Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Jesus of Nazareth.

So far the rule of Pontius Pilate as it concerned Judea. But his rule has become of wide import because of his relation to Jesus of Nazareth, who was put to death during his administration, though born in the province of Galilee governed by Herod Antipas. To explain how a great religion sprang up around this Galilean Jew, which came afterwards to regard him as its father, can be explained only by a complete grasp of the political and religious aspirations of the time.

The Messianic Hope.

The ominous mood in which the Jews realized their gradual deprivation of country and independence indicated the stirring of deep forces in their nature. Judea was to them a Holy Land, for "from Zion had gone forth the Law." Love of country had become part of their religion. Every political function had its religious aspect. The Sanhedrin was at once a civil and a religious body, and this dual characteristic pervaded all the civil institutions. So the longing for the restoration of the royal line of Judah, i.e., the coming of the Messiah, expressed the religious as well as the political hopes of the nation. Not that the word Messiah had any peculiarly religious significance. It is the Hebrew word M'sheach, meaning "Anointed (king)," and was applied in the Bible to Saul, David, and even to Cyrus, the Persian, Isaiah xlv—1. In post-exilic times the coming of the Messiah implied the re-establishment of the throne in the Davidic line.

Many of the pious felt further that with a king once more on an independent throne, the glorious pictures of the coming day foretold by the Prophets and not attained in the first monarchy, would be realized in the second. Such as "The Lord's house will be established on the top of the mountains; all nations will flock to it, saying, Come let us go up to the house of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us His ways, we will walk in His paths." (Isaiah and Micah.) Again, "The earth will be full of knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea." The conviction expressed by Jeremiah (chap. xxxi, 33-34) would then be fulfilled, that all would "know the Lord from the least of them to the greatest." One of the latest of the Prophets—Zechariah—had foretold a day when "ten men would take hold of the garments of him who was a Jew and would say, We will go with you, for we believe that God is with you." So we might quote nearly every prophet from Amos to Malachi, the last prophet, who said that the day of Judgment would be heralded by the undying Elijah. A Jewish poet in Alexandria voiced the same hope; heathendom would disappear and the kingdom of God would be established.

Alas, the outlook for either the spiritual or the temporal realization seemed farther removed than ever. Every now and then, more particularly under the disturbing rule of the procurators, a deluded enthusiast would appear upon the scene and claim that he was a Messiah. Theudas was one who made this claim in the year 45. So desperate were the times that these agitators always found followers. They were always ruthlessly put to death by Rome for the claim of Messiahship, i.e., "King of the Jews," was treason against Rome. Was not Judea a Roman province now?

Jesus the Man.

In chapter vii the Essenes have been mentioned. This sect, that lived as a brotherhood in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, shared all goods in common, condemned wealth and passed simple lives away from the great world. They, too, looked for the coming of the Messiah. But it was the religious climax of the prophets just quoted that would follow the Messiah's advent—the ushering in triumph of an independent nationality, that most appealed to them. This lofty view was also shared by the more saintly among the Israelites in general; nor was it ever entirely absent even from the popular view.

We have already heard of John the Baptist (Essene), who so stirred the people by preaching that "the kingdom of God" was at hand; this was the Messianic hope. He evidently inspired one youth, who was in close sympathy with the Essene brotherhood, Joshua (Greek Jesus) from Nazareth, in Galilee. Galilee, like the other provinces in northern Palestine, was away from the learning and culture of Jerusalem. It was the home of simple folk who spoke a corrupt dialect, and who credulously accepted popular superstitions; such as, every disease comes from an indwelling spirit or demon.

Of the life of the man Jesus who came from these surroundings little is really known, but from a few bare facts very much has been deduced and still more imagined. Apart from the fact that he was the son of a carpenter, Joseph, we only hear of him about two years before his death, and that occurred at the early age of thirty-two. We find him preaching and expounding the Law and sympathizing with the unfortunate classes.

