Lesson Eight - According to Other Abrahamic Traditions
Jesus as Jew, Rabbi, Heretic and Prophet
What Are the Abrahamic Faiths?
Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the three largest Abrahamic faiths. Lesser known faiths such as Rastifari, Samaritanism, Druze, Babism and Baha’i also consider themselves to be in the Abrahamic family. Judaism understands itself to be the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the lineage of blessing coming through this lineage. Islam, considers its lineage to be from Abraham, to Ishmael (a symbol for Ishmael is on every mosque) and then to Muhammed. Islam considers Abraham to be one of the great prophets and one of the first Muslims. He is often recalled during the Hajj (the sacred Islamic pilgrimage). As Christians, we consider ourselves to be those who are spiritually (not genetically) connected with Abraham. The Apostle Paul makes this connection in his writings.
What follows is taken from a series of essays in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford University Press, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, 2011.
Jesus in Rabbinic Tradition (essay by Burton L. Visotzky) - Visotzky points out that Jesus was rarely mentioned in the rabbinic tradition and most of those mentions are made in the late first to mid-third century CE. “These texts largely ignore Jesus and Christianity, probably because Christianity was seen as a minor heresy posing no real threat to rabbinic Judaism.” (pg. 580) What remarks there are cast aspersions on Jesus’ origins, divinity and teachings; there are a few references to at least one of his teachings which was accepted by certain rabbis. One interesting note from the essay is that none of the texts “offer any historic evidence regarding Jesus…” (pg. 580)
Jesus in Medieval Jewish Tradition (essay by Martin Lockshin) - Lockshin writes that one of the earliest works about Jesus “contends that Christian claims of Jesus’ divinity cannot be supported from the New Testament and are also contradicted by the events of Jesus’ life: gestation and birth (unbecoming for a divine being), Jesus prayers to God (why if Jesus were divine would be pray?) and particularly a shameful death…” (pg. 581). In addition there were anti-Jesus works which claimed that he was a sorcerer; an idea also found in the Talmud. Maimonides (12th century) wrote that Jesus was not the messiah but the “lawless one” referred to in the Book of Daniel and because of that was a stumbling block to Jews.
Jesus in Modern Jewish Thought (essay by Susannah Heschel) - Heschel begins her essay by describing a new vision of Jesus which began to emerge in the mid-eighteenth century. This movement viewed Jesus as a good Jew and sometimes as a good rabbi. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth himself observed not only the law of Moses, but also the ordinances of the rabbis” (pg. 581); Geiger writing in 1857 saw Jesus as “a Jew, a Pharisaic Jew with Galilean coloring - a man who shared the hopes of his time and believed that these hopes were fulfilled in him. He did not utter a new thought, nor did he break down the barriers of nationality…he did not abolish any part of Judaism; he was a Pharisee who walked in the way of Hillel.” (Hillel was a first century liberal rabbinic movement) (pg. 583). Martin Buber writing in 1951 said, “…I have found in Jesus my great brother” (pg. 583). More negative views of Jesus emerged during and after the Holocaust. He becomes “the symbol for catastrophe, for the pogroms, and for the Shoah” (pg. 584).
A new generation of Jewish scholars continued the tradition of looking at Jesus in his Jewishness. Pinchas Lapide (1922-1977) wrote that “Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew and that Jews did not reject him. He also claimed that the resurrection was a physical occurrence, a miracle whose purpose it was to bring Gentiles to belief in Israel’s God” (pg. 584). Schalom ben Chorin (1913-99) saw “Jesus as a love filled proto-rabbi who saw himself as the suffering servant of God” (pg. 584). While the last couple of decades have seen a significant body of work along these lines, there are also those who see Jesus as being antithetical to certain basic Jewish beliefs such as monotheism, community and Torah.
Summary – what I hope these notes show is that Jesus has been and is seen in a multiplicity of ways by the Jewish community; rabbi, good Jew, heretic, sorcerer and bringer of evil among them. It might be interesting to ask your Jewish friends how they see Jesus.
Jesus plays a prominent role in Islam. He is mentioned either indirectly or directly 180 times in 93 verses with titles such as Son of Mary, Spirit of God and Word of God. The role he plays is that of the penultimate prophet (second only to Muhammed). He was a messenger of God and is seen as the messiah to the children of Israel who brought to them a new revelation. Similar to Christianity he is considered to have been born without sin (from the Hadith – “Hardly a single descendant of Adam is born without Satan touching him at the moment of his birth. A baby who is touched like that gives a cry. The only exceptions are Mary and her son” [cf. Q 3: 36]), to have fled from Herod as a child, to have performed multiple miracles (many of which are mentioned in the non-canonical Gospels examined in the last lesson). Islam also believes that Jesus will return and to restore justice and defeat the false messiah. When he does so he will declare that Islam is the true religion and that Muhammed is God’s prophet.
The differences include a rejection of his divinity, of his crucifixion and of his resurrection. It is believed that Jesus did not die but was taken directly to heaven (like the prophet Elijah). Some Islamic writings suggest that there was someone who took Jesus’ place on the cross. Much of this is based on Docetic (again see the last lesson) writings.
The largest body of Jesus’ sayings within any non-Christian tradition are contained in the Sufi branch of Islam. Many of these sayings focus on Jesus’ ascetic lifestyle.