Is there a Jewish view of Jesus?

January 11, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi….

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. What is the Jewish view of Jesus?

A. Jesus was a Jew. He was born of a Jewish mother, lived in a Jewish milieu, prayed Jewish prayers, observed Jewish practices, and would feel more at home in a synagogue than a church.

He was not a Christian; Christianity is the religion about him that developed later.

Was he a rabbi?

The Gospels address him as such, but the term did not become common until later: the sages of the time are known by their personal names – Hillel, Shammai – without a rabbinic title.

It is not certain whether he was a Torah scholar, and his attitude to Torah is sometimes negative.

Was he a prophet?

By this stage Biblical prophecy was over. Being a preacher does not in itself make him a prophet. Nor is it relevant to find him foretelling events: Biblical prophets were not necessarily foretellers but forthtellers.

It is not certain whether he personally considered himself to be Messiah. Judaism does not see that he fulfilled the messianic prophecies.

Was he an Essene? A Pharisee? A Sadducee?

Though one might not think so in the light of the New Testament, but his teaching and preaching are closer to the Pharisees than any other group.

So how could he have criticised the Jews of the time?

The fact is that there are no non-Jews in the story. The Jews he criticised were his Jews. It is only later that the portrayal changes from critical insider to critical outsider.

So what kind of Jew was he?

Geza Vermes, in his “Jesus and the World of Judaism”, pinpoints an interesting distinction – between Galilean Jew and Jerusalem Jew.

Jesus represents the Galilean Jew, regarded in Jerusalem as unsophisticated. In Galilee, leadership was not so much by reason of Torah learning as personal magnetism.

In this mould, Jesus was a teacher, preacher and healer: not a healer in a professional sense but because he believed that sickness, demons and sin were interconnected.

The simple religiosity of Galilee contrasted with the emphasis on learning and correct practice in Jerusalem.

It is the age-old dilemma – spontaneous piety or structured religion?

But it should be noted that Jesus’ criticism of establishment attitudes parallels the sages’ own criticism of religious behaviourism.

Christianity centres not so much on the Jesus of his time but the Jesus of later theology.

With that theology, with its differing views of the nature of God and man, the status and divinity of Jesus, the way to salvation and atonement, faith as against works, personal authority as against the authority of the Torah, and the role of Judaism in history, Jewish thinking must decisively part company.


Q. Does Judaism believe in pleasure?

A. Let me begin with two reminiscences.

The first is about meetings, which are a way of life for some people. Their speeches all tend to start (or finish) like this: “It gives me great pleasure to move (or second) the resolution…”

The second reminiscence is about my teacher, Rabbi Kopel Kahana, who had a different experience with such phraseology.

Early in the Second World War he was in England trying to pick up the language, and rather wary of consuming anything that might not be kosher. He mildly asked someone if he could have a cup of tea. They answered, “Tea? With pleasure!” He didn’t yet know what “pleasure” meant, so in order to be safe he said, “Thank you, but do it without pleasure!”

By the time he told this story against himself he could write legal books in English and correct the essays (including mine) which his native-English-speaker students wrote.

But now to the serious part of my answer.

In contrast to classical Christianity, Judaism taught that people who denied themselves the legitimate pleasures which God has made will answer to Him in the World to Come.

Kohelet says, “There is nothing better than to rejoice and get pleasure as long as one lives” (3:12; cf. 5:17). He also says, “I recommend mirth, for a person has no better thing under the sun than to eat, drink and be merry” (8:15). Other sages were more restrained. Mishlei says, “He who loves pleasure will come to want” (21:17).

Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, editor of the Mishnah, says, “For each pleasure accepted in this world there is a deduction in the World to Come” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan, chapter 28). The Talmud declares, “When pleasure-seekers multiply, justice becomes perverted and morality deteriorates” (Sotah 47b). Philo of Alexandria warns, “Nothing ever escapes desire, but like a forest fire it proceeds onward, consuming and destroying everything”.

What these passages mean by pleasure includes eating, drinking, money, music, entertainment and sex, and we probably need to come to the conclusion that if God has allowed them into His world they are not necessarily evil in themselves, but they have to be disciplined and kept within bounds. The Vilna Ga’on says, “Desires must be purified and idealised, not exterminated”.

Even the simchah that comes from spirituality and study needs to be handled wisely – otherwise it too can become a consuming fire.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


2 Responses to “Is there a Jewish view of Jesus?”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    Jesus was a Jew. He was born of a Jewish mother, lived in a Jewish milieu, prayed Jewish prayers, observed Jewish practices, and would feel more at home in a synagogue than a church.
    The very thought a thorn in the side of many for centuries……..

    *Ex Jesuit Peter de Rosa graduate of Gregorian University Rome, was a Professor of Metaphysics and ethics at Westminster Seminary for six years and Dean of Theology at Corpus Christi College for six years. He left the priesthood in 1970 and at the time of writing lived in Ireland with wife and two sons.
    His book with introduction:

    Humbly and With Penitence
    All the Victims of the Holocaust.

    He went as far as saying Jesus was robbed of this identity…….

  2. Rivka Tapoohi Witenberg says:

    According to my father whom I am sure you remember (Rav Zeev Tapooi ZL) we know very little about the real Jesus’s life and who is really was. Did I misunderstand him?
    Would be interested in your comments.

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