Christian Insecurity created the Jewish Problem

By our survival Judaism represents a challenge to the person and mission of Jesus, and to the historic claims that Christianity is Judaism’s successor. This is Christianity’s Jewish Problem.
"We Christians cannot speak of the ''promised land'' as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people… This promise was nullified by Christ… There is no longer a chosen people."
US Archbishop Cyril Bustros, Vatican Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.
For new readers, Professor Nicholls, an Episcopal minister, was one of several Christian theologians who tried to reconcile that their religion of love and forgiveness could have provided the foundation for the Holocaust. According to Dr. Nicholls, "...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… [that] leads to hostility." What does the Christian religion and faith see in Judaism that could produce such “profound and gnawing anxiety”? Similarly, James Carroll, Catholic historian and theologian writes, “[Jewish] rejection of [Jesus] threatened the Christian idea far more than any pagan rejection… Jewish rejection of that claim remains a mortal threat.”


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 Jerusalem and the temple by Rome. According to Paul describes Jesus as God’s loving gift to His defeated and mourning people. But Judaism somehow failed to recognize and accept Jesus mission. And this represents one of several sources of hesitation in the heart of the religion, regarding Christian claims on behalf of Jesus.


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 Kingdom of God. Having led His people to victory, the Jewish messianic victory would have ushered in one thousand years of peace on earth: the nations, Jew and gentile, would join in worship of the One True God. But Jesus death ushered in no change in the course of history: no Kingdom of God; paganism remained to defile God’s holy land; the Jews were defeated, dispersed and sold into slavery. Jesus simply failed to achieve any Jewish expectations. And while the consolidating Church later incorporated an indefinitely delayed Parousia into its theology, the original promise in Paul remained unfulfilled. And this represents another source for Christian doubt.


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) St. Augustine (354-430) tackled the problem head-on. Why, he asked, had God allowed the continuing existence of the Jews in a post-messianic world in which God replaced them with Christianity? Augustine’s answer was that Jewish survival was God’s punishment to the Jews for the unforgivable crime of deicide, the murder of Jesus. God intended for the Jews to survive as example to Christians of their benefits in Christ since the Jews lived in poverty, had no land of their own. And finally, according to Augustine, the Jews provided “witness” to the truth of Christianity, that “by their own Scriptures [their survival is] a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” And while this explanation provided for the survival of a Jewish remnant it failed to remove the thinly-veiled doubts at the heart of the religion which the word “forged” represented, that Jewish scripture foretells the coming of Jesus. So even in Augustine’s writings, doubt was not eliminated.  


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 Kingdom of God referred to above).” In the end Paul managed to keep the communities together in spite of Jesus failed return.


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” Israel, inheritor of God’s favor and covenant, there could be no place for the “old” Israel. As Dr. Nicholls wrote, continuing Jewish existence puts, “a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ.” Christianity’s threat to Jewish existence directly results from the fact of Jewish existence. By its survival Judaism represents a challenge to the person and mission of Jesus, and to the historic claims that Christianity is Judaism’s successor.


Other writings in this Series: