"...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."
“[Jewish] rejection of [Jesus] threatened the Christian idea far more than any pagan rejection… Jewish rejection of that claim remains a mortal threat.”
James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword
The Jewish Problem for Christianity is, at bottom, a problem of Christian self-identity and insecurity. It emerged with the earliest documents of the new religion, of Christianity’s effort to both retain Jewish history while distancing itself from the parent religion. Unlike Judaism, whose roots lie in the remote mists of pre-history (the time before written records), the new religion emerged and developed in the late first century, a time of recorded history, in Judea, a country occupied by meticulous record keepers, the Roman overseers.
Two issues contribute to the “anxiety” Professor Nicholls describes above, issues that have remained with Christianity to the present. The first involves “rejection.” According to Christian scripture the Jewish people and their religion rejected the messianic mission of God’s son. God’s punishment for rejecting the gift was His transfer of favor and covenant from Israel to those describing themselves the inheritors, the “new” Israel.
The entire 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 without God’s help. According to Josephus more than one million Jews died during the siege of Jerusalem, another million over the years before. The two final insurrection leaders openly declared that the final desperate stand in Jerusalem was intended to encourage God to provide messianic intervention against Rome. If first century Jewry were so fixated on God providing a messiah to defeat the pagans polluting the holy land what would 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 which appears as early as Paul’s epistles remains today the problem of historicity. Paul had never himself met Jesus-the-man, could only attest to a vision. At least some within his communities of convert expressed doubt, as can be seen in his effort to reassure (1 Corinthians 15-12, English Standard Version). At bottom faith in an earthly Jesus who died and was resurrected demanded faith first in the sole, generation-removed, witness. The scientific search for evidence supporting an earthly Jesus only emerged with the 17th century breakdown of theocracy-based governance in Europe.
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 of Rome. It has uncovered no contemporaneous evidence, written or other, relating to presence of an earthly Jesus. Were he but the common itinerant rabbi described in the gospels this would 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 leave represents a question mark in Christian origins. And this doubt is the source of what Nicholls refers to as “Christian insecurity.”
It is likely that even before the Herod 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 though to be the hoped for messiah. 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 end as an act designed to force God to provide a messiah. 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, Jewish resistance still smoldered, and resurfaced between 132 and 135. Led by Shimon bar-Kochba the most famous rabbi of the period, Rabbi Akiva, referred to the general as “messiah.” So the failure to recognize Jesus as such was not for lack of anticipation and desire.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. Anxiety usually leads to hostility."