Introductory Note: This is a historical research essay looking at Christ in the light of the cultural, political, and religions elements surrounding the accusations against Christ and His subsequent crucifixion. I look specifically at the assaults of the Pharisees and other religions figures that hated Christ, basing my research off of Scripture and Jewish sources. I try to stay analytical and accurate to history, and it is research not a “Bible study”. I believe it will greatly increase your understanding of the Bible, especially the Gospels. May you be blessed!
Great clarity and great mystery at once surround Jesus, the Galilean teacher from the obscure village of Nazareth. Great clarity for He spoke clearly and authoritatively, teaching truth and demanding obedience. Yet great mystery, for His natural boldness turned to quietness and purposeful veiling when confronted with revealing His true identity. The paradox of a Man stands before us, the One who stands above the clouds in morality and teaching, yet stoops so low as to wash our feet and touch our leprosy. Before His trusted followers He acknowledged openly that He indeed was the prophesied Messiah, yet before the tribunals He shrouded His identity with deep secrets, to the anger of His opponents. This same Jesus openly attacked His opponents in public, only to weep soon after: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39, ESV).
The story of Jesus Christ is easily the most known to history, simple and beautiful as it is; yet one that does not cease to confound the scholars by the depths and greater beauty that lies in the study of the original texts about Him. And now the question lies open, the one that will be explored in the following work: why the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and similarly why Jesus hid His full identity from them, boldly opposing them instead.
Now, a few basic assumptions must be made at the outset. First of all, the Bible will be taken as the primary source for this study, and will be seen as authoritative and correct in all matters, though it will be balanced and critiqued with non-biblical sources. Also, it will be assumed that Jesus indeed was the Christ, as the Scriptures attest to, that He is the fulfillment of all the prophecies about Himself, and that He is perfectly God and man at the same time (e.g. John 1:1-3).
To begin, Christ’s direct and bold opposition to the Jewish leaders, headed up mainly by the Pharisees, will be considered. The following passage is a precursor to the lament quoted earlier, as Jesus teaches outside of Jerusalem’s city limits, speaking to the crowds and His disciples (Matthew 23:1):
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … [You] outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:23-24, 28)
At first glance, the intense verbal abuse that Jesus heaps on the Pharisees seems very strange. Were they not the pristine example of piety and holiness to the common Jew of the time? Did they not strive to follow the Law? As will be seen, the fierce contention between the Jewish leaders and Christ was the reason why they rejected Him, and why He opposed them. On what was their contention built?
The center of the feud, and what ultimately got Jesus killed, was His rejection of their interpretation of Scripture, and their rejection of His. There are many other surrounding points to why Jesus was rejected as the Jewish Messiah, but this seems to be the first part of the clearest and most important point. The second, which will be discussed further on, is Christ’s authoritative claim to be God incarnate.This claim cannot be made, or understood by modern readers, without first understanding the God-given authority that Christ exercised in interpreting the Scriptures without basing it on man-made tradition, but on God Himself.
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a Jewish scholar, admits to the above, stating that “Jesus’ teaching is rejected by Jews (today as it was back then) because his interpretation of Jewish law is at variance with rabbinic tradition” (78). Did Jesus have a low view of Scripture, or take more lightly some parts of the Law? Of course not, read what He said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven… (Matthew 5:17-19a)
Clearly Jesus had a heightened view of Scripture, as the absolute authority. What then angered Him about the Pharisees’ teaching? The question is asked because He says in the very next verse: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The problem has to do with something the leaders of Israel called the oral Torah, an oral tradition passed down to the Jewish leaders, said to have come directly from Moses, as David Klinghoffer explains, another Jewish scholar (24-5). He explains that, “the rabbis said they could trace the genealogy (originally from Moses) by which these meanings had been orally transmitted” (25). The Torah, being the first five books in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Holy Bible, were thought to be “cryptic” and full of “textual difficulties” and “gaps of logic,” the actual writing be taken more as a “blueprint” that is a “code, a locked text…the product of a unique editing” (25-6, 59). And so, to interpret Scripture, Pharisees and rabbis of Jesus’ day would depend on the teachings of their forefathers to understand difficult passages. What ensued was the ability to add to the Torah concepts that were extra-Biblical, tedious description of laws, and most importantly, the ability to have unquestioned authority with the layman.
It seems highly unlikely that the modern-day reader would accept this theory of the Pharisees to be true, and for Jesus it was no question—they had added to Scripture. In a debate with the Pharisees early on Jesus pronounces void the oral Torah, in Mark 7:1-4, and 8-9:
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of [Jesus’] disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) … “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Italics mine)
Without previous understanding of the oral Torah, this passage makes little sense. Even Klinghoffer admits to this: “Whether or not you accept this rabbinic theory as a rendition of an actual historical transmission of data (passed down orally instead of in written form), it is impossible to understand Judaism of this period without at least appreciating the theory” (26; italics mine). He firmly argues that the Torah is not readable by the common, ordinary person, to which the New Testament answers: “[K]nowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21; italics mine). Therefore the correct interpretation comes from the Spirit and not man. Christ agrees that right interpretation must be from the Holy Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13; italics mine). Christ connects Himself as the source of all truth, equating Himself to having Divine power: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32; italics mine). Christ Himself also proclaimed: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; italics mine).