As you know, Platinum members of the blog are allowed to submit posts for other Platinum members, and other members vote on which of them should be provided to the blog as a whole (It’s a nice perk. You should think about moving up to Platinum. There are other perks too–one, of course, is that you are contributing a larger amount to the charities we support!) The most recent winner is this intriguing post by Dan Kohanski, about why most Jews had no interest in joining the Jesus movement.
Dan will be happy to respond to your comments and questions.
Why did only a fraction of one percent of all Jews in the empire or even in Judaea ever believe in the message of the Jesus Movement? The answer starts with that message itself. The first members of the Movement were all Jews themselves, saw themselves as Jews, and argued that Jewish traditions and beliefs inevitably led to their version of Judaism. However, the way they used those traditions and beliefs to solve the dilemma of their founder’s crucifixion was too radical for most Jews to accept. I want to focus on three essential aspects of that solution that were particularly troublesome for Jews: belief in the individual resurrection of Jesus, belief in Jesus as the messiah after he had died, and belief in Jesus as necessary for salvation.
Belief in the individual resurrection of Jesus. Many—though by no means all—Jews in the late Second Temple era believed that they would be resurrected to life someday. There were many arguments about just how this was supposed to happen, such as whether they would have their old bodies, new bodies, or no bodies at all. But they all expected the resurrection of the dead would happen to all of them together, and at the end of time. Jesus’ disciples announced he had been resurrected in advance of everyone else. And then, much to their consternation, time continued to run unchanged. There was no place in the Jewish concepts of resurrection for a single individual being restored to life by himself, nor for the world to continue as before once the resurrection had begun. It simply made no sense to almost all Jews.
Belief in Jesus as the messiah. The claim that Jesus had been and would be the messiah was also alien to Jewish thinking. Jews in the Second Temple period had a number of different ideas about a messiah. But they all expected that he would be a powerful leader—whether as judge, general, priest, or king—who would get rid of the hated Romans and establish his kingdom where Jews would live in peace and prosperity. Jesus had preached non–violence (“turn the other cheek”) and accommodation with the Romans (“render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”)—for all the good it did him. He had come and gone, and the Romans who had killed him were still there.
The various Jewish portraits of a messiah were of a mortal descendant of the house of David (or occasionally of the priesthood). He might live a long time (400 years according to one idea), he might have supernatural powers, but at the end he would die just like everyone else. Nor would he share in the Godhood, which belonged to God alone. Jesus didn’t fit any of the Jewish portraits.
Belief in Jesus as necessary for salvation. This could be called Christianity’s most original idea—but by that same token, it was the idea least likely to attract Jews. Not all Jews of that period even believed in life after death, but those who did also believed that its rewards and punishments would be based on how one behaved, not on what one believed. This was not unreasonable, since there is no evidence that Jews of that time even questioned the belief that God had given Moses laws for the Jews to obey. There were huge disagreements about how to obey the laws, and about whether to use the prophets and traditions to help interpret the Torah (the Pharisees said yes, the Sadducees said no). Even Jesus took part in these arguments: his differences with the Pharisees on the Sabbath were not over whether to observe it but how. “Judaism was defined more by its practices than its beliefs,” writes Shaye Cohen, a major scholar of the Second Temple period. In addition, he continues, “no one thought to promote any single interpretation or set of interpretations as exclusively correct.” Paula Fredriksen offers this memorable metaphor: “we [should] imagine the Torah as widely dispersed sheet music: the notes were the notes, but Jews played a lot of improv.”
This highlights another reason why Jews found the Jesus Movement’s message impossible to accept. Jews argued with each other constantly, often intemperately, and occasionally violently. But almost none of them (other than perhaps the Essenes) thought their opponents were eternally damned by God for having a different interpretation of things. Yet this was precisely the Jesus Movement’s basic principle: Believe in our Jesus or you will go to hell. No wonder the Jews ignored them.
Why Does It Matter?
Why did it matter so much to the early Jesus Movement, why does it matter even now, that almost without exception Jews were and still are indifferent to Jesus? There are a number of reasons that have been offered over the years, but I suggest they can be reduced to these three. First is that the Jesus Movement claimed its version of Judaism was the only true one, and they wanted all other Jews to agree with them. Second is that they were also having trouble missionizing to the Gentiles, who kept asking why they should believe a crucified criminal was their salvation, especially when his own people didn’t. Third, it often happens that people are more upset by indifference than by hatred.
The only true Judaism. The last decades of the Second Temple period (c. 100 BCE to 70 CE) were a time of serious religious disputes among those Jews who cared about such things (almost certainly a small part of the population). These disputes could get quite heated, their partisans would swear at each other and call their opponents blasphemers, and on occasion they erupted in violence. The Jesus Movement went much further: If you didn’t accept that their interpretation of Judaism was the one and only valid Judaism, you would go to hell for all eternity.
