By Dr. Kenneth L. Hanson
The pulpits of America explode every Sunday morning with crowd-pleasing maxims on victorious living, guaranteed to "pack ‘em in." Discerning people ask, "Is it working?" No doubt about it! While traditional "main-line" denominations continue to decline in numbers, the hyper-faith movement is booming. Numbers are up, advertising for members is way up, and whoever can offer the greasiest grace and the plushest pews, combined with good air conditioning, great acoustics, and a dynamic drama team has a leg-up on the competition. Such is the state of religion in America.
But what of the contents of all those happy sermons? As a seminary student once confessed to me, "They tell you to figure out what you want to say, what will please the people, and then pull verses out of Scripture at random to prove your point, without any regard for what those verses might really mean." Sad but true. Pastors today have little time to worry about the historical Jesus, what he really said or what he really meant. And if someone in the congregation should start raising questions about what Jesus really said and what he meant when he said it, that person is more than likely to receive the "left boot of fellowship."
Go to almost any church on Sunday and what will you hear? You won't hear much about the biblical world, biblical culture, or the life and times of the historical Jesus. You will hear a multitude of what I call "How to…" sermons:
How to feel good, how to tithe like you should;
We live in a "fast-food" culture which has gobbled up Christianity and produced a "fast-food" faith with "fast-food" fixes for every conceivable problem. There's only one rule. Don't get serious about understanding the Bible.
How to make money, how to be nice to your honey;
How to cope with life, how to cope with your wife!
How to be happy … and above all make it snappy!
There's another thing you will hear from pulpits all across the land—the very bold statement that the Jews "rejected" Christ. (Never you mind that if you went back in history and used the word "Christ" as a "surname" for Jesus of Nazareth, nobody would have known what you were talking about!) And you'll hear that Christ was rejected because he presented an alternative to "religion," a religion characterized by the Judaism of his day. (In fact, a national Christian television program recently made this claim, showing a video of Orthodox Jews praying, while Christ's "alternative to religion" was explained by the announcer!)
Frankly, the essential teachings of Jesus of Nazareth have been so refracted through the prism of two thousand years of Christian "systemic theology" and brittle dogma that it is very difficult, in the modern religious context, to find their "original" meaning at all. Only an unflinching commitment to scholarship makes discovering Jesus' meaning and intent a feasible goal. But even the scholar must endeavor to wipe away presuppositions and ask in all candor, "What did Jesus say, in what language did he say it, and what did he mean by each and every word?"
THE GREAT LAMENT
A case in point is a powerful and poignant passage immediately preceding Jesus' apocalyptic sermon on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24). Its dynamic and its poetry—as soon as we recognize that its original form was in Hebrew—is breathtaking. But its use by Christians down to the present day is nothing short of scurrilously anti-Semitic! The question is: What did Jesus mean when he uttered his famous lament, recorded in Matthew 23:27-36?
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who murders the prophets and stones those sent unto her. How often I would have gathered your children, as a bird gathers her chicks from under her wings! And you would not. Behold, your house is left to you desolate, for I say to you, you shall not see me again until you say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."
Christianity has made much of this passage down through the ages, dating from ancient times, when the lament was reformulated and requoted in the apocryphal book called 2 Esdras:
Thus says the Lord Almighty: Have I not begged you as a father begs his sons, or a mother her daughters …I gathered you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But now what shall I do to you? I will cast you out from before my face … I sent my servants the prophets to you, and you took them and killed them, and tore their bodies in pieces; and their blood I will require of you, says the Lord. Thus says the Lord Almighty: Your house is desolate. (2 Esdras 1:28-33)
In any case, the theology Christianity has extrapolated from this passage and others, spanning the centuries, is seen in Jewish eyes as laden with anti-Semitism—and not without good reason.
After all, as our theological brethren query, with whom has Jesus been quarreling? In the context of Matthew 23, we find Jesus sparring with the "scribes and Pharisees." They are Jesus' true enemies, the proponents of a religion based on "man's works," not on God's grace.
The Pharisees had produced a man-made religion based on the Law and the strict observance of a multitude of additional precepts (the "Oral Law") which reduced faith to mere mechanics. The only thing this man-made religion managed to do was to demonstrate its own failings. We cannot save ourselves by our own efforts. And any attempt to do so amounted to "hypocrisy." That's why Jesus declared, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger" (Matt. 23:2-4).
That's why Jesus denounced Jewish synagogues and the rabbis who preside over them: "They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren" (Matt. 23:6-8). That's why Jesus consigned Jews to Hell: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in" (Matt. 23:13).
