Judaism and Christianity

By Honig, George | Midstream, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Judaism and Christianity


Honig, George, Midstream


Most Jews possess scant knowledge about Jesus, and for many of us, the mere mention of his name is enough to provoke deep feelings of discomfort. But there is still much to be said for our becoming better acquainted with the history of this profoundly enigmatic figure. Of course, gaining greater familiarity with the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life and death can help us better understand the origins of the Christian antisemitic hatred that had such tragic consequences for the Jewish people. But we also should be aware that now quite an extensive body of scholarly analysis, accumulated mainly over the last few decades, from both Jewish and Christian sources, has produced a considerably altered picture of Jesus, one that contrasts strikingly from how he was depicted in the New Testament. And that reconceived understanding of Jesus has considerable relevance for Jews.

My own introduction to Jesus took place under the most unexpected of circumstances. It happened late one evening, soon after the death of my wife that had ended her long and heart-rending battle with cancer. The last of the shiva visitors had departed, and I was home alone when the telephone rang. The call was from a neighbor. I was aware that "Jack" was a Christian, which at that time was rather an oddity in Skokie, Illinois where I lived, where almost everyone, it seemed, was Jewish.

"Are you by yourself?' he asked. I told him that I was. "Would it be all fight for me to come over so we could talk for a while?" That was very kind, I said to him, perhaps naively, and a few minutes later, Jack and I were sitting together in my living room. He quickly got to the point he wanted to discuss:

"At such a time in your life as this," he said, "you ought to think about accepting Jesus." with my mind still in a fog, grieving the terrible loss of my wife of 32 years, I could at first barely comprehend what Jack was saying. Why would I want to do that? I finally said.

His reply left me even more puzzled: "It's to guarantee that you'll go to heaven when you die. If you accept Jesus, if you're baptized, then you'll go to heaven; if not, you won't--it's as simple as that."

I had never heard of any such idea. I did, however, have enough presence of mind to challenge what he had told me: Hitler was a Catholic, I said, and presumably he was baptized, so are you telling me that Hitler went to heaven?

"Yes," he answered without hesitation, "but he would have barely gotten in. And that's the point: Baptism is like fire insurance--it guarantees you'll go to heaven no matter what."

So, if I were to go to heaven, I replied, I could expect to find Hitler there, but none of the people I most care about--such as my beloved wife who has just died. "It's an easy choice," I said "If that's what heaven is, I don't want to go there."

Jack found my reply to be incomprehensible. I, in turn, came away from our conversation with the impression that my neighbor was a religious crackpot. But later, after a good deal of reading, I arrived at the surprising realization that Jack's beliefs are not only widely held by his co-religionists, but that they are drawn from fundamental principles of Christian theology that go all the way back to the writings of St. Patti, from the mid-first century.

I also came to learn that anyone wishing to find an objective historical account of Jesus' life will be faced with a major obstacle: virtually everything known to have been recorded about Jesus during the century in which he lived comes from religious texts, which are a notoriously unreliable source of historical information. Flavius Josephus, who lived in the 1st century and was undoubtedly the greatest chronicler of that era of Judean history, included only one paragraph about Jesus in his extensive writings, and even that short entry appears to be of dubious accuracy. Its syntax and writing style demonstrate notable differences from those of Josephus' other works, and most scholars who have studied the passage have concluded that Christian scribes must have inserted much or all of it many years later. …

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