The Jewish Denial of Christ: Blindness or Insight?

From Disputation to Dialogue: Past the Stumbling Block

In 1863 Abraham Geiger, the leading rabbi of liberal Judaism in Germany, described the liberating role of scholarly study in the area of religious studies: “The deepest contents of all the spiritual movements is scholarship. Where scholarship turns with its power it brings light to whatever was in chaos. The study of Judaism can proceed hand in hand to build a supportive circle with Christian theologians.” From our present perspective we can look back after almost one hundred and fifty years with profound sadness and some hope. The “supportive circle” of Jewish scholars and Christian theologians never emerged during Geiger’s day or in subsequent decades. Generations of Christian scholars turned away from the efforts made by liberal Jewish theologians to open collaborative investigations of the history of early Christianity or later periods. The nightmare of the Shoah extinguished the institutions and many of the scholars of European Jewry who might have participated.

However, during the last fifty years there are signs that Geiger’s hope for scholarship to “turn with its power” and bring light could be realized. Churches have made significant statements such as Nostra Aetate (1965) that support a more positive attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish people. Many of these statements were brought to life in the activities of Pope John Paul II to move toward reconciliation. His efforts toward reconciliation between Christians and Jews are grounded in his deep theological conviction and have expressed themselves in his actions during his visit to Jerusalem in March 2000. Statements by ecclesiastical groups that encourage individual Christians to ameliorate their relationship to Judaism have been matched by intensified contacts between theologians and scholars—many who appear here in these pages.

We look back wistfully and conjecture that discussions about Christianity and Judaism might have been very different if theologians like Leo Baeck and Franz Rosenzweig would have read Pelikan or Lindbeck instead of Harnack. In the field of New Testament studies John Meier has observed that what distinguishes the scholarly literature of the “third quest for the historical Jesus” from previous efforts has been the fruitful exchange between Jewish and Christian scholars.

In the Jewish community we find the partnership between ecclesial bodies and scholarly investigations to be a most significant component of moving the reconciliation with Christians forward. Whatever misgivings scholars of either faith community may have with their Churches or Synagogues they have discovered that without serious dialogue with those who serve directly in the pulpits, there is little hope that their hard-won scholarly gains will be heard or read by the people in the pews who need them the most. As scholars—historians or theologians—we have come to realize our obligations to our communities of faith and to include them in our deliberations. We realize that religious life occurs not in the pages of learned journals but in the homilies delivered during liturgies; and in the rituals and rites of celebration of our sacred calendars. We want to be bold and see broader horizons than previous generations, and we hope that we can be guides to those who doubt and those who are so certain that they are afraid to doubt.

What motivates me to answer the question “Who is it that you say I am?” is grounded in the praxis of my teaching in a Catholic university and as a rabbi with responsibility to Reform Judaism in North America. I hear a paraphrase of “Who do you say I am?” in my classes at the University of Notre Dame. It usually occurs after the first month of lectures. The topic of the course makes very little difference. One bold soul inquires, “Rabbi, what do the Jewish people think about Jesus?” or “Who is it that you and the Jewish people say he is?” My answer to their question usually evokes some disappointment. They cannot grasp how it is possible that Jesus Christ—so central to their lives and community— could be so marginal in my own Jewish community.

Their inquiries resonated with a more positive and hopeful assertion by a theology student at the University of Augsburg. He spoke to me at a seminar with great enthusiasm arguing that Jesus Christ was the bridge between Jews and Christians—between Judaism and Christianity—because only Jesus Christ was simultaneously a Jew and a Christian. When I indicated to this well-meaning student that I hardly thought that the historical life of Jesus would be sufficient to sustain the Christian community he sadly agreed. He conceded that ultimately the question of who Jesus was would be an inadequate response to who Jesus is.

In reflecting upon my answers to both the American and German students the words of Paul (1 Cor 1:23) came to mind: “We preach Christ crucified, folly to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.” This use of the term “skandalon” calls to mind the commandment of Leviticus 19:14 not to put a stumbling block before the blind. Yet it is precisely the image of partial blindness that Paul ascribes to the Jews and which later came to be incorporated into the iconography of the medieval church in the west as “Synagoga.” Is it possible for Jews to speak with Christians about the question of Jesus Christ and turn the image of the stumbling block into a positive image—as a boundary marker, perhaps—that will encourage further discussion rather than close down discourse?

