"...the very presence of the Jewish people in the world ... puts a great question against Christian belief in a new covenant made through Christ. The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility."
William Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate
"...we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary.; and other sources about Jesus do not exist."
Josephus on Jesus
The so called Testimonium Flavianum. This is the only direct discussion of Jesus to be found in the writings of Josephus. Unfortunately, the text as we have it in extant copies of Josephus' Antiquities appears to have been dramatically re-written from a Christian point of view. (The writings of Josephus were brought down to us from antiquity not by the Jewish community, but by the Christians). The second column contains an Arabic quotation of the Josephus passage that has a much less Christian flavor. Some scholars have argued that the Arabic version has a more likely claim to originality.
Although that is a strong possibility, it should be noted that even the Arabic version is a good deal kinder to Jesus than Josephus usually is to messianic claimants. In addition it is harder to see why the Christian scribe would feel so compelled to change it. It is possible that the original may have been much more insulting, in keeping with Josephus' normal pattern, and that the Greek and Arabic versions are simply two different recensions of a Christian rewrite. R. Eisler has made an effort to reconstruct an 'original' that might have, given Christian revision, served as a base for the version that survives in Greek. It is, of course, entirely hypothetical, and no textual evidence exists to support it, but it does fit in better with Josephus' usual pattern and language, as well as the general context of the passage.
On the other hand, it may be possible to 'save' the Arabic version. Particularly if we remove the last sentence (accordingly ...wonders) as a pious expansion, we are left with a non-committal report on the martyrdom at Roman hands of a pious Jew. This would not be at all inconsistent with Josephus' style, particularly if he discounted as later followers' embellishments the claims made by Christians that Jesus was the Messiah. This last suggestion is to some extent crippled by the less controversial reference in Antiquities 20 if it is genuine (see below).
The only usually undisputed allusion to Jesus in Josephus is actually only a passing reference in the context of the trial of James. James is identified, not as James son of ???? as one would normally expect but as brother of Jesus. While this passage is more likely to be authentic than the one above, it is not without problems. Origen knows and cites this passage, and is unaware of the 'Testimonium Flavianum' above, providing some evidence for its presence in the Antiquities before its Christian reworking. On the other hand, Origen's version contains the unlikely addition in which Josephus also says that it is as punishment for the execution of James that
and the temple are destroyed. The possibility suggests itself that even Origen's Josephus has undergone Christian reworking, simply of a different variety, in which, perhaps, the insulting Testimonium has been expunged, and James has been introduced as a pious Jewish hero. Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1 Jerusalem
Since Ananus was that kind of person, and because he perceived an opportunity with Festus having died and Albinus not yet arrived, he called a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought James, the brother of Jesus (who is called 'Messiah') along with some others. He accused them of transgressing the law, and handed them over for stoning.
The Jewish Problem for Christianity emerged part and parcel with emergence of the new religion. Because unlike Judaism, whose roots lie in the remote mists of pre-history Christianity came into being and developed in first century Palestine, a time of historical record, and extensive record-keeping by the Roman occupiers. Two issues contributed to, and continue to haunt Christianity. The first is the problem of “rejection.” According to Christian scripture “the Jews” as a people, and Judaism as religion overwhelmingly rejected the messianic mission of Jesus. How reconcile that they for whom, according to scripture, God sent Jesus failed to recognize the gift? The second problem beginning with Paul and continuing down to the present is the absence of any non-scriptural evidence that the person of Jesus as described in the gospels and by Paul had actually existed.
At the time the Jesist movement emerged from Judaism messianic anticipation in Judea was intense. The Jews were caught up in a desperate struggle against the overwhelming power of Rome. Jewish insurgents were daily crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem and across the length of the country. There was hope and expectation that God would intervene on the side of the Jews to purge the holy land of the pagan pollution. It was a time of intense anticipation, the hope and expectation that God would send a leader, a messiah according to Jewish tradition, to lead Israel in victory against the pagan occupation. Once the land was rid of the occupation and cleansed of the pollution, victory would usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, one thousand years of peace where all mankind would join together as equals in worship of the one god.
