Christology, Messianism and Jewish-Christian Relations

Christology, Messianism and Jewish-Christian relations

by Tim Dean

For Christians down the ages, the foundational Christological idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah has determined the Church’s attitudes to Judaism and Jews. Jewish expectation of the coming of the Messiah proceeds unabated since the birth of Christianity. In Jewish prayer books and recited regularly in Synagogue services is Maimonides’ affirmation: ‘I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, I wait daily for his coming.’ This essay seeks to explore one key question: How can Christians understand the persistence of Judaism and acknowledge the faithfulness to God of many Jews over the last two millennia, who nevertheless cannot accept Jesus as Messiah? This is no abstract theoretical question, but a personal pilgrimage – a lived out quest for appropriate Christian-Jewish relations that respects the integrity of both faiths.

Jewish Christology

Is there such a thing as Jewish Christology? ‘Yes’, in that Judaism does engage in questioning the nature and role of Jesus, and ‘no’, because Judaism will never use the term Christ, as it would be seen as affirming Jesus as Messiah.

So how do Jews understand ‘messiah’ and view Jesus? According to Louis Jacobs, ‘messiah’ in Hebrew Scriptures refers to anyone ‘actually anointed with sacred oil for the purpose of high office, such as the king or high priest. The term is also applied to any person for whom God has a special purpose: Cyrus, king of Persia, for instance.’ Biblical antecedents led to the development of the doctrine of the Messiah, as ‘the person believed to be sent by God to usher in a new era in which all mankind will worship the true God’ [Jacobs 1995:342] With other Rabbinical scholars, he insists the doctrine of Messiah firmly denotes a this-worldly aspect of Jewish eschatology. Thus Jewish traditions are clear in their expectations of a personal Messiah:

  • He will bring an end to oppression, gather in the Jewish exiles, rebuild the Temple, end war, and introduce a golden age of universal peace.
  • He will be a wise leader from King David’s royal household, a leader of the redeemed people, not the Redeemer – who is God alone.
  • He will bring about the resurrection of the dead.

Crucially for a Jewish evaluation of Jesus, the Messiah is not God. As Cohn-Sherbock puts it, ‘Although the Messiah was now viewed as an ideal human person who would rescue the nation, there was no expectation that he would be divine.’ [Cohn-Sherbock 2004:20]. Indeed, Jews hold that it is impossible for God to become human. The Messiah cannot forgive sins, that is God’s prerogative. David Rosen adds ‘the condition of one’s personal soul has nothing to do with the identity of the Messiah, but is a matter between the individual and God.’ [Kendal & Rosen:46]

In addition, Cohn-Sherbock notes that today, belief in the coming of a personal messiah has dwindled, with some non-Orthodox movements translating ‘belief in the Messiah into a belief in a Messianic period’. [Cohn-Sherbock 2004:20] Secular Zionism adopted elements in the Messianic tradition which were hospitable to their effort to restore the Jews to their ancient land. Later Religious Zionists, hold that while the establishment of the State of Israel cannot be identified with the Messianic hope, it is to be seen as the beginning of the redemption. (Jacobs:343)

Rejection of Jesus as Messiah, has been interpreted by some Christians as being a perverse, deliberate and malignant denial of the obvious. But in the light of this brief survey of Jewish messianic reasoning, Christians should at least acknowledge the truth of Martin Buber’s comment, ‘We, Israel, are not able to believe this.’ Why? Because messianic redemption is about a total, irreversible redemption of this world, once and for all. This is expanded upon by Schalom Ben-Chorin, ‘The concept of the redeemed soul in the midst of an unredeemed world is alien to the Jew, profoundly alien ... This is the innermost reason for Israel’s rejection of Jesus, not a merely external, merely national conception of messianism. In Jewish eyes, redemption means redemption from all evil.’ [Moltmann 1994:120] So a ‘Jewish Christology’ finds no ‘Christ’ in Jesus.

