Words and deeds are the primary windows into a person's character. The words and deeds of Jesus are recorded in accounts known as "the gospels." They are the best records we have of the events that took place in the time of Jesus, and the most accurate renderings of his words. Critics charge that the gospels are not accurate historical records, just as they challenge other sacred writings. But for the sake of fairness we need to take the gospels at face value, if only because they are the best first-century sources we have.
Yeshua claimed to be the Messiah
Some people describe Jesus as a good man who was not the Messiah, asserting that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. The gospels clearly state otherwise.
Yeshua was careful to distinguish himself from other teachers who would come and go.
Before the time of Jesus, Israel had already beheld many great leaders and teachers; some were even miracle-workers, people who claimed to be the Messiah and captured the attention of the public. So the people naturally questioned Yeshua's identity. Yeshua was careful to distinguish himself from other teachers who would come and go. Sometimes he made statements about himself in the context of asking questions. For example, once he asked his disciples who people were saying he was:
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist [a first-century prophet, and a contemporary of Jesus]; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven." (Matthew 16:14-17)
He also made startling statements about his identity in the course of conversation. While he was traveling alone north of Judea, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at Sychar. She said to him,
"I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us."Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." (John 4:25-26)
Yeshua even asserted his messiahship directly to those who were seeking to discredit him. When asked by some of his critics,
"How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the [Messiah], tell us plainly."Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe…" (John 10:24-25)
Yeshua clearly claimed to be Israel's Messiah. This raises another question: What would drive a man to declare that he was the Messiah to a religious leadership who would certainly oppose him for making such a claim? Was he deluded? Was he simply a liar? If he was a liar or a lunatic, he was not a man to be respected, for who would esteem someone who was trying to fool people, or someone who was not of sound mind?
Yeshua claimed to have authority equal to God's
Yeshua was a master teacher. In a passage of Scripture in the gospel of Matthew, known as the "sermon on the mount" since it took place on a hillside, Yeshua began teaching the multitudes who were following him words of comfort, blessing and hope. Yeshua is the source of quotes such as, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5) and "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7). These were welcome words to a people under Roman rule looking forward to a better day. But then Yeshua continued with some serious statements unlike any the people had heard before. They knew the Ten Commandments. They knew they should not engage in murder, adultery and swearing false oaths, but Yeshua told the people that even to hate someone in your heart is as bad as murder. Merely looking upon a woman with lust is as bad as committing the act of adultery. These statements were revolutionary in themselves, but Yeshua delivered these lessons along with an incredible phrase: "But I tell you…"
For example, Yeshua told the people, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also…" (Matthew 5:38,39).
In those days, no religious teacher would have dared to utter these words, "But I tell you." To do so would be to take God's authority on himself. Rather, teaching was viewed as a compendium of the best of what had already been taught on a subject. A religious teacher would search from among both living and dead masters, and teach in this manner, "So-and-so says this, but so-and-so says that." Yeshua departed from this method and said, "But I tell you." No wonder when he finished his message, "The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (Matthew 7:28, 29). His method was intended to convey something special to his audience: He had the right to teach with such authority.
To demonstrate the scope of his authority, Yeshua performed miracles. A clear example of this took place when Yeshua healed a man who was paralyzed. Before he healed him, he said to him, "Your sins are forgiven" (Matthew 9:2). The religious leaders present were ready to accuse Yeshua of blasphemy. After all, only God forgives sins. Yeshua claimed to have the same authority as God.
Yeshua claimed to be divine
Along with his claim to be the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus also declared his deity to both his disciples and his dissenters.
The leaders of the day continually questioned Yeshua. One day they said to him,
"Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?"Jesus answered, "…Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad."
So the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?"
Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am."
Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him…(John 8:53-59)
Yeshua was saying that he had supernatural knowledge of things in the past because he existed before Abraham. And as if that weren't enough, right then and there he invoked the name "I Am" for himself, the same name that God calls himself in Exodus 3:14.