Though by no means a profound scholar in the Law, he exhibited fine moral perception and lived up to the pure ideals of the strict, peace-loving Essene brotherhood. In his teachings or rather preachings, he followed the models of the great prophets, laying stress upon the spirit of religion and minimizing the value of ceremonial. For there were formalists in those days as there were in the days before the Exile. Indeed, every age reveals the experience that the multitude is often more impressed by the ceremony than the idea it is intended to convey—and gives more attention to the outward, tangible form than to its inward, spiritual purpose, the exaltation of life. Nor is that tendency confined to the ignorant either. Religion so easily sinks into a mechanical routine unless we keep vigilant watch. This lesson is preached by the moralists of every age. It was preached by Jesus of Nazareth with rare power. He had soon a large following, perhaps, too, for the reason that he was now regarded as John the Baptist's successor.

Jesus the Messiah.

But it was not so much his ethical teaching, lofty though it was, that brought him into prominence and caused the crowds to gather about him, though a modern school of Christian apologetics lays stress upon that now. It was partly because he was regarded as a "healer," a power claimed by the Essenes; but chiefly because he was regarded as the long-looked for Messiah who would deliver Israel from the thraldom of Rome and gratify their wildest expectations. Whether he first of his own accord laid claim to this mysterious title, or whether he was persuaded into it by his admirers, we cannot gather from the few records that tell the events of his life. For even the earliest of these records, the so-called Gospel of Mark, was not written till nearly fifty years after his death, at a time when startling opinions had already been formed about him; and they do not agree even as to his parentage and birthplace. In fact, once regarded as the Messiah, his biography was recast to fit the Messianic prophecies in the Scriptures! This made the Jesus of the Gospels largely a mythical character.

Jesus could quite honestly have believed himself to be a Messiah in some religious sense, though he was rather evasive when bluntly questioned. For many sincere enthusiasts both before and since his time have believed themselves specially chosen messengers of God to bring redemption to their people. It will be seen at the end of this volume that Mohammed, who flourished several centuries later, believed himself to be sent by God to bring salvation to the Arabians. In a sense he was; to call him an impostor, an earlier practise of the Church, is uncharitable and untrue. In Israel's history, since the days of the procurators not a century has passed but some one has come forward claiming to be the Messiah. Some were honest, though mistaken; some were mere adventurers.

Jesus probably accepted the Essene idea of the Messiah, that is, he was less concerned with ushering in an earthly than a heavenly kingdom.

This distinction was not clearly realized by the simple masses of the people, groaning under a hated yoke; certainly it was not realized by the Romans, who saw in every Messianic claim treason against Rome, a plot to win independence for Judea again. On the other hand, Jesus applying to himself on one occasion the term "son of God"—that may mean so little or so much—awakened the alarm and antagonism of the priesthood and lost for him many supporters. So Jesus, who was probably innocent of any blasphemous assumptions against Judaism and guiltless of any conspiracy against Rome to seize the throne and be made "King of the Jews," was nevertheless condemned to death like the Messiahs before him and was executed by the Roman method of capital punishment, crucifixion. But unlike the Messiahs before him—all mediocre men—his name has been treasured ever since as one of the great religious teachers of the world.


For although he died without bringing the redemption which would have proven his Messiahship, his followers did not lose faith in him. His turning kindly to the poor and despised folk, even to the sinful and degraded with his message of comfort, had won all hearts. As they believed he had performed miracles in his life-time, so now they tried to persuade themselves that a greater miracle had been fulfilled in his death—that he had not really died, but had been translated to heaven like Elijah or Enoch and that he would return some day and complete his unfinished work. In those unlettered days belief in the supernatural was very common. Among certain folk it is not so uncommon to-day.

