Glad You Asked: What do Jews believe about Jesus?

On this episode of the podcast, philosopher Joshua Stein discusses how Jews regard the historical and religious figure of Jesus.

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Different Christian denominations hold varying views on multiple topics. Over the past two thousand years, these doctrinal differences have often generated conflict, even to the point of religious wars. Despite huge variations in belief on some topics, however, one thing all Christian denominations agree on is that Jesus is the Son of God and the third person of the Trinity. They also believe that Jesus is the Christ—from the Greek chrīstós, a translation from the Hebrew Mašíaḥ, (messiah), meaning “anointed one.”

But what do the Jewish people think about this? How does Judaism regard the Christian claim that Jesus is also the Hebrew Messiah? And how do practitioners of the Jewish religion, today, regard the historical figure of Jesus in general? 

On this episode of the podcast, the hosts welcome back guest Joshua Stein, to discuss how Jews regard Jesus. Stein currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. His work focuses on intersections between moral, economic, and political theories and their practical application to social interactions between people and social institutions. 

You can read more about this topic, and read some of Stein’s writing, in these links:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Cassidy: And I’m Cassidy Klein, editorial assistant at U.S. Catholic. While different Christian denominations hold varying views on multiple topics, when it comes to certain core beliefs about Jesus, they are in agreement. But what about other faith traditions?

Rebecca: On a previous episode, in season one, we discussed what Muslims believe about Jesus. Today we’re going to discuss what Jews believe about Jesus. Our guest today, philosopher Joshua Stein, currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. 

Cassidy: Stein’s work focuses on intersections between moral, economic, and political theories and their practical application to social interactions between people and social institutions. This is his second appearance as a guest on the podcast. 

Cassidy: Joshua, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast again.

Joshua: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s great to be back.

Rebecca: So to begin with, we should probably clarify what it means to ask, what do Jews believe? Catholics have a papal and magisterial authority dictating what we are supposed to believe, and we have levels of requirement for belief. Does the Jewish religion have a similar structure of authority?

Joshua: No, the different denominations in Judaism may have different documents which act as sort of broad guidelines regarding what the standard positions on certain issues within those denominations are. But there’s no uniformity among the various Jewish denominations about what they believe. And for the most part, even within denominations, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions on almost every issue. Even though, for example, the conservative and reform denominations have statements about the beliefs of the denomination collectively, there is no requirement that Jews who are members of those denominations endorse every single tenant of them.

Cassidy: Most Christian practitioners believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, though what that means differs from one group to the next. What do Jews believe about this?

Joshua: It’s fairly widely accepted within the Jewish community that Jesus is not the Messiah on the basis that if a Jewish person were to accept that belief, they would just convert to Christianity, right? This is sort of the understanding within the Jewish community. I think one of the major challenges in the discussion is that the Messiah is on most Jewish understandings that involve the Messiah being a person, and I’ll come back to those that don’t later on, those views hold that a principal role of the Messiah is to unify the Jewish people. And so that’s not really a role that Jesus has played for Judaism.

Rebecca: So considering the centrality of all of these, I guess you could say, messianic passages and various prophecies in the Jewish scripture which Christians have kind of incorporated into the Christian Bible, what do practitioners of Judaism believe about the concept of the Messiah today?

Joshua: Well, it’s useful to start by dividing the community into two sort of broad groups. There, on the one hand, you have groups that believe that the Messianic passages refer to a particular person who will come at some point in the history of the Jewish people. And those groups, which include Chabad and parts of the Orthodox movement and Hasidic movements tend to hold that the Messiah’s role is as a unifier of the Jewish people, which might be understood in very different ways, or as responsible for re-establishing the temple in Jerusalem. Those are sort of the two common central views for those who believe that the Messiah is a predicted person. The view among the majority of Jews in the world of the reform and conservative denominations are large, those groups don’t believe that the passages refer to a particular person. The conservative denomination, for example, is agnostic about whether the passages predict the coming of any particular person and rather interprets them as aspirational regarding the unity of the Jewish community. Similarly, the reform denomination doesn’t hold to the view that the passages refer to a particular individual. So that’s the major sort of disagreement about how to understand and interpret those passages. Historically, that’s been a source of substantial disagreement among Jewish scholars as well over the last, well, several thousand years now.

Cassidy: So what about the historical figure of Jesus? What do Jews believe about who he was?

