Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History
By David Klinghoffer
Doubleday, 256 pages, $24.95
The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book
By Julie Galambush
HarperSanFrancisco, 352 pages, $24.95.
In the past few years, there has been a growing interest in the New Testament and the origins of Christianity on the part of Jewish writers. Two books in particular — Julie Galambush’s “The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book” and David Klinghoffer’s “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History”— are both well written. They explore the resonance between Judaism and Christianity for a general audience so deeply, we might expect a pickup of interest among Jewish readers.
Of the two books, Galambush’sis more accessible. It’s a sound but economical survey of the books of the New Testament, document by document, with particular regard to their Jewish setting. As an ordained Baptist minister who converted to Judaism, Galambush, professor at The College of William & Mary and member of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., brings informed empathy to both sides of a difficult equation. She developed her approach, as she explains, as part of a program at Bet Aviv synagogue in Columbia, Md. No doubt her lectures there were as inherently interesting as the topic itself. It is fascinating to trace the debates with the Judaism of the time and place that each of the books of the New Testament indeed represents. Although on this matter there should be no doubt, simple ignorance, notably among Christians, has led to the received, entrenched and thoroughly false opinion that Christianity represents a rejection of Judaism from Jesus onward. It is intellectually useful — and pastorally crucial — to have an engaging book spell out why this conventional view is false, and how the emergence of Christianity cannot be understood except by taking account of its continuing dialogue with the Judaisms of antiquity.
Klinghoffer’s approach is more historical than literary, and his book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus,” is demanding, although his elegant style encourages persistence as well as rewarding it. He sets up a radical argument: that Christianity triumphed in the Roman Empire because Jews as a whole rejected its precepts. He develops a strong case for the necessarily ethnic focus of Judaism so that an extension of Israel’s promises to gentiles, such as Christianity represents, was intolerable.
Although Klinghoffer, well known to readers of these pages as a Forward columnist, is very clear that there was no unified Jewish phalanx against Jesus and that the Romans exercised a monopoly when it came to crucifying people, he argues that there was Jewish opposition to Jesus because “the Jews are an acidic people, inclined to debate and question.” To his mind, that is a profound virtue whose inheritance includes monotheism and a refusal of idolatry. He reviews the histories of Israel and of Judaism from this point of view, and applies the same analysis in explaining why many Jews in Jesus’ time were skeptical of his claims. This routine skepticism was sharpened in response to the insistence by Jesus’ followers that he died on the cross as God’s anointed.
Paul predictably finds an important place in this story, and the analysis that Pauline thought deepened the sense of cleavage between Judaism and Christianity is obviously pertinent. In Klinghoffer’s narrative, “the rejection of Paul, or rather of Paul’s conception of Jesus Christ, was the very turning point of Western history.” Here it must be said that in some respects, when it concerns Paul as well as Jesus, Klinghoffer’s reading of the scholarship is patchy and dated. Anachronisms result, most resulting from an exaggerated estimate of Paul’s importance in his own lifetime. That is why on the next page, James (Jesus’ brother) is treated as if he were Paul’s acolyte, when in fact he was Paul’s nemesis. Then this unrecognizable James writes “what is effectively the founding document of Western civilization,” although James and Paul famously disagreed in regard to basic questions of purity and impurity. The reader begins to wonder: How many turning points, pivots and foundings can the West have?
Where Klinghoffer is profoundly right, despite his historical glitches, is in his assertion that “the Jewish answer to Christian teachings,” from the second century on, insisted that “the Torah extended back to Abraham, who merely discovered certain preexisting, timeless principles, much as a scientist would discover principles of physics that had always operated.” Brief sketches of the medieval and modern periods all come down to “the truth in one word: Sinai.”
Klinghoffer closes with a thought experiment, postulating that “the Jewish rejection of Jesus was the founding act of Western civilization” because “Judaism was never intended or suited to be a mass religion.” And without Christian Europe, “when Islam, that other daughter faith of Judaism, arose in the seventh century, its armies would have confronted a Europe that was a spiritual vacuum, which Muhammad’s teachings would likely have filled.” Then he spins around to the theological suggestion, by way of “the essence of the Jewish soul,” that “the Christian church plays the role of the congregation” at Sinai “with Jews serving in the ministerial position.”
Both of these books are readable and should be read by everyone interested in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, whether in the ancient period or today. Yet each of them in its own way is too generous with Christianity, and the kind of generosity involved does Christians no good.
For nearly two millennia, Christians have shown a strong tendency to excuse or explain away their opposition to Judaism and their frequent antisemitism. (In the fashionable postmodern excuse, Constantine made us bad, not our faith.) Ordinary human prejudice naturally affected many of Christianity’s gentile converts, and the earliest sources betray a reflex tendency to attribute responsibility to Jews (rather than to the Christians’ Roman overlords) for Jesus’ crucifixion. But those are incidental details compared with the more profound gulf that divides Christianity from Judaism.
Jesus’ movement as a whole — not only the much maligned Paul but also Jesus himself; his brother James; Peter, the Pharisess in the Book of Acts who believed in Jesus; in fact, every major representative of the movement before it was called a church or a religion, as well as after that time — believed clearly and unmistakably that the Torah of Moses was not permanent, not eternal, and should be changed in response to the new fountain of God’s Spirit that flowed from Jesus. Christianity’s understanding of the one covenant between God and his people opposed the emerging rabbinic view, which centered on the Torah.
While the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, the starkly different covenantal theologies of Judaisms and Christianities — for all the tensions among them — nonetheless converge in the same place, as Jews of many different beliefs, associations and constituencies offered sacrifice to the one God. But with the destruction of that Temple by the Romans (in fact the twin destructions, of 70 and 135 C.E.), covenantal theologies that were already sharply different became mutually exclusive. Until the depth of this argument is appreciated, we will never resolve the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Christians went their own way not reluctantly (whatever their anguish), but with an apocalyptic fervor that aroused either assent or denial. And that denial on the part of rabbinic Judaism was not truly a rejection of Jesus (whose claims were, for the most part, unknown), but a commanding assertion of the eternal Torah. Until we firmly grasp the theological argument that divides us, we will fall back on stereotypes of wooly-headed gentile Christians and acerbic, skeptical Jews — stereotypes whose bitter fruit has proved that they must be removed, root and branch.
Bruce Chilton is the Bernard Iddings Bell professor of religion at Bard College, where he also directs the Institute of Advanced Theology. He is the rector of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Barrytown, N.Y., and the author of the recently published “Mary Magdalene: A Biography” (Doubleday).