Joseph Klausner’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (1922): A Modern Jewish Study of the Founding Figure of Christianity


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context of the source

Since the ‘parting of the ways’, when Christianity first emerged from under the wing of Judaism, until relatively recent times, Judaism has avoided mention of Jesus. With the exception of Josephus, there is nothing in the ancient Jewish literature that could be regarded as an independent Jewish source of information on Jesus.[1] Those few texts which are believed by some writers to refer to Jesus do not add to the Gospel evidence and do not go beyond ascribing to Jesus a Pharisaic- or rabbinic-like exposition of scripture, the power to heal in his name, the fact that he left disciples, and an unhistorical tradition of the circumstances of his trial and death. One could put forward several suggestions to account for this apparent lack of interest within the Talmud and Jewish sources. Perhaps the silence had been accidental, in that historical circumstances might never have offered an opportunity for reports about Jesus to be included within the writings. Or perhaps the editors had not deemed Jesus important enough to discuss, or were simply ignorant of his existence. Or perhaps Jewish contemporaries had discussed Jesus, but  their references to him had been suppressed by later editors, who feared inculcating heretical ideas, and were thus eventually forgotten. There was also, of course, the practical danger of provoking violent Christian responses.

Similarly, Jews in the mediaeval period had little to say about Jesus because of their own concern about encouraging controversy and their fear of reprisals. What little was written was typically highly defensive and apologetic in tone, for writings regarding Jesus were usually composed under persistent anti-Jewish oppression. This explains the popularity in the mediaeval period of the Toledot Yeshu (History of Jesus), for example, a notorious polemic composed sometime in late antiquity on the basis of earlier traditions, which presented Jesus as an illegitimate-born, apostate Jew who practiced sorcery and sought to lead Israel astray. There were also religious disputations in which Jewish leaders were compelled to participate. These disputations were the main context of the Jewish treatment of Jesus during the Middle Ages but, as far as the evidence goes, they did not occur in any large number until the thirteenth century. At this time there was an outbreak in public debates ,which forced Jewish thinkers to give heed to a subject that, to them, was not of primary interest. Well-known examples include the disputations at Paris (1240) and Barcelona (1263).[2] A recognizable pattern emerged: in response to Christian proof-texting of the Old Testament, which sought to validate various doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Original Sin, and redemption through Christ, Jewish thinkers disputed the meaning of the texts. They were especially concerned to refute Christian claims of God’s rejection of Israel for their failure to recognize Jesus as their messiah. The disputations were, at best, unproductive, since such conditions (that is, discussions in which the opponents were also the judges) were by no means conducive to an unbiased reading or estimation of Jesus. It was only sensible for Jews to avoid such confrontations whenever possible. In any case, there was little incentive to become interested in these matters, since the Jew found fulfillment in the Torah. Until relatively modern times, then, Jesus and his teachings were subjects generally avoided by Jewish thinkers.[3]

The eighteenth and nineteenth-century Emancipation and the new freedom it brought for Jewish writers and thinkers changed all this and encouraged a less hostile treatment of Jesus. The arrival of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism or the Historical Study of Judaism) could be considered the single most important factor in making possible a new Jewish attitude towards Jesus. Its modern historical-critical methodology and the greater confidence it inspired meant that Jewish thinkers became increasingly objective, because less polemical, in their approach to Christianity and its origins. And, soon after, an emerging Reform Judaism emphasized the ethical tradition within Jewish teaching, as exemplified by the Prophets, at the expense of religious dogma, and sought to re-define Judaism in essentially ethical terms. Viewed as a Jewish ethical teacher, Jesus and his teachings started to look more interesting and relevant. It was the beginning of what has been described controversially as ‘the Jewish reclamation of Jesus’.