Permit me to step away from my role as a student of history for a moment. I suggest that this attitude betrays a level of insecurity as well as a sense of superiority; indeed, the two often go together. If you believe you know the only way to escape eternal damnation, you owe it to those poor benighted souls who haven’t had the benefit of your knowledge to tell them what is best for them. At the same time, there is still that tiny seed of doubt: is my answer really right? Might they know something I don’t? Making a mistake, even an honest one, can cost you for all eternity.
It is a classic human response to this kind of doubt to demonize whatever is causing it. That is exactly what the Jesus Movement did to the Jews. Paul was the first, even if he was not consistent. In First Thessalonians he denounced Jewish stubbornness, but in Romans he said God had made the Jews stubborn to give the Gentiles more time to get saved. The rest of the New Testament texts, however, were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which the Jesus Movement saw as a sign from God that they were right and the Jews were wrong. The Jews didn’t see it that way at all, and the gospels increasingly demonized the Jews for it.
Objections from the Gentiles. By the time Paul wrote First Thessalonians, he had evidently been missionizing to the Roman world for a number of years, and outreach to the Gentiles may even have begun before him. Early on, Paul wrote about a problem he was having in persuading Gentiles (and Jews as well). Around 54 CE, he admitted that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). A few years earlier, he had accused “the Jews” of killing Jesus (1 Thess. 2:15), but he never did so more than that once as far as we know, so perhaps that argument hadn’t worked for him.
The evangelists saw it differently. They had evidently decided that if they could blame the Jews for the crucifixion, they could turn Jesus from a criminal crucified by Rome into an innocent victim of Jewish malice and manipulation. It would be anything but “foolishness” to believe in him. The gospels increasingly pictured Pontius Pilate, the remorseless Roman governor, as a helpless pawn in the face of Jewish insistence that Jesus had to die. This was the same Pilate who had once slaughtered a large crowd of Jews for protesting his seizure of Temple funds. This was also the same Pilate who was infamous for his “ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty,” and who would be recalled to Rome in 36 CE for brutality that went too far even by Roman standards.
Shifting the blame to the Jews solved another problem the movement was having with the Gentiles. Why, they wondered, should they believe in Jesus when his own people didn’t? Toward the end of the second century, the pagan philosopher Celsus would put it this way: “What God that appeared among men is received with incredulity, and that, too, when appearing to those who expect him? or why, pray, is he not recognized by those who have been long looking for him?” The answer was that the Jews had indeed recognized Jesus—but they had rejected him. The Jews were so stubborn, said the evangelists and Church Fathers, that even after God had let his own Temple be destroyed—just as Jesus had warned them would happen—they still refused to accept that they were wrong and Jesus was right.
Hate can be more satisfying than indifference. I suggest that yet another reason for all this vituperation can be found in Elie Wiesel’s famous observation that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. I argued earlier that the Jews’ refusal to believe in Jesus was very largely a case of indifference. Except for a fraction of a percent, all those Jews who heard the message of Jesus’s followers thought it was simply not credible. It just made no sense, and the Jews couldn’t be bothered with it. Anyway, as long as the Jewish followers of Jesus behaved according to Jewish law and didn’t get the Jews in trouble with Rome, they could believe anything they liked (and Jews didn’t care what the Gentiles believed).
It is a perverse truism that people would rather be hated than ignored. Persecution, whether real or imagined or misunderstood, can be used as proof that one is right, an attitude that showed up even at the beginning of Christianity. The last of Matthew’s beatitudes promised that those “who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:10) will be rewarded in heaven. The First Letter of Peter reassured the reader that “if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed” (1 Pet. 4:14). Being hated meant you were doing or saying something meaningful enough, powerful enough, dangerous enough that others, especially the Powers That Be, were afraid of you. Rome was the Power That Be, of course, but the Jesus Movement wanted to recruit in the Roman world. Jews were an easier target. When Gentiles wanted to know why Jesus’s own people didn’t believe in him, missionaries could now answer that the Jews had indeed received Jesus’s message—but they had rejected it because they were perverse and wrong–headed, because they hated Jesus, that they were even, as John’s Jesus called them, children of the devil.
 On the small number of Jewish believers in Jesus, see, e.g., Ehrman, Bart, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018 (74–76).
 Cohen, Shaye J. D., From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 3rd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014 (101).
 Fredriksen, Paula, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2018 (185).
 Josephus Antiquities, 18.61–62.
 Philo Gaius, §302. The governor of Syria had Pilate recalled over the murder of some Samaritans (Josephus Antiquities, 18.88–89).
 Origen Against Celsus, 2.75.