On Saturday my Jesus quest took me to Mount Zion, a spur south of the Old City that separates several valleys and overlooks the pool of Siloam where a blind man washed mud off his eyes and saw for the first time (John 9:1-7). I first explored a church tied (albeit tenuously) to Jesus’ hearing before Caiaphas and to Peter’s three denials and then, near the traditional tomb of David, a site tied (since maybe the 5th century) to the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost and to Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.
At least as interesting as this pair of sites, however, was a pair of events that occurred only minutes apart as I ascended again toward the Old City.
I was passing a narrow, cobbled lane that led to the traditional tomb of David when a soothing English voice caught my attention. Peering down the alley I saw a spry older gentleman addressing a cohort of several dozen young people sitting there in the road. The fact that it was all in English likely meant these were American Jews on some kind of arranged tour. His topic: why Christians are wrong. In about 15 minutes he led them on a speed tour through a series of objections to Christianity. I found a place in the shade about 10 meters away, took out a notebook and listened.
Most of what I heard focused on how much the real (or “historical”) Jesus differed from the Gospels’ portraits and from Christian theology. The distinction is not new, of course, but I’d never before encountered it on the lips of a lay Jewish youth worker engaged in apologetics.
Turns out Jesus was neither a prophet nor a perfect man nor a Messiah and he was certainly not God. For each Christian claim the teacher laid out objections, some of which were reasonable but others were frustrating. Reasonable: Christian monotheism is not “pure.” Frustrating: Jesus’ anger in the Temple (“for a good cause”) shows he wasn’t perfect. (Seems to me Israel’s God got angry “for a good cause” once or twice.)
More positively, Jesus was a good rabbi, a great story teller and a genuine faith healer who sincerely thought he was the Messiah. We know he wasn’t the Messiah, however, since horrible things continue to happen in the world. To confirm that the Messianic age has not dawned one need only look at the deadly conflict between Jews and Arabs, he said.
The Jewish apologist had a point. Israel’s prophets (see, e.g., Isaiah 11, 52; Amos 9) foresaw a glorious age of restoration, security and abundance in the land -- something Israel today can scarcely imagine. The world knows about Israel’s grinding conflict with the Palestinians; what doesn’t make the headlines is the grinding poverty among Jews. Less pervasive than among Palestinians, yes, but widespread and deep nonetheless.
Christian theology, of course, says the Messiah did come but must come again to consummate fully the Messianic Age. At that moment, sitting on the cobbles, I could see why some people, especially Torah-reading Jews, would find our two-stage Messianism a bit of a stretch. Unbelievable, even. Unless, that is, we followers of Jesus who are living in between those two comings were marked by such astonishing harmony that our mere presence was an inexplicable, undeniable preview of the Age to come. Judging by Christian turf wars and ecclesiastical disharmony, on display most poignantly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, our case that Jesus is the One who shall restore all things may not seem particularly persuasive. Instead of opening blind eyes, it seems like we're smearing on more mud.
Within minutes of my encounter with the Josh McDowell of Judaism, I struck up a conversation with another Jew across the street from Zion Gate. An older man looking to serve as my guide, he asked if I was Jewish or Christian. Hearing my answer he revealed to me his own identity: a Messianic Jew, a Jewish follower of Jesus. He wore a kippah and assured me he went regularly to synagogue. But he also attended a Messianic Jewish congregation. Like the apostle Paul, he was both practicing Jew and follower of Jesus. Unlike Paul, however, he kept the Jesus part largely to himself for fear of hostile reactions among his countrymen. (That fear didn’t stop him from offering his business card.)
Within meters and minutes of each other, then, I encountered two opposite Jewish views of Jesus. Messianic pretender or Messiah? Charismatic teacher or Son of God? Faith healer or fulfiller of prophecy?
Neither man, however, disliked Jesus. Indeed, both loved him. (To my surprise, the apologist had said so, explicitly.) For both men Jesus was profoundly, irreducibly and emphatically Jewish. To the extent that Christians today forget that, they are guilty of distortion. The more I read the New Testament and the longer I spend in the land, the more I’m compelled to agree. Which raises the obvious question: what difference might the Jewishness of Jesus make to Gentile Christians in the modern West?