The majority of modern Jewish writers and scholars drawn to the study of Jesus have been Reform or Liberal, and there are several reasons for this. The tendency among nineteenth-century reform-minded Jews to move away from the idea of Judaism as a nation, and to view it rather as a religious fellowship, was very much related to the new emphasis on ethics as central to their religious message. In this context, especially for those who were critical of Orthodox Jewish ritual, Jesus represented the struggle of free spirituality against the external ritualism of an earlier time, thus mirroring the then contemporary debate between the Orthodox and the Reform. Yet Jewish reclamations of Jesus were driven by more than simply the concern to recover the champion of an earlier Jewish ethical tradition.[4] Since the Enlightenment, Jewish writers had become increasingly engaged in dispute with Christian writers over Christian misunderstandings of rabbinic religion, especially with regard to the Law, which caricatured Judaism as a kind of fossilized legalism. From the nineteenth century onwards a stock argument among Jewish writers had been that Jesus’ ethical teaching had been essentially Jewish, of one sort or another, and had included nothing new or original.[5] Such treatments provided a platform from which to launch attacks on Christianity, in that they stressed the Jewishness, and therefore the humanity, of Jesus in contradiction to the traditional high Christological view of Jesus as divine. They were also a reminder that the Christian morality championed by Western civilization could arguably be regarded as imitative and derivative of Jewish religious thought. The German Reform rabbi and Wissenschaft scholar, Abraham Geiger, to take one example, spent considerable time and effort to this end. For Geiger the traditional Christian view of the Church as the fulfillment of a failed Judaism was a myth he was determined to overthrow. Instead, he suggested that Christianity should be regarded as a tangential off-shoot from Judaism, and that the current search for the faith of Jesus by Protestant scholars would only confirm that this ideal faith was essentially Jewish in nature. This way of confronting Christian claims regarding Jesus and Judaism by describing Jesus as essentially Jewish, rather than essentially alien and heretical, was new. It can at least be partially explained by the reaction to Christian critique and the underlying psychological need to justify Judaism in the eyes of the Western Christian world. If Jesus had added nothing new to the teachings of the Jewish prophets and sages, then what justification had Christians for condemning Jewish teaching as inferior to Jesus’ teaching? One way of justifying Judaism to Christians, then, was to argue for Jesus’ Jewishness, to reclaim him as a Jew, albeit with a number of reservations.[6]

It was not only Reform-minded Jews who saw a practical utility in reclaiming Jesus as a Jew. The following case study is a compilation of excerpts from a book written by Joseph Klausner, a traditionally observant Zionist living in Palestine in the 1920s. Klausner regarded Jesus as a Jew and a highly significant figure in the national history of the Jews. In particular, Jesus functioned as a kind of object lesson, illustrating the opposing worldviews of Judaism and Christianity.

Notes to Historical context of the source

  1. For a comprehensive survey, see J.P. Meier (1991, 93–98). Morris Goldstein’s extensive treatment  also concluded by emphasizing this point. He suggests that “there is far more that does not truly allude to Jesus than that does”. Furthermore, he argues that indirect references to Jesus, if they are indeed references to Jesus, are more significant than the supposedly direct ones. “The teachings regarding the unity and incorporeality of God, the belief that the Messiah was yet to come, the emphasis on Moses and the Mosaic Law, the decline in the status of miracles, are more important in revealing the Jewish attitude than are those passages where Jesus is actually mentioned.” Goldstein (1950), 232–233.
  2. The Paris disputation was held under the pontificate of Gregory IX. Thirty-five accusations were levelled at the Jews by the apostate Nicholas, mostly targeted against passages in the Talmud that slandered Jesus and advocated amoral behaviour towards Christians. The results convinced Louis IX to burn 24 wagon-loads of Talmuds in Paris. The Barcelona disputation featured the apostate Pablo Christiani against Nahamides the Jew, who argued against the claim that Jesus had been the messiah, that the messiah was expected to be divine, and that Christianity was the true faith according to the Scriptures.
  3. Of course there are some exceptions such as the sixteenth-century Karaite, Isaak Troki, who was a kind of bridge between the traditional and modern positions. His Faith Strengthened(Hebrew original 1593, E.T. 1851) displayed the Mediaeval approach in its fierce determination to refute Christian claims regarding the Gospels, rather than to understand them, and the Enlightenment approach in its concentration upon many of the historical-critical problems destined to preoccupy late eighteenth-century scientific scholarship.
  4. ‘Reclamation’ is admittedly a problematic term. In his critique of Hagner’s The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus, Schwartz concludes, ‘If Jews do not find uniqueness in Jesus, I suggest it is…precisely because such a claim may denote a reclamation in which Jews do not wish to engage’; (Schwartz 1987, 107). Nevertheless, commenting on a renewed Jewish interest in Jesus’ religious teachings in his own day, the Jewish New Testament scholar Sandmel recognized that ‘in some Jewish circles not only is there no questioning of the propriety of reclamation, but it is even an axiom in the form that Jesus was a Jew and therefore “ours”‘; (Sandmel 1965, 103). For present purposes, ‘reclamation’ should be understood to mean (1) various attempts at historical reconstruction, taken together with (2) varying degrees of identification with, and acceptance of, aspects of Jesus and his teachings. Although the phenomenon could be labelled as a ‘reclamation’ in the sense that it describes an attitude that contrasts sharply with the previous centuries of hostility and rejection, it would be more accurate to speak of ‘reclamations’.
  5. Celebrated examples include Salvador (1838), Graetz (1901), and Geiger (1866).
  6. These reservations, which differed from one writer to another, were nevertheless unanimously described in terms of a failure of Jesus to remain true to the spirit of Judaism. The sole exception to this rule was Claude Montefiore, who highlighted those elements of Jesus and his teachings that he regarded as un-Jewish and gave them a positive value judgment.  (Langton 2002, 249–273).