Over the past thirty years Christians and Jews have come to understand each other in their own integrity—within the wholeness of their assembled communities and traditions. In the course of those discussions many negative perceptions of Judaism have been removed. Can this new effort be sustained in a dialogue between the two communities about how Christians approach the ineffable? Is it possible to examine the negation of Jesus Christ in the Jewish tradition as insight rather than blindness?

In the discussion that follows I would, first, like to suggest a framework for Jewish discussions with Christians about the nature of Jesus Christ. Second, I will survey some of the most significant responses of the Jewish tradition with respect to Jesus Christ and demonstrate a remarkable continuity from antiquity to modernity. Finally, I will set out an agenda that outlines what stake the Jewish community has in future Christian theological deliberations about Christology.

From Silence to Speech: The Two Horizons of the Christological Discussion

Let us begin with the Christological question before us and search for a framework where a Jewish response might contribute to a deeper conversation. The question “Who is it that you say I am?” has a particular resonance for the Jewish reader. The final linguistic unit: “I am” recalls the ineffable name, YHWH, in the book of Exodus that God imparts to Moses (Ex. 3). While the question in the book of Exodus is a divine response to a question raised by Moses, the inquiry by Jesus in the gospel demands a human response from the apostles to a divine query. In either case the Jewish reluctance to utilize the nomina sacra immediately sets the boundary of what might be articulated in human speech. From the late biblical period and into the rabbinic literature the Jewish tradition discovered euphemisms for the use of the divine name. Nouns such as “the heavens” “the place” “the Holy One” replaced the Tetragrammaton YHWH and Elohim.

Rabbinic and medieval Hebrew literature referred to Jesus, the inquirer, as “oto ha-ish” (“that man”). The name of Jesus Christ, as we will see further on, was removed from many rabbinic texts as an act of self-censorship. However, if we inquire why self-censorship was important to these earlier generations two distinct answers are plausible. The first answer would be that once Christianity became the majority religion in the West it began to diminish the legal status of Judaism. In order to avoid further danger the Jewish community encoded references to Jesus by the derisive term “that man.”

An alternative answer to the development of the use of “oto ha-ish” or “that man” would follow this line of reasoning. The Jewish tradition holds a great reverence for words and particularly for names. This reverence is clear with respect to the nomina sacra, the divine names, where there has been a reticence among Jews even to pronounce them. Therefore for Jews to utter the name “Jesus Christ” would have been an apparent validation of belief in him. Lest we think that this reticence to utter the name Jesus Christ is relegated to the past, there are many Jews who asserted their youthful religious identity by joining their public-school classmates in singing Christmas carols but remaining silent when the lyrics required them to say Jesus or Christ.

The rabbinic proverb “Silence is appropriate for wisdom” has been at the heart of the popular Jewish reaction—from antiquity to modernity—to public statements about the nature of Jesus Christ. We shall see later that the Jewish negation of Jesus as Christ went well beyond silence. Within the confines of their own community, Jews had a clearly articulated negation about Jesus. Silence in public discussion and articulate refutation within the privacy of the Jewish community was a strategy for the physical survival of the Jewish community in Christendom. This bifurcated approach was a strategy for physical safety and survival of the community. It began to break down in the second half of the nineteenth century and continued until the beginning of the Shoah.

The changes that have occurred in Christian theology since the Shoah urge an effort to renew a serious discussion between our communities. Christian communities that no longer target Jews for proselytism may open the doors to fruitful discussion about Christology. The discourse should be carefully framed to provide respect for Christian belief and tradition and must accord a presentation of Jewish perspectives that are grounded in the Jewish tradition.

