It was only in the late 18th century, and then in the 19th, that scholars began the search for the historical Jesus of Nazareth as distinguished from the Jesus of the Gospels (canonic and otherwise), and the letters of Paul. Of course, even this search requires inquiry regarding these sources as well as a handful of historians such as Josephus, Philo, Tacitus and a few others.
These searches have expanded geometrically since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi documents in “middle” Egypt and the discarded items in the Genizah of a Jewish synagogue also in Egypt. No doubt, the majority, perhaps the vast majority of the 2 billion Christians in the world continue to view Jesus as divine—the Son of God, both literally and spiritually.
But which Jesus are we talking about? While studies of the historical Jesus have become more informed, more detailed and probably more accurate, this Jesus has become less and less important theologically. In fact, some scholars draw a heavy line—even a fence—between the Jesus who preached in Judea and Galilee and died on the cross, and the resurrected and uplifted Jesus now in heaven. Most Christians denigrated (even despised) the Jews for having “rejected” Jesus; in many versions Jews are “Christ-killers,” even “murderers of the living God.”
However, in the decades since the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in the middle of the 20th century, many Christians have come to have a more nuanced view of the Jews. The Vatican has formally acknowledged that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew and has specifically decried Anti-Semitism. While there is has been a resurgence of Ant-Semitism in many parts of the world lately (often masked as opposition to the State of Israel and its policies), there are no longer anti-Jewish polemics endorsed by any Christian religion in the U.S., nor in most of the rest of the world.
However, many otherwise responsible historians and theologians, propound the thesis that the Jews of Jesus’s time not only opposed the idea that he was their “messiah,” but also that since he was crucified, and only the most terrible people were crucified, Jews despised him as a totally tainted, human being—and they rejected him as impure . In my opinion, this is merely a screen for anti-Semitism. Rather than feeling deeply sympathetic to a fellow Jew who had been tortured, abused and murdered, they wanted nothing to do with him. I have discussed this with a number of Rabbis, from Reform to Ultra-Orthodox, and they found this idea not only false, but repulsive and a complete contradiction of the principles on which Judaism is based.
Perhaps the most curious result of this new “scholarship” is that it seems to imply that the correct Christianity is not at all dependent on the historical “Christ.” That man died not only physically, but spiritually. The “new” Christ is the resurrected and elevated Christ, revealed to Paul directly from God. He is no longer “Jew nor Greek,” but a wholly new son of God. In this view, the Jewish connection is of trivial importance—if any. If this isn’t a sophisticated form of anti-Semitism, what is it?
I do believe that it is time for Jews to acknowledge the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish hero; that Jesus would find the idea that he opposed Judaism absurd; that the co-option of him as the creator of a new religion is at best silly, and at worst offensive. It is also time for Christian scholars to abandon the proposition that Jews rejected Jesus as an irreparably damaged person, and therefore to be despised. There is room for rapprochement of both these Abrahamic religions, and perhaps for Islam as well.