From the earliest days of what was known as the Nazarene sect of Jewish believers through the later centuries of Christianity, the majority of Jewish people have denied the claims of the New Testament. While theological and cultural differences have contributed to a hardening of positions on both sides, it may also be said that the forces of history have helped to drive a wedge between mainstream Judaism and Christianity that has made the distance even harder to bridge. One of the saddest things is that it happened so quickly. But how did it come about?
History and a Parting of the Ways
The apparent distance between Judaism and the message of Jesus the Messiah was not always so great. It can be argued that at first there was no distance at all, since the early believers were all Jewish. How did this Grand Canyon-sized abyss develop?
Several events in the first and second centuries were largely responsible. The first is the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans. This calamity not only resulted in the wholesale slaughter of Jewish people in Jerusalem, but also reconfigured Judaism as a religious faith. Without the Temple, the offering of sacrifices would no longer play a meaningful role so the Great Sanhedrin gathered in the town of Yavneh to mourn, regroup and redefine Jewish life.
Another factor contributed to the distancing of the followers of Yeshua from Judaism. The original Jewish believers in Jerusalem who provided leadership to the earliest form of the church were also swept away in the ensuing Jewish wars that culminated in 135 CE with the disastrous failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Without the guiding hand of this early Jewish leadership, the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles led to the conscious decision to distance the emerging Christian faith from its Jewish roots.
It also led to the rise of antisemitism and a deeply-seated contempt for Judaism among so-called Christians that raises its ugly head even to this day.
First Failed Expectations
There is another reason for the Jewish rejection of the message of the Nazarenes. The Messianic message of the New Testament is composed, in part, of the Jewish expectation that the end of world was just around the corner. Ironically, although this has not yet occurred, this component of the Messiah’s teaching is one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence that His message is historically authentic.
The world in which Jesus moved was charged with apocalyptic hope. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed enormous light on the intense interplay of history and faith in the world at this time. The fervent few waited in devout hope that they would be vindicated by a mighty warrior who would cast out the wicked oppressor. But that hope did not materialize, and from that time forward, one of the most frequent reasons set forth by Jewish people to reject the claims of Jesus has been His “failure” to deliver the longed-for Kingdom and accompanying peace.
Now there are two possibilities here. The first is that many Jewish people are right to reject Jesus on this basis. The second is that they are wrong, and there are more pieces on the board that need to be considered. Perhaps the timing of this expectation was off.
An Alternative Interpretation
Saul of Tarsus, writing to a fellowship of Jewish and other believers in Rome, tackled this very question. He wrote to them, “For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob’” (Romans 11:25-26).
In other words, even the widespread Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah, because of the delay of the Kingdom’s fullness, was a part of God’s plan. For the Hebrew Scriptures speak plainly of the inclusion of the nations in the blessing of Israel. If this alternative interpretation proves to be the case, then the historical objection that the delay of the Kingdom has disqualified Jesus just won’t hold water.
If this is so, then perhaps it might be worthwhile to take a fresh look at other traditional objections to Jesus. You might find that there is more to Him than you originally thought.
Bridging the Distance
The relationship between the Jewish people and Christianity has not been an easy one. Although Christianity is often depicted as the “child” of Judaism, it might be more accurate to say that Judaism and Christianity are siblings.
As they exist today, both of them owe their existence to the earlier Israelite faith that birthed and nourished them. And for better or worse, as many sibling rivals realize, they cannot live without each other.
The principles of the Israelite faith that undergird both Judaism and Christianity speak to the essential condition of humanity. We are all wounded creatures in a broken creation. The prophet Isaiah laments that “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). We are unable to mend ourselves. Israelite faith, embodied in the Hebrew Bible, teaches us to look beyond ourselves with hopeful expectation for a promised deliverance – by a promised Messiah.
What would such a Messiah look like? He would be holy, just and mighty enough to be able to overcome evil. But He would also first be the embodiment of compassion, forgiveness, servanthood and love. The New Testament portrays Yeshua of Nazareth as both of these things. It asserts that He first came among us to provide the willing sacrifice through which we can be reconciled to the Lord of Creation. And secondly, He will return so that all of humankind will finally be made whole.
Finally, it should be clear that Jesus never called upon Jewish people to become Gentiles, but rather to follow Him as the Jewish Messiah. And quite frankly, the most important gap we have to close is not between Judaism and Christianity – but between ourselves and God. It is our sin, our failure to keep the Torah – our failure to oftentimes even live up to our own standards of morality and goodness, that causes this gap. How then do we approach God and draw close to our Creator?