Let me propose two horizons for a dialogue between Jews and Christians about the question, “Who is it that you say I am?” The first horizon for Christological discussion is what I call the ontological or existential horizon. The assertions by Jesus in the Gospel of John that “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” and that “he who believes has eternal life” indicate that the person who professes Jesus Christ has a unique ontological status. The believer is transformed from mortality to eternal life because he or she accepts this truth. This truth is affirmed by the speech by Peter after the initial commissioning of the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:14‒41). That passage indicates that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a change has occurred in the way God offers salvation to humankind. In the Pauline writings there are frequent references to the power of salvation that occurs when the individual becomes part of the community of believers. Subsequent generations of Christian authors have attempted to describe the ineffable change that occurs in the heart, mind, and soul of those who believe.

The ontological or existential horizon can be understood in the deep private experience of a faith community. It requires a commitment of faith in order to comprehend its language. As a Jew I may read the meditations of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or Thomas Merton. However, when they attempt to describe the profound change that Jesus as Christ makes in their lives I can only read them empathetically. When I attend Christian worship and watch the faces of those who go up to take the Eucharist, I can observe the change in their demeanor and glimpse traces of their inner experience.

The private nature of these experiences creates a language of belief that can at best be appreciated by non-believers but can never fully engage them beyond an appreciation of how they function in the life of the Christian community. Their descriptions invite empathy, but cannot provide a comprehensible account of their inner experience for one who does not share their conviction. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s essay, “Confrontation,” captures the difficulty that Jews might have in understanding the ontological/existential horizon of Christology. He argues for a strict boundary between faith communities with respect to the discussion of these theological claims. He asserts that the language of faith is a “private language” in the Wittgensteinian mode that can only be understood by those who share common faith commitments.

From my perspective Christological discussions have a second horizon that I would call temporal/eschatological. My study of the Christian tradition has taught me that Jesus Christ enters the economy of salvation and transforms history. Jesus Christ, the eschaton or end, enters at the mid-point pointing the way for humanity to the ultimate end when God will be “all in all.” St. Augustine’s sermon or treatise on the Jews focuses on this very theme of how the reading of God’s revelation in Hebrew Scriptures is changed by Jesus Christ. From the Christian perspective Jesus lived in history and demonstrates the way beyond history. The temporal/eschatological horizon provides Jews and Christians with subject matter for very fruitful discussions. Sacred history built on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible forms the main point of convergence and divergence between us.

Christians and Jews share the prophetic visions of divine judgment and mercy “in the end of days.” The apocalyptic literature promises justification to endure suffering until the eschaton. What Christians and Jews have not and still do not share is the claim that Jesus Christ entered human history as God’s incarnation. Debates from antiquity to modernity indicate that it is precisely the temporal/eschatological horizon that has been the platform for disputation between our communities. Of course in the Christian community the ontological and temporal horizons are fused—it is because Jesus is the Christ that he brings triumph over death and a vision of Christian community in love until the eschaton. The Jewish negation of Jesus as Christ, as we shall now discern, begins with the temporal/eschatological horizon. It asserts that there was a man named Jesus, but he was not “the Christ.”

“That Man”: Jesus as Fully Human

There is a remarkable consistency in the responses by Jewish writers from antiquity to modernity about Jesus. He is portrayed as a historical person who was a member of the Jewish people. Jews knew the details of the life of Jesus as they are narrated in the gospels despite the fact that these documents never held canonical status. Since the fourth century Jews lived in a culture where Jesus was understood as the exclusive savior of the majority Christian community. Until the late twentieth century the Jewish community was—and for some Christian groups remains—a target for proselytization.

With this historical and contemporary situation we can understand that the Jewish negation of Jesus Christ was not only a denial of the truth of Christianity. It was an assertion of the continuing validity of God’s revelation and commandments that would accompany the Jewish people until their Messiah arrived to deliver them from exile and the “yoke of the gentiles.” For these reasons the Jewish negation of Jesus was couched in an angry, assertive, and almost scandalous rhetoric.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Jewish negation of Jesus Christ came to focus more and more on the distinction between Jesus and Paul. While Abraham Geiger asserted that Jesus should be placed within the Pharisaic context, he argued that it was Paul who was influenced by paganism. Leo Baeck distinguished between the classical religion of ethics as practiced by Jesus and the Pharisees and the romantic religion of abandonment asserted by Paul. Joseph Klausner and Samuel Sandmel both argued that Jesus was a loyal Jew, while Paul was the founder of a Christianity that was harmonious with paganism. More recent historical scholarship by Jews examines Jesus and Paul within a broader historical context reclaiming both of them into a pluralistic Judaism of the period and some have asserted that there is a co-emergence of Judaism and Christianity as distinct religions only in the fourth century.

