Ask the Expert: Who was Jesus?

A man, a myth, or a God?

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Question: I know this may sound silly to you, but I'm asking this in all seriousness. In the Jewish faith, who do they say Jesus was? Was he just an ordinary man, a prophet, or a rebel who was causing trouble?
--Trish, USA

Answer:
Trish, your question doesn’t sound silly at all. About a third of the questions that are submitted to the Expert are from Christians wanting to better understand the Jewish take on a given subject, and many of those are about Jesus in particular. I can understand why someone who has made Jesus a big part of her life would want to know how Jesus is understood by other religions.

The short answer: Judaism does not consider Jesus to be a prophet, the messiah, or the son of God.

But the exact way Jews have spoken about Jesus has, throughout history, had a lot to do with the social and political contexts where they were living. Jews have often been subjects of Christian monarchies and governments, and the tenor of that experience often colored the way particular communities responded to the church as a whole and Jesus in particular.

In the Middle Ages, when many Jews in Europe were experiencing rampant persecution, Toledot Yeshu, a series of derogatory and inflammatory legends about Jesus’ life, became popular within some Jewish communities. Today, as Jews and Christians live in relative harmony, the attitude among most Jews towards Jesus is one of respect, but not religious reverence.

This attitude is reflected in Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s book, For The Sake Of Heaven And Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism And Christianity, where he refers to Jesus as a "failed messiah," instead of the usual term "false messiah."

He explains, “A failed messiah is one who has the right values and upholds the covenant, but does not attain the final goal.” According to Rabbi Greenberg, the message Jesus brought was a good one, but he could not be the Jewish messiah because he did not shepherd in the redemption of the world that Judaism expects will occur in the messianic era.

This more respectful tone is common among Jewish leaders today. When I asked Emily Soloff, the Midwest area director of the American Jewish Committee, for her thoughts about Jesus, she responded: "Jesus was definitely a historical figure…a charismatic community leader who was deeply troubled by what he saw as the failures of his society and spoke eloquently about those failures in the hope of change.”

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a contributor to this site, and a Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, reminded me that as in any subject, there’s a diverse Jewish response. In an email to me she wrote, “Just as there is no single Jewish view on most matters, there is no single Jewish view about Jesus of Nazareth: some Jews regard him as a wise rabbi, others view him as a heretic; some find inspiration in his teachings, others take offense at his claims." Dr. Levine also brought up two significant points: A lot of Jews don't know very much about Jesus or New Testament scholarship. And of course, there are some diverse views of Jesus within Christianity, too.

A lot of interfaith work likes to emphasize what we all have in common, and certainly there are many things that the world's major faiths do share. But where Jews draw the line is at calling Jesus a prophet or messiah. That's the point of departure. Beyond that, you're likely to get many different understandings of Jesus' life and work within the Jewish community.

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