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Christian-Jewish Relations: Jesus, Crucifixion, Pontius Pilate & the New Testament

The New Testament depiction of Jesus suggests that he was largely a law-abiding and highly nationalistic Jew, and a man with strong ethical concerns. Like many of Judaism’s great rabbis, he saw love of neighbor as religion’s central demand. Though many Christians are under the impression that he opposed Judaism’s emphasis on law, in actuality he criticized anyone who advocated dropping it. “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law [the Torah] or the Prophets,” he declared to his early disciples. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.” The law’s “purpose,” of course, is the universal recognition of God, a goal which neither Christianity nor Judaism believes was realized in Jesus’ time, or since. Jesus concluded his message with a severe warning: “Therefore, the man who infringes even the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

On at least one specific legal issue, Jesus identified with the stricter rather than the more lenient rabbis. The prevailing School of Hillel taught that divorce was permitted for any reason, while the School of Shammai only permitted it in cases of sexual misconduct (Mishna Gittin 9:10)—the position later attributed to Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 5:31-32). The subsequent Catholic ban on all divorce seems to represent an even stricter legal standard than the one Jesus established.

A perennially interesting, though probably unanswerable, question is how Jesus regarded himself. Did he see himself as the Messiah? Probably, although one must remember that in the first centuries of the Common Era the word “Messiah” had a different meaning than it has today. Contemporary believers usually think of the Messiah as a wholly spiritual figure. Then, it meant a military leader who would free the Jews from foreign (i.e., Roman) rule, bring them back from the four corners of the earth, and usher in an age of universal peace. A century after Jesus, many Jews accepted the military general, Bar-Kokhba as the Messiah, although even his greatest supporter, Rabbi Akiva, made no claims regarding his spiritual greatness. Indeed, it was precisely because of the military association with the word “Messiah” that the occupying Roman authorities must have seen Jesus as dangerous and decided to crucify him. That the Romans hung over Jesus’ body a sign proclaiming his crime, KING OF THE JEWS, again underscores the apparently militant and political direction of his activities.

Jesus’ nationalism, which occasionally spilled over into an unpleasant chauvinism, is illustrated by a story in Matthew: “Jesus ... withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Sir, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ But he answered her not a word. And his disciples went and pleaded with him. ‘Give her what she wants,’ they said, ‘because she is shouting after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet. ‘Lord,’ she said, ‘help me.’ He replied, ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.’ She retorted, ‘Ah, yes, sir; but even house-dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted”‘ (Matthew 15:21-28).

Concerning Jesus’ executioner, Pontius Pilate,* we have a considerable body of data that contradicts the largely sympathetic portrayal of him in the New Testament. Even among the long line of cruel procurators who ruled Judea, Pilate stood out as a notoriously vicious man. He eventually was replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans: The Romans realized that keeping him in power would only provoke continual rebellions. The gentle, kindhearted Pilate of the New Testament—who in his “heart of hearts” really did not want to harm Jesus is fictional. Like most fictions, the story was created with a purpose. When the New Testament was written, Christianity was banned by Roman law. The Romans, well aware that they had executed Christianity’s founder—indeed the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman historian Tacitus is among the earliest allusions to him outside the New Testament—had no reason to rescind their anti-Christian legislation. Christianity’s only hope for gaining legitimacy was to “prove” to Rome that its crucifixion of Jesus had been a terrible error, and had only come about because the Jews forced Pilate to do it. Thus, the New Testament depicts Pilate as wishing to spare Jesus from punishment, only to be stymied by a large Jewish mob yelling, “Crucify him.” The account ignores one simple fact. Pilate’s power in Judea was absolute. Had he wanted to absolve Jesus, he would have done so: He certainly would not have allowed a mob of Jews, whom he detested, to force him into killing someone whom he admired.

Crucifixion itself, a Roman form of execution, was forbidden by Jewish law because it was torture. Some 50,000 to 100,000 Jews were themselves crucified by the Romans in the first century. How ironic, therefore, that Jews have historically been associated with the cross as the ones who brought about Jesus’ crucifixion.

Is there a Jewish consensus on how Jews are to regard Jesus? Perhaps not, but in recent decades many Jewish scholars have tended to view him as one of several first- and second-century Jews who claimed to be the Messiah, and who attempted to rid Judea of its Roman oppressors. However, almost no Jewish scholars believe that Jesus intended to start a new religion. Were Jesus to return today, most Jews believe, he undoubtedly would feel more at home in a synagogue than a church. An increasing number of Jewish scholars believe that Christianity’s real founder was another first-century Jew, Paul.

Most statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament conform to Jewish teachings. This is, of course, not surprising, since Jesus generally practiced Pharisaic (rabbinic) Judaism. However, at least three innovative teachings ascribed to Jesus diametrically oppose Jewish teachings.

1. Jesus forgives all sins: “The Son of man has the authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). Judaism believes that God Himself only forgives those sins committed against Him. As the Mishna teaches: “Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased” (Yoma 8:9). The belief that Jesus can forgive all sins is fraught with moral peril. Some fifteen hundred years after he lived, Protestant reformer Martin Luther, writing in the spirit of Jesus’ statement, taught: “Be a sinner and sin vigorously; but even more vigorously believe and delight in Christ who is victor over sin, death and the world.... It is sufficient that we recognize through the wealth of God’s glory the lamb who bears the sins of the world; from this sin does not sever us, even if thousands, thousands of times in one day we should fornicate or murder” (letter to Philip Melanchthon, August 1, 1521). Humorist Jules Feiffer has bitingly satirized Luther’s position: “Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?”

2. Jesus’ attitude toward evil people: “Offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well” (Matthew 5:38-39), and “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors” (Matthew 5:44). The Torah commands that one offer the wicked man powerful resistance: “You shall burn the evil out from your midst” (Deuteronomy 17:7). Elsewhere, the Torah approvingly records Moses’ killing of a brutal Egyptian overseer who was beating a Jewish slave.

America’s survival in the Second World War came about only because almost all American Christians rejected Jesus’ advice to “resist not evil.” One of the few religious groups to incorporate this principle into their everyday life, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were used in Nazi concentration camps as barbers. The SS was confident that they would do nothing to harm them or other Nazi mass murderers. Judaism, likewise, does not demand that one love one’s enemies. Jews are not commanded, for example, to love Nazis, as the statement in Matthew demands.

3. Jesus’ claim that people can come to God only through him: “No one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27). The implication of this statement — and the continuing belief of many fundamentalist Protestants is that only one who believes in Jesus can come to God. Judaism holds that anyone can come to God; as the Psalmist teaches: “God is near to all who call unto Him” (Psalms 145:18).

SOURCES AND FURTHER READINGS: Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, pp. 78-91. The Martin Luther quote is cited in Walter Kaufmann, Religions in Four Dimensions, p. 156. The use of Jehovah's Witnesses as barbers in Nazi concentration camps is cited in Evelyn Le Chene, Mauthausen, p. 130. My understanding of Jesus has been largely shaped by Hyam Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea.

See also Palestine at the Time of Jesus Map

Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Ed: Since 1961, the only evidence of Pilate’s existence was a plaque fragment found in Caesarea. The plaque was written in Latin and imbedded in a section of steps leading to the amphitheatre. The inscription includes the following:

Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius.

In December 2018, it was announced that a ring found during a 1968-69 dig that discovered a tomb and palace belonging to King Herod near Bethlehem is inscribed with the name Pilate.

“Israeli archaeologists say they found the ring of Jesus’ killer,” JTA, (November 30, 2018).