“By their own Scriptures [Jewish survival is] a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” (St. Augustine)
Identity is the core to personal and collective security. It may, at first, sound strange to describe the largest religion in the world, a religion of diverse expressions and adherents numbering more than two billion as “insecure.” Yet as surely as the origins of the Jewish Problem are found in Christian scripture, the energy driving the search for a “solution” to the Problem is theology. But even prior to the “problem” of Judaism’s stubborn will to survive is the problem that Christian claims and promises rest on the assurances of one man, and he demands no less than innocence and naïve trust as cost of admission.
Doubts regarding Jesus-as-man appear in earliest Christian scripture. Throughout most of his epistles Paul insisted that Jesus’ return was “imminent.” When Jesus failed to fulfill his expectations Paul would move the time frame forward. Until, in the end, he was forced defer Jesus’ return indefinitely. Members of his Corinthian community already expressed doubts regarding his claims regarding salvation, possibly the first challenge from within regarding Jesus and resurrection. Whether his response convinced in not known, but responding to their concerns Paul maintained that the promise of “life after death” rested on faith that as was Jesus resurrected, so would they:
“Since we [Paul] preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15).
Corinthian doubt already suggests that even among the earliest “Christians” simple faith alone was not fully convincing. According to Paul, if the resurrection occurred then Jesus must have been alive first. After all, resurrection could only occur to a person once alive and then dead. Therefore Jesus had to have been alive.
A thoughtful person would have recognized this as circular logic, where the argument begins with the conclusion. The fallacy might be missed by naïve faith. But a person of reason might struggle for faith.
History has been a problem for Christianity from its earliest beginnings. Neither Paul’s epistles nor the gospels describing Jesus’ life and mission were recorded at the time they describe. The life and legend were passed on orally from person to person, generation to generation for decades before Paul, the earliest contributor to what would become “scripture put pen to parchment. As for the gospels, they appeared decades after Paul, and so were that much farther from the events portrayed. Which means the only “evidence” Paul’s converts had regarding Jesus was the word of the evangelist. And Paul describes meeting Jesus in a vision decades following Christ’s assumed crucifixion:
“He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day… He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all… I also saw him.”
1 Corinthians presents another side of Paul that also raises questions regarding his claims for the new religion. His appearance in the following passage describes more a salesman enjoying his prowess than representative of Christ Jesus’ message to the pagans:
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law… To those not having the law I became like one not having the law… To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
As father of a new religion Paul would serve as model for those who followed. The religion was spread through the efforts of such as the second century missionary, Justin Martyr, (103–165). Asked to explain Jesus resurrection to his pagan audience:
“when we say… Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.” (1.Apol 21)
Although the documents describing Jesus are not “historical” and leave Jesus existence open to question, it is not entirely correct to say there is no historical evidence for Jesus. One historical document appears to confirm Jesus and his mission placed in 1st Century Judea. The Testimonium Flavianum appears in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63:
"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; [my italics] and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us [fellow Jews], had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day."
Even today some defend the passage as historical evidence that Jesus fulfilled scriptural representation of man and mission. But the passage presents several difficulties. Among its failings is that linguistic analysis points to someone other that the writer of the Antiquities as its author. A second problem is that the Testimonium is out of place in the document, an insertion that interrupts a discussion which continues following the insertion. Other objections include the fact that early Church Fathers who might have been expected to leap at such evidence fail to even mention it, suggesting it did not exist before Eusebius described in the 4th Century (some speculate that he might have been the author).
And most telling, Josephus may have been a traitor to Judea but he remained a Jew. And no Jew would write, “He was the Christ”. A Christian, yes. But not a Jew.
As my esteemed colleague Robert Eisenman wrote me,
“Everyone agrees the whole passage in Josephus is a ''pious'' interpolation inserted by later copyists and replacing something much more damaging. “
And so the Testimonium may safely be dismissed as a fabrication. A second “reference to Jesus” appearing in Josephus is almost universally dismissed as a fraudulent.
The key to Christian identity is through owning Jewish history. And so long as Jews survive the argument for ownership is in dispute. It was Augustine’s intention to take possession of that history despite Jewish survival. But Jewish survival represent another problem. Why had God allowed for the survival of Judaism and the Jews, the reprobate people, murderers of His son?
Augustine explains the mystery in his, The City of God (410). What had previously been an uncertain and emotional “triumphalism” over Judaism is replaced by a more certain logic of Supersessionism. And while Augustine was no less rejecting of Judaism and dismissive of Jewry, his explanation at least provided for a limited Jewish survival.
God’s punishment is the evidence of the state of the Jews: homeless and destitute, condemned to wander the earth. Punishment of the Jews by man Augustine justifies by referring to Matthew 27:25 where “the Jews” not only condemned Jesus but welcomed responsibility for all generations. The Jews, debased are actually God’s gift to Christians: their terrible fallen status serves as example to Christians of the punishment for unbelief.
“During Augustine''s time, the existence of the Jews and Judaism posed an apologetic problem for the church. If the church was the new Israel, for what purpose did national Israel exist?
“Augustine offered an answer for this perceived dilemma. For him, the Jews functioned primarily as witnesses. They were witnesses to the faith preached by the prophets, witnesses of divine judgment, and witnesses of the validity of Christianity. He wrote, “But the Jews who slew Him . . . are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” The Jews, according to Augustine, shielded Christians from accusations that Christians invented Old Testament prophecies that pointed to Jesus. Thus, the existence of non-Christian Jews was not a problem but an essential testimony to the truth of Christianity.”
“that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ”? Why the sensitivity on the part of perhaps the greatest Christian theologian regarding Christian interpretation of Jewish scripture? Insecurity regarding Christian history in Judaism; Insecurity regarding the earthly history of Jesus; the limits of identity security.