Who was Jesus? Did Jesus really exist? What would he say? Where would he be most comfortable? Let's find out in this interesting post.
i. His Existence
a. The Historical Jesus
One of the most frequently asked questions by Jews for Jesus Street Missionaries is “Who do you think Jesus was?” It is important to be informed of an appropriate answer – whether or not they intend to respond to the petitioner’s obvious “leading” question or not. Suffice it to say, much controversy abounds concerning the origins of the historical Jesus. Unfortunately almost nothing from antiquity contains any information about his life. No one has the slightest physical evidence to support a historical Jesus; no artifacts, dwelling, works of carpentry, or self-written manuscripts. All claims about Jesus derive from writings of 5 people. There doesn’t even exist a contemporary Roman record that shows Pontius Pilate executing a man named Jesus.
Traditional Jewish texts are also of little help. The Talmudic passages, and there are about 21 of them in uncensored versions, mention the name Yeshu, Yehoshua or Yeshua. However, scholars are ambivalent as to whether any of these clearly apply to Jesus. Indeed, Yeshu was a popular name given to 1st Century Jewish boys by their parents as a form of supplication to God that he should send them a Yehoshua (or salvation) and redeem the Jewish people from their terrible oppression at the hands of the hated Romans.
Having said that, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are dealing with a fictitious character. However, it does throw a good amount of doubt on the veracity of the source from where we derive “evidence” of his existence. Let’s examine this more closely.
The singular Jesus mentioned in Josephus’ History of Jewish Wars seems oddly out of context and most scholars believe early leaders of the Church to bolster their propaganda machine to promote Jesus inserted this reference. So we are stuck with the NT Four Gospels. The Books of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John contain most of the information about the life of Jesus. However, the original disciple or contemporary of Jesus wrote none of these books. Furthermore, they are not even words of the early 1st Century Jewish-Christian sect, rather the product of the later Greek-Christian community who authored them and lived at least 2 or 3 generations from the events they describe – way too much time for myth and legend to intertwine with truth. More than anything else, and it is worth emphasizing this to the students, the New Testament is a polemical work with a point to prove; from the very beginning it sets out to establish the divinity of Jesus and fashion all of the events in that “divine” mold.
b. Jesus the Man, the Teacher, and the Jew
What we know from the NT concerning Jesus is the following:
1. He was born to humble Jewish parents in the Galilee (Luke 2:21)
2. He regularly prayed in a synagogue (Luke 3:16)
3. He wore Tzitzit (fringes) on his clothing (Matthew 9:20, Luke 8:43)
4. He celebrated the Jewish festivals (John 10:22, Mark 14:12)
5. He seemed to be a carpenter by trade, however the Gospels continually portray Jesus as an itinerant teacher who performed miracles and cast out demons around the country. This was a fairly common form of medicine for ancient Middle East, as illness was perceived as being caused by demons and spirits occupying one’s body. (Luke 4:40, 8:26, 30:32, Mark 1:29, etc.)
As a teacher, the NT stresses that he wanted to spread a moral and ethical message in the spirit of the Jewish prophets of old. Mark, Luke and Matthew all say that he taught in the synagogue and even read the haftarah on Shabbat and even gave a drasha (sermon) on its contents (Luke 4:16-19). His audience was comprised of those who were outcast or downtrodden, such as lepers, prostitutes, and tax collectors (universally reviled by the Jewish population). His following was basically made up of anyone willing to listen. However, one thing is clear, he wasn’t interested in addressing gentiles, Romans or otherwise:
“I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, and to them alone.” Matthew 15:24
To a gentile woman begging for help is initially turned away:
“It is not fair to take the children’s bread (of the Jews) and cast it to the dogs” Matthew 15:26
Paul even refers to him as “A servant of the circumcised.” Romans 15:8
A frequent claim found in Christian literature is that Jesus viewed the Law of Moses as insufficient and that his teachings and exhortations constituted a break with Jewish tradition. This is a very spurious claim. One merely has to read carefully Jesus’ own words found in what is perhaps his most famous message called the “Sermon on the Mount.”
