It is known that many Jews, some even contemporaries of Jesus, claimed to be the expected Messiah. Of these, only Jesus of Nazareth is the name that has endured over time. Still, too few of His contemporaries recognized and accepted Him as the Messiah, and this reality raises a question: why was Jesus rejected?
Jesus, a humble Galilean peasant, lived his entire childhood and youth in the not-so-pious village of Nazareth, on the hills of northern Palestine. He did not achieve anything remarkable until he was thirty. As a carpenter, he was probably known as a simple, unpretentious man. History has remembered the names of people like Alexander of Macedon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or Albert Einstein, who all, by the age of 30, already held positions of notoriety in the world. Eventually, circumstances took a turn that transformed the simplicity of Jesus’ secluded life into a biography that never ended and never will end. The humble Nazarene far surpassed the legendary figures of the gods and the fame of the geniuses.
The Jewish perspective
The expectation of a Messiah to deliver Israel from Roman domination and the whole world from evil was legitimate. His life and teachings, similar to those of the Jewish scholars and rabbis, were not an inconvenience to anyone. What aroused suspicion and mistrust was His identification with the Messiah or the Son of God, and this is because of the assumption “that men claiming to be the Messiah sooner or later rose in rebellion—those claiming the mantle of Messiah were usually packed off to the Roman authorities if they became troublesome enough,” as the historian Paul Johnson writes.
According to the Jewish author Isidore Epstein, it was the Sanhedrin’s duty to arrest all those suspected of plotting against Rome, and when the charges were substantiated, they had to hand over the accused to the authorities, for trial. Jesus is said to have been brought before the Sanhedrin. Fearing that they would lose the meagre independence they still had, the members of the Sanhedrin sent Jesus to Pilate. The Roman governor did with Jesus what he did with the people accused of incitement. In Epstein’s vision, Pilate is to blame for Jesus’ death.
Although he is portrayed by evangelists as undecided about Jesus, weighing whether or not to yield to the pressure coming from Jewish priests, Pilate was different in reality, says Epstein. He is the one who disrespected the basic rights of the Jews, harming their religious feelings in every possible way. His legionaries marched through Jerusalem with banners bearing the image of the king. It was at his orders that the Temple was looted, in order to obtain the money needed to build an aqueduct. He also allegedly deprived the Sanhedrin of criminal jurisdiction, hoping to drastically diminish their influence and power. On the other hand, he forced them to maintain order in the Roman province of Judea.
It is said that the Jews surrendered Jesus for fear of Pilate.
The Jewish religious elite consisted of two major parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees (who were priests). The treatment of Jesus, which was politically motivated in Epstein’s eyes, suggests the Sadducees had been involved to a greater extent than the Pharisees in the trial. In fact, the Pharisees never criticized Jesus for his messianic claims, Epstein concludes. The differences between Jesus and the Pharisees were only religious, regarding the Pharisees’ interpretations of the Torah, which Jesus condemned. Therefore, the Sadducees, or the caste of priests, are said to have been the ones who were bothered by the fact that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.
JB Agus reinforces the idea that what Jesus’ disciples accepted, and many of the Jews rejected, was the belief that He was the ‘Son of Man’, the expected Messiah. In the eyes of Israel, He suffered the fate of one of those pseudo-Messiahs, who were then quite numerous. It was not enough for Him to simply claim to be the Messiah. He had to prove He had that right. The Jews once said to Jesus, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you” (Matthew 12:38). Also, “the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1).
Moreover, they shouted at Jesus, when He was crucified, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him.” (Matthew 27:42) The required demonstration alluded to in these texts was not related to a mere supernatural act. Jesus had already given them such evidence countless times. What was required of Jesus was the indisputable proof that He was the Messiah. This would have meant the establishment of the messianic era that would bring with it the glory and grandeur of the kingdoms of David and Solomon.
From a Jewish point of view, says Agus, Jesus was ‘rejected’ only because of His messianic claim, because He had not brought with Him the age of glory. So, it would all come down to the lack of a demonstration. In other words, Jesus’ misfortune is that His coming did not take place following popular expectations.
In Jews, God, and History, Max Dimont proposes a theory contrary to the gospel tradition, according to which Jesus was not abjured by the Jews, but by the Romans. Dimont refers to the fact that the Jewish judicial proceedings at that time had some provisions contrary to the Christian report of the Gospels. For example, no arrests were made during the night; no court meetings were held after sunset on the eve of the Sabbath or any other holiday; the Sanhedrin never met in the hall of the high priest, or any other building, but only in the so-called Hall of the Carved Stone; the Sanhedrin could not arrest anyone.
