The Enlightenment produced two significant events In Jewish history, the emancipation of the Jews from centuries of serfdom then, followed less than a century later, the nearly successful Final Solution to the West’s Jewish Problem. But what is this “Jewish problem” that demands so radical a solution?
Christianity was one of several Jewish responses to the trauma of the destruction of
Jewish “rejection: Various responses to this problem have been advanced over the centuries, beginning with Paul. The Jewish reason for “rejection” was clear, and likely obvious to those Jews who first looked to Jesus for consolation following the disaster: Jesus failed to meet basic Jewish criteria for a messiah. Jewish tradition prepared for a military leader, a general to lead his people to victory. Nothing in Jewish tradition, whatever interpretation is imposed post-factum, implied the possibility of a compensatory messiah, a Son of God to mediate between Jew and God. A messiah providing salvation through a promised afterlife is alien to Judaism. Various attempts to explain Jewish “rejection” of Jesus Christ were made over the centuries, but none erased the question of legitimacy represented by this failure to accept Jesus as God’s messiah.
Perhaps had the secondary condition for a Jewish messiah come to pass more Jews might yet have been convinced. It was not as though they were not hungry for a messiah in those final years of the war. Leaders of that final desperate uprising are recorded as hoping (expecting) that the very hopelessness of their cause would force God to provide a messiah!
That second and unfulfilled Jewish condition was the establishment of the
As for the Jews rejection of Jesus, Paul, who proudly referred to himself “all things to all people” (“To the Jews I became like a Jew… To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”) had no compunctions in tailoring his message to his pagan audience. And so he explained Jewish “rejection” as stubborn “blindness,” an explanation that remains most common used even today.
Pagan Mystery religions: If early Christian missionaries failed to convince the Jews, they found acceptance among the gentiles. But even this success was double edged, and would become yet another source for Christian doubt. The historical record provides many precedents for man-gods in the Pagan Mystery religions. Some appear centuries before Christianity. As Jesus is described, so did these man-gods die horrible deaths to resurrect with a mission of salvation and eternal life.
Justin Martyr (103-165), a second century missionary to the pagans wrote, “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.” Justin and his contemporaries were aware of the near identity between the description of Jesus’ birth, death and mission and that of, for example, Osiris-Dionysus, whose cult preceded Christianity by more than a thousand years. Pagan-Christian parallels were selling point to the converts but a problem for Christian identity: how distinguish Christianity from paganism; how assert its claims to the Jewish god, its status as Judaism’s successor, inheritor of that coveted ancient history so attractive to the pagans?
Augustine’s response: Where most Church fathers dismissed and attacked surviving Jews and their religion (Sts. Jerome and John Chrysostom, for example)
Delayed Parousia: Perhaps the most difficult practical problem for Christianity, both experientially and theologically, is the continuing failure of Paul’s promised Parousia. Jesus return and the promise of eternal life are the very heart of the religion. The failure of Jesus return was a significant problem for the father of the religion.
Three epistles represent Paul’s struggle regarding Jesus’ failure to appear, and while dating is only approximate, I present three Pauline references in approximate chronological order. In II Thessalonians 2:1 (+/- 52-54 CE): “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that Day will not come unless the apostasy comes first and then the man of lawlessness is revealed.” Which might mean today, or in a thousand years, and more. But later, and both these epistles were between 53 and 57 CE: in Romans 13:11 Paul writes, “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” And again in 1 Corinthians 7:29: “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short… For this world in its present form is passing away (this is the
But anticipation for Parousia did not just vanish with Paul. In the years leading up to 1000 CE Jesus anticipated return lay heavy on the faithful, only to result in great disappointment in 1001. And similarly in the lead up to 2000, although the anticipation of the Parousia was far less dramatic since religion today holds a much lesser place in secular society, still there were scattered suicides in the hope of joining Jesus. And today, eleven years later, some religious leaders continue to prophesy Jesus’ imminent return.
Failure of the Quest: And of course there is the three-hundred year-long Quest for the Historical Jesus, material evidence for the insecurity at the heart of the various Christianities. That the quest has failed to provide anything approaching historical validity for an earthly Jesus only reinforces the unease that likely motivated the 17thcentury search.
Christianity’s Jewish Problem is no more or less than the obvious. Once Christianity represented itself as the “new”