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PostHeaderIcon Why Don't (Most) Jews Believe in Jesus?

This article was originally published in the Catholics for Israel newsletter of October 2009.

Why Don't (Most) Jews Believe in Jesus?

Jews for Jesus on a missionI have recently returned to Jerusalem after an absence of seven months during which I was in Rome, in Steubenville (Ohio), and in my native Canada.  During the time that I was abroad, I had many conversations with Catholic friends about Judaism. To many Catholics it seems incredible that most Jews still "don't get it" that the Messiah has come. After all, this is the Chosen People of the covenant, elected by God to be His witnesses to the world, and they have missed the fact that the Messiah already came 2,000 years ago.  This is really an astounding fact. Conversely, it also happens that Jewish friends honestly express to me their dismay at why anyone in his right mind would believe in Christianity.  This shows that even in the era of instant information and internet there still remains an abyss in mutual understanding between Jews and Christians.

To illustrate with one example, on the plane back to Tel Aviv I sat next to an orthodox Jewish man.  We hadn't even left the ground when, upon learning about what I do, he stated that "the biggest mistake that Christians ever did was to come up with the idea of the Trinity."  This, according to him, had wrecked any possibility of Jews and Christians ever coming together because "Jews believe in the absolute unity of God, not in a God who is 'divided into three parts'."  It helped little when I tried to explain that actually we Christians also believe in the oneness of God, that we can wholeheartedly pray the "Shema Israel" together with Jews, and that actually the Trinity does not mean that God is "divided in three parts."  I also tried to explain that Christians were not the ones who "came up with the idea" but that we believed God Himself had revealed it, and that there are actually many traces of the plurality of God in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. I'm not sure how much effect this had on him, but the conversation certainly impressed upon me that I was returning to a very different world than the ecclesiastical circles of Rome.

On the Catholics for Israel website we provide many articles and resources (chiefly addressed to our Jewish friends) showing the foundations of the Catholic faith in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Jewish tradition - for example, the reasons why we think that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, how the One God of Israel has revealed Himself as a communion of three Persons, and how the Messiah founded a Church that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The present reflection, by contrast, is addressed to Christians who wish to better understand the rationale for the Jewish rejection of Jesus and the Church and try to see the perspective from the "other side." For more profitable reading, you may want to pause for a moment and first draw up a mental (or written) list of what you think might be obstacles or hindrances keeping Jews away from the Gospel. My own subjective list below is based on my ten years of experience living in Israel and on countless conversations about faith that I have had with Jewish friends, acquaintances and strangers - from Israeli university students to my orthodox Jewish neighbors. I don't claim to be exhaustive in this task, and I welcome your thoughts, suggestions and corrections.

Before I begin, I should make one important distinction: It seems to me that the reasons for the Jewish rejection of Jesus and the Church can be placed in three broad categories. Two of these are mostly or entirely out of our (Christians') control and belong to the realm of Divine Providence and the working of the Holy Spirit. These obviously are beyond my field of competence and I will say little about them.  The third category consists of more tangible things upon which we Christians could make a real difference.

The three categories are:

  1. The Mystery of God's Plan of Salvation and Providence
  2. Israel's Blindness and the Mystery of Iniquity
  3. Historical, Cultural, and Theological issues.

1. The Mystery of God's Plan of Salvation and Providence

By the mystery of God's Providence, Israel's rejection of the Messiah became the occasion of salvation for the nations of the world. When the majority of the Chosen People rejected Jesus' Messianic claims, this prompted the apostles to turn to the Gentiles and spread the Gospel message to non-Jews, as foretold by the prophet Hosea: "in the very place where it was said to them, `You are not my people,' they will be called `sons of the living God.'" (Hos 1:10; Rom 9:26). It was thus precisely "through their trespass" that salvation came to the Gentiles, "so as to make Israel jealous" (Rom 11:11). This was not a wholesale rejection of Israel on God's part (cf. Rom 11:1-2), but only a temporary setback that served a specific purpose and will one day come to an end: For "blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved" (Rom 11:25-26; cf. CCC 674). The Jews' temporary rejection of the Gospel became a blessing for the world, and their acceptance will be an even greater global blessing: "if their trespass is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!" (Rom 11:12)

2. Israel's Blindness and the Mystery of Iniquity

Nonetheless, Jesus wept over Jerusalem's rejection of Him (Lk 13:34; 19:41) and Paul agonized over it (Rom 9:1-3). And so it cannot be said that the Jews' non-acceptance of the Gospel was God's positive will.  It was merely His permissive will - which by His Providence He turned into a blessing for the world. Still, the Jewish rejection of Jesus was and remains a tragedy and denial of God's salvific purpose for His people. Without a doubt, one cannot blame God's mysterious plan of salvation (point 1 above) or external circumstances (point 3 below) alone to fully justify their rejection of the Gospel. There is also the element of personal responsibility and sin. Beneath the veneer of every reason and excuse trying to justify a refusal to acknowledge the Messiah, there are no doubt dark reasons within the human heart, rooted in the fallenness of human nature and in the deep seated pride and rebellion against God that has accompanied humanity since the expulsion from Eden.