“You have heard that our forefathers were told “thou shalt not murder.” (Exodus 20:13); anyone who murders must be brought to judgment.” But what I tell you is this; anyone who is angry with his brother must be brought to judgment. If he insults his brother he must be accountable for it in court; if he slanders him he will have to answer for it in the fires of hell…You have learned that they were told “Do not commit adultery (Exodus 20:13),” but what I tell you is this; “If a man looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart…You have heard “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24),” but what I say is this; Do not set yourself against the person who wrongs you. If one strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer his your left. If a man wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well…”
Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 38-42
The phrase “you have heard,” or “you have learned,” is a common reference to a teaching of the Torah. A famous example of this comes from the same Sermon on the Mount, is “You have learned ‘to love your neighbor as yourself, and hate your enemy.” (Matthew 5:43) Interestingly, nowhere in the entire Tanach are we instructed to hate our enemy. If Matthew is quoting accurately it attests to the fact that Jesus, with no formal training in Scripture, was no expert in it and in fact contradicts it. However, this is one of those sources cited by the Church to prove Jesus wanted to go beyond the letter and spirit of the law. If that were the case, this particular quote is damaging to the core teaching of Christianity that it is the “religion of love.” (e.g. How does “hating one’s enemy promote universal love?)
What we should conclude from the above-boxed passage is that Jesus’ major message was that one could observe the letter of the law and still be a scoundrel. Centuries later, Ibn Pakuda author of Duties of the Heart, would punctuate this sentiment by decrying those who “serve God with one’s limbs but not with one’s heart.” If we carefully scrutinize these words spoken on the Temple Mount, it is clear that Jesus is not advocating an abrogation of the law, rather an affirmation that they should be performed with intent and not mechanically. This concept is not much different than what we read in the prophets where they harangued against rote religious acts performed without any fervor (Amos 5:25, 1 Samuel 15:22, and the like). Hoshea, in particular was wont to point out the hypocrisy and inconsistency in people turning away from the spirit of the law; “They kiss the calf, yet slaughter the man,” and “Israel has forgotten its Maker, yet has built palaces…and walled cities.”
Notwithstanding this assessment, there do appear to be places in the NT where Jesus contradicts himself. For instance, after the Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to pick some grain on the Sabbath day, Jesus said,
"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" Mark 2:27
In another instance when asked to explain why he allowed his followers to eat food that hadn't been handled carefully according to kosher laws, Jesus insisted that only what emanates from the mouth of man can defile him, not what he consumes.
"It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Matthew 15:11
In the first quotation about the Sabbath, the late Professor Hyam Maccoby, in The Mythmaker, Paul and the Invention of Christianity, writes that Jesus actually used the example of David asking the inhabitants of Nob to be fed from the shrew bread designated for the Cohanim while he was fleeing from King Shaul. This paralleled his own predicament where he was also fleeing from his enemies (the Romans) and his disciples were starving. It was the Sabbath and the only option was to pluck the corn and that is what he was actually trying to convey to the sages. Matthew’s words make no sense in context and only supports the theory that the Gospel writers were trying to created friction between Jesus and the establishment (The Sages), in order to assert Jesus started a new religion.
In the second example, Jesus seems to be responding to questions from the Pharisees and scribes. They pointed out that he was transgressing the tradition of the elders by not washing his hands before eating. Washing hands before eating is non-Biblical and was not a clear law during this period. Nonetheless, the gospel writers again contradict what Jesus actually said, for in the same book he even instructs his followers; “"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do…” (Matthew 23:2) How is it possible that he would exhort them to uphold the law and traditions of the elders, and yet brazenly violate them himself?
The gist of the problem really emanates from a similar passage in the Book of Mark.
“When he had gone indoors away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about this parable. And he said to them, “Are you too uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man cannot defile him for it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated? Thus he declared all foods clean.” Mark 7: 17-19
If we are to understand this on the face value, Jesus is directly contradicting his affirmation of all the Torah laws he is alleged to have made in Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets, I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
Moreover, if Jesus were making revolutionary changes to the dietary laws, one would expect his disciples to follow suit. Peter is his chief disciple. In the Book of Acts, which chronicles the witnessing activities of Jesus’ apostles after his death, Peter has a vision where a voice comes to him beckoning him to eat “creatures of every kind, whatever walks or crawls or flies.” (Acts 10:12) – in short, real non-Kosher treife cuisine. Rather than flash back to what his master taught him and seek the closest local lobster joint, Peter exclaims “No Lord, no… I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.” (ibid 10:13) If Peter had been familiar with Mark’s teachings he would hardly exclaimed any surprise.
We provide this rather lengthy description of the teachings of Jesus to point out the inconsistencies of the New Testament. These contradictions strongly suggest heavy editing on the part of the Greek authors of these gospels. Had they wanted to merely teach a lofty concept that appears to emerge from Jesus, namely that “real uncleanliness emanates not from what is outside a person, but from what is in his heart,” we wouldn’t take issue – notwithstanding the apparent negative sentiment toward the kashrut laws. What we have revealed is poorly veiled cover up of sorts where someone(s) has tampered with the evidence to portray Jesus as an agitator against the Torah and sages, and orchestrator of a new religion.
"To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." (Isaiah 8:20)