2. Source

2a. English translation of the source

Klausner, Joseph. (1925) Jesus of Nazareth; His Life, Times, and Teaching. London: Allen and Unwin, trans. by Herbert Danby from Klausner, Joseph. (5682/1922) Yeshu Ha-Notzri. Jerusalem: Shtibel.

In Galilee were to be found neither Pharisees learned in the Law nor Sadduceans, nor any of the richer and more powerful classes who acquiesced in Roman domination; there remained only two dissimilar types: the Zealots… and the “meek upon the earth” and the many varieties of the mystic visionary type – “quietist Pharisees”, Essenes and the like… who abandoned interest in temporal things to dream of a future life, a life based on the ethics of the Prophets and the messianic idea… It was from these circles of the “meek” that Jesus and his new teaching sprung.

It must, however, be admitted that Pharisaism did, in truth, contain one serious defect which enabled the more hypocritical to pride themselves in the mere performance of the commandments, and which justified Jesus’ fighting against it qua Jew, and even qua Pharisee; for though Jesus may not have been wholly a Pharisee he was, like any ‘Rab’ or teacher of those days, much more of a Pharisee than a Sadducee… This defect was that the Pharisees attached almost as much importance to those commandments dealing with the relation between man and God as to those dealing with the relations between man and his fellow-man… Hence the Pharisees were far more concerned with the discussion of Halakha, with those commandments dealing with man’s relations to God, than with the others, because the latter seemed to them far more self-evident and simple.

Jesus derived his entire knowledge and point of view from the Scriptures and from a few, at most, of the Palestinian apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings and from the Palestinian Haggada [sic] and Midrash in the primitive form in which they were then current among the Jews.  Christianity, it must always be remembered, is the result of a combination of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy; it cannot be understood without a knowledge of Jewish-Greek (Alexandrine) literature and of contemporary Graeco-Roman culture.  Jesus of Nazareth, however, was a product of Palestine alone, a product of Judaism unaffected by any foreign admixture. There were many Gentiles in Galilee, but Jesus was in no way influenced by them. In his days, Galilee was the stronghold of the most enthusiastic Jewish patriotism… Without any exception he is wholly explainable by the scriptural and Pharisaic Judaism of his time.

“Woe to you Pharisees! For ye tithe mint and rue and every herb and pass over judgment and the love of God: but these ought ye to have done, and not leave the other undone.” [Luke xi.42]. This verse… proves in the strongest possible fashion that never did Jesus think of annulling the Law (or even the ceremonial laws which it contained) and setting up a new law of his own.

Had not Jesus’ teaching contained a kernel of opposition to Judaism, Paul could never in the name of Jesus have set aside the ceremonial laws, and broken through the barriers of national Judaism.  There can be no doubt that in Jesus Paul found justifying support… Jesus eats and drinks with publicans and sinners, thereby disregarding ritual separatism and the principle of clean and unclean even to the extent to which they were accepted by the “sages” at the close of the Second Temple period.  Jesus, on the Sabbath, heals diseases which are not dangerous.  Jesus justifies his disciples when they pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, thereby lightly esteeming the laws of Sabbath observance… In other words, [for Jesus] whatever change there is must be fundamental and not gradual or partial – not as with the Pharisees… As opposed to the Tannaim who taught, “Look not at the vessel but at what is contained therein: a new vessel may be full of old wine” [Aboth IV.20], Jesus taught that new wine must be contained in a new bottle. Matthew [xiii.44-52] preserves a noteworthy passage to this effect.
[pp. 369-70]

