Religion 101

Specifically Christian newcomers to the study of Judaism frequently puzzle over  why — as they themselves often put it — Jews “don’t believe in Jesus.”

The reality is simply that the entire Jewish concept of who and what a Messiah actually is (or does) is just nothing like what Christians themselves have in mind, when they talk about Christ (meaning Jesus) as having been — or being — “the Messiah,” by which they mean a cosmic divine Savior, or a resurrected Son of God.

The Jewish concept of the Messiah, generally speaking, is of a mere mortal (not a divine being, not God incarnate, not God the Son incarnate, not a literal Son of God) who will be a political or military leader, rather than a spiritual or metaphysical “savior.” The Messiah is not conceived of, in Judaism, as someone who will die as a cosmic sacrifice in order to atone for the sins of all humanity, but simply as someone who will defeat Israel’s enemies, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and establish a “Messianic Age” of lasting peace and justice.

The Jewish Messiah is in no way thought of as divine himself, nor as someone destined to die as a divine/human sacrifice and subsequently miraculously resurrected, nor as a Savior in whom one must place one’s faith and trust in order to receive his gift of eternal salvation. All of those are uniquely Christian ideas, not Jewish ones.

So, when at times some Christian newcomers to the study of Judaism puzzle over why Jews don’t believe that Jesus was (or is) the Messiah, part of their confusion may stem from perhaps not being fully cognizant of the fact that Jewish beliefs regarding the Messiah are simply not necessarily the same at all as Christian beliefs about the Messiah (or Christ). Perhaps without realizing it, they are looking at a Jewish concept with Christian eyes, or through Christian lenses, as it were.

What Christians have traditionally claimed about Jesus Christ for most of the past two millennia of Christianity’s history — that he is the Son of God or God the Son incarnate, that he is a resurrected divine Savior whose death made salvation available to all humankind, that faith in Christ makes for salvation, that salvation and eternal life are available through Christ alone — simply is not, and never was, part of the Jewish concept of the Messiah in the first place.

And apart from differences over just exactly what a Messiah really is, Jews additionally do not believe that Jesus could possibly have been the Messiah since, after all, Jesus simply did not accomplish what Jews believe the real Messiah will succeed in accomplishing. The Messiah, when he comes, will establish the Messianic Age, a lasting era of world peace and justice, a world and an era in which all will worship the God of Israel; obviously, this has not occurred.

Christians may argue that all of this will yet occur, when Jesus returns. But Jews do not believe that Jesus is going to return, because they don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected after his crucifixion. They don’t believe that Jesus was in any way divine, or the Son of God; they certainly don’t believe that Jesus was the incarnation of the second Person of a divine Trinity consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because the theological concept of the Trinity is also a uniquely Christian belief, and not at all a Jewish one.

(Jews — and Muslims, too, for that matter — absolutely insist upon a staunch and uncompromising monotheism. To them, the Christian claim that God is One and yet somehow also Three smacks less of pure unadulterated monotheism, and more of a disguised “tri-theism.”)

And the many selected messianic verses found throughout the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) which many Christians cite as ancient Jewish prophecies allegedly predicting, anticipating, or otherwise referring quite specifically to Jesus Christ, are regarded by Jews as actually being nothing of the kind. Where many Christians see Jesus seemingly very clearly pointed to within such scriptural passages, Jews just as clearly see completely different meanings altogether. Jews read their scriptures with Jewish eyes or through Jewish lenses, whereas Christians read those very same scriptures with Christian eyes or through Christian lenses, and therefore their respective interpretations of those identical scriptural passages can and do vary widely (even wildly). As with the very concept of the Messiah itself, the differences here are also so great that it’s almost a case of “apples and oranges.”

And these are among the sorts of things that must be fully grasped, and appreciated, in order to begin to understand how and why Jews and Christians can have so much in common on the one hand (as sibling Abrahamic religions), and yet on the other hand differ so profoundly over certain absolutely core matters of their respective faiths.


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.)





As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about many of the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, some students begin the semester with no real knowledge of the Jewish faith, and may even harbor some fairly common misunderstandings about it.

Many newcomers to Judaism (or to the Bible, for that matter) are frankly startled to learn that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) prescribes not just the familiar Ten Commandments, but in fact a far more extensive total of some 613 commandments. These commandments cover everything from pious religious observances and ritual practices, to moral rules and ethical requirements, to what we today might label as family, civil, and criminal law. They extend even to matters of agriculture, modes of dress, and rules regarding diet (the well-known kosher food laws).

Collectively, these 613 commandments comprise “Mosaic Law” (e.g., the Law of Moses, to whom Jews traditionally believe they were revealed), or simply “the Law” (the term Torah literally meaning “Law,” “Instruction,” “Teaching”). Generally speaking, the traditional view is that these commandments still apply; they remain incumbent upon Jews to abide by, even today.

Of course, it is impossible now to keep some of them. For instance, many commandments relate to the sacrificial practices conducted at the Temple in Jerusalem during the biblical era, and since the Temple no longer exists (it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE), those particular commandments no longer apply (or at least are on hold; if the Temple is ever rebuilt, they may well once again apply).

That problematic sort of thing aside, however, the traditional view remains that those commandments which have not been rendered impossible to observe by “an act of God,” as it were (such as the loss of the Temple), remain incumbent upon Jews to abide by.

But then, not all Jews today necessarily fully accept that traditional view; there is a spectrum of opinion within contemporary Judaism upon such matters, which is one of the things which has led to the current division into its Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches.

Jews at the more liberal or progressive ends of this spectrum may regard some of the commandments more as optional cultural artifacts of a bygone era. Jews at the more conservative end of this spectrum, on the other hand, may believe that all of these commandments are timeless and therefore mandatory directives straight from God, and as such surely apply just as much as they ever did.

Such Jews may go to great lengths to abide by all of the applicable commandments as possible, even if it means not wearing garments that blend wool and linen, not having sex until the woman has been ritually purified in a mikvah (ritual bath) following menstruation or childbirth, living close enough to a synagogue so that one may walk rather than drive there on the Sabbath (since starting a car’s engine is like building a fire, which is expressly forbidden on the Sabbath), and keeping so kosher that separate sets of kitchen utensils — one set for meat products on the one hand, a separate set for dairy products on the other (sometimes also separate sinks and refrigerators, too) — are utilized in food preparation.

In addition to all of this business regarding commandments — which Jews take so seriously that Judaism’s traditional coming-of-age “rite of passage” is known as a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah (literally “son of the commandment” or “daughter of the commandment,” a rite signifying the age at which a Jewish son or daughter is deemed old enough to be held responsible for obeying the mitzvot or commandments) — a fair number of Christian newcomers to the study of Judaism also remain deeply and sincerely puzzled as to just exactly why “Jews don’t believe in Jesus” (as such Christian newcomers themselves often phrase it).

(To be continued, in Part Five.)