Like most rabbis, I often speak to non-Jewish groups who want to learn more about Judaism. One of the most common questions I get is: “What do Jews believe about Jesus?” Although most Christians understand that we do not believe he was the Messiah, they usually are not sure why. And many assume that, at the very least, we consider him to be a rabbi or prophet.
However, both of these titles are problematic for different reasons. According to the book of John in the Christian scriptures, Jesus was called “rabbi.” Some scholars have suggested that the writer of John was familiar with the term and used it, although it was not used in Jesus’ day. But even if it was used then and his followers did call him “rabbi,” the meaning and significance of the term was far different than it came to mean after the destruction of the Second Temple.
In the early first century C.E., the term rabbi may have been used to mean “my teacher” or “my master,” but would not have indicated any formal training or ordination. With the destruction of the Temple, however, the process of formal study and ordination was developed and the term rabbi was then used to recognize one who had completed this process. Thus it is confusing, at the very least, to call Jesus a rabbi, since the significance of the term at the end of the first century and later was quite a bit different than its meaning in Jesus’ day.
As for the term prophet, Judaism insists that prophecy ended with Malachai in the fifth century B.C.E. While until then God communicated with many individuals, from that point on our communication with God is through the Torah and its interpretation. In a famous Talmudic discussion (Baba Matzia, 59b), a Divine Voice comes to the support of Rabbi Eliezer in his dispute with Rabbi Joshua and the sages. But Rabbi Jeremiah responds to this voice by stating that the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We do not give authority to a Divine Voice, for it is already written at Mount Sinai in the Torah: “One must incline after the majority” (Exodus 23:2).
If Jesus is neither a rabbi nor a prophet, how might we describe him? Reading the stories about him, it seems that he is an itinerant preacher, healer and miracle worker. It is impossible to determine whether the healing and miracles ascribed to him actually occurred, but it is significant to note that at least some of the stories are similar to those of Elijah as well as stories of healing and miracles ascribed to individuals in the Talmud. And Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees can also be understood as conflict that often occurred among Jewish sages. Some scholars even claim Jesus was a Pharisee, though it is difficult if not impossible to validate such a claim.
Throughout our history, Jewish thinkers have offered a variety of views of Jesus. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon observed that we humans cannot “fathom the designs of the Creator” and that both Jesus and Mohammed “served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord.” Eighteenth-century rabbi Jacob Emden claimed that Jesus did the world a great favor by distilling the teachings of the Torah, and drawing non-Jews away from false gods and idolatry and toward observing the Noahide laws.
More recently, Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt has referred to Jesus as “a Galilean hasid, someone passionately in love with God, drunk on the divine, unconventional and extreme in his devotion to God and to fellow human beings.”
These scholars and others have tried to discover the appropriate theological perspective that we Jews should have toward Jesus. As our fellow Christians celebrate his birth, it is an appropriate time to reflect on how we, as Jews, view this first-century Jew who had a lasting impact on the world.