If Yeshua wanted to avoid certain danger, it is reasonable to assume that he would have dropped the subject of his deity. But again, to the dismay of the Jewish leaders of the day, in John 10:30, Yeshua reiterated, "I and the Father are one." Even when pressed by the Sanhedrin, his claim remained the same:
…The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the [Messiah], the Son of God.""Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.
What do you think?" "He is worthy of death," they answered. (Matthew 26:63-66)
Jesus wasn't just saying he was a son of God or a child of God, like many do today—he claimed to be the son of God. He took Daniel 7:13 and applied it to himself. Yeshua identified himself as the "son of man" who would take a seat at the right hand of God. What sort of a "man" could sit at the right hand of the Mighty One? This was considered blasphemy. Yeshua had gone "too far." His claims to be divine caused many to seek his death. Again, we must ask the question, was Yeshua out of his mind to say such things? Was he lying before the high court?
There were many who were convinced that he was neither crazy nor lying. Consider this: Would the writers of the gospels have included Yeshua's words regarding his deity in their accounts if there were not sufficient evidence to back up Jesus' outstanding claims? Otherwise, wouldn't the inclusion of such claims do more to discredit him than support him?
Yeshua claimed to be an atonement for the sins of the world
At the midpoint of his public life, Yeshua declared to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and be killed—but he would be raised to life within three days' time (Matthew 16:21). Even those who were his devoted followers found this difficult to accept. If they had had their way, their Messiah would be a grand conqueror, bringing in the kingdom of peace and restoring Israel to the status of exalted nation among the nations.8 But the type of peace Yeshua came to bring was a supernatural peace between a sinful humanity and a holy God. He said that he did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). His purpose was to be a sacrificial atonement for the things we do that are wrong.
According to the account of John, there was much about Yeshua's teaching that even his closest disciples found difficult to believe…until he appeared alive to many of his followers after his death and burial. Jesus' resurrection signified that he was able to overcome even death itself. This is why Yeshua called himself, "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). He said that he was unique, that belief in him was the only way for people to be reconciled with God: "No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6). How many "great teachers" or "good men" were not only willing to suffer like Yeshua, but also proclaimed that the suffering itself was their chief purpose? How many have risen from the dead?
How one Jewish writer reacted
Writer Sholem Asch was a frequent contributor to New York's Yiddish newspaper, Forward, during the 1930s. He also wrote a number of historical novels such as Moses," "Mary" and "The Prophet." But when "The Nazarene,"1 his study of Jesus the Jew amidst his Jewish community in Israel, was published in 1939, the Forward openly attacked Sholem Asch as a heretic, and accused him of preaching Christianity. This prolific and popular Jewish writer found his ties to many in the Jewish community severed.
Asch later defended himself, saying:
I couldn't help writing on Jesus. Since I first met him, he has held my mind and heart.…Everything he ever said or did has value for us today, and that is something you can say of no other man, alive or dead.…He became the Light of the world. Why shouldn't I, a Jew, be proud of it?2
As eloquent a defense as his may have been, it was not enough to convince his critics that he should be exonerated for penning such a controversial book.
There was a time when many of our rabbis and prominent figures refused to discuss the subject of Jesus unless it was to refute his claims. That attitude began to shift with the Enlightenment or the "Age of Reason." As people began to choose autonomy over authority, and champion rationalism over dogmatism, the way was paved for well-known people in the Jewish community to openly show interest in the person of Yeshua. From philosopher Martin Buber's startling statement, "I have found in Jesus my great brother,"3 to physicist Albert Einstein, who declared, "I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene,"4 to rabbis like Stephen S. Wise, founder of the Jewish Institute of Religion, who called Jesus, "the Jew of Jews,"5 Jewish thinkers began to temper their criticism of Jesus.6 Rabbi Hyman Enelow, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis said the following:
Jesus has become the most popular, the most studied, the most influential figure in the religious history of mankind.…No sensible Jew can be indifferent to the fact that a Jew should have had such a tremendous part in the religious education and direction of the human race.…Who can compute all that Jesus has meant to humanity? The love he has inspired, the solace he has given, the good he has engendered, the hope and joy he has kindled—all that is unequalled in human history.…The Jew cannot help glorying in what Jesus has meant to the world…7
Academic Jewish study of Jesus' claims
In recent days countless Jewish writers and thinkers have approached the subject of Jesus, giving respect to his life and his teachings. How have they been able to do this and still remain under the umbrella of acceptable Jewish thought?