In fact, not only are observant Jews (i.e., "Pharisees") hypocrites, blind guides, and whitewashed tombs, they are murderers: "You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets" (Matt. 23:28-31).
What is the crime of the Jews? As Jesus declares, "I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some of you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town" (Matt. 23:34).
And what is the punishment to come upon the Jews? Again, Jesus states, "Upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar" (Matt. 23:35). All of this is the immediate prelude to Jesus' great lament over Jerusalem. Welcome to Systematic Theology 101!
IS THE NEW TESTAMENT ANTI-SEMITIC?
Is it any wonder that modern Jews consider the New Testament an anti-Semitic book and consider Christianity an anti-Semitic faith? Jewish leaders can at least hope to dialogue with practitioners of other faiths, from Buddhism to Taoism to Islam. But the best thing to do with Christians is to keep one's distance! And who can blame them? Perhaps we should stop equivocating and just admit that the New Testament really is anti-Semitic. Is there any way to read Mathew 23 honestly and not come to this sad conclusion?
Actually, there is! The first thing we have to do is recognize, not just the literary context of Jesus' statements, but the cultural context, in which Christian theologians have never been versed. We also have to recognize a basic fallacy common to religionists of all persuasions: overgeneralization. And sadly, when it comes to Matthew 23, the tradition of Christianity through the centuries has been to overgeneralize the passage to the point of "scapegoating" all Jews and leveling the murderous charge of "Christ killers." By way of finding the precise intent of Jesus' words, precisely at the time he uttered them. Let's think about "particularization" as opposed to "generalization." Here's how it works ... we isolate the context, evaluate the language, and, perhaps most importantly, identify the precise people to whom these words were addressed.
To begin, where was Jesus when he delivered the teachings of Matthew 23? Matthew 21 tells us that he had already made his final triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem and that he " ... entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there." The first thing to bear in mind is that Jesus was a Galilean and that Jerusalem was not Galilee. Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan hub of pan-Hellenistic culture, overlaid upon traditional Jewish piety. Galilee, while it had its cosmopolitan centers, such as Sephoris, was much more provincial, and in some ways more protective of its pietistic and "uncorrupted" Jewish traditions. Jerusalem was where East and West came together in a cauldron of competing philosophies. Where Hebrew competed with Aramaic and Greek as spoken languages. Where a "status-quo" party of priests—the Sadducees—were in constant conflict with radical elements, fed by wild Messianism, who urged violent insurrection against the rulers of the world, the Romans. It was environment of bitter and caustic accusation, where the everyday rough-and-tumble of debate could well be mistaken by later generations as blatant anti-Semitism.
The Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, says this of Jerusalemites:
Jerusalem was … divided into two hostile factions: the enthusiasts for war and the friends of peace. Indeed, the whole province [of Judea] was torn by civil dissension, as the parties of peace and war fought for supremacy in every city. Whenever the people had a respite from the Romans, they attacked each other, leaving families and friends divided.-1-
JESUS THE REFORMER
Imagine the reception of Jesus of Nazareth, from Galilee, a Hebrew-speaking pietist and self-proclaimed prophet, in challenging the heart of status-quo Jerusalem, the temple cult. "My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers!" he thundered (Matt. 21:12). This is no denunciation of Judaism, or a "religion of men," based on human merit rather than God's grace. Jesus is not against the temple or the sacrificial system. On the contrary, elsewhere in the Gospels, he commands the temple tax to be dutifully paid (Matt. 17:24-27). Jesus should be understood, quite simply, as a "reformer." He was a Jewish reformer, speaking to fellow Jews and appealing for a more compassionate approach to religious observance. The trouble with reformers, from Martin Luther to Che Guevarra, is that they are seldom understood! Never did Jesus seek to nullify Judaism or Jewish observance. And Christian theology, which historically built Judaism into a "straw man" only to knock it down, needs to wake up to this fact.
Nor was Jesus the only Jewish reformer of his age. In particular there was an ancient Hasidic master, who came out of nowhere in the first century B.C. to mesmerize the population. They called him Khoni the Circle-Drawer because, during a long drought, he audaciously drew a circle in the sand, stood in the center, and declared that he would not move until the Almighty sent rain. One does not make such demands upon the Deity, decreed the contemporary Sages. But Khoni the Circle-Drawer was a folk hero, and folk heroes are not easily excommunicated.