But Christians must be extremely cautious with this point. For the history of Jewish-Christian relations is littered with the memory of Christians pointing the finger at Jews and blaming their stubbornness or what not for having rejected the Messiah. As Christians, we are challenged to suspend judgment and look first at the beam in our own eye before pointing out the speck in Jewish eyes. The secret dark reasons for the Jewish rejection of the Messiah - though they surely exist - are something with which they must grapple in their own conscience. It is between them and God. The job of Christians is not to judge but to love, by making the Gospel shine through the witness of their lives so at to make the Jews "jealous" and desirous to taste the goodness of the Kingdom of God (although certainly an effective witness of the Gospel must sometimes involve gently pointing out the reality of human sin and the need of each person for the Redeemer).

3. Historical, Cultural and Theological Reasons for the Jewish Rejection of the Gospel

Beyond the aspects of God's mysterious plan and the resistance of human sin, there are also very concrete things that have historically contributed to the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Here are some of the main reasons that come to my mind.  Obviously, there are myriad reasons that apply to every human person as to why they might not be a disciple of Jesus, such as simple ignorance of the Gospel message, cultural obstacles, negative experiences with Christians, inability to believe because of the influence of secularism, or resistance to the Gospel's high ethical demands because ofhuman pride and selfishness.  While not underestimating these factors, here I will focus exclusively on reasons that are particular to Jews.

1) The History of Christian Anti-Semitism

Jews have been deeply hurt by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, which has given them a "thick skin" and natural resistance to anything having to do with Christianity.  Most know Christianity as the religion of crusades, inquisition, discrimination and humiliations, forced sermons and baptisms, expulsions, pogroms and even of the Holocaust.  Though this view of history is certainly not always fair or balanced (such as the blaming of the Holocaust on Christianity), an impartial examination of the history of Jewish-Christian relations shows that there is much truth to it.  Thankfully the situation in this respect has enormously improved today - but this does not necessarily mean that all the wounds of the past have been healed, or that one does not still encounter uncharitable expressions of arrogance directed by Christians towards the Jewish people.

2) Replacement Theology (Supercessionism)

Christians have often taught throughout history that because the Jews rejected Jesus, God rejected them and replaced Israel by the Church. This idea is often the theological foundation for Christian anti-Semitism.  Since the Old Testament clearly states that God's election and enduring covenantal love for Israel is permanent and irrevocable, one can understand why Jews would resist the claims of a Christianity which teaches that God has divorced His original bride. Fortunately the Catholic Church and many other Christian groups now officially reject supercessionism, but the idea is still held by large numbers of Christians (including Catholics). See What is Replacement Theology?

3) Rich Jewish Culture and Suppression of Jewish Identity in the Church

Judaism is a very rich and beautiful religion in its faith, prayers, feasts, traditions and customs. Most Jews, whether religious or not, view Judaism as the very fabric of their identity. By contrast, though the Catholic faith is theologically well rooted in Judaism, it has developed ways of expression that are very "Gentile." [The same could be said for evangelical Christianity: though some evangelical groups now make an effort to integrate more Jewish elements into their worship, their theology is even further removed from Judaism than Catholicism (more here).]  There is nothing wrong with a "Gentile" expression of Catholicism, since this is part of the inculturation of the faith - adapting Christianity to the different cultures of the world. But Jews often feel estranged when they walk into a Church and see things like statues and icons, priestly vestments or friars' habits, the sun-like monstrance, etc...  

The situation used to be much worse.  In the past, Christians purposefully suppressed all expressions of Jewish identity in the Church (and some continue to advocate this today; see A Response to Robert Sungenis). At times, Jews who converted were compelled to eat pork or to work on the Sabbath, and were forbidden to celebrate any of the Jewish feasts.  Since these pillars of Jewish faith and identity were all given to Israel by God as binding commandments, it is no wonder that Jews could not and still cannot accept the claims of a religion which claims to have abrogated these things for them. Today, the Church and many Christians are much more respectful and appreciative of Jewish customs, recognizing that these do not compete with but rather enrich the Christian faith.  But it still remains difficult for Jewish-Catholics to live and express their Jewish heritage and culture within the Church.  The challenge today is to develop ways to facilitate a rediscovery of the Jewish expression in the Church, particularly in places where there are groups and communities of Jewish-Christians.

