Dear Jew in the City-
Why don’t Jews believe in Jesus? Who was he according to Jewish texts?
Thanks for your question, though it’s the kind of question I hate to answer. The reason I hate to answer is because I don’t like to be misconstrued as “picking a fight” with our Christian neighbors or disparaging the central figure of their religion. That’s not at all what I’m doing when I answer such questions. Obviously, there are huge theological differences between our religions; if there weren’t, we’d all be the same religion! So, I will explain why we Jews believe what we believe but this is just for the edification of Jews, or for others who care to know why we differ in these points. Jews don’t proselytize so I have no interest in trying to convince Christians that they’re wrong or that they should come around to our way of thinking. Everyone has the right to their own faith and their own beliefs, just as we have the right to disagree with one another.
I actually get asked your question, or variations of it, all the time from students in Catholic schools, in college comparative religion classes, etc. There are certain parochial schools where I think the students must share my email address with one another when they have such assignments because I get so many inquiries that it defies statistical likelihood that they’re all stumbling across me online. Sometimes the students have trouble grasping that Jesus simply isn’t a figure in Judaism at all and that the New Testament books of their Bible carry no significance for us. When they don’t understand that, I ask them about the significance of Mohammed and the Quran in their religion. When they invariably tell me that there is none, I say, “Same thing.”
So there’s the answer to part 2 of your question. Who was Jesus according to Jewish texts? It’s basically a non-issue because Jesus isn’t a figure in Judaism.
There are some who will tell you that the Talmud talks about Jesus here and there but it’s not really quite so clear that it does. There are two individuals who are popularly associated with Jesus: one was named ben Stada and the other was named ben Pandira. It’s not 100% clear whether ben Stada and ben Pandira were the same person or two separate people and it’s even less clear that either of them is supposed to be Jesus. The “evidence” that people like to cite in support of the theory is actually pretty flimsy and easily refuted. For example, the Talmud says that ben Stada’s father was Pappos ben Yehuda. Pappos ben Yehuda lived about 100 years after Jesus is supposed to have lived. That being the case, ben Stada couldn’t be Jesus. (If you accept the Talmud’s hypothesis that ben Stada is also ben Pandira, that alone would be enough to knock the latter out of consideration, as well.) While the Talmud does record occasional debates with “minim” (early Christians who were actually apostate Jews), the Sages were probably more concerned with Zoroastrianism, which posed an existential threat, than they were with Christianity, which was still a relatively minor cult (in the original, technical sense of the word).
As far as why we don’t accept Jesus as the messiah, it’s simple enough: he doesn’t fulfill the Biblical prophecies regarding what the moshiach is supposed to accomplish and the prophecies that they claim he did fulfill aren’t actually prophecies at all.
The Bible tells us that, among other things, the messiah will rebuild the destroyed Temple, gather the dispersed exiles and return them to Israel, and unite the world in an era of peace. None of those things has yet happened. (Rebuilding the Temple would have been particularly tricky since it was still standing in Jesus’ lifetime and would not be destroyed until about 35 years after his death.) Rambam, in detailing the laws of the moshiach (Hilchos Melachim 11:4) explains that if a person we think might be the messiah dies without accomplishing these tasks, then we know he wasn’t the one. The idea that the messiah might accomplish these things in a “second coming” is without Biblical support.
Conversely, the things that people say he fulfilled aren’t really messianic prophecies. For example, the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is irrelevant. Aside from the fact that lots of people are born in Bethlehem, that’s not a messianic requirement. Rather, the messiah must be descended from King David; it’s David who was born in Bethlehem.
Similarly, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is neither an uncommon occurrence nor necessarily a messianic prophecy. While there are certainly those who understand it that way, others feel that the prophet Zechariah was describing Judah Maccabee (an interpretation I favor because Zechariah focuses heavily on the Hasmonean dynasty). Even those who consider it to be a messianic reference consider it only one potential scenario (Sanhedrin 98a).
The claim of a virgin birth actually works against the case for Jesus being the messiah. First of all, Isaiah 7:14 isn’t a messianic prophecy at all (and even if it were, the word “alma” means a young woman, not a virgin). But aside from that, the messiah absolutely must be a direct patrilineal (i.e., father to son) descendant of Kings David and Solomon – that’s requirement #1. If a person didn’t have a human father, he couldn’t be a patrilineal descendant of anyone.
There are many other such examples (not breaking a bone, suffering servant, original sin, etc.) but I don’t intend to go through them one by one. The bottom line is that Jews don’t accept Jesus as the messiah because he didn’t do the things that moshiach is supposed to do, while the things were are told that he did fulfill are not messianic prerequisites. (Again, I stress that my purpose is only to explain why Jews don’t believe in Jesus. I am absolutely not trying to enter into a debate with Christians in order to persuade them.)
There is one relevant source about Jesus that I’d like to mention. Remember that, historically, the world was polytheistic and only the Jews were monotheists. Now, most of the world is monotheistic. The Rambam (Melachim 11:4 again) says that while we clearly don’t agree with Christianity and Islam, Jesus and Mohammed served to turn huge swaths of the world’s population towards monotheism, paving the way for the ultimate coming of moshiach. So we may not agree with Jesus as the end goal of the messianic process – honestly, he’s completely irrelevant for Jews – but we do understand him as an important step towards the messianic era for much of mankind.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube