David Klinghoffer wrote his recent book "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus" (2005) in response to Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ". The major purpose of the book is stated in the title: to explain why the Jews, or most of them, continued with their Jewish religion and practices and refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Klinghoffer is a practicing Jew who was raised in a non-observant home and came to take Judaism seriously during his college years. He is also a political conservative which, for me, is refreshing. He has written, on the whole, a solid interesting study showing extensive reading and thought. There is much to be learned from this book. Unfortunately, portions of the book are unduly polemical. Klinghoffer goes out of the way, frequently, to be provocative. In addition, the tenor and theme of the book tend to shift as the study goes along. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the reader needs to be aware of it and to see it happening. Klinghoffer greatly overstates the originality of his work, but this is common enough among writers.
There is something to surprise every reader in this book. Klinghoffer begins by noting that Jewish traditional texts include materials about Jesus that is frequently suppressed. Some of these materials suggest that some leaders of the Jewish community did indeed play a role in the death of Jesus. I had not realized this before, and Klinghoffer is to be comended for his candor in making this information available to a wider readership.
The question remains of the reasons which compelled the Jews to stay with their own faith. Here Klinghoffer gives a variety of answers which could have been organized more coherently. Jews believed, Klinghoffer argues, that they had a relationship with God revealed at Sinai and set out in the written Torah and in the Oral Torah -- later codified as the Talmud. Jesus and his followers denied the Torah in key respects that could not be accepted by Jews. Also, Klinghoffer claims, the arrival of the Messiah was to be accompanied by a change in the world, in human attitude and conduct and in the end of opression. But Jesus did not remove the yoke of Rome, and the world went on as it had before.
The book includes a great deal of discussion of proof-texts -- verses from the Old Testament that many Christians have claimed prophesy the coming of Jesus. Klingoffer offers a laborious view of these texts and of Jewish responses to them. He shifts during the course of his study from the claim that the texts couldn't possibly mean what Christians say they mean to a claim that the texts are difficult, obsure and oracular and that reasonable people can differ about what they mean. For me, the use of proof-texts is based either on a literalist or traditionalist view of revelation and of Scriptural interpretation that have little appeal for me. But others may differ.
As the book progresses, it takes a more ecumenical, inclusive approach. Klinghoffer discusses medieval and early modern Jewish philosophy which attempted to create a bridge of sorts between the two faiths. Both Jews and Christians worship the same God and both have a place, for believers, in God's scheme of things. Jews are the people of the Covenant while Christians approach God through Jesus. This was essentially the approach of the great Twentienth Century Jewish thinker, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). Klinghoffer discusses Rosenzweig briefly (pp 200-201), but it would have been well to hear more. Klinghoffer finds that both Judaism and Christianity are of almost equal stature and nobility, and both faiths constitute ways in which a religious person can learn to worship and serve God. This is a valuable and serious teaching, but it represents a shift from the polemics and the scriptural hair-splitting with which the book opens. Klingoffer states at several points that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was the key event in Western history because, if Christianity had remained Jewish and had followed Jewish law, the faith would have been too difficult and demanding to have mass appeal. This is an important point to make, but Klinghoffer nearly spoils it by burying it under a morass of speculations and counter-factuals.
This book is well-meaning, well-informed and sincere. As I have tried to explain, it is somewhat too brash and unfocused and requires close attention to follow the where the argument appears to lead. The heart of the book is near the end rather than the beginning. For those wishing to explore Jewish-Christian relationships in a less polemical manner, the reader may wish to consult the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies, formed by a group of Christian and Jewish scholars to explore points of commonality -- the values of prayer, study, and faith among others -- between their two traditions. This group is readily accessible on the web.
David Klinghoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus is a pretty interesting book. This is a somewhat long review, which I'll break up into little pieces.
+ The Jewish Soul and Jesus -- Klinghoffer makes a good point that it's rather hard to say that "the Jews" rejected Jesus because only a very small portion of them got a chance to hear His teachings in the first place, and even the group that heard Him wasn't always presented with some sort of decision to accept or reject Him. So while it's clear that a small group of Jews did reject His claims, it's not as if we can attribute this to the entire Jewish nation at the time.
