concept in the first place.)

(To be continued, and concluded, in Part Six.)





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Rea Howarth

posted June 28, 2013 at 9:44 pm

For many Christians, including liberal Catholics, we’ve moved way past the “Jesus died for your sins” mantra. Modern theologians and scripture scholars no longer subscribe to these archaic notions, if truth be told. First of all, what kind of loving God would require human sacrifice as a stand-in for a sacrificial lamb? Just as Jews have long ago moved away from actually slaughtering animals to satisfy an angry God, we’re taking a harder look at what we can be fairly sure about what Jesus said and did as an itinerant preacher. And it’s on that ground where most modern thinkers from Judaism and Christianity find themselves in deep agreement.

Modern Christian theology is evolving toward something far more inclusive and much less concerned about boundaries. Jesus was about how to live with one another and with a deep trust in the goodness of God.

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