The Other Jesus

Newsweek March 27, 2000
By Kenneth L. Woodward

To Christians, he is the Son of God. But the world's other great religions have their own visions of a legendary figure.

There are, of course, important commonalities among these three religious traditions. All three believe in one God who has revealed his will through sacred Scriptures. They all look to an endtimes when God's justice and power will triumph. And they all recognize the figure of Abraham as a father in faith. What is often overlooked, however, is another figure common to the three traditions: Jesus of Nazareth.

The Christ of the Gospels is certainly the best-known Jesus in the world. For Christians, he is utterly unique—the only Son of God and, as the pope puts it, the one "mediator between God and humanity." But alongside this Jesus is another, the Jesus whom Muslims since Muhammad have regarded as a prophet and messenger of Allah. And after centuries of silence about Jesus, many Jews now find him a Jewish teacher and reformer they can accept on their own terms as "one of us."

Jesus has become a familiar, even beloved, figure to adherents of Asian religions as well. Among many contemporary Hindus, Jesus has come to be revered as a self-realized saint who reached the highest level of "God-consciousness." In recent years, Buddhists like the Dalai Lama have recognized in Jesus a figure of great compassion much like the Buddha. "I think as the world grows smaller, Jesus as a figure will grow larger," says Protestant theologian John Cobb, a veteran of interfaith dialogues.

Perhaps. Each of these traditions—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—is rich in its own right, and each has its own integrity. As the pope calls for better understanding among the world's great religions, it is important to recognize that non-Christian faiths have their own visions of the sacred and their own views of Jesus.


That Jesus was a Jew would seem to be self-evident from Gospels. But before the first Christian century was out, faith in Jesus as universal Lord and Savior eclipsed his early identity as a Jewish prophet and wonder worker. For long stretches of Western history, Jesus was pictured as a Greek, a Roman, a Dutchman—even, in the Germany of the 1930s, as a blond and burly Aryan made in the image of Nazi anti-Semitism. But for most of Jewish history as well, Jesus was also a deracinated figure: he was the apostate, whose name a pious Jew should never utter.

Indeed, the lack of extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus has led more than one critic to conclude that he is a Christian fiction created by the early church. There were in fact a half dozen brief passages, later excised from Talmudic texts, that some scholars consider indirect references to Jesus. One alludes to a heresy trial of someone named Yeshu (Jesus) but none of them has any independent value for historians of Jesus. The only significant early text of real historical value is a short passage from Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian. Josephus describes Jesus as a "wise man," a "doer of startling deeds" and a "teacher" who was crucified and attracted a posthumous following called Christians. In short, argues Biblical scholar John P. Meier of Notre Dame, the historical Jesus was "a marginal Jew in a marginal province of the Roman Empire"—and thus unworthy of serious notice by contemporary Roman chroniclers.

Christian persecution of the Jews made dialogue about Jesus impossible in the Middle Ages. Jews were not inclined to contemplate the cross on the Crusaders' shields, nor did they enjoy the forced theological disputations Christians staged for Jewish conversions. To them, the Christian statues and pictures of Jesus represented the idol worship forbidden by the Torah. Some Jews did compile their own versions of a "History of Jesus" ("Toledoth Yeshu") as a parody of the Gospel story. In it, Jesus is depicted as a seduced Mary's bastard child who later gains magical powers and works sorcery. Eventually, he is hanged, his body hidden for three days and then discovered. It was subversive literature culled from the excised Talmudic texts. "Jews were impotent in force of arms," observes Rabbi Michael Meyer, a professor at Hebrew Union Seminary in Cincinnati, "so they reacted with words."

When skeptical scholars began to search for the "historical Jesus" behind the Gospel accounts in the 18th century, few Jewish intellectuals felt secure enough to join the quest. One who did was Abraham Geiger, a German rabbi and early exponent of the Reform Jewish movement. He saw that liberal Protestant intellectuals were anxious to get beyond the supernatural Christ of Christian dogma and find the enlightened teacher of morality hidden behind the Gospel texts. From his own research, Geiger concluded that what Jesus believed and taught was actually the Judaism of liberal Pharisees, an important first-century Jewish sect. "Geiger argued that Jesus was a reformist Pharisee whose teachings had been corrupted by his followers and mixed with pagan elements to produce the dogmas of Christianity," says Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth. Thus, far from being a unique religious genius—as the liberal Protestants claimed—Geiger's Jesus was a democratizer of his own inherited tradition. It was, he argued, the Pharisees' opponents, the Sadducees, who became the first Christians and produced the negative picture of the Pharisees as legalistic hypocrites found in the later Gospel texts. In sum, Geiger—and after him, other Jewish scholars—distinguished between the faith of Jesus, which they saw as liberal Judaism, and the faith in Jesus, which became Christianity.

The implications of this "Jewish Jesus" were obvious, and quickly put to polemical use. Jews who might be attracted by the figure of Jesus needn't convert to Christianity. Rather, they could find his real teachings faithfully recovered in the burgeoning Reform Jewish movement. Christians, on the other hand, could no longer claim that Jesus was a unique religious figure who inspired a new and universal religion. Indeed, if any religion could claim universality, it was monotheistic Judaism as the progenitor of both Christianity and Islam.

The Holocaust occasioned yet another way of imagining Jesus. If some Jews blamed Christians—or God himself—for allowing the ovens of Auschwitz, a few Jewish artists found a different way to deal with the horror of genocide: they applied the theme of the crucified Christ to the Nazis' Jewish victims. This is particularly evident in harrowing paintings of Marc Chagall, where the dying Jesus is marked by Jewish symbols. And in "Night," his haunting stories of the death camps, Elie Wiesel adopted the Crucifixion motif for his wrenching scene of three Jews hanged from a tree, like Jesus and the two thieves on Golgotha. The central figure is an innocent boy dangling in protracted agony because his body is too light to allow the noose its swift reprieve. When Wiesel hears a fellow inmate cry, "Where is God?" the author says to himself: "Here He is. He has been hanged here, on these gallows." "There's no lack of suffering in Judaism," says Alan Segal, professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College and Columbia University, "and no reason why Jews shouldn't pick up an image central to Christianity."

Today, the Jewishness of Jesus is no longer a question among scholars. That much of what he taught can be found in the Jewish Scriptures is widely accepted by Christian as well as Jewish students of the Bible. At some seminaries, like Hebrew Union, a course in the New Testament is now required of rabbinical candidates. Outside scholarly circles, there is less focus on Jesus, and most Jews will never read the Christian Bible. And, of course, Jews do not accept the Christ of faith. "They see Jesus as an admirable Jew," says theologian John Cobb, "but they don't believe that any Jew could be God."


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