What Was Objectionable About Jesus?
BY THE first century of the Common Era the Jewish people found themselves under the tyranny of the pagan Roman Empire. For the first time, feelings ran high that God would now raise up a deliverer for his people, the promised Messiah. As the modern Jewish historian Abba Hillel Silver pointed out: “The first century . . . especially the generation before the destruction [of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.], witnessed a remarkable outburst of Messianic emotionalism.”
The first-century historian Flavius Josephus also reported this phenomenon, saying the following about a group of men who arose at this time: “Deceivers and impostors, under the pretence of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes, they . . . led [the multitude] out into the desert under the belief that God would there give them tokens of deliverance.”
While many of those in the first century who claimed to be the Messiah succeeded in attracting a large following, only Jesus of Nazareth has any popularity today. And yet back in the first century the Jewish nation could not accept him as the promised Messiah. Hence, important questions are: Why did relatively few Jews believe that Jesus was the Messiah? What did the majority find objectionable?
According to Rabbi Hyman G. Enelow, “The ideas associated in the Jewish mind with the Messiah . . . were left unrealized by Jesus.” So, simply stated, Jesus was not largely accepted because he did not fulfill the popular expectations. As we have already seen, the prophet Isaiah described the Messiah as a future king who would establish everlasting peace, justice and righteousness. Scriptural prophecies such as this helped to shape the expectations of the Jews. Since the Messiah was to be king over Israel, whatever Gentile government held dominion over Israel at the time of his appearance could be expected to relinquish its sovereignty.
Eventually, however, it came to be commonly believed that the Messiah would actually lead the Jews in the overthrow of that Gentile government. In the words of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “The Jews of the Roman period believed [the Messiah] would be raised up by God to break the yoke of the heathen and to reign over a restored kingdom of Israel.”
Traces of this commonly held view are found in writings of the period. For example, speaking of the Jews who revolted against Rome in 66 C.E., Josephus wrote: “What more than all else incited them to the war was an ambiguous oracle, likewise found in their sacred scriptures, to the effect that at that time one from their country would become ruler of the world.”
This is also confirmed by the type of individuals who enjoyed popular support in their Messianic claims. Historically, those who claimed to be the Messiah in that era were, with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth, political revolutionaries. The Book of Jewish Knowledge states: “The extraordinary thing about these first-century claimants for Messianic distinction was that each served as a rallying point for Jewish revolt against Roman rule. Unlike Jesus, . . . the other ‘messiahs’ of that period were, without exception, militant firebrands and patriots.” This pattern was simply a reflection of the prevailing popular expectation.
It is apparent, therefore, that the Jews of the first century did not have the later concept of a suffering or dying Messiah. In fact, Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner concluded: “The whole idea of a Messiah who should be put to death was one which, in Jesus’ time, was impossible of comprehension . . . to the Jews.” Even those few Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah did not expect that he would suffer or be put to death.—Matthew 16:21, 22.
Hence, whoever might have been attracted by Jesus’ teachings would certainly have been disturbed by the fact that Jesus did not overthrow the Roman government and rule as king over Israel but was, instead, executed by that Roman government. As Klausner explained, “The crucified Jesus was a disappointment to most of those who followed him in life.” No wonder the early Christian missionary Paul of Tarsus spoke of “Christ impaled, to the Jews a cause for stumbling”!—1 Corinthians 1:23.
Yet, in spite of the sharp contrast between Jesus’ life and Jewish expectations, thousands of Jews who lived at the time came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. What accounted for this?
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Jewish Expectations: THIS? or THIS?