However ... having said that, Klinghoffer later argues that there is something in the Jewish soul that urges them to reject Jesus (he entertains "the possibility that the Jews reject Jesus in every age from some other cause or purpose of which they may not consciously be aware") ... and that something is the Sinai covenant that makes them Jews in the first place. That is, to become a Christian is to reject the obligation to Torah, which is at the heart of the Jewish soul (according to Klinghoffer). The Jewish soul, Klinghoffer seems to say, was formed at Mt. Sinai along with the kosher laws and all the special requirements Jews have to live by, and asking them to give that up is asking them to deny who they are.
This is a rather dubious proposition in light of biblical history, in which the Jews repeatedly reject the law. It seems far more probable that this equation -- Jew = observer of the Sinai covenant -- was formed in the Babylonian captivity and the return to the land under Ezra. But that gets way beyond the scope of this book.
Klinghoffer goes through a lot of arguments along the traditional Christian-Jewish lines that we expect -- reviewing prophecy and all that, which I'll comment on below -- and he comes to the conclusion that the arguments are secondary. That there's something else about the Jewish soul that is more operative. I believe he's right about that.
Getting on to the details ...
+ If it's not in the Talmud, it didn't happen -- Klinghoffer seems to measure stories in the Gospel, or issues related to life and activities of Jesus, against the relative weight those issues take in the Talmud or in Josephus. For example, Josephus mentions that Herod was concerned about the influence of the crowds gathered by John the Baptist, but doesn't mention such a concern with reference to Jesus. Klinghoffer takes this as evidence that John drew larger crowds, but this is a rather weak straw to hand a theory on. If a future historian looked back on our time and followed this sort of logic he would assume that NOW is way bigger than Concerned Women for America and that nobody ever goes to church because that's the way things are reported.
+ Prophecy -- Klinghoffer's analysis of the Christian use of OT prophecy seems to expect a standard of literalness that neither the OT nor the Talmud could meet. I've read some passages in the Talmud that interpret the OT very freely -- far more freely than Matthew's use of "out of Egypt have I called my son," yet presumably Klinghoffer accepts the one and rejects the other. He admits this double standard and explains it as follows: first-century Jews believed that the oral traditions of the rabbis were part of the revelation given to Moses, not just some imaginative interpretation, and "the centrality of the Christian doctrines at stake here is such that, to be plausible, they really need a firmer support in Hebrew scriptures."
The first point raises some interesting issues for the Christian debate about the role of tradition, and I don't know enough about the oral traditions of the Jews to know if that second point is an adequate answer -- IOW, whether all the "central doctrines" of first century Judaism had the "firmer support in the Hebrew scriptures" that Klinghoffer wants.
+ Prophecy = predict -- Klinghoffer's approach to prophecy often follows that overly literal "predictive" way that is so common. For example, re: "Out of Egypt have I called my son," of course Hosea was writing about the nation of Israel coming out of Egypt, but the point of prophecy is that history rhymes -- the pattern is repeated in a different way. This is similar to the problem many modern interpreters have with the apocalyptic language in the NT. It refers to both the destruction of Jerusalem and to the end of the world. The one is a type of the other. Prophecy isn't about predicting the winner of the world series, it's about finding the patterns in God's dealings with men and interpreting them in light of different stages of redemptive history.
Generally speaking, I don't get a great sense of Klinghoffer's fairness in dealing with the standard apologetic fare. He seems argumentative and opinionated and not particularly concerned with presenting the nuances of the issues. Or perhaps he simply doesn't understand them.
+ Messianic expectation -- Klinghoffer at first seems to refuse to entertain even the possibility that the Jews in Jesus' day were expecting the wrong thing. His argument boils down to this -- if Jesus disagreed with Jewish thinking, he was wrong. (In Klinghoffer's defense, we could say that he is trying to explain why the Jews rejected Jesus and not necessarily to give a final verdict on the issues. From that perspective, all he has to show is that Jesus disagreed with them.)