The Talmud recounts the event:
It once happened that the people turned to Khoni the Circle-Drawer and asked him to pray for rain. He prayed, but no rail fell. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and exclaimed, "Master of the Universe, Thy children have turned to me because they believe me to be as a member of Thy household. I swear by Thy great Name that I will not move from here until Thou hast mercy upon Thy children." Rain then began to fall. He said, "It is not for this that I have prayed but for rain to fill cisterns, ditches, and pools." The rain then began to come down with great force. He exclaimed, "It is not for this that I have prayed but for rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty." Rain then fell in the normal way. -2-
This kind of intimacy with the Almighty, coupled with a bold audacity, can be seen at the heart of the teachings of Jesus. We might simply call it chutzpah. The Sages of the day, the early Pharisees, might well have excommunicated Knoni, because of this audacity, but they did not, since they knew he was popular with the common people. The prophet of Nazareth, known as Iesus in Greek and Yeshua in Hebrew can likewise be seen as a Hasidic teacher in the true tradition of Khoni the Circle-Drawer. If anything, Jesus may be seen as a member of the ancient Hasidic party, engaging in debate with the Pharisee party.
Nowhere does Jesus come forward with the complex theology that has come to predominate in Christianity. He does not contrast "religion" (a Christian euphemism for "Judaism") with a "relationship" with God. He does not denounce strict adherence to the Torah or even the observance of the Oral Law. (In fact, he refers to the Oral Law in his own teachings, such as the "Good Samaritan" story.) He never declares that human effort is ineffectual before God or cannot bring salvation. Instead, he insists, regarding the Pharisees, "Obey them and do everything they tell you." Just a few chapters later, we find Jesus, standing on the Mount of Olives, declaring, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me." He adds, "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." This certainly sounds like human effort rather than "the empty hands of faith," but to say so in contemporary Christian circles will generally bring about instant excommunication!
What Jesus is really teaching is the Jewish principle called kavanah. In Jewish tradition, kavanah signifies intention, purpose, and devotion. It involves directing one's soul outward, and is the perfect corollary of mystical Judaism, called Kabbalah, which involves the inward process of receiving. It is related that a Tzadik (a righteous person) once said: "Note well that the word Kabbalah stems from kabbel, to receive, and the word kavanah from kaven, to direct one's heart to God." -3- Hasidic teaching, from ancient times to the present, has involved being strictly observant in the precepts of Judaism, from ritual purity to eating Kosher to keeping the Sabbath, but that performing these commandments without kavanah amounts to hypocrisy!
Christian theologians sadly overgeneralized, concluding that Jesus was condemning the whole of Judaism, not just specifying the need for reform, for kavanah, within Judaism. Without kavanah, all the things that Jews do and should do, from wearing phylacteries (tefillin in Hebrew) to participating in synagogue services to bringing converts to Judaism, become exercises in futility.
But Jesus goes on to express an even more dangerous menace. Jesus is aware of the path of revolt down which the nation seems inexorably headed. It is a course very different from his Gospel. Jesus has come with a message, not of appeasement, not of capitulation, but of peace. You do not lie down in the face of evil and oppression, but neither do you take a rigid, inflexible stance. Rather, you learn to bend and flex with the wind, until the storm passes. But the people of Jerusalem do not know the things which make for peace. They are bent on a course of resistance to the Roman occupation, of struggle, and of war.
Consider again, phrase by phrase, the words of Jesus' great lament, in light of the broader context just described:
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who murders the prophets and stones those sent unto her."
Notice that in the very next verse, Matthew 24:1, we are told that Jesus was leaving the temple, and two verses later that he was sitting on the Mount of Olives. Perhaps we should understand the verse as being uttered, not in the temple, but on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city from a distance. Perhaps its original context is to be found, not in Matthew, but in Luke 19, immediately following the verse which reads: "And as he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it, saying, 'If you had known, even you, in your day, the things which make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes'" (Lk. 19:41-42). As Jesus surveys the city, he sees himself, clearly in the prophetic stream of Israel's long spiritual heritage. Jesus is no more anti-Semitic than Isaiah, who, in tradition, was murdered by being sawed in two -4- It was Isaiah who thundered:
Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the call of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. (Isa. 1:13-15)
Was Isaiah, himself murdered by elements which opposed him, anti-Semitic when he condemned the offerings in the temple? When he condemned new moon, feasts, and solemn assemblies and even Sabbath observances? When he claimed that God rejects the people's prayers? Or when he pronounced that their hands are bloody?