Civil justice, state efforts at reform of debased social conditions, would be impossible when one must “resist no evil” and when, if struck on the left cheek, the only response is to stretch out the right cheek also!  How can the state endure if Jesus requires that a man “swear not at all”?  What culture can there be in the world when Jesus ordains that man shall share all his goods with the poor and teaches that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?”  Even family life must break down for one who would be a true disciple of Jesus, since the Messiah accounts praiseworthy those “which make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”

How can family affairs be righted if Jesus forbids the divorce of the wife on any ground whatsoever [“save only for fornication” – conforming with the School of Shammai: “except he have found in her a matter of lewdness” – being only a later interpolation]?  What interest has he in labour, in culture, in economic or political achievements, who recommends us to be as “the lilies of the field which toil not neither do they spin” but those apparel is more glorious than that of king Solomon, or like the ravens whose mother birds are careless of their young, but the Holy One, blessed be He, supplies them with food without their labour or care…

In all this Jesus is the most Jewish of Jews, more Jewish than Simeon ben Shetah, more Jewish even than Hillel.  Yet nothing is more dangerous to national Judaism than this exaggerated Judaism; it is the ruin of national culture, the national state, and national life.  Where there is no call for the enactment of laws, for justice, for national statecraft, where belief in God and the practice of an extreme and one-sided ethic is in itself enough – there we have the negation of national life and of the national state.

Jesus, however, makes far more use of such expressions as ‘Father’, ‘My Father’, ‘My Father in heaven’, than do the Pharisees and Tannaim; and often when he employs it, it receives an excessive emphasis. The reason is plain. From the day when he was baptized by John, Jesus looked upon himself as the Messiah, and as the Messiah he was closer to God than was nay other human being. On the other hand, as Messiah he is “the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven” and “drawing near to the Ancient of Days” [Daniel vii.13]; thus literally, he is near to the Godhead…  Such a conception of the messianic title “son of God”, signifying that he is nearest to God of all men (a fundamentally Jewish conception [i.e. Tzaddiq]), Judaism was unable to accept [i.e. exaggerating the idea might induce an idolatrous belief in Jesus as the advocate for man before God]. Jesus’ own teaching is poles apart from the Trinitarian doctrine; but it contained the germ which, fostered by gentilic Christians, developed into the doctrine of the Trinity.

[Regarding the Sermon on the Mount]
Not all of those sayings may have been uttered by Jesus, but they are all in accordance with his spirit and they are all of distinct originality. Yet, with Geiger and with Graetz, we can aver, without laying ourselves open to the charge of subjectivity and without any desire to argue in defence of Judaism, that throughout the Gospels there is not one item of ethical teaching which cannot be paralleled either in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, or in the Talmudic and Midrashic literature of the period near to the time of Jesus.

So extraordinary is the similarity that it might almost seem as though the Gospels were composed simply and solely out of matter contained in the Talmud and Midrash… But there is a new thing in the Gospels… Jesus gathered together and, so to speak, condensed and concentrated ethical teachings in such a fashion as to make them more prominent than in the Talmudic Haggada and the Midrashim, where they are interspaced among more commonplace discussion and worthless matter… A man like Jesus, for whom the ethical ideal was everything, was something hitherto unheard of in the Judaism of the day.

Judaism also knows the ideal of love for the enemy, and exemplifies it in the law dealing with an enemy’s ox or ass and in the ethical teaching of the Book of Jonah; but Judaism never emphasized it to such a degree that it ultimately became too high an ideal for ordinary mankind, and even too high for the man of more than average moral calibre… Everything which Jesus ever uttered of this nature is Jewish ethical teaching, too; but his overemphasis was not Judaism, and, in fact, brought about non-Judaism.

“Christian morality” was embodied in daily life by – Judaism: it is Judaism and Judaism only which has never produced murderers and pogrom-mongers, whereas indulgence and forgiveness have become the prime feature in its being, with the result that the Jews have been made moral (not in theory but in living fact) to the verge of abject flaccidity.