So these believers that Jesus was the Messiah became a new sect called Christians. What does "Christian" mean? Christ (Christos) is the Greek for Messiah. So the name Christians meant Messians, and the name Jesus Christ means Jesus the Messiah. Though Jesus himself did not speak Greek, but Aramaic, the Christian Scriptures were written in Greek.

The Jewish Christians continued to live much as the Essenes before them, like them assuming voluntary poverty and faithful as of old to the Jewish Law. But in later years when many pagans joined this sect, they introduced into it many idolatrous notions, borrowed from the cults of Greece, Rome and Egypt. The man Jesus was exalted into a divinity and worshipped as such. The shedding of his blood at his execution was regarded as a sacrifice intended by God to atone for the sins of mankind, based on the ancient idea that the priest shed the blood of an animal in atoning for the sins of the people; but the Hebrew prophets and some of the psalmists had all condemned animal sacrifice as a means of atonement. This belief was a stage of religion beyond which the Jews were advancing. It died out altogether before the century was over—just when it was being revived in this way by Christians.

The next step which separated the Jews from the Christians was the depreciation and ultimately the abrogation of the Jewish Law. This was brought about by a later teacher, Paul, at first opposed to Christians, but later their most eloquent advocate. This abandonment of the Law, ultimately conceded by the early Messians, who had so far still clung to it, severed their relationship with the parent faith. Thus Paul made Christianity a new religion for the heathen world.

The process by which this Jewish sect became a new religion, most of whose adherents came from the heathen world, was slow and gradual. We shall refer to the different steps in the development of this Faith as they occur, and we shall see how this sect, born in Judaism, became its antagonist and persecutor in later days.


Biography of Jesus:—In recasting his life from the meagre data at hand his biographers ascribed to him all of the miracles told of Elijah and Elisha—feeding the multitude with a few loaves, curing the sick, reviving the dead and being transported to heaven.

Teachings of Jesus:—He taught nothing heretical or startlingly new; he preferred to emphasize the old. The phrases of "the Lord's Prayer" are Biblical; the Beatitudes (a group of Blessings in the New Testament) are rabbinic; his communistic views, those of the Essene school.

The chief source of his teachings was the Didache, i.e., a summary of the Faith used by the Synagogue for proselytes. It contained the Shema followed by "Thou shalt love the Lord God, etc.;" love thy neighbor as thyself—Hillel's Golden Rule; the Ten Commandments; a disquisition on "the two ways"—right and wrong.

He followed the rabbis in teaching largely by Mashal—parable. Even the form "Ye have heard, etc., but I will go further yet, etc.," is rabbinic.

The Crucifixion:—The reasons why the death of Jesus should not be attributed to the Jews, may be summarized as follows. (See Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. iv.)

Crucifixion was not a Jewish, but a Roman method of capital punishment. Prior to the open rebellion against Rome, 30-66 C. E., many Jews were crucified as rebels, and on very meagre evidence. A Messiah in its eyes was a rebel; the inscription placed on the cross was "King of the Jews."

"The mode and manner of Jesus' death undoubtedly point to Roman custom and law as the directive power," though Jews may have administered a soothing cup to lessen the suffering.

None of the well established measures of precaution were taken that always preceded a Jewish execution. It is very doubtful whether Jewish law would tolerate a three-fold execution at one time.

A Jewish execution on Friday is almost impossible. If Jesus died on Nissan 14, the execution on the eve of a festival would be irregular. If on Nissan 15 (Passover), the execution could not be held. There is no corroboration of the custom to liberate a condemned person on account of a holiday.

Read As Others Saw Him, Joseph Jacobs; Macmillan.
Jesus of Nazareth, Schlesinger. Albany.
Cradle of the Christ, Frothingham.
The Religious Teaching of Jesus, C. G. Montefiore, Macmillan, 1910.

Matthew, Mark and Luke are called Synoptic Gospels as distinct from the Gospel of John, a later and more doctrinal work.

Theme for discussion:—Why cannot Jesus be accepted by the Synagogue to-day?