I say that he seems this way "at first" because when he gets to comparing Jesus and Paul, he modifies this a bit. See below.
+ Jesus' Trial -- His "the Talmud is right at all costs" emphasis seems almost absurd when we get to the question of Jesus' "blasphemy" at His trial. The simplest explanation of this blasphemy is that Jesus claimed to be divine, but -- again based on his interpretation of the Talmud and his understanding of what Jews in the day meant by key terms -- Klinghoffer rejects this, and in order to reject it he goes on a rather wild chase through "a fairly vicious" (his words) Medieval tract with a crazy story about Jesus sneaking into the temple to learn how to do magic by misusing God's name. Klinghoffer doesn't affirm the historical details of the story, but uses it as evidence that Jesus' "blasphemy" had to do with the misuse of God's name to do magic -- which has absolutely nothing to do with anything Jesus said at his trial. IOW, he'd rather follow a theory based on a crazy Medieval story from a "vicious" manuscript than admit that when Jesus said he was "the Christ, the Son of the Blessed," that the chief priest rightly understood him to be making a claim to divinity.
+ Jesus v. Paul -- Klinghoffer offers a very interesting perspective on the relative offense (to Jewish sensibilities) of Jesus vs. Paul. He admits that there were conflicting ideas among the rabbis about the Messiah, so it's not as if there was some clear-cut, canonical job description that Jesus didn't match. Along those lines, he notes that many first- and second-century Jews believed in Jesus but continued to be Jewish. The idea of a dying a resurrecting Messiah, he says, is a possible interpretation of the Scriptural and Talmudic information, so it makes sense that some Jews believed.
The real offense was Paul.
First, Paul seems to set off Klinghoffer's B.S. detector, and I have to admit that I have sympathy with him on this point. I've worked with some serious B.S.ers, and it was quite disturbing to notice that Paul sometimes reminded me of them. I think Klinghoffer is a little too ready to believe the accusations of skeptical historians on some points, but I see where he's coming from.
Second, Paul's attitude towards the law is obviously an offense to those who hang their cultural and religious identity on the law. More on this later.
+ Starting with conclusions -- Klinghoffer is right that Paul starts with the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah and works his theology from there. This is because of his experience on the Damascus road. From Paul's pre-conversion understanding of the law, Jesus was everything the law said he shouldn't be. He could be somewhat loose with those distinctive commandments that set the Jews apart from the nations, and he died under the law's curse -- crucified. ("Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.") Pre-conversion Paul saw Jesus as the antithesis of his Jewishness, which (as Klinghoffer mentions) is tied directly to the Sinai covenant.
So what is Paul supposed to do when he meets the risen Christ on the Damascus road? If Christ is risen, then He must be the Messiah, and if He is the Messiah, then the Sinai covenant has to go out the window.
+ Was Paul a Judaizer? -- Before his conversion, Paul was jealous for the law. That meant that he believed that to be Jewish was to keep the law in a way that kept Israel separate from the nations. After his conversion, Paul seems to have been followed around by people who believed that righteousness came from observing those practices. This has been a big problem for people who study first-century Judaism because that is not what the rabbis taught. At least most of them. There is some evidence that a small group of Jews saw Phineas as their model, who was declared righteous by his zeal for Jewish distinctiveness. ISTM that Paul was arguing against those Jews, and that's why people are sometimes confused when they try to compare his analysis of Judaism with what they know of first-century Judaism from other sources.
So why were these Judaizers so obsessed with Paul, and why was he so obsessed with them?
+ Don't invite Klinghoffer to teach Sunday School -- In a few cases he is ignorant of Christianity, e.g., in his understanding the Trinity. He says "If both Father and Son are God, then presumably they share the same will." (p. 175) Nope.