Or is the Book of Jubilees anti-Semitic when it declares that the people "… will slay the witnesses also, and persecute those who seek the Law" (Jubilees 1:12)? Hardly. Yet, Jesus' words are understood as anti-Semitic by most Jews and used anti-Semitically by most Christians! It is high time we ponder these things…
STONING THE CIRCLE-DRAWER
We should also consider a much more subtle reference to an earlier "reformer," based on Jesus' statement that Jerusalem "... stones those sent unto her." Stoning, according to Josephus, was the punishment inflicted upon the great Hasidic master called Onias, the Greek rendering of Khoni the Circle-Drawer. It happened at a time when two warring factions of the people—Sadducean priests and Pharisees—approached him to pray on their behalf. Josephus relates:
Now there was one, whose name was Onias, a righteous man he was, and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and whose prayers God had heard, and had sent them rain. The man had hid himself, because he saw that this sedition would last a great while. However, they brought him to the Jewish camp, and desired that, as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he would in like manner make imprecations on … those of [the Pharisee] faction. And when, upon his refusal, and the excuses that he made, he was still by the multitude compelled to speak, he stood up in the midst of them, and said, "O God, the King of the whole world, since those that stand now with me are thy people, and those that are besieged are also thy priests, I beseech thee, that thou wilt neither hearken to the prayers of those against these, nor bring to effect what these pray against those." Whereupon such wicked Jews as stood about him as soon as he had made this prayer, stoned him to death. -5-
The passage should not be understood as anti-Semitic. It was not all Jews who were wicked, only those who stoned an innocent fellow Jew. Moreover, this famous stoning, which had transpired only a few decades before, must certainly have been in the mind of Jesus' listeners, even though it is lost to moderns. In the final analysis, if we want to understand Jesus, we have to understand his allusions.
Additionally, the story of Onias (Khoni) helps us fine-tune what Jesus meant when he continued:
How often I would have gathered your children, as a bird gathers her chicks from under her wings! And you would not. Behold, your house is left to you desolate...
Traditional Christian teaching declares that the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, the "house of the Jewish faith is desolate and empty. The Jews are "cut off" until such time, perhaps at the end of days, when they finally accept Jesus as their Messiah. In the meantime, the Gentiles have "replaced" the Jews as God's chosen people. To which I say, "Nonsense!" Jesus, while he wasn't a Pharisee, seems very much to have been a Hasidic Jew, in the tradition of Khoni. Furthermore, his message of peace and reconciliation was no different than his Hasidic predecessor. It was this message that the Jerusalemites had rejected, just as surely as they had rejected Khoni's message. Jerusalem was leaning increasingly toward revolt, and Jesus well knew it. Moreover, the word "house" in Hebrew—bayit—has a specific connotation. It refers, not to the Jewish faith, the Jewish people, or the land, but the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus declares that the "house" will be desolate, he is prophesying, with great specificity, the destruction of the temple. He is not declaring that God has abandoned or will abandon the Jewish people!
Jesus feared, with considerable foresight, that if the insurrectionists of Jerusalem had their way, the end result would not be glorious liberation from a wicked oppressor, but the utter destruction of the great temple, along with the city and the land. It wasn't that revolt against Rome was unjustified. Indeed, Rome's cruelty is well documented, and liberation can hardly be seen as an evil goal. But as the old saying goes, "If you can't win it, don't fight it!"
Was Jesus saddened over being rejected as the Messiah? In truth, there is little evidence to support this, given his earlier statement, "Whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven" (Matt. 12:32). As a matter of fact, the Talmud lists over twenty different sects among ancient Judaism, and the sect of followers of Jesus was without question more successful than most. It was the Sadducee party that felt threatened by Jesus, especially after he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. They were the ones who rejected him! However, there certainly were a good many Jerusalemites who believed in Jesus and followed his teachings. It seems that Jesus' modern disciples are much more concerned about who believes in his Messiahship and who doesn't than was Jesus himself! Why, then, did Jesus utter such an articulate lament? Because his message was being ignored by the city's leadership, and the result would be disastrous.