Joshua: Well, Jews don’t have any collective view on the subject. So you may have a wide range of views about the historical Jesus, right? And you might have people who adopt a cynical view, right? Maybe who are skeptical of the historical person of Jesus. My suspicion is that most Jews accept that Jesus is a historical figure. Several prominent Jewish scholars including the Jewish rabbi Martin Buber wrote extensively about understanding Jesus from a Jewish perspective. There are a range of Jewish New Testament scholars who think about Jesus in the context of early rabbinic Judaism. But for the most part, there’s no unified view about any of this. I mean, the scholars speak for themselves as individuals and that’s the way that Judaism approaches these things, to allow that people have diverse views that can be debated and discussed.

Rebecca: So I’ve often found commentaries on the Christian gospels from a Jewish perspective to be more useful than a lot of Christian commentary when it comes to kind of digging into them. Do we see parallels between the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels and teachings of significant Jewish rabbis in his day?

Joshua: The most significant is a comparison between Jesus and Rabbi Hillel who lived shortly before Jesus in the gospels. Hillel is said to have died around the year 10 CE. So he would have been sort of an immediate predecessor. And Hillel has a range of views that were formative to rabbinic Judaism as it developed before the fall of the temple and then after. Hillel is probably the figure that gets compared to Jesus the most. There’s some discussion as to whether Jesus’ presentation of the golden rule in the Sermon on the Mount is an intentional quotation of Hillel. One of the things that Hillel is famed to have said is there’s a story about Hillel, Rabbi Hillel, where someone says, tell me the whole of Torah while standing on one foot. And Hillel gives basically, love your neighbor as yourself, right? This sort of view that we very much recognize as being associated with Jesus. So there are some areas of divergence between the two, but for the most part, I find a lot of what Jesus says to be fairly consistent with the teachings of Hillel in particular and the scholars who come after in Hillel’s tradition.

Cassidy: So as far as a baseline for what Jews believe about Jesus, what are some of the basics that all practitioners of Judaism would agree on?

Joshua: Like I said before, I don’t think there’s really a standard in Jewish beliefs about Jesus. The sort of standard view among Jews is that accepting Jesus as the Messiah is kind of disqualifying for membership in the community. For the same reason that Jews professing Islam is traditionally prescribed, right, prohibited because there’s a long tradition of attempts at conversion. So that’s, I think, a major source of motivation for the unanimity on the rejection of Jesus’ Messiah. But beyond that, I don’t think there really are any. There aren’t any things that Jews in general agree on. It’s a diverse community. It’s a community where we accept that people have wildly different views on how to interpret law, how to understand prophecy, how to understand even our group identity. And so that variation makes kind of pinning down any particular views very difficult.

Rebecca: So given how fraught interfaith relations have often been between Jews and Christians, and especially given the history of antisemitism that many Christian groups have fostered or even created, are there some ways Christians could talk about Jesus in a way that’s not disrespectful or appropriative towards Judaism?

Joshua: I think this is a fairly difficult question, and it depends a lot on the particular relationship between the people who are talking, right? So I have lots of Christian friends who know that they can be more open with me about this stuff because I’m not gonna take it as religiously pressuring or anything like that. So my first thing that I will always say when engaging in interfaith conversations is, about religion, is to make sure that you understand the relationship that you have with this person. Right? If you have a good friendship, then that’s a good basis to start with a candid conversation. And if you don’t, you may not want to go in that direction with the conversation. Regarding the particulars of talking about Jesus with Jewish people, I think one of the things that can develop is that often these conversations can feel like an exercise in convincement rather than an exercise in conversation. And that’s where things get very, very tricky in part because frankly most Jews who have lived in Christian majority countries like the United States have enormous experiences with Christians evangelizing. And so those kinds of conversations tend to provoke a very hostile response in the sense that it’s kind of old hat to most people who are adult Jews and it’s genuinely not welcome. So making sure that tone of conversation and engagement is centered is important. If you start slipping into a sermon then you may want to draw back a little bit. And the last thing I think is important to keep in mind is that dialogue involves listening. And different Jewish people may come to these situations from very, very different places, right? In my experience, most people who come out of the reform and conservative denominations don’t really have strong views about Jesus in particular, so much as they have strong views about what modern Christianity looks like and what behavior Christians are engaged in, right? They have much stronger views about Christianity than about Jesus as either a religious or historical figure. And that’s something that I tend to think gets lost in a lot of these conversations, that they become a proxy for what is Christianity like today. So if you want to have those conversations, it’s important to remember that feature of the context, too, especially at a time when I think a lot of people involved in interfaith spaces are reasonably nervous about the state of the world and especially the state of religious conflict in the world right now.

Cassidy: Joshua, thank you so much for being our guest on the podcast today.

Joshua: Thanks for having me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.