"...the very presence of the Jewish people in the world ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety [leading] to hostility." (Nicholls: Christian Antisemitism)
“[Jewish] rejection of [Jesus] threatened the Christian idea far more than any pagan rejection… Jewish rejection of that claim remains a mortal threat.” (Ruether: Faith and Fratricide)
If Christian scripture is inspiration for the Jewish Problem, Christian insecurity is its emotional drive. Christian “insecurity” is generated first by Jesus absence from the historical record and his failure, as anticipated repeatedly in Paul’s epistles, to return:
“The hour has already come… because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” (Romans 13:11)
But the survival of the Jews and their religion also pose an existential problem for Christianity: How explain the survival of Judaism in a post-messianic era? Is not Christianity the New Israel, inheritor of God’s Covenant? Yet they who rejected Jesus, who lost the Covenant and favor of God still survive!
Unlike Judaism whose “history” was passed on by oral tradition, generation to generation until transcribed during the Babylonian Exile around 600 BCE, Christianity emerged during a period of recorded history. Yet nowhere in the historical record, outside of the writings of Paul and the gospels written long after the events described, is any evidence attesting to the existence of the person described in those documents. The earliest reference to Jesus is found in Paul’s epistles, and those only began to appear decades after the crucifixion described in scripture. And as Paul admits, his only encounter with Jesus was in a vision.
This absence of Jesus from historical documents from a period in which numerous less famous and influential persons are recorded raised questions even in the early centuries, even in Paul’s epistles. Such doubts would continue throughout Christian history and, in the eighteenth century, inspire a new Christian literature dedicated to, The Quest for the Historical Jesus.
If God’s gift of his son was rejected by the Jews; if this was interpreted in Christian understanding of the transfer of the Covenant to God’s “new“ Chosen;” if Christianity is as claimed the New Israel then how understand God’s purpose in providing for Jewish survival?
Catholic historian and theologian James Carroll points to Jewish rejection of Jesus as having, “threatened the Christian idea far more than any pagan rejection.” (Constantine’s Sword, p.130) How explain that the superseded survived their rejection and murder of God’s only son and still survive side by side with Christianity, their replacement: the New Israel? As Episcopal minister William Nicholls observed, Jewish survival “puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ.” (Christian Antisemitism, p.90)
According to Christian theology Jewish survival is unexplainable and a source of “insecurity.” Alongside the missing evidence for an “earthly” Jesus, the presence of the Jews and Judaism coexisting alongside Christianity in the “post-messianic world” represents yet another source of insecurity. For more than a century during the war against Rome the Jews held out hope, sought signs that God would provide a messiah to lead his people to victory. And when, Christian scripture maintains, God sent his son he was unrecognized by those to whom he was sent. And final offence, not only was he unrecognized but rejected before Pilate. And by this act of rejection does Christianity claim to have replaced the Jewish people as inheritor of God’s favor.
How then explain God allowing Jewish survival alongside those who replaced them? How explain that the “messiah” He sent was not recognizable according to Jewish tradition and expectation? The role of messiah in Jewish tradition is lead His people in military victory, not as consolation for defeat.
So it should not surprise that were Jesus God’s son and gift to the Jews as described in Christian scripture that this messiah, unprecedented in Jewish history, tradition and expectation could never have been recognized as such. And why would God provide a messiah so inappropriate to the needs of His people? Surely He knew this in advance?
As to the survival of His now “reprobate” people, Augustine “solved” the problem in his City of God. God provides Jewish survival as “witness” to Christian Truth; His punishment is that “the Jews” are condemned to eternally wander the world homeless and destitute. The Jews by their existence are evidence, “that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”
And what, other than doubt, insecurity, would require the need for proof in Christian claims regarding Jesus?
With the 17th century feudalism gave way to secularism, belief to reason, and religion to science. And with the easing of restrictions on scientific inquiry began the search for historical evidence placing Jesus in first century Judea. Paul and the gospels, long assumed “historical” would provide the roadmap for material evidence in archaeological and documentary records.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus has been ongoing for more than two centuries, has occupied hundreds of scholars, produced thousands of scholarly volumes. Two centuries of scholarship have filled in many gaps in our knowledge of daily life in first century Judea and Rome. We are far more knowledgeable about Jewish religion and practice in the first century; of Pagan religion and practice. But as yet nothing that passes the test of “scientific method” placing Jesus in that time and place. Which might make sense were Jesus that “itinerant rabbi” described in the gospels, and by John Dominick Crossan in his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.
But “Jesus of the gospels” was well-known in his time, welcomed by masses of Jews waving fronds at his approach to Jerusalem. He was tried by the Sanhedrin for “blasphemy.” Pontius Pilate, Rome’s governor, described him as “King of the Jews,” and refused to pass judgment. Certainly Jesus would have been no ordinary man, an anonymous rabbi. How explain his absence in the historical record? That the closest to contemporary reference to Jesus having walked the earth is 1 Corinthians 15:12:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
As proclamation of faith to the ears of the faithful this represents evidence, by logic it is circular, a fallacy beginning with what which is proved, and so not evidence at all.
Corinthians 1 was a response to 1st Century doubt among Paul’s converts. Doubt resides in the background for Augustine also as he defends Christian interpretation of Jewish scripture, “that we have not forged the prophecies…”
And today James Carroll writes that Jewish failure to accept the messiah of the gospels was and remains, “a mortal threat” to Christianity which, in Nicholls words, results in “Christian insecurity,” a “profound and gnawing anxiety... [which] leads to hostility."