Nor was Jesus the only one to make such dire predictions. Indeed, there was an entire faction of Pharisees, many of whom lived in Jerusalem, who strongly opposed the idea of revolt against Rome and who feared what might be the consequences. One in particular was the great sage who virtually saved the Jewish faith single-handedly, and who became one of the most revered figures in all of Jewish history. His name was Yohanan ben Zakkai. He was, in his day, a Pharisee leader who, like Jesus, prophesied the destruction of the temple if the course of revolt were not averted. After the revolt broke out and Jerusalem was surrounded by Romans, Yohanan did the unthinkable. He pretended to be dead and had his disciples "smuggle" him out of the city in a coffin. Once outside the siege dikes, he emerged, proving that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated! Bargaining with the Romans, he was given a little town near the Mediterranean, where he founded a rabbinic school, to train people in living a Jewish life, without a temple. It was a radical new concept. Was Yohanan ben Zakkai anti-Semitic because he foresaw the doom that awaited the temple and the nation? Hardly. In the final analysis, Jesus' teachings should not be contrasted with Judaism; they should be compared favorably with those of any number of ancient Jews who possessed deep insight and profound foresight.
ANOTHER JESUS …
Finally, there is the story of another man named Jesus, whose account sounds eerily similar to that of the man of Galilee. For years prior to the outbreak of the revolt, this prophet named Jesus, the son of Ananias, had been proclaiming his own message of doom for Jerusalem. Standing up in the court of the temple, he began shouting: "A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary, a voice against bridegrooms and brides, a voice against all the people!" With haunting detail Josephus relates:
Day and night he walked the streets with this cry. Some of the leaders arrested the fellow and beat him, but he only kept on shouting as before. The magistrates brought him before the Roman governor, who had him whipped to the bone, but he neither begged for mercy nor shed a tear, only crying at each stroke, "Woe to Jerusalem!" When Albinus, the governor, asked him who he was, where he came from, and why he uttered these cries, he did not reply, but only repeated his dirge, "Woe to Jerusalem!" For seven years and five months, continuing through the war, he maintained this cry until, making his rounds on the wall during the siege, he shouted with his piercing voice, "Woe once more to the city, to the people, and to the temple!" Then he suddenly added, "And woe to me also!" and was immediately struck dead by a stone hurled from a ballista. -6-
Was Jesus, son of Ananias, anti-Semitic because he pronounced doom on the temple? Was he somehow against the Jewish faith or its strict observance? Hardly.
Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee ends his lament, declaring:
For I say to you, you shall not see me again until you say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."
Are these words anti-Semitic, blaming his rejection on the entire Jewish nation? Or do they indicate, as the Talmud does, that the message—of peace under the divine mantle—is more important than the messenger? Indeed, the Jerusalemites in particular will not see Jesus again until they are ready to accept his Gospel of peace—until they say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."
The Talmud itself declares, in the final analysis, that the real cause for the destruction of the temple was "boundless hatred." But it does not leave the matter there. It goes on to suggest something that Jew and Christian alike would be wise to embrace—that if the temple was destroyed through "boundless hatred," perhaps it may be rebuilt through "boundless love!" Such is the message of Talmud, and such is the message of the man named Jesus.
And what of those pulpits across the country? Are they likely to wake up, in the near future, to the historical context of Jesus' teachings, and begin to proclaim that Judaism is not only at the root of our faith, it is our faith? Let's not all hold our breath ...
A special "thanks" to Dr. Ron Mosely of Little Rock, Arkansas, who inspired this article.
-1- Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Writings, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988, pg 315. Back
-2- Mishnah, Taanit 3:8; see David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, New York, Adama Books, 1987, pgs 33-34. Back
-3- Martin Buber, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism, Maurice Friedman, ed., New York, Harper & Row, 1958. Back
-4- See the Ascension of Isaiah and the Nag Hamadi "Testimony of Truth." The tradition is based on the killings of King Manasseh (2 Kings 21:16) and of King David (2 Samuel 12:31; 1 Chronicles 20:3; LXX). Back
-5- See Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, II, 1. Back
-6- Paul L. Maier, Josephus: The Essential Writings, pg 362. Back
Dr. Ken Hanson is an author, lecturer, and founder of "Treasures in Time," an organization devoted to disseminating knowledge of the biblical and classical world. Dr. Hanson holds a master's degree in international/intercultural communication and television, and a PH.D. in Hebrew language and literature, with emphasis on the manuscript finds of the wilderness of Judea. He is also a graduate of the International School for Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem.
His first book, Dead Sea Scrolls: The Untold Story (and accompanying audio book), is currently in national and international distribution. His second book, Kabbalah: Three Thousand Years of Mystic Tradition, is scheduled for release in the fall of 1998.
He currently teaches Judaic Studies at the University of Central Florida, Orlando, and Comparative Religion at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.
From Yavo Digest, June 1998.
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