The Christian response is to argue that Jesus’ messiahship was in an unexpected form as far as contemporary Jewish understanding was concerned. The particular form it took was consistent with the Hebrew scriptures, albeit based on a different interpretation of the texts.


The Jewish inability to accept Jesus as Messiah, led to theological formulations within Christianity which developed into a profound anti-Judaism: that the Christian church has ‘superseded’ Judaism, thereby rendering it redundant in offering any hope of ‘salvation’ to Jews outside faith in Christ. As Reuther observes:

‘Anti-Judaism was the negative side of the Christian affirmation that Jesus was the Christ. ... But since the Jewish religious leaders rejected this claim, the church developed a polemic against the Jews and Judaism to explain how the church could claim to be the fulfilment of a Jewish religious tradition when the Jewish religious teachers themselves denied this.’ [Reuther 1981:31]

It is important to make a distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, though a clear distinction is not always possible. Anti-Judaism includes the negative stereotyping of Jewish religious faith, expressed in the idea of supersessionism. It is based exclusively on theological grounds. However, that religious idea took on political dimensions with the rise of Christendom when the church’s power extended to civil regulation. Arguably, it is the latter phenomenon, which helped breed anti-Semitism – an ideology of hatred of the Jewish people as an ethnic group, whose very biological make-up is seen as evil. It can also carry a ‘Christian’ motif ‘thinking of Jews today as responsible for the death of Jesus, transforming the execution of Jesus into a metaphysical act of deicide for which Jews are culpable’. [UCC:75]

Without any intention of mitigating the offence of anti-Judaism, it also needs to be marked that the antipathy of each of the two faiths has been mutual. Jewish ‘anti-Christianity’ also existed at the time of Paul and the early Church, and in later Jewish writings. But the crucial difference is in the relative power relationships between the two. When Paul was writing, the Church was in an inferior power-relation to the dominant Jewish faith; but at least from the fourth century through to the present day, the position has been reversed with Christianity dominant in relation to Judaism and exerting considerable political and social influence over Jews.


No consideration of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism can take place without considering the influence of Paul, especially his letter to the Romans. For insight into Paul’s understanding of the issues, I am focusing on Tom Wright’s commentary for these reasons: this is a substantial contemporary work on Romans fully cognisant of the Holocaust and Christian anti-Judaism; in common with many scholars since FC Baur in 1836, Wright puts chapters 9-11 at the centre of Paul’s theological treatise; and because Wright does not accept the understanding of the issue offered at this essay’s conclusion - though, arguably, his framework of understanding should allow it.

Wright is cautious about anyone claiming to have fully understood the complex thought of Romans. He is passionately trying to understand Paul’s thinking within his time and context, warning that Paul is not writing to our contemporary agendas about how all religions are basically the same, nor how the one God has made two equally valid covenants, one with Jews and the other with Christians. (Wright 2002:621)

Paul’s fundamental insights here, which have earned him much criticism from his fellow Jews from that day to this, are [1] to uncouple the Mosaic law from the Abrahamic covenant and thus [2] to regard the Abrahamic covenant as fulfilled ‘apart from the law’ (3:21); [3] to see the Torah as applying to Jews only, and hence not being relevant to the eschatological period when the Gentiles were coming in to God’s people; [4] to see the Torah as intensifying the problems of Adam’s sin for those who were ‘under the Torah’, and thus as something from which its adherents needed to be freed; and [5] to claim, nevertheless, that the Torah had been given by God, had performed the paradoxical tasks assigned to it, and now strangely fulfilled in the creation of the new people of God in Christ and by the Spirit. [Wright 2002:402]

Romans offers no other conclusion than Paul’s firm belief that Jesus was the Messiah for Jews, as well the Gentiles. Paul could not have conceived of there being two parallel covenants in operation, one for Jews, and one for the rest. ‘Any suggestion that Paul would have encountered a split, a twin-track salvation-history, in which Jews should remain Jews and Gentiles might become Christians is without the slightest foundation in his thought or writings.’ True, and Wright also observes ‘There is no easy answer to the large-scale question underneath this discussion. If there were, Paul would have given it.’ [Wright 2002: 451/2] However, it should be noted that Paul has genuine concern for his own people, and will have no thought that God has abandoned Jews, or his covenant with them. ‘All Israel will be saved.’ (Rom 11:26)