4) Negative Christian Attitudes towards the Torah

Related to the last point, many Christians still tend to pit the Law against the Gospel, as if the Torah were but a heavy, legalistic burden from which Christ has come to release us.  Actually, orthodox Jews see the Torah as a way of devotion to God and its observance is a great source of joy.  Even Paul, often falsely portrayed as an opponent of the Law, reminds us that "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12).  True, there is always the danger of falling into pharisaism and of giving meticulous attention to minutia at the expense of justice and mercy (cf. Mt 23:23) - but this danger exists in every religion (including Catholicism and all forms of Christianity) and not only in Judaism. Christians easily forget that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the law (Mt 5:17). In practice, this means that although Torah-observance is not to be imposed on Gentile Christians, neither does it mean that Jewish-Christians must be forced to abandon things like the celebration of Shabbat and Passover or eating kosher food (cf. Acts 15, Torah and Gospel, and A Response to Robert Sungenis).  The words of Jewish author David Klinghoffer are a challenge to the Church today:

“No authentic Messiah would inspire a religion that ended up calling upon the Jews to reject the manifest meaning of Sinai. It is really that simple.” (David Klinghoffer, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, p. 215)

5) Lack of Christian Repentance for Sins of the Past

Most Christians, through no fault of their own, are largely unaware of the history of Christian anti-Semitism, of the error of replacement theology, or of the suppression of Jewish identity in the Church. Though the situation has greatly improved, most Jews have still never heard a heartfelt apology or expression of regret on the part of any Christian for the difficult past of Jewish-Christian relations. Fortunately, this is slowly changing with more and more Christians taking it at heart to work towards healing this wound and take on the responsibility of identificational repentance (i.e. repenting for the sins of our fathers even though we are not personally guilty for them).  In my experience such humble action on the part of Christians has been the most powerful catalyst in advancing Jewish-Christian reconciliation.

6) Social Pressure and Fear

Most Jews who come to faith in Jesus today must still face incredible hardship, ostracization and sometimes persecution from their own Jewish families and communities.  No doubt, this works as a powerful deterrent, making many Jews hesitant or unwilling to honestly look into the claims of the Messiahship of Jesus.

7) Theological Difficulties and Misunderstandings

Though most of the reasons I have listed so far for the rejection of Jesus are socio-historical, the theological aspect should not be underestimated. While Second Temple Judaism had prepared the way for the Christian faith, later medieval Judaism often purposefully developed  in opposition to Christianity, for example by over-emphasizing the absolute singular unity of God (as opposed to Trinitarian faith), or the fact that the Messiah will be a mere man and in no way divine.  Another major issue, just as relevant today as it was in New Testament times, is the belief that the Messiah should bring peace on earth and physically redeem Israel, restoring it to a glorious state similar to the Davidic and Solomonic kingdom. According to this belief, Jesus could not have been the Messiah because he did not at all bring peace on earth.  On the contrary, since he came there have been just as many wars as there were previously, with an increase of sorrows for Israel and for the Jewish people.

We address these theological difficulties and many others on our website.

8) Dual-Covenant Theology

Sometimes, behind the lack of Christian interest for the salvation of Israel lurks a pernicious false doctrine that has infiltrated the Church in the last generation through a few influential figures and has practically paralyzed the mission of the Church in some circles.  This is the error of dual-covenant theology, which teaches that Jews are already saved through their covenant with God and therefore do not need Jesus or the New Covenant.  Though it true that Jews can be saved without explicitly knowing the Messiah or His Church if, through no fault of their own, they seek God with a sincere heart and try to do His will to the best of their ability (CCC 846-47), it remains that "Church and Judaism cannot then be seen as two parallel ways of salvation and the Church must witness to Christ as the Redeemer for all." (Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church I. 7, Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 1985).

9) Christian Apathy and Lukewarm Catholics

Many Catholics are ill-equipped to explain their faith coherently, much less to explain the Jewish roots of Catholic doctrines. Others are intimidated by the task or not even interested in doing so. Others have been influenced by dual-covenant theology or have given in to the demands of political correctness, thinking that it is inappropriate to pray that Jews would come to faith in Jesus or shying away from witnessing their faith to them. How often does one hear prayers for the salvation of Israel during the intercessions of the faithful at Mass? How often do you bring this intention before the Lord in your own private prayers? The Epistle of James reminds us: "you do not have because you do not ask." (Jam 4:1). The question must be asked how many Catholics are inspired by the apostle's "great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart" and willingness to be "accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [his] brethren," the Jews. One of the greatest stumbling blocks that has always kept people away from the faith has been that Christians have not loved enough. How much do we care or pray that the veil be lifted from the eyes of the Chosen People that they may recognize their Messiah, not forgetting that this moment will be like "life from the dead" (Rom 11:15) for the entire world?