A close look at the writings and sayings of these prominent Jewish figures reveals that they chose to view Jesus through a "filter." In other words, as each read more about Yeshua, they separated what they could feel comfortable with, from what tradition and consensus would not allow them to accept. Many assented to the fact that Jesus was a major historical figure, or that he was an observant Jew, or that his teachings were revolutionary, yet at the same time they summarily dismissed the accounts of his miracles or his claims to be the Messiah, the one and only Son of God.
Today, many people, Jews and Gentiles, have adopted this perspective. They claim to respect Jesus' place in history and some of his teachings, but brush aside his claims to be Messiah. Jesus is often described as "a great rabbi" or a "good man" or perhaps even "a prophet," but "certainly not the son of God."
But is this selective approach a fair way to consider the life and teachings of Yeshua? In light of Yeshua's own words and deeds, does it make sense to say that he was a great rabbi, or a good man, but nothing more?
The one thing Yeshua didn't claim to be was a "good man"
The more we read the claims Yeshua made regarding himself, the more extraordinary his claims become. We are faced with the same decision as the people who heard these claims firsthand. How did they respond? We know from history that some recognized the incredible claims and asserted that these were not the words of a liar or a demented person—rather, Yeshua was indeed the prophet, the Messiah, for whom people were waiting (John 7:40, 41). Others vehemently argued about who he was. But Yeshua was impossible to ignore or dismiss. Nobody at the time of Jesus said, "Well, Yeshua is a great teacher, perhaps a little misguided, but a good man." Today, this has become an acceptable conclusion.
But to conclude that Jesus is anything other than who he claimed to be is to ignore his words and actions. Is this a sign of high regard? If we truly respect Yeshua as a good teacher or a good man, then we ought to pay attention to what he said.
One can see by reading the words of Yeshua that he doesn't just offer a guide, a moral compass, or an example to follow. Yeshua's words and actions are not merely those of a good man or a great teacher; they have changed people's lives for more than two millennia.
"You either accept or you reject."
When it comes to the person of Yeshua, eventually we all arrive at a point where we realize, as Sholem Asch once stated, "There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject him. You can analyze Mohammed and…Buddha, but don't try it with him. You either accept or you reject."9
It seems far more difficult to consider all of Yeshua's actions and words regarding his messiahship and his deity, and still maintain that he was "basically just a good man" or a "good teacher" than it is to accept that he is who he said he was. Rather than filtering his words through a sieve of tradition, why not investigate the claims of Jesus for yourself?
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
1. Sholem Asch, The Nazarene, Maurice Samuel, tr. (New York: G. Putnam Sons, 1939).
2. Sholem Asch, One Destiny (New York: Putnam Publishing Company, 1945).
3. Buber, Martin, Two Types of Faith, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951, p. 12.
4. Quoted from an interview by George Sylvester Viereck, "What Life Means to Einstein," The Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929, Curtis Publishing Company.
5. Stephen S. Wise, "The Life and Teaching of Jesus the Jew," The Outlook, June 7, 1913.
6. See A.W. Kac, The Messiahship of Jesus: What Jews and Jewish Christians Say (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981) for a lengthy list of what present day Jews say concerning Yeshua.
7. Hyman Enelow, A Jewish View of Jesus (New York: MacMillan, 1920), 4-5.
8. The concept of two Messiahs, Messiah son of Joseph who is to die on the field of battle, fighting Israel's enemies, and Messiah son of David who will come to bring in the kingdom did not become prevalent until the 200s, during the period of the Gemarah (200-500).
9. Ben Siegel, The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to His Fiction (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976), p. 148, quoting an interview with Asch by Frank S. Mead in The Christian Herald in 1944.