Jews for Jesus—and Vice Versa
Imagine the following: it is the year 150 C.E. or thereabouts. After a prolonged conflict within the Jewish community of Palestine and its many offshoots around the Mediterranean, the believers in Jesus have triumphed. Mainstream Judaism, even while continuing to develop along the rabbinic lines that were already well-established in Jesus’ time, has accepted the contention that he was sent by God to redeem the world and will return in glory to complete the task in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, however, the Jewish people adheres to its separate ways, insisting on the strict distinction between Jew and Gentile, sacred and profane, ritually permitted and ritually forbidden—even though it believes that the messiah has come in the person of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who was crucified by the Romans. So much for the Jews. But what would have happened, in such an eventuality, to the non-Jews? This question is asked by the author and columnist David Klinghoffer in his newly published Why the Jews Rejected Jesus*—a book that seeks to justify Judaism’s dismissal of the Christian savior while arguing at the same time that the world should be grateful for that dismissal. Klinghoffer does this by means of a historical hypothesis. Had Judaism accepted Jesus’ messianic claims, he contends, Christianity would never have arisen. The pagan society of the era would not have been attracted to a redeemer who could only be acknowledged by becoming a Jew. Paganism would have remained the dominant religion of the Roman Empire—at least until Islam, another child of Judaism, brought monotheism to Europe at sword point, overrunning a continent whose decadent civilization would have been unable to resist its onslaught. In that case, Klinghoffer argues, there would have been no Catholic Church, no Chartres or Notre Dame, no Sorbonne or Oxford, no Thomas Aquinas, Dante, or Michelangelo, no Renaissance, no Shakespeare or Newton, no Western science, art, literature, music, or democracy. There might have been great mosques in London and great schools of Arabic learning in Paris, but, today, life in those cities might well resemble medieval life in Cairo and Baghdad. This is why, Klinghoffer writes, “the Jewish rejection of Jesus was the founding act of Western civilization.” As a historical defense of Judaism, this is, one might say, having one’s cake and eating it, too. On the one hand, Klinghoffer maintains, Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries had every reason to scoff at his pretensions, since he did not live up to their minimal criteria for what a messiah was supposed to be or do—which was first and foremost to liberate the land and people of Israel from foreign oppression. Even if he actually performed all the wonders attributed to him by his followers, he failed to meet evidentiary standards.
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.