YESHUA OF NAZARETH
A Wholly Human Spiritual Teacher of Israel
The Jewish prophet and teacher Yeshua of Nazareth (anglicized as Jesus) was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of Judaism. He may be looked upon as desiring to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, in whose writings from centuries earlier he clearly was steeped. But not only in Isaiah, all the Hebrew Scriptures are much in evidence in the preaching of Jesus. His Jewish upbringing and the Jewish scriptural influences upon him are indisputable. Sometimes these connections are unstated, but other times are explicit. A few of the most well-known of his sayings, with their Hebrew Scriptural counterparts, are listed below, but there are many more:
Man shall not live by bread alone but on every word from the mouth of God. (Mt. 4:4; Dt. 8:3)
I will have mercy and not sacrifice for I am not come to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance. (Mt. 9:13; Ho. 6:6)
A man’s enemies will be of his own household. (Mt. 10:36; Mi. 7:6)
You must love the Lord thy God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength. (Lk. 12:30; Dt. 6:4-5)
You must love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk. 12:31; Lv. 19:18)
They may see but not perceive, listen but not understand. (Lk. 8:10; Is. 6:9)
Why then is there virtually no reference to Jesus as he appears in the Gospels in the Talmudical literature and very little in Jewish religious writings? Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most important spiritual figure in the history of western civilization, yet he is a “non-person” in Jewish theological, philosophical, and devotional writings. Exceptions are the so-called Jewish ‘existential’ philosophers: Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, especially Buber. Yet even these, while treating him with respect and acknowledging his origins, regard the historical Jesus as exclusive to Christianity. He is gone from the religion of Judaism. He was never within it.
There are reasons for this state of affairs that need to be brought out into full view. Jesus was without “authority,” meaning he had no credentials in terms of affiliation with the contemporary Jewish sects. Moreover, he came from Galilee, an area regarded at that time as backward and provincial. “What good can come out of Galilee?” was the prevailing attitude of the Jewish establishment centered in Jerusalem. Furthermore, he bitterly attacked Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers leaving them in no mood to take seriously this intruder from backward Galilee. The age of prophets had apparently ended centuries before and the canon of the prophets was already fixed. A new prophet, especially from Nazareth in Galilee, did not fit into the religious purview of the leaders of official Judaism. They did not notice the profound spiritual depth of Jesus.
Then there was the question of blasphemy. Today, the idea of a close spiritual relationship of human beings with Deity is nothing unusual: Hindu Vedanta philosophy, widespread in the West, proclaims the identity of the soul of man with God. The noted Protestant theologian Paul Tillich has stated, “There is a point of identity between God and man insofar as God comes to self-consciousness in man” (A History of Christian Thought). Abraham Heschel, the Jewish philosopher, writing, “to become a thought of God—this is the true career of man” (Man’s Quest for God), caused no rabbis to rend their clothes. But at that time this type of assertion was blasphemy, deserving of death according to Jewish law. Perhaps if Jesus had not become greatly popular among the Jewish masses, the high priests of Judaism might have ignored him. But since the region was already rife with rebellion against Roman authority, the High Priest Caiaphas feared Jesus’ impact on the populace and supposedly said it is better for one man to die than for the whole Jewish nation to be destroyed (Jn. 11:49-51). Jewish leaders were right to be apprehensive, as was proven by the Great Rebellion of A.D. 67-70, resulting in the destruction of the Second Temple and the slaughter of thousands of Jews.
Jesus’ first disciples, from humble Jewish origins in Galilee, did not have his intellectual or spiritual capacities. During his lifetime, they kept asking him the meaning of his teachings requiring a more complex consciousness than they possessed. He felt he had to speak in parables in order for his metaphysical insights to be understood. After his crucifixion, he quickly became what can only be regarded by non-Christians as an object of cult worship and many supernatural legends were formed about him. He became the Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, instead of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph. This was too much for the leaders of Judaism to accept and his followers were banned from the synagogues, even stoned on occasion. Tragically, the crucifixion of Jesus had been in vain, since after a second revolt against Rome in A.D. 132-135, the Jewish nation was completely destroyed, Jewish Jerusalem razed to the ground, and most Jews were either killed, enslaved, or forced into exile from their homeland. The Biblical lands of Judea, Perea, Samaria, and Galilee became the Roman province of Palestine.
Jesus had been a charismatic and inspirational figure among the Jews and a few Gentiles as well. He had been referred to as Teacher or Rabbi (Mk. 9:5,17). He offered a metaphysical teaching to the Jewish people – bringing Judaism to a new level of spiritual thought. Jesus was a great symbolist. His moral teachings, in my judgment, are founded on the need not to overvalue the material element of life. He had an overpowering God consciousness, on the need to value the ‘Kingdom of God’; the same that must have existed in Moses, the Psalmists and the Hebrew prophets before him. This consciousness reached its apogee in the unlikely figure of Yeshua ben Yosef, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. But he left no writings for posterity. Unlike Jeremiah, he did not have a dedicated secretary to write down what he said. His first disciples were not literary types and did not feel the need to record his sermons and sayings, especially since according to their Teacher the end of their world was imminent. It was only several decades after the crucifixion, when it became clear that the End of Days was not going to occur soon, that the feeling must have arisen among certain of them that a written account of Jesus’ life and preaching should be available to the followers and potential converts, now beginning to be known as Christians. Meanwhile a great transformation had occurred; Yeshua of Nazareth, the Jewish teacher, prophet and worker of ‘miracles,’ had become not only the Messiah, but God incarnate and the central figure of a new religion, Christianity.
It is evident that recording the words of Jesus could not have been an easy task. It was more than thirty years after his death that the accounts of his life known as the Gospels were composed. Most of his listeners had died and the memories of survivors could not have been too reliable. It was not a time of historical accuracy, as evidenced by the appearance of the numerous accounts of Jesus’ life that barely resembled one another. The emphasis was on supporting burgeoning Christianity rather than on the facts of the life and sayings of Jesus. The four canonical Christian Gospels were chosen three centuries later at Church councils—largely on the recommendations of Athanasius, the orthodox Bishop of Alexandria. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas presents a picture of Jesus as a more existential-minded religious figure.
It is virtually certain that Jesus spoke and preached in Aramaic solely to Jews, the common vernacular of the interior areas of Galilee, Perea and Judea—the Jewish heartlands in which he had grown to maturity and conducted his religious activities. He had avoided the Hellenized coasts. When a Canaanite woman begged him to cure her daughter, he responded “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). Later he relented, but it is clear from his practices that his initial response reflected his basic attitude. However, the Gospels are in the koiné Greek, the lingua franca of the wider Mediterranean world for whose populations the Gospels were written. Scholars do not believe that any of the writers of the Gospels (‘evangelists’) were direct witnesses to Jesus’ activities. Somewhere along the line the orally transmitted Aramaic of Jesus was translated by the evangelists or their associates into Greek from the stories given to them. His special style of expression that so captivated listeners probably was unrecoverable. Unless one believes that the hand of God was operative in this process, it is obvious that there is difficulty in accepting as fully reliable the accounts of the teachings and prophecies attributed to Jesus. Nevertheless, a debt of gratitude is owed to the authors of the gospels, because without them, Jesus would have become just another semi-mythical founder of a religion without any knowledge about him.
As far as the early Talmudical scholars were concerned, they had little reason to pay attention to him since Jesus of Nazareth was no longer within the domain of Judaism. They must have looked upon him as an idol worshipped by apostate Jews who had given him over to the Gentile world. Later, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it would be no longer safe for Jews to concern themselves with Jesus. Intolerant Christianity had enough reasons to persecute Jews. It would have been suicidal for any Jews to publically try to express opinions about the Lord Jesus Christ. The rest is known to history; Jews up until recent times would not dare to examine critically the status of the Christian Savior.
But today, the western world exists in an era of religious freedom. The amazing success of Christianity in becoming the world’s foremost religion is spiritual evidence, if not on a forensic level, that Jesus of Nazareth had something of significance to communicate, however uncertain may be the transmitted information about him. The Christian Greek Gospels, even through the worshipful lens of the evangelists and their later translation into popular idioms (once resisted by the Catholic Church), do reveal much of the thoughts and personality of the man Jesus and his powerful effect on people’s minds. Islamic and Hindu seers and scholars have recognized the importance of his teachings. Spiritually thoughtful Jews ought not to limit their Bible study to the Hebrew scriptures, since the Greek scriptures of the ‘New’ Testament contain the only available records of the teachings of Jesus. A similar situation exists with the so-called ‘apocryphal,’ but spiritually profound Wisdom books that were left out of the Hebrew Bible (and Protestant versions that followed the Hebrew canon) because the Palestinian Jewish sages who established the canon ignored writings in Greek. However, if Christianity can expropriate in toto the Hebrew Bible for its own religious purposes, Judaism should be entitled to do the same with selected parts of the Christian Gospels.
It should be possible for Judaism to reclaim on its own terms the memory of Yeshua ben Josef of Nazareth, the inspired Jewish rabbi and spiritual teacher. (The movement entitled ‘Messianic Judaism’ is essentially a Christian sect, requiring acceptance of the Christian tenets about Jesus Christ, while retaining Jewish customs.) Jesus offered a metaphysical teaching to the Jewish people – bringing Judaism to a new level of thought. The Christian religion bases its faith in Jesus Christ as God incarnate and divine savior. However, spiritually inclined individuals outside of Christianity, especially those of Jewish origin, ought to form their own ideas of the meaning of the remarkable saga and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. There is now no adequate justification for the Jewish Jesus to be monopolized by Christian churches.
The Rabbi Yeshua, who taught the following, warrants the attention of all spiritually minded individuals:
For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mt. 16:26)
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mk. 2:27)
For behold, the kingdom of God is within (entoV) you. (Lk. 17:21) [not among you or in your midst]
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s and unto God the things which be God’s. (Lk. 20:25)
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt. 22:37-39)
I and the Father, we are one. (Jn. 10:30)
In the opinion of this philosopher of Jewish origins, but without authority, the charismatic, ground-breaking, quite human figure of the Jewish spiritual teacher from Nazareth ought to be reclaimed by Judaism as one of its own. Beyond that, his own words should be seriously considered as far as possible apart from dogmas, legends, or other later accretions. They should be considered by individuals of all persuasions everywhere, including spiritually-minded independent philosophers.
The biblical quotations in this essay are from the King James version. Abbreviations of the biblical books are as follows:
Dt. – Deuteronomy Lv. – Leviticus
Ho. – Hosea Mi. – Micah
Is. – Isaiah Mk. – Mark
Jn. – John Mt. – Matthew
Lk. – Luke
Published in: Schain, Richard. Concluding Metaphysical Perambulations, 2019, pp. 157-164.