These two extremes, extreme kindliness of heart and the most violent passion, show in him a character akin to that of the Prophet – save only that he had not the wide political perspective of the Prophets, nor their gift of divine consolation to the nation. However that may be, these two contradictory attitudes are the sign of the great man. Only such a man, mighty in forgiveness and equally mighty in reproof, could exert so ineffaceable an influence on all who came in contact with him… The complete visionary and mystic exerts an influence only upon other visionaries like himself, and his influence soon passes… Only where mystic faith is yolked with practical prudence does there follow a strong, enduring result. And of such a nature was the influence exerted by Jesus of Nazareth upon his followers, and, through them, upon succeeding generations. Such is the force of Jesus’ influence. The contradictory traits in his character, its positive and negative aspects, his harshness and his gentleness, his clear vision combined with his cloudy visionariness – all these united to make him a force and an influence, for which history has never yet afforded a parallel.

“Jesus was not a Christian,” but he became a Christian.  His teaching and his history have been severed from Israel… [F]rom the national Hebrew standpoint it is more difficult to appraise the value of Jesus.  In spite of the fact that he himself was undoubtedly a “nationalist” Jew by instinct and even an extreme nationalist – as we may see from his retort to the Canaanitish [sic] woman, from his depreciatory way of referring to “the heathen and the publican,” from the  terms “Son of Abraham,” “Daughter of Abraham” (which he uses as terms of the highest possible commendation), from his deep love for Jerusalem and from his devoting himself so entirely to the cause of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” – in spite of all this, there was in him something out of which arose “non-Judaism.”

What is Jesus to the Jewish nation at the present day?  To the Jewish nation he can be neither God nor the Son of God, in the sense conveyed by belief in the Trinity.  Either conception is to the Jew not only impious and blasphemous, but incomprehensible.  Neither can he, to the Jewish nation, be the Messiah: the kingdom of heaven (the “Days of the Messiah”) is not yet come.  Neither can they regard him as a Prophet: he lacks the Prophet’s political perception and the Prophet’s spirit of national consolation in the political-national sense.

Neither can they regard him as a lawgiver or the founder of a new religion: he did not even desire to be such.  Neither is he a “Tanna,” or Pharisaic rabbi: he nearly always ranged himself in opposition to the Pharisees and did not apprehend the positive side in their work, the endeavour to take within their scope the entire national life and to strengthen the national existence.

But Jesus is, for the Jewish nation, a great teacher of morality and an artist in parable.  He is the moralist for whom, in the religious life, morality counts as – everything.  Indeed, as a consequence of this extremist standpoint his ethical code has become simply and ideal for the isolated few… and ideal for “the days of the Messiah,” when an “end” shall have been made of the “old world,” this present social order.  It is no ethical code for the nations and the social order of to-day, when men are still trying to find the way to that future of the Messiah and the Prophets, and to the “kingdom of the Almighty” spoken of by the Talmud, and ideal which is of “this world” and which, gradually and in the course of generations, is to take shape in this world.

But in his ethical code there is a sublimity, distinctiveness and originality in form unparalleled in any other Hebrew ethical code; neither is there any parallel to the remarkable art of his parables.  The shrewdness and sharpness of his proverbs and his forceful epigrams serve, in an exceptional degree, to make ethical ideas a popular possession.  If ever the day should come and this ethical code by stripped of its wrappings of miracles and mysticism, the Book of the Ethics of Jesus will be one of the choicest treasures in the literature of Israel for all time.

3. Discussion of the source

What was Klausner trying to achieve with his book Jesus of Nazareth, from which these excerpts have been taken? Let us begin by outlining briefly Klausner’s life and interest in nationalist politics, and then attempt to summarize what Klausner had to say on three issues that tend to be characteristic concerns of Jewish commentaries on Jesus: how to best categorize him in general, how to view him in relation to the Law, and whether to acknowledge or not originality in his teachings. After this, we should be able  to consider how the views propounded in his book Jesus of Nazareth, that is, how this Jewish view of the founding figure of Christianity, fitted into his particular ideological agenda.

Joseph Klausner (1874–1956) was a Jewish historian and prominent Zionist. Born near Vilna, Lithuania, Klausner studied in Germany and became a committed Zionist, attending the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. Following the Bolshevik Revolution (October 1917), he emigrated from Odessa, Russia, to Palestine. From 1925, he taught Modern Hebrew Literature and the History of the Second Temple Period at Hebrew University. He became increasingly nationalist in his views and was regarded as the ideologue of the Revisionist Party, which, from the 1920s and 30s, was the principal opposition to Chaim Weizmann’s leadership. Religiously observant, but fiercely independent, Klausner would probably have identified with the Conservative Judaism movement if it had existed in Eretz Yisrael at that time. His historical writings on Jesus and Christian beginnings were amongst the first such comprehensive treatments in Hebrew.[1] In addition to Jesus of Nazareth in 1925 (Yeshu ha-Notzri, 1922) he wrote From Jesus to Paul in 1943 (Mi-Yeshu ad Paulus, 1939).

