Book Review: Why the Jews Rejected Jesus
In Why the Jews Rejected Jesus David Klinghoffer, who states at the beginning his background as both a traditional Jew (although not raised as such) and a political conservative, attempts in a serious and considered way to address the puzzlement and discomfort that he encounters from well-meaning Christians who just cannot understand why he fails to see what is obvious to them – that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. Along the way he traces Jewish views of Jesus and Christianity, as well as the relations between the two religions, from the time of the first century to the present day.
Obviously, as some reviews on Amazon which rather hysterically accuse Klinghoffer of not knowing his own scriptures show, this book is not going to decrease the discomfort and feeling of threat that a lot of Christians feel at the thought that their interpretations of the Hebrew Bible are not the only ones nor even the obvious ones. One of his most valuable insights, I feel, is that the traditional way for Christians to study the Bible is to see the “Old Testament” in the light of the New and to accord the New Testament a higher authority. Jews, on the other hand, learn the Hebrew Scriptures on their own terms, and most of the places where the New Testament claims that such and such a prophecy was “fulfilled” by Jesus look to them very much like after-the-fact rationalization. To be honest, I feel the same way about the same type of thing when it is done by the rabbis in the Talmud. His claim that all this rabbinic proof-texting (or finding rationalizations in the Bible for decisions that were originally just stated without any biblical authority) is a result of the same process being used in the New Testament is new to me, so I can’t comment on how accurate it is.
Klinghoffer’s account of the political situation that Judea found itself in at the time when Jesus began teaching is insightful, and his suspicion that Paul may have exaggerated his Pharisaic qualifications if not his own Jewish birth is a theory that I have seen before (see The Mythmaker by Hyam Maccoby), and a lack of deep knowledge as well as frustration at not being able to live up to what he saw as the demands of an adopted religion goes a long way (to me, at least) towards explaining his vitriolic denunciation of the “Law” as a “curse.”
The acknowledgment of a tradition within Judaism that the Jewish authorities at the time were responsible for Jesus’ arrest, if not his death, as well as the publication of several unflattering Talmudic references to him (suppressed for fear of Christian persecution) are painfully honest. As Klinghoffer feels compelled to point out, though, most Jews of the period never had the chance to “reject” him during his lifetime since they never even knew that he existed. I’m afraid that I raised my eyebrows at one reviewer’s assertion that “neither Mel Gibson, or any other intelligent, educated person, blames all Jews.” Since the Second Vatican Council felt it necessary to denounce it, it seems that many “intelligent, educated” people held that belief as recently as the 1960s.
The second half of the book deals with the history of Jewish-Christian debate over the centuries since Jesus’ death. Klinghoffer examines (and sometimes finds wanting) various rationales for the Jewish rejection of Jesus given by some of the sages who, whether voluntarily not, found themselves defending their religion against a Christianity which often held the upper hand where power was concerned; a hesitant groping, beginning surprisingly early, towards reconciliation that culminated with Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption; and the traumatic effect that failed messiahs such as Sabbetai Zevi had on Jewish views of messianism.
My main criticism of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus is that while he does it rarely, Klinghoffer occasionally lets his political conservatism and his prejudices against liberal Judaism, which he seems to view as hardly less a break from “true” Judaism than Christianity, come through. On the whole, however, I found it to be a thoughtful, honest, and (mostly) non-polemical view of a thorny subject, and would recommend it highly to Christians but particularly to Jews, who unfortunately are often ignorant of their own scriptures and thus easy pickings for missionaries.