"...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. Anxiety usually leads to hostility."
William Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate
“[Jewish] rejection of [Jesus] threatened the Christian idea far more than any pagan rejection… Jewish rejection of that claim remains a mortal threat.”
Background: Christian insecurity first appeared with the birth of the religion. Unlike Judaism whose “history” was passed from generation to generation by oral tradition, Christianity emerged during a period of recorded history. Yet there was no historical record beyond Paul’s epistles that refer to its central figure, Jesus. And even Paul acknowledges meeting Jesus only in vision. This absence of a single reference to Jesus in an era with numerous less famous personages preserved in the historical record would inspire a multi-century quest for the “historical” Jesus beginning with the advent of modern science in the 18th century. But long before the Quest for the Historical Jesus, as early as the fourth century, Augustine also had hinted at nervousness at Jesus legitimacy, if not human existence.
A more material area of concern haunting Christianity from at least the 4th century is the continuing existence of Judaism, of the survival of the reprobate people, “the Jews.” What could be God’s purpose in providing Jewish survival following their rejection of Jesus as messiah? Catholic historian and theologian James Carroll points to Jewish rejection of Jesus as having, “threatened the Christian idea far more than any pagan rejection.” And that Judaism and the Jewish people survived into the messianic age raised further questions regarding Christian claims to the covenant, to have replaced “the Jews” in God’s favor. How explain that the superseded deicide people continue to live among “gentile” Judaism, the New Israel? As Episcopal minister William Nicholls observes, by their very survival Jewry “puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ.”
The century of warfare
ending in the destruction of Jerusalem was a period of intense messianic hope and anticipation. The Jews were locked in a desperate war to expel pagan Rome, a war objectively unwinnable in its final years. According to Josephus more than one million Jews died during the siege of Jerusalem, another million over the previous century of fighting. By tradition and expectation if God answered his peoples wish He would inspire a great leader from among them to lead the people to victory over the Pagan Romans. Two such, claimed or proclaimed messiahs, are described by Josephus within the walls of Jerusalem preparing for the final battles. John of Gischala and Simon Bar Giora had proven themselves against the Roman forces over the years. In the end Rome destroyed the city and Simon bar Giora was taken captive. Paraded as a trophy by Titus in Roman Triumph, he was then executed.
If first century Jewry expected God to provide a messiah to lead the Jews in victory over the pagan occupiers, what would have prepare them for a messiah whose mission was not victory against Rome, but salvation after defeat?
This question relates to the definition of “messiah” in Jewish tradition, and its reinterpretation by Paul and later Christian fathers.
The second problem
appears as early as Paul’s epistles and remains today the problem of Jesus’ historicity. A member of his community of converts challenged Paul regarding Jesus’ resurrection. The questioner would almost certainly have been a Jew since resurrection of man-gods was accepted within Pagan Mystery religions. Since Jesus’ resurrection is the foundation of Paul’s theology he devoted part of his epistle, 1 Corinthians, to its defense. In the process he also alluded to the question of faith, of Jesus himself:
“12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
At bottom faith in an earthly Jesus who died and was resurrected demanded faith first in the single, generation-removed, witness, Paul. And while this tenuous thread was the only historical connection to an earthly Jesus we can perhaps appreciate Augustine’s need to connect the story of Jesus, “that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”
Only with the 17th century breakdown of theocracy-based governance in Europe and in the colonies was Christian scholarship able to turn its attention, apply scientific method in historical investigation and archeology to provide the evidence with which to lay to rest any lingering doubts that Jesus walked the earth.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus
has been pursued for more than two hundred years, continues to engage some of the West’s most able biblical historians and archaeologists. To date their investigations have provided an excellent picture of first century Judaism, of the culture and society of the Jewish state and Pagan Rome. It has still not uncovered any contemporaneous evidence, written record or archaeological artifacts relating to the presence of the man Jesus, later Christ Jesus. Were he but the common itinerant rabbi described in the gospels this absence might make sense. But Jesus of the gospels is very prominent: prominent enough to have warranted trial by the Sanhedrin, to have been “rejected” by “the Jews;” prominent also to the Romans who tried and executed him as a rebel leader and characterized him “King of the Jews.” That the only documentary connection to an earthly Jesus was and remains Paul’s letters represents a question mark in Christian origins. And this doubt is the source of what Nicholls refers to as “Christian insecurity.”
A bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate, (Wikipedia)
It is likely that
even before Rome installed Herod as king the Jews understood that they could not, unassisted by divine intervention, defeat Rome’s legendary legions. From the earliest days of the insurrection several successful military leaders were momentarily considered the hoped for messiah, their deliverer. By the later years of the war increasing desperation intensified messianic anticipation, ending with the leaders of the final stand staging their suicidal fight to the tragic end. According to Josephus, in the final stage of the war 500 to 1,000 insurgents (characterized “bandits” in the gospels) were daily crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem.
Although the Jewish War ended in the year 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Jewish resistance continued and resurfaced between 132 and 135. Led by Shimon bar-Kochba, Rabbi Akiva, the most famous rabbi of the period, referred to bar-Kochba as “messiah.”
So it should not surprise that if God sent Jesus to the Jews as their messiah that they would not, could not based on history recognize the gift. Jesus simply failed to fulfill Jewish expectations of the messianic mission. Which provides another contributory factor feeding Christian insecurity: why would God even send a messiah he would know would not be recognized?
As James Carroll writes, Jewish failure to accept the messiah of the gospels was and remains, “a mortal threat” to Christianity causing, in Nicholls words, “profound and gnawing anxiety... [which] leads to hostility."
I recently posted a related, but not immediately on-topic article: The Holocaust: Never in America?
(http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-holocaust-never-in-america/), which should interest readers of this forum.
As previously, until problems with posting to the site are resolved I will not be able embed hyperlinks. Access to designated articles can still be made by Googling "titles" provided, as with,
Recent writings in this Series:
1. Foundations of the Holocaust: Martin Luther, Theologian of Hate
2. Foundations of Holocaust: From Inquisition to “Purity of Blood”
3. Foundations of Holocaust: The Crusades, 1096 - 1272
4. Foundations of antisemitism: anti-Judaism turns lethal
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