When it came to categorizing Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth was portrayed by Klausner as a kind of mystic visionary (173) and very much a product of the land of Palestine (363). Thus Jesus was not a messiah, or prophet, or lawgiver, or founder of new religion, or tanna [rabbinic sage], or Pharisaic rabbi  (413-4). While he failed to appreciate the positive aspects of Pharisaic teaching, and tended to oppose them (413-4), nevertheless Jesus’ thought is best explained in terms of scriptural and Pharisaic Judaism (363). Almost certainly, he regarded himself as the messiah (378-9). The contentious problem of how Jesus related to the Jewish Law, or halakhah, was likewise a complicated issue for Klausner. While Jesus had never intended to set aside the Law (367), his teaching contained ‘a kernel of opposition to Judaism’, a breaking through the barriers of nationalism. Jesus disregarded ritual separatism, thus eating with sinners, and lightly esteemed Sabbath observance, healing diseases which were not dangerous and allowing his disciples to pluck corn, which would later allow Paul to break away from Judaism (369-70). In his discussion, Klausner admitted that Pharisaism could be criticized for over-emphasizing the relations between God and man at the expense of those with one’s fellow man (215-6). As for the question of originality, Jesus’ knowledge was, according to Klausner, primarily of Scripture and from the primitive Palestinian Jewish literature (363,384). Unfortunately, very often his teachings were impractical for civil justice, culture, and family life (373). This ‘exaggerated Judaism’ or idealism was, for Klausner, deplorably dangerous for national Jewish life (374,392-3). Despite Jesus’ nationalist instinct, he brought about non-Judaism; Jesus could be said to have become a ‘Christian’ (413-4). Having said that, Jesus’ ethical teachings had no parallel in any other Hebrew ethical code (388-9), the artistry of his parables remains unparalleled, and he popularized profoundly ethical ideas (413-4). Ultimately, his unique influence was due to his character (410-11).

Klausner’s was an attempt to assess Jesus from a nationalist perspective, to consider his meaning for the modern Jewish nation (413-4). He claims Jesus as a ‘great teacher and an artist in parable’ and a great moralist (413-4). One day the Book of the Ethics of Jesus, stripped of miracles and mysticism, might be one of ‘the choicest treasures in the literature of Israel for all time’ (413-4). Yet Jews have always rejected Jesus, Klausner argued, because his Jewish outlook was subsumed by his concern for the individual, which led to a loss of reality and an over-emphasis on self-abnegation, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and in this Jesus betrayed Jewish nationalism (373-4). Christianity, to Klausner, was a combination of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy (363). He sees Paul as responsible for making a Jewish Jesus the origin of Christianity, and there are hints throughout of his hostility to Christianity (395). This anti-Christian attitude is reflected in the fact that the work revealed a glaring lack of familiarity with the changing (Christian) New Testament research.[2]

Generally speaking, Jewish commentators have tended to distance themselves from Jesus’ distinctive thought, and have rarely contemplated the idea that Jesus’ distinctive or, allegedly, non-Jewish teachings might be beneficial religious contributions. Rather, they were viewed as mistakes which could be used as foils to demonstrate the superiority of the writer’s own view of Judaism. In this sense, it is true to say, as Agus does, that, for many Jewish scholars, Jesus was made to stand for whatever it was that the particular scholar repudiated and excoriated (Agus 1959, 7).[3] Very few Jews have focused upon those elements of Jesus and his teachings that distinguished him from his contemporaries unless, for polemical reasons, they intended to criticize him and thus, by association, Christianity. Klausner’s Jesus of Nazareth illustrates these complicated dynamics well. He certainly wrote admiringly of Jesus and, from a cursory reading, appeared to hold Jesus’ originality in high regard. Nevertheless, Klausner’s response to Jesus’ originality must be weighed against his belief that although Jesus had obviously not been a Christian during his life time, he had become one, or should be regarded as one, for his history and his teaching had severed him from Judaism. When it came to concrete examples of Jesus’ distinctive teaching, Klausner could not help viewing them as, ultimately, impractical. Thus Jesus’ instruction to ‘Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s’ effectively undermined the authority of the civil authorities; his commands to ‘resist not evil’, to ‘swear not at all’ and to share all one’s possessions with the poor, were simply not practical in society; by forbidding divorce he did not solve family difficulties; and in his recommendation to be like “the lilies of the field which toil not” he revealed his lack of interest in economic and political achievements. Klausner went on to explain Jesus’ failure in the eyes of Judaism in terms of his being too Jewish. But more to the point, he criticized the teachings as ‘un-Jewish’ in the light of his own Zionist, nationalistic view of Judaism. In other words, Klausner’s criticism of Jesus’ distinctive teachings was rooted in his own deeply felt, essentially nationalistic, view of Judaism. Ironically, despite his Zionist credentials and his hostility towards Christianity, Klausner, the disciple of Ahad Ha-Am, saw his Jesus of Nazareth (1929) attacked as ‘a trucking and kow-towing to the Christian religion, and an assertion of great affection for the foggy figure of its founder, a denial of the healthy sense of our saintly forefathers’.[4]

Notes to Discussion of the source

  1. The first modern Hebrew treatment of Jesus is Paul Levertoff’s Ben ha-Adam: Chayey Yeshua ha-Mashiach upealeav (London: 1904), the given English title being Son of Man: A Survey of the Life and Deeds of Jesus Christ. Klausner is dismissive of Levertoff’s study, complaining that ‘the plain purpose of the writer in spite of what he says to the contrary in his Preface is to win adherents to Christianity from among Russian Jews who read Hebrew.’ Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, 124.
  2. Elsewhere, later on, Klausner rejected form-critical research as ‘almost complete scepticism’.  (Klausner 1943, 259).
  3. Arguably, Agus is too simplistic in his analysis of the Jewish treatment of Jesus, however, when he writes, ‘As it was the tendency of Christian historians and philosophers to see in Jesus an ideal representation of their own ideals, so it became the practice among Jewish scholars to represent Jesus as the protagonist of the forces that they opposed.’ He neglects to take into account the Jewish desire to justify Judaism in the face of Christian criticism and the utilization of Jesus for that purpose.
  4. Aaron Kaminka in Ha-Toren (New York) May 1922, cited in Danby (1927, 102–103).

4. Questions for discussion

  1. What are the challenges facing any ‘Jewish reclamation’ of Jesus?
  2. What is problematic about this source? Does the ideological component automatically disqualify it as fatally flawed scholarship?
  3. Why is Jesus’ relationship to the Law such a central concern for Jewish New Testament commentators?
  4. How, if at all, is the term ‘originality’ useful in discussing Jesus?
  5. What are the potential implications of this kind of document for modern Jewish-Christian dialogue?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Klausner, Joseph. (1925) Jesus of Nazareth; His Life, Times, and Teaching. London: Allen and Unwin  trans. by Herbert Danby from Joseph Klausner, (5682/1922) Yeshu Ha-Notzri Jerusalem: Shtibel,.
  • Klausner, Joseph (1843) From Jesus to Paul. London: Allen & Unwin, trans. by W.F. Stinespring from Joseph Klausner (1939) Mi-Yeshu ad Paulus Tel Aviv: Mada. .
  • Kling, Simcha. (1970) Joseph Klausner. Cranbury, NJ: Thomas Yoseloff.

6. Further Reading

Other Jewish Views of Jesus

  • Abrahams, Israel. (1923) Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 2nd edn, 2 vol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ben-Chorin, Schalom. (2001) Brother Jesus; The Nazarene through Jewish Eyes trans. by Jared S. Klein and Max Reinhart Athens and London: University of Georgia Press.
  • Buber, Martin. (1951) Two Types of Faith, trans. from German original (1950) by N.P. Goldhawk London: Routledge.
  • Flusser, David. (1991) ‘Jesus, his Ancestry and the Commandments of Love’ in: James H.
  • Charlesworth, ed, Jesus’ Jewishness; Exploring the Place of Jesus in Early Judaism. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
  • Friedlander, Gerald. (1911) The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount. London: Routledge.
  • Geiger, Abraham. (1866) Judaism and Its History, vol. I New York: Thalmessinger & Cahn.
  • Goldstein, Morris. (1950) Jesus Within the Jewish Tradition. New York: Macmillan.
  • Graetz, (1901) History of the Jews; From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, ed. by & trans. from German original of 1853–1870 by Bella Lowy. London; Jewish Chronicle.
  • Jackson, Bernard. (1992) ‘The Trials of Jesus and Jeremiah’ in Brigham Young University Studies vol. 32, no.4.
  • Jacobs, Joseph. (1895) As Others Saw Him; A Retrospect: A.D. 54. London: Heinemann.
  • Lapide, Pinchas. (1979) Israelis, Jews and Jesus, trans. by Peter Heinegg. New York: Doubleday.
  • Lapide, Pinchas. (1983) The Resurrection of Jesus; a Jewish Perspective. London: S.P.C.K.
  • Maccoby, Hyam. (1973) Revolution in Judaea; Jesus and the Jewish Resistance. London: Ocean Books.
  • Montefiore, C.G. (1910) Some Elements in the Religious Teaching of Jesus. London: Macmillan.
  • Montefiore, C.G. (1911–1912) ‘The Significance of Jesus for his Own Age’ Hibbert Journal vol. X.
  • Montefiore, C.G. (1929) ‘The Originality of Jesus’ Hibbert Journal vol. XXVIII.
  • Montefiore, C.G. (1930) Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings. London: Macmillan.
  • Montefiore, C.G. (1934–1935) ‘What a Jew Thinks About Jesus’ Hibbert Journal vol. XXXIII.
  • Montefiore, C.G. (1968) The Synoptic Gospels New York: KTAV.
  • Neusner, Jacob. (1993) A Rabbi Talks with Jesus New York: Doubleday.
  • Sandmel, Samuel. (1965) We Jews and Jesus. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Schechter, Solomon. (1900) ‘Some Rabbinic Parallels to the New Testament’, Jewish Quarterly Review XII.
  • Sherwin, Byron. (1994) ‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 31, 3-4.
  • Troki, Isaac. (1970) Faith Strengthened trans. Moses Mocatta. New York: Hermon Press.
  • Vermes, Geza. (1973) Jesus the Jew; a Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. London: Collins.
  • Vermes, Geza. (1983) Jesus and the World of Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress.
  • Vermes, Geza. (1991) ‘Jesus the Jew’ in: James H. Charlesworth, ed, Jesus’ Jewishness; Exploring the Place of Jesus in Early Judaism. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
  • Vermes, Geza. (1992) The Religion of Jesus the Jew. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

Surveys of Jewish Views of Jesus

  • Agus, Jacob. (1959) ‘Claude Montefiore and Liberal Judaism’ Conservative Judaism.
  • Ben-Chorin, Schalom. (1974) ‘The Image of Jesus in Modern Judaism’  The Journal of Ecumenical Studies XI.
  • Berlin, George L. (1989) Defending the Faith: Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Writings on Christianity and Jesus. Albany, New York.
  • Cook, Michael. (2001) ‘Evolving Jewish Views of Jesus’ in: B. Bruteau, Jesus Through Jewish Eyes. New York: Orbis.
  • Danby, Herbert. (1927) The Jew and Christianity; Some Phases, Ancient and Modern, of the Jewish Attitude Towards Christianity. London: Sheldon Press.
  • Hagner, Donald A. (1984) The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus; an Analysis and Critique of the Modern Jewish Study of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
  • Heschel, Susannah. (1998) Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hoffman, Matthew. (2007) From Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Jacob, Walter (1974) Christianity Through Jewish Eyes; The Quest for Common Ground. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.
  • Klenicki, Leon. (ed.) (1991) Towards a Theological Encounter; Jewish Understandings of Christianity. New York: Paulist Press.
  • Langton, Daniel. (2000) ‘Claude Montefiore in the Context of Jewish Approaches to Jesus and Paul’ Hebrew Union College Annual LXXI.
  • Meier, John P. (1991) A Marginal Jew; Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday.
  • Schwartz, G. David. (1987) ‘Explorations and Responses: Is There a Jewish Reclamation of Jesus?’ The Journal of Ecumenical Studies XXIV.
  • Walker, Thomas. (1931) Jewish Views of Jesus. London: Allen & Unwin.
  • Weiss-Rosmarin, Trude. (ed.) (1977) Jewish Expressions on Jesus; an Anthology. New York: KTAV.

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