In Paul’s day, there were unresolved issues within the Christian community, crucially the question of their identity as a Jewish, or non-Jewish, entity. All the early leaders and followers of this ‘Jesus movement’ were Jews who still attended synagogue. So were they a movement within Judaism or quite separate, and if the latter would there be a continuing Judaism quite separate from the growing Christian movement?

Significantly, no-where in Romans does Paul call for the evangelisation of Jews. Indeed, much of his argument seems to be exhorting Gentile Christians in Rome not to abandon Jews, and to recognise them as the covenant people of God. ‘Has God rejected his people? By no means!’ (Rom 11:1) So why doesn’t Paul call for Jewish evangelisation? Wright offers four possible explanations. First, there is a danger that Gentile Christians in Rome will assume that God has rejected Jews for good. Secondly, Rome had a long tradition of anti-Jewish sentiment. Thirdly, after Claudius’s death in 54CE thousands of Jews returned to the capital, and so it would be easy for the small young church to feel threatened and regard them as the enemy. Finally, by the late 50s there was increasing tension in Judaea and Galilee, and Rome seemed to want to provoke a Jewish rebellion. So Gentile Christians in Rome, would be eager to distance themselves from any sense of complicity with the impending revolt. [Wright 2002:623]

Given the common understanding that Christ’s second coming was not far off, it was impossible for Paul to conceive that Judaism would be flourishing two millennia later. I have no doubt that Paul thought it essential that Jews accept Jesus was their Messiah, and expected that Jews would eventually follow suit. It is also evident that Paul thought his argument in Romans 11 would be effective: that Jews would be jealous when they saw God’s blessings within the Gentile community, and as a consequence be won over. He could not possibly have conceived that Christians would persecute Jews at various times and places throughout subsequent millennia. Thus giving Jews every reason to find the notion of their proposed jealousy utterly ludicrous - and also giving them good reason to see in the unrighteous behaviour of the Church an emptiness in the claim that Jesus is the Messiah.

Judaism, Christianity and liberation

Alongside the sometimes adverse nature of Christian-Jewish relations, there have been times and places down the ages characterised by good relations. Since the Holocaust, there have been fresh Jewish-Christian dialogues which have led to renewed interest in the ‘historical Jesus’, and a re-examination of ‘Christology from below’. However, within the Jewish community, opinions about Jesus range from those who deny his very existence through to those who accept some of the narrative history of Jesus’ life in the Gospels. And given the horrors of the Nazi era alone, it should not surprise anyone that among Jews, the fear exists that to acknowledge in any way ‘that Jesus has something of value to say to Jews, is to open the door to apostasy to a religion which Jews have given up their lives rather than embrace.’ [Jacobs:284]

Two dimensions of the renewed interest in Christian-Jewish dialogue will be mentioned here: Liberation Theology, and the Jewish faith of Jesus. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some Jewish scholars began to articulate liberation theologies, openly building on the work of the Christian liberation theologians. Five books encapsulated the debate. The Jewish proponents were Dan Cohn-Sherbock (1987), and Marc Ellis (1987 & 1989). Those writings were followed by a collection of essays from Jews and Christians, edited by Otto Maduro (1991), plus a review of all the volumes by Cohn-Sherbock (1992).

The rich vein of common ground discovered by these Jewish authors was based on the liberationist’s emphasis on a ‘Christology from below’. These authors were able to acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as one who stood fully in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew scriptures: someone who acted out of the righteous tradition of the Law and the Prophets in advocating the rights of the poor, marginalised and oppressed; someone who saw this as inextricably bound up with the faithful worship of God over and against the empty behaviour, rituals and worship of some religious leaders. The attraction of Boff, Gutierrez and Sobrino, et al, is that ‘unlike theologians of the past, liberation theologians are not concerned to analyse Jesus’ dual nature as God and man; abstract speculation about the central issue of traditional theology have been set aside. Instead, liberation theology focuses on the historical Jesus ... What is of crucial significance for Jewish-Christian dialogue is the primary emphasis on understanding Jesus as a first century Jew.’ [Cohn-Sherbock 1992: 9] Cohn-Sherbock recognises at the heart of Christian liberation theology there is a vision of Jesus as a prophet of Israel, calling the people back to the true worship of God. He therefore argues that Jews should not see Jesus’ departure from Jewish law as co-terminus with a rejection of Judaism, but rather as:

... a critique of religious corruption and moral stagnation. In his confrontation with the leaders of the nation, Jesus echoed the words of the prophets by denouncing hypocrisy and injustice. The love of wealth and the exploitation of the poor, he contended, made it impossible to establish a proper relationship with God. ... As a prophetic figure Jesus should be recognisable to all Jews; like the prophets, he emphasised that loving-kindness is at the heart of the Jewish faith. Jesus’ words thus recalled such figures as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah; he stood firmly in the Jewish tradition. [Cohn-Sherbock 1992:38]

In the Christology from above and below debate, orthodox Christian belief sees them as two sides of the same coin. Wolfhart Pannenburg argues that:

Jesus cannot be properly understood in isolation from this relationship. Consequently, a Christology from below that concentrates solely on the historical Jesus is inadequate. However, a Christology from above that begins with the pre-existent Logos or divine Son, without demonstrating how a firm basis for acknowledging the divinity of the Son can be found in the mission and vocation of Jesus, is also inadequate. [Greene:311/2]

Pannenburg also observes that there is a danger in a ‘from above’ approach to Christology in that it ‘tends to overlook the historical particularity of the man Jesus, his relationship to the God whose kingdom he proclaimed and his setting within the Judaism of his time.’ [Greene:18] The problem is one of emphasis. Where Christian engagement with Judaism is concerned, I believe relationships have been impaired precisely because the Church at times over-emphasised a Christology ‘from above’ in thought, worship and practice. In this light it’s significant that Jewish engagement with liberation theology has welcomed its emphasis on Christology from below. For it focuses on the ‘this-worldly’ activity of Jesus in the prophetic tradition, with his liberating emphasis on justice and freedom from oppression being at the heart of the Law.

Albrecht Ritschl’s concept of Christology as ‘from below to above’ is a corrective to much Christian thought and practice. We must surely understand Jesus in the manner of God’s revelation to humankind in history – engaging first with Jesus’ Jewish humanity, and seeing in that historic person the expression of deity and God’s commitment to all humankind. A too exclusive focus on Christology from above has created an over-emphasis on the transcendental nature of Christianity - the supernatural at the expense of the natural - which becomes expressed in Christian sacramentalist rituals that disembody Jesus of Nazareth from ‘Christ’. Thus, it loses the dynamic ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus, his understanding of God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus’ commitment to the Torah and Prophets. It further divides the Christian community from its Jewish heritage. As Colin Greene observes:

A Christ who is emptied of Jesus of Nazareth and becomes a supernatural deityother becomes not only removed from the stuff of life with its urgent concerns for just and moral behaviour, but it also becomes removed from Jesus the Jew whose ‘Christ-ness’ is dislocated from the very religiouscultural world which informs and explains the notion of ‘Messiah’. [Greene:19]

When such a ‘disembodied Christ’ comes to ascendancy in the Church, it has reinforced one of the long held Jewish objections to Christian life and practice. Rightly so. Cohn-Sherbock reiterates that Jewish objection:

... the fervent Jewish expectation of a total transformation of the world was replaced by a spiritualized and individualised hope for immortal, celestial life. The reign of God ... appeared as a heavenly promise that offered salvation for the individual. Within this framework, the temporal world was understood as having only preparatory value. (...) This concept of an internalised and spiritualised Kingdom of God has worked throughout history as a deterrent for Christian action. [Cohn-Sherbock 1992:15/16]

Looking afresh at the historical Jesus, can lead to a renewed understanding of the Jewish faith of Jesus, and his relations with Jewish religious authorities. One of the issues identified as needing revision by Cohn-Sherbock, Reuther, Rosen, et al, is Christian attitudes to Pharisees. This is important for two reasons: because Jesus’ denunciations of some Pharisees are used by some Christian in their claim that God sent Jesus as Messiah because of Jewish religious failure; and because the Pharisees are the predecessors of today’s Rabbinic Judaism.

Part of the issue is the extent to which people want to argue that Jesus’ attacks on Pharisees were either: 1] specific charges brought against specific individuals, specific leaders collectively, at a particular place and point in time; or 2] a thorough denunciation of all Pharisees, their institutions and everything they ever stood for. Within Jewish-Christian relations, the question of the Pharisees can tend to polarise - with Christians who hold to the second viewpoint being met by an equally untenable view that the Gospel writers accounts of Pharisees cannot possibly be true. Support for the first interpretation comes from Matthew in what is seen to be the most virulent attack on Pharisees by Jesus – the ‘seven woes’ in chapter 23. As Luz points out, these are qualified by verse 2 where Jesus says ‘the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.’ (NRSV)

Matthew consistently lays stress on their (Pharisees) practices rather than their doctrines. ... their words fail to match their deeds. That the disciples must ‘do everything they tell you’ (23:2) is, of course, hyperbole that, rhetorically, reaffirms the main thrust of Matthew’s Gospel, the emphasis of practice over theory. [Luz 1995:122]

Some Jewish scholars are quite prepared to recognise that the Pharisees Jesus addressed were either as corrupt or hypocritical as Jesus described, or were at least capable of being so. David Rosen sees a very important distinction between those Pharisees Jesus is recorded as addressing and Pharisees as they are to be truly understood (Kendall & Rosen 2006:3), and the Jewish scholars engaged in dialogue on Liberation Theology have no difficulty in acknowledging corruption in the Jewish leadership which Jesus confronted.

It is also true to assert as Jacobs does that ‘Christianity itself owes much to the Pharisaic background of Jesus – the Christian doctrine of the Hereafter and the resurrection of the dead, for instance.’ [Jacobs:376] Reuther argues that Pharisees such as Hillel ‘were making some of the same interpretations of the law as Jesus did’. [Reuther 1981:37]

More than that the Church must not lose sight of Jesus’ total commitment to the Jewish faith and its heritage. So when Jesus attacked money-changers in the Temple, it was not an attack on the Temple itself, or the Hebrew faith, rather an attack on corruption and an affirmation of the sanctity and significance of the Temple. Christianity must also affirm that it is Jewish. Not in the sense that any branch of Judaism wants to claim Christianity as its own. Rather, that Christianity is formed of Jewish faith and culture, gets its paramount theme, ‘messiah’ from it (without which, by definition, Christianity cannot be understood).

Patronising generosity

As David Goldberg has observed, ‘Monotheism, by definition is triumphalist. Judaism says we are the Chosen People. Christianity asserts that there is no salvation out side the Church. Islam says there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the last and greatest of all the prophets.’ [1] Within those triumphalist affirmations, which appear to assert each faith’s exclusive hold of the overall meta-narrative of human history, each faith continues to develop frameworks for understanding the other – some negative and others affirmative.

Judaism has a long tradition of acknowledging that Gentiles can have a place in the life of God and the world to come. Essentially there are two ways of being righteous, for Jews it is summed up in the Abrahamic covenant and Mosaic laws, formulated as observing 613 commandments. For the Gentiles there is the Noahide Covenant which ‘reflects God’s commitment to care for all humanity and not destroy it (Gen. 9:9-11). In return He expects all humanity to lead a moral life (Gen. 9:4-6)’, which is set out in the seven Noahide laws consisting of ‘the prohibition of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery and incest (counted as one), robbery, the need to establish a proper system of justice, and the prohibition of eating flesh torn from a living animal.’ [Jacobs: 366] In addition, despite Jews regarding Christians as having ‘usurped’ the concept of ‘messiah’ and wrongly ascribed it to Christ, many are able to echo Maimonides infamous remark ‘All these activities of Jesus the Christian ... are all for the purpose of paving the way for the true King Messiah, and preparing the entire world to worship God together.’ [Melamed] ‘Infamous’, because the remark only appears in uncensored manuscripts. [Goldberg 1989:279]

So how does Christian theology deal with Judaism? In very broad terms, Christians have responded in four different ways:

1. To assert, there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Christ, and every person must declare a personal faith allegiance in Jesus the Messiah, with no exception for Jews.

2. God has two covenants with humankind in parallel operation, one for Jews and another for the Gentiles. Such views can range from: the idea that Jesus wasis the only Messiah, but Jews who don’t recognise the fact may still be redeemed by observance of the Abrahamic covenant, through to the view that there is one Messiah for the Jews, and another for Gentiles - Jesus.

3. There is only one covenant, but two expressions – Jewish and Christian, and ultimately Jesus will be seen by all to be the one Messiah of God.

4. Christianity has got its Christology wrong. Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, and his later followers - especially Paul – wrongly bequeathed that title upon him posthumously.

In rejecting 1, 2 and 4, my Christian framework is this: the Hebrew Scriptures distinguish between faithful and unfaithful people within the covenant community. The Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection, is the single agency for the salvation of all faithful people, and will present them as holy before God, and that this applies to all the departed of Israel before the advent of Jesus. Paul’s affirmation ‘All Israel will be saved’ applies to all faithful Jews in every age – those who in their lifetime believe that Jesus was their Messiah, as well as those who for the reasons outlined above, do not. This is not about two covenants in parallel operation, but rather one covenant with two expressions. To use Paul’s analogy, the Christian community is the branch grafted onto the tree of the Abrahamic covenant.

It is no use Judaism and Christianity pretending to be what they are not for the sake of ‘good’ relations. It is more helpful when they state their disagreements honestly, yet show how their own faith desires to accommodate a positive understanding of the other. The two contrary Jewish and Christian frameworks, can be seen as ‘generous’ by those disposed to do so, because at least they acknowledge the genuine faith in the one true God. Such ‘generosity’ I believe allows for creative, productive and positive relations without fudging or denying the integrity of the other – as long as we recognise the inherent ‘patronising’ nature of such frameworks, as one side seeks to affirm the other in a framework the other can’t accept.

Judaism and Christianity have two very important things in common. Both communities throughout their history, have not only brought much good and blessing to humankind, but also have had monumental failures, corruption and disobedience – which both should humbly acknowledge. Both await the coming of the Messiah – Jews for the first time, Christians for a second. Arguably, both have a shared vision of the nature and manner of human redemption when the Messiah comes.

That said and done, while it is vitally necessary for faith communities to always have frameworks for understanding, the real question is: Who is doing the judging? We must avoid the danger of appropriating the sole prerogative of God: it is for Him to judge.



From a conversation on March 7th 2006 with David J. Goldberg OBE who is Rabbi Emeritus of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood, London.


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Tim Dean is Director of the World Media Trust, and an Anglican priest working part-time in Godalming Parish. In a voluntary capacity Tim is Executive Secretary of First Step Forum (an international network of Members of Parliaments; former Prime Ministers, Foreign Affairs Ministers, and Ambassadors; and others engaged in private, independent diplomacy for religious freedom and human rights). He is also a senior associate of the Washington based Institute for Global Engagement – a ‘think-tank with legs’, created to develop sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide. He was formerly a Commissioning Editor for the BBC World Service’s English network, and before that editor of Third Way.

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