From its earliest beginnings Christianity has struggled with the continuing existence of Judaism, the parent religion it believed it was supposed to have replaced. According to Christian theology Jesus the messiah was sent by God to the Jews, not the pagans. How then understand that Jesus’ own people failed to recognize and accept the gift?
Israel was engaged in a life and death struggle against the far superior forces of pagan Rome, thousands of rebels put to death by crucifixion. They knew such a war could not be won without divine intervention, God entering the conflict on their side. In the past, according to tradition, in such times God would provide a messiah, someone to lead the Jews to victory. The war was a time of high messianic anticipation, many temporarily victorious against the legions thought to be God’s messenger. Seventy years after the destruction of the temple and fall of Jerusalem, one hundred years after the assumed date of Jesus’ crucifixion messianic anticipation continued and no less a rabbinic luminary than Rabbi Akiva proclaimed the final Jewish general in the war against Rome, Shimon bar-Kochba as messiah. So the described rejection of Jesus as messiah was not due to disbelief in the possibility of God sending a messiah, but the fact that Jesus mission as described failed to fit Jewish tradition and expectation.
A messiah sent by God to be executed and fulfill a salvational mission in the afterlife simply has no place in Jewish tradition and, in the midst of a war for survival, such a mission would have made no sense. But the fact of the Rejection poses a significant problem for Christianity, one that has not diminished over the centuries. Augustine was the first to explain the continuing existence of Judaism and Jewry after the emergence of Christianity. His explanation, while providing for the continuing survival in poverty, debased and stateless of at least some Jews in Christendom was described as God’s punishment for their blindness and crimes. But their survival also served Christianity as theology: the Jews were witness to the truth of Christianity, “[b]y their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” I suggest that this need for affirmation regarding possible forgery is the result of unconscious doubt residing in the very heart of the religion.
But evidence for doubt and insecurity within the community of believers can be traced back to the very dawn of the messianic movement. While we do not have a record of what inspired Paul’s response, in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul is found defending the concept of the risen Christ: “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain (1 Cor. 17).” And doubt, as Bishop Nichols correctly observes, creates anxiety, and “anxiety usually leads to hostility.”
So it comes as no surprise that the Jews are not presented favorably in the gospels. But before we return to the gospels it is important to understand that the first of the four adopted by the Church was not written until after the fall of Jerusalem, approximately forty years after the suggested execution of Jesus. This was a period of trauma for the Jews, a period favoring consolation, the idea of a salvational messiah. And the sect appears to have found fertile ground in the Diaspora, and particularly among those called god fearers, pagans adopting Jewish customs and practice, but not committing to full conversion. The new sect was struggling for survival, competed with Judaism for identity and acceptance. This is one credible explanation for, as an example, Matthew blaming the Jews and not the Romans for the crucifixion. Christianity existed in Rome and its provinces, not Judea. Praise, not provocation, ensures a welcome. And while this explanation provides the setting for the anti-Jewish references which comprise the gospels, still gospel anti-Judaism is a major reason for Christian animus for the next two millennia, the reason why, according to Irving J. Borowsky, "In the past thousand years one out of every two Jews born into the world has been murdered."
The two gospels which would prove to be most responsible for future anti-Judaism and, eventually its secular variant antisemitism were those of Matthew and John. As we saw Matthew provides a particularly graphic and dramatic description of “the Jews” not merely rejecting Jesus, but demanding of a reluctant Pontius Pilate who protested Jesus’ innocence, that Jesus be put to death. History in fact paints a very different picture of this Roman governor who was recalled from his appointment due to excessive cruelty, for provoking unrest in Judea.
The Johannine gospel, appearing several decades after Matthew, describes the Jews as serving the antichrist, themselves the children of Satan. This too would become a theme that was to haunt the Jews and inspire endless bloodshed for millennia.
The most prominent bishop of the second century, John Chrysostom, would take up and embellish the Johannine charge of Jews as antichrist, describing the synagogue as a house of prostitution and demons. And 1200 years later the father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, disappointed in his belief that the only barrier to Jews recognizing Jesus as messiah was the oppression by the Church, returned to the common anti-Jewish themes originating with the John gospel and demanded of the princes that Jewish houses of worship be burned, that rabbis be put to death.