It is important to remember after rehearsing the specific Jewish negations about Jesus as the Christ that they apply only to members of the Jewish community. Rabbis in the Talmud had already developed the concept of the “Noachide commandments” that opened God’s loving kindness to all the nations of the world. Some medieval rabbis thought that Christian belief in Jesus and the Trinity was permissible for Christians because it brought them under the wings of the God of Israel. From antiquity through modernity Jewish theologians have been prepared to assert the independent validity of Christianity for Christians. Does this assertion put Jewish theologians beyond any interest in future Christological discussions?

Toward a Future Agenda: The Jewish Interest in Continued Christological Discussion

In these concluding remarks I will argue that Jews have a profound interest in the internal debates by Christians. Our position as serious interlocutors will oscillate between silence and intense discussions with Christians. There is no question that Jewish attempts at reclamation of Jesus have foundered within the Jewish community. Martin Buber’s assertion that Jesus was his elder brother did not earn him accolades among his co-religionists. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath’s admonition to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations that Jews name Jesus as one of our great teachers received no enthusiastic response among some of his most ardent followers. The ontological horizon—the change in the spirit and being of the individual believer—that Jesus brings to Christians as their Christ stops at the door of the rabbinic assertion that Torah is God’s living covenant with the Jewish people. The “metanoia” among recent Christian theologians that the covenant with God and the Jewish People has never been revoked surely reinforces the trust the Jewish theologians will develop in our future discussions.

Perhaps the time has come to recover Franz Rosenzweig’s assertion about his own life and paraphrase it as a general rule: Jews do not come to God through Christ but as Jews—and Christians come to God through Christ as Christians. This axiom leaves us as a Jewish community with an opportunity to engage in conversation and deliberation with the Ecclesia, those who constitute the “body of Christ.” It is precisely with Christians, through whom Christ acts, that Jews can enter into profound discoveries about the way that God acts in our lives and how our traditions make demands upon us to help in the establishment of divine sovereignty in the world.

As Jews we have an interest in what you believe and how it transforms you. It has been the appreciation of Jesus Christ as human and his capacity for human suffering, which has brought Christians to a deep appreciation of Jewish loss during the Shoah. The Trinitarian reflections in the writings of Catherine LaCugna and Elizabeth Johnson that emphasize interrelationship rather than hierarchy open believing Christians to positive relationships with those who live beyond the household of the Ecclesia. Christologies that emphasize Jesus Christ as one who lived with the poor, the suffering, the alien—as we find in Liberation theologies— have found sympathetic ears and outreaching arms from members of the Jewish community whose religious identity is founded upon the fusing of rite, ritual, and prophetic justice.

In this essay I have attempted to reverse the perspective that Jews and Christians have had about the Jewish negation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ remains a stumbling block, but not one that causes the downfall of either community. The presence of Jews and Christians in the world of the twenty-first century will be very different from the previous two millennia. After witnessing a near annihilation of those who denied Jesus Christ, many Christians have made radical metanoia about those to whom they have been so intimately and separately bound through the temporal horizon.

The images of Ecclesia and Synagoga have found two new iconographic expressions in recent publications. The German edition of Cardinal Ratzinger’s book about the Jewish-Christian relationship and world religions has cleverly repositioned the medieval Ecclesia at the arm of Synagoga in a supportive gesture. Sister Mary Boys’s book Has God Only One Blessing? bears a photograph of her newly commissioned sculpture where Ecclesia and Synagoga sit side by side. The temporal/eschatological horizon of Christology has opened opportunities for productive new conversations between our communities. The ontological horizon of the Christian experience of Jesus Christ in this new era may provide Jews an opportunity to listen and learn without fear.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an abridged version of the one that can be found in Who Do You Say That I Am? Confessing the Mystery of Christ, which was edited by our very own John Cavadini. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Vasily Polenov, He Is Guilty, 1906; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Michael Signer

Rabbi Michael Signer was the Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

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