Moreover, no one could be brought before the Sanhedrin until two witnesses had testified against them under oath. As there was no prosecutor, the prosecution’s witnesses had to testify about the nature of the crime before the Court and in the presence of the defendant, who in turn had the right to call their witnesses. The court questioned the defendant, the prosecution, and the defence witnesses. Based on the differences between these Jewish practices and the accounts of the evangelists, Dimont doubts the aforementioned account, and proposes an understanding favourable to the Jews. In such an understanding, Jesus was arrested by the Jews not in order to be condemned, but to be protected from the rapacity of the Romans. In this sense, Jesus was rejected by the Jews, but they did not condemn and execute Him—the Romans did.
In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the promised Messiah from the moment of His birth (Matthew 1:21). He was born King, and this was “the written charge against Him” (Matthew 27:37). On the one hand, the Jews rejected Him because they did not see in Jesus a Messiah, that is, a Saviour. If he was the Messiah, why was there no change at the political level? Why was Israel still a poor Roman province? Dumitru Stăniloae described Jesus as “a strange emperor in the eyes of the crowd who would want Him to ascend the throne of worldly power.”
On the other hand, they believed even less that He was the Son of God. “‘We are not stoning you for any good work’, they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God'” (John 10:33).
At the same time, many were disturbed by the harsh statements (“You belong to your father, the devil”; John 8:44) and categorical rebukes (“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit”; Matthew 21:43) that came from someone who had not studied in rabbinic schools. In addition, the authority of the Pharisees was undermined by the presence of Jesus.
The teacher was often put in dilemmatic situations by the Pharisees, and His answers revealed their hypocrisy. The political ambitions of these religious leaders were too great, and the theological ambitions were absolute. They could not accept being taught (being forced to unlearn) by a Nazarene. As for the common people, they clearly demonstrated a willingness to be manipulated (see the scene of the choice between Jesus and Barabbas, just days after Jesus had received a triumphant reception in Jerusalem).
Then and now
George W. Thompson, a 19th-century American politician, lawyer, and judge, said that even the poorest people on earth enjoy the protection of the law which requires proof of the accusations brought against them, but Jesus was denied this privilege which was granted to the most repulsive citizens. He also said that Jesus’s whole life was a long battle because He was misunderstood, and as a result his life was filled with opposition, mockery, anger, deprivation, and pain. At the end of all that, He reached the last act of this physical drama, a cruel death on the cross.
In summary, the rejection of Christ had the following causes:
(1) He called Himself the Messiah, that is, the Son of God, of the same nature as God, and the Jews were not prepared to accept this because Jesus…
(2) …did not establish the long-awaited rule and the politico-military supremacy of the old state of Israel. The Christian Gospels add to these reasons:
(3) the envy of the Jewish religious authorities, and…
(4) …the inability of the Jews to redefine their expectations as God revealed Himself in Jesus, in a language other than the one they had “learned.”
In his discourse in Matthew 23, addressed to the Pharisees and Jewish scholars, Jesus exposed the serious lack of understanding the two parties of the time had. Starting from their practice of adorning the graves of Jewish prophets persecuted in the past by their contemporaries, Jesus—persecuted by them in the same way as the prophets of the past— discredited their justification: “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.”
To Christ, the contents of such statements resembled a towering tree, which, on closer inspection was fully hollow. The temptation to put themselves in a similar position also exists for contemporary Christians who often say, “If we had lived in the time of Christ, we would not have gone along with them (Jews and/or Romans) at His crucifixion…”
What would a Messiah who is not educated in Jerusalem, Rome, Mount Athos, or Protestant Universities look like today? And what if His teachings were better received by the public, more relevant, and more impactful than the books and academic titles of today’s great scholars of theology? What if He had nothing to argue about with the Arabs in Jerusalem, and He did not even bother to rebuild the Temple? Would our generation be able to reshape their expectations of the Saviour?
Still, I do not think that today’s greatest challenge is adapting one’s vision of the Messiah. In one of his paintings, “The Flagellation of Christ”, Piero Della Francesca showcases a scene that speaks for itself. Christ and the executioner are an insignificant detail in the background, somewhere in a corner of the Roman court where He has been condemned. The body of the defendant is still untouched. The punisher has his hand raised, prepared to strike for the first time. In the foreground, in a relaxed atmosphere, elegantly dressed patricians, with their backs to Christ, talk calmly to each other. The message of the painting is clear: the world’s indifference to the cruel death of Christ is an even greater horror than His flagellation.
In reality, it is not important who condemned Jesus. This ideological battle does not end unless we give the floor to the defendant. However, Jesus was not so much concerned with who condemned Him, but with the fundamental reason for His death on the cross. Moreover, in the Gospel of John (10:15-17), Jesus twice says, “I lay down my life.”
The emphasis on the pronoun “I” is essential for the understanding of the statement. Regardless of the circumstances of Jesus’ death, His sacrifice was a voluntary act for the good of every human being. Seen in this way, the rejection and the condemnation of Jesus, in a historical and geographical setting, become timeless, because every time the ethics and teachings of Jesus are directed at us, we will have to decide whether a mere man, or Infinity, is speaking to us.
Laurenţiu-Florentin Moţ, PhD, is an associate professor and rector of Adventus University.