In his study of the birth of Christianity* Robert Eisenman, a leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar recognized that there is no direct evidence for the historical Jesus, “Where the man ‘Jesus’ is concerned- as opposed to the redeemer figure Christ”… we have mainly the remains of Hellenistic romance and mythologizing.” In the absence of direct historical evidence, Eisenman suggests, “[t]he brother relationship may turn out to be one of the early confirmations that there ever was a historical Jesus,” (my italics, Eisenman, 1999?, p. xxiii. But if this is the only evidence, and if, as is possible, members of the tiny Jerusalem community referred to one-another as “brother” or “sister,” a possibly early tradition continued into the present, then the assertion of the “brother” relationship between Jesus and James, tenuous as “evidence” as that relationship already is, is yet one more cause for insecurity in the historical existence of Jesus.James, the Brother of Jesus
As noted the Quest for the Historical Jesus, while not finding direct evidence for the object of the search did focus on the setting in which Jesus would have lived and preached in Judea. It also explored the pagan religions of the time. Death and resurrection was common among the Hellenic religions. It was not a feature of Judaism. Early converts from paganism recognized the parallels, indeed this is one likely explanation for the easy transition to the new religion for a population already impressed by monotheistic Judaism. Justin Martyr, an important early Christian theologian and missionary, appealing to his pagan audience wrote, “when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.” (1 Apol. 21).
Before turning to the 17th century Enlightenment and the move from Christian theocracy to modern secularism one further element inspiring a future final solution to the Jewish problem must be noted. It is widely recognized that Nazi Germany borrowed extensively from the past in initiating the Holocaust. The ghetto was an Italian invention, distinctive clothing, such as the Jude armband introduced in the Middle Ages. That Jews are by blood, that is biologically distinct from Christians is generally considered a recent contribution to antisemitism. In fact this also has a long history, going back to the Spanish Inquisition. The first statute relating to purity of blood, was not enacted in 1932
With the dawn of the age of Reason and the secularization of Christian society the Christian doubt led to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, a two hundred year long search for evidence for the physical existence of the Jesus of faith. And while the quest has resulted in hundreds of volumes describing first century Jewish religious practice, the livelihood of peasant and priest, king and messianic pretenders, the collective efforts of some of the finest minds in history and theology have yet to uncover a single credible non-scriptural reference to the man, with a single exception. In one work by Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, one short passage does refer to Jesus. But that passage is described as unrelated to material preceding and following it and is widely considered a later insertion, perhaps by a monk charged transcribing the material as a way of preservation
Historical evidence for the man Jesus is unnecessary to inspire belief in the heavenly figure of Christ. That Paul understood this as clear from his letter to his Corinthian doubters. The problem for Christian theology is that the gospels are held to be descriptions of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth, and are regarded to be the inerrant word of God. Where in the past theologians were able to assuage doubt, with the Age of Reason came the “scientific” search for the man behind the Christ. So began the two hundred year long Quest for the Historical Jesus, a quest that continues today. That the quest has failed to uncover any credible evidence for the person whose life and exploits are described in Christian scripture, and since those descriptions of Jesus as transcribed are considered directly inspired by God, the lack of evidence by scientific by two centuries of historical search only confirms doubt for the very foundations of Christianity. What began as doubt inspired by the inexplicable survival of Judaism in the Age of Christianity has become, in the Age of Science, the unverifiable existence of the historical figure at the very heart of that religion. And while Jewish existence cannot be directly blamed for this source of contemporary Christian doubt, still the doubt continues to provoke angst, and angst, as Bishop Nichols suggests, seeks a target. And the traditional target for Christian angst over the centuries has always been close at hand. With the evolution and transformation of religious anti-Judaism into secular antisemitism, with the disappearance of the option to convert, the Diaspora entered a new and even more dangerous threat to Jewish survival. Membership within the secular nation-state is determined by state law. And, as the Holocaust demonstrates, whole categories of humanity can be excluded by a demagogue as leader. That within secular Christendom Jews are defined, back to a single grandparent, convenient targets, the religious escape through conversion not longer an option.