+ God created the Jews to observe the Torah -- That is the fundamental premise of Klinghoffer's work. All the other issues -- e.g., messianic expectation -- are secondary. Klinghoffer presents the Jews as a people with a special destiny, who are defined by a set of laws that distinguish them from the rest of the world, which fundamentally contradicts the message of a universal religion. If Christianity requires Jews to reject the requirements of the law, then Jews will necessarily reject Christianity. "No authentic Messiah would inspire a religion that ended up calling upon the Jews to reject the manifest meaning of Sinai. It is really that simple." (p. 215)
+ Nations with a purpose -- Klinghoffer's view is that Jews and Christians have a purpose in history, and that this purpose was served, not impeded, by the Jewish rejection of Jesus. If we can evaluate his work apart from the snide analysis of Jewish-Christian polemic and apologetic, that is the real issue, and that is what makes Klinghoffer's work interesting.
This view of the respective roles of Jews and Christians in redemptive history is something worth pondering, and after reading Klinghoffer's work it's far easier to get an appreciation for those Christian theologians who want to take a more nuanced view of the part that Jews and the Sinai covenant play in the Grand Scheme of Things. In fact, while his snide and negative view of Christianity makes it hard to recommend his book in general, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus may be a good study for those who struggle to understand the Vatican's recent attempts to clarify (or soften, depending on how you read it) its understanding of the covenant
David E. Levine
David Klinghoffer is a political conservative who has much in common with Evangalist Christians on a political and social level. In this book, he explains why Jews cannot share their belief in Jesus, however. Belief in Jesus encompasses two concepts, that Jesus is the Messiah and that he is a deity. In looking at purported messianic prohesies of Jesus in the Jewish Bible (in books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial, and other prophets), there are two different viewpoints. Christians, who have already accepted Jesus as the Messiah see passages, such as Isaiah 53 as pointing to Jesus. Messianic prophesies are cryptic and somewhat obscure but, if you have accepted Jesus, these verses seem to make sense. On the other hand, if you have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah, these verses do not lead to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah and any such Messianic proof seems like circular reasoning. In other words, since X happened to Jesus, prophesy Y must apply to him. But, if you were to say, prove that X happened to Jesus, the proofs don't add up. Stated differently, Klinghoffer says that there is a certain "heads I win, tails you lose" quality to many Christian proofs. For example in Jeremiah, there is the specific reference to a "new covenant." The argument is that this new covenant is the abrogation of Torah which is replaced by Jesus. But, when the next sentence makes it clear that this new covenant means that Torah will be etched in our hearts and not replaced, the words are considered symbolic. So if there is a specific reference to a new covenant, it is "heads I win." But, if there is a specific reference to something that would disprove the alleged prophesy, another, symbolic interpreation is given to that verse and it becomes "tails you lose."
Besides being the Messiah, under Christianity, Jesus is the son of God and, indeed a deity himself as part of the Trinity. Jews also don't accept this. To Jews, this goes beyond monotheism.
Klinghoffer looks at the prophesies from the standpoint of Jews living before Jesus was revealed. To those Jews, studying such prophesies would lead to no conclusion of someone like Jesus. Anyone ignorant of Jesus would see nothing pointing to him. A little later, Jews living at the time of Jesus saw no Messianic prophesies come true, thus, they did not accept Jesus. When Jesus was not accepted by the Jews of that time, Paul and James met and decided that Torah practice was no longer necessary, thereby opening the nascent Christianity to the Romans and other pagan nations. By breaking away from Judaism, this assured that Jews would not, on any large scale, become Christians.
Klinghoffer states that this Jewish refusal to accept Jesus was actually a benefit to Christianity. If Jews had accepted Jesus, the commandments of the Torah would not have been abrogated. Therefore, Klinghoffer posits that there would have been no large scale conversion by the pagans because the requirements of circumcision, keeping kosher, strictly observing the Sabbath, etc., would have had an appeal only to the Jews. However, when the Jews did not accept Jesus and these commandments were abrogated so as to appeal to the pagans, Christianity grew to become the major force in Western Civilization. So, Klinghoffer concludes that if Jews had accepted Jesus, the course of Western Civilization would have been markedly different. I'm not sure history would have unfolded the way Klinghoffer envisions but, this is a very interesting thesis. Anyway, I hope that this book will be read by Christians, not as a disputation, but rather as an attemppt to understand Jewish thinking leading, to mutual acceptance.