Monthly Archives: May 2014

Looking at Jesus

Ever since I was a child and my next-door neighbor taught me, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” I have been fascinated by the historical Jesus, a Jew like me, whom many regard as divine. Recently a friend posted in Facebook a description of Jesus that claimed he was a revolutionary. I beg to differ. From my readings he was a religious radical but not a revolutionary. There is a big difference.

How was he a religious radical? First, as my teacher David Flusser always pointed out, he famously taught to turn the other cheek and conquer enmity through love. This is also found in the rabbinic tradition, but as Judaism is a normative religion, the behavior it recommends between man and man is rooted in a pragmatism, which would have recognized that there comes a time when man must either take up arms or die for a cause. Jesus sought heaven on earth.

Second, he loathed money. You cannot mix mammon and religion. The attack on the stalls of the moneylenders on the Temple Mount during Pesach dramatized his position. The moneylenders, who provided the common coin that enabled Jews from all over the world to donate their tithes or purchase sacrifices, were essential for running the Temple. Jesus, however, understood that money was ultimately corrupting. This may well have had to do with the fact that the high priests during his life were, indeed, corrupt, but it also was part of his third radical contention— his contempt for the rich and his profound respect for the poor and the working class of the Galilee.[1]

They are “the salt of the earth,” a phrase he may very well have coined. They are the fishermen, the farmers, and even the women of easy virtue. In the Gospels, where the rabbis are identified as Pharisees, he often contrasts the virtue of the simple people of the Galilee with that of the rabbis in Jerusalem. The designation of the rabbis as Pharisees is probably an anachronism as, in many respects, Jesus was exemplary of the Pharisaic tradition. It’s likely that his argument was with a different rabbinic party, the Sadducees, who were stricter regarding the law and represented the priestly and wealthy class. After the destruction of the Second Temple when the Christian redactors wrote down his story, no Sadducees remained in power, and, as a result, the Pharisees incorrectly took the place of their arch-enemies.

Every Jew belongs to one of three groups: Cohens, that is, the priestly caste; Levites, the caste that served in the temple; and Israelites— everyone else. The wealthiest group in Judea at the time and the ones who resided in Jerusalem were the priests. After them came the Levites, who also lived off the religion. The mass of people, not concentrated in Jerusalem, were Israelites. In my opinion, Jesus wanted to do away with these distinctions. I think this is how his parable of the Good Samaritan ought to be understood. We tend to focus on the Samaritan as if Jesus is pointing out that decency and charity can be found not only among Jews. Jesus, however, was only preaching to the Jews. Joseph Halevy has pointed out that in the original version, the third person to come upon the suffering man at the side of the road was probably an Israelite. That may be. But Jesus may have chosen the Samaritan because he, too, was not a pagan. He, too, followed the laws of Moses but with a different interpretation. In short, he was the closest to being a Jew yet outside the social framework of Jewry. It is not that kindness and charity can be found in every man but that kindness and charity obey no social hierarchy—and the given social hierarchy with its privileges among the Jews, the division into Cohen, Levite, and Israelite, was false.

And fifth, he repeatedly emphasizes haolam habah, the afterlife, the Kingdom of God. Man reaps what he sows not in this world but in his encounter with God. This view is implicit in so many of his parables and so much of his preaching that it can easily slip notice, and yet it is essential. It infuses all his teachings.

In conventional terms, Jesus was hardly a revolutionary; in religious terms, he proposed a life few would be capable of following, especially if we consider the fact that he kept to all the commandments obligatory to the Jews of his time. Today, the ones who most follow his preachings in Judaism, the ones who embrace both poverty and a life lived in awe of the kingdom of God to come are the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, who would be appalled by this comparison.


[1] Mark 25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”