Was Jesus A Rabbi, A Prophet, A Messiah Or The Son Of God? (Part III) – OpEd


According to Jesus himself, he had come to uphold and revive Jewish teaching, not ‘retire’ it or change it; he was a religious reformer, reminding Jews of the spiritual purpose of their religious teachings.

The Qur’an agrees: “Indeed, it is We, Ourself [God], who sent down the Torah. In it there is guidance and light. With it the prophets, who submitted themselves [to God], made judgments for Jewry, as did the rabbis and the scribes; for they had been entrusted to preserve the Scripture of God—and to this [trust] they were [mindful] witnesses. … And [after the prophets of Israel], We sent following upon their traces Jesus, son of Mary, as a confirmation of [the truth] that had preceded him [in the Law] of the Torah. Moreover, We gave him the Evangel—in which there is guidance and light—as a confirmation of [the truth] that preceded him [in the Law] of the Torah, along with [further] guidance and [inspired] admonition for the God-fearing.” (Qur’an 5:44-46)

Jesus’ own words, furthermore, deny that he was the political Messiah who would “return the kingdom to Israel” —thereby confirming in no uncertain terms that he was someone other than the Messiah-son of David: “When the apostles [the Twelve chosen by Jesus to spread his message] met together with Jesus, they asked him, “Master (Rabbi) will you at this time restore the kingdom [political self-rule] to Israel?” Jesus said to them: “The times and occasions are set by my Father’s [God’s] own authority, and it is not for you to know when they will be.” (New Testament, Acts of the Apostles 1:6-8)

If Jesus’ own words are to be taken seriously, then he was by no means the political Messiah-son of David. Jesus’ Aaron-like role as religious reformer fits with the general picture of Prophet Jesus in the events narrated of him in the three Synoptic Gospels; the “religious reformer” job description matches also with his self-description as “Son of Adam” [or, “Son of Man”] i.e. a human and not a divine “son of god.”

Islam teaches that Jesus was no more “divine” than any very spiritual prophet with a message for his time: a ‘word/sign’ from Allah (Qur’an 43:61). Islam denies the central teaching and belief of Christianity by denying Jesus’ divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection. Judaism denies the divinity of Jesus; but not his crucifixion. Both Islam and Judaism deny the Christian belief in original sin.

Jews and Muslims are in fundamental agreement that neither Prophet Jesus, nor any other human, should be worshiped as a deity, nor is any human to be understood as being any part of the one and only God.
Millions of American Christians now also believe the same thing. A recent report by Gallup reviewing over 174,000 interviews conducted in 2015 found that only 56% of Christians believe that Jesus was Divine, and 26% say he was a great man, but only a human religious or spiritual leader like Moses, Mohammed or Buddha (with 18% not sure what Jesus was).

It is not surprising that almost none of the Jews, Muslims or Buddhists polled believed that Jesus was God or the Son of God. But what is surprising is that only 56% of American Christians in our generation are Trinitarians.

About 5-6% of Americans identify with a non-Christian religion. What do they think about Jesus? While many, but not all, Buddhists pray to Buddha, there are no Jews or Muslims who pray to Prophets Moses or Muhammad. Indeed, one of the most important teachings in their sacred scriptures, the Hebrew Bible and the Arabic Qur’an, is the prohibition of praying to anyone other than the one and only God.

Perhaps more humility is needed when making claims of divinity for Jesus —whose original Hebrew name was actually “Yeshua”  —or Joshua in modern pronunciation. His name went from “Yeshua” to “Iesus,” because Greek could not handle the ‘sh’ sound of the original Hebrew Yeshua, and “Iesus” is easy in Greek. Then his name became “Jesus” pronouncing the “J” with a hard sound, which is easy in English.

“Yeshua” was a very popular name in first century Israel and is seen often in the Hebrew Bible, though those individuals often became “Joshua” in later translations. And from the time of Jesus archeological excavators have uncovered over 70 tombs bearing this name; which shows just how common and unremarkable the name Jesus was.

Indeed, Jesus plainly thought of himself not as the “Son of God,” but as the “Son of Man.” In the four Gospels, “the Son of Man” is Jesus’ self-designation. The term “the Son of Man” appears 81 times in the Greek text of the four Gospels: thirty times in Matthew, twenty-five times in Luke, 14 times in Mark (the shortest of the Gospels), and 12 times in John (the latest and least history-oriented of the Gospels).

Yet in Paul’s epistles of Christian Scripture, “the Son of Man” is never used for Jesus. In fact, outside of the Gospels the term “Son of Man” appears in the whole New Testament only 4 times (5%). Indeed, the term “Son of Man”—so unmistakably preferred by Jesus for himself— is never used at all in early extra-biblical Christian writings during the generations following Paul’s letters.

Jews and Muslims also agree that Paul is the real founder of Christianity, because Paul’s letters to various congregations of his followers influenced the way the Greek Gospels were later written. These Greek Gospels replaced the earlier Hebrew and Aramaic Gospels—which were not Trinitarian in ideology and which survive only as a few fragments in later references down to this day.

So, was Jesus more than a rabbi, a prophet, and a messiah?  No!

We have indicated how the Gospel narratives refer to Jesus as rabbi/teacher, as prophet, and as messiah.  The Quran is in agreement.   But what kind of messiah?  Very possibly Jesus could have been sent by God as the expected RELIGIOUS reformer: the Messiah-son of Aaron. As we have established, Prophet Jesus definitely could not have been the POLITICAL Messiah-son of David. 

Jesus belonged to the Aronson family lineage through his biological mother; he cannot be truthfully said to belong to the Davidson family bloodline through his step-father.  So then, from a Jewish point of view —based on evidence from the Gospel narratives— Jesus fits the role of religious reformer; this profile belongs to the expected Messiah-son of Aaron. Likewise, the Qur’an’s Jesus fits the same Jewish category, Messiah-son of Aaron.
Jesus sees himself as a RELIGIOUS REFORMER (Matthew 5:17-19), as well as a prophet (Matthew 15:53-58; Mark 6:1-6) and teacher/rabbi (John 18:37),  and decidedly not as the POLITICAL Messiah to “return the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6-7). This means that Jesus denied for himself the role of Messiah-son of David —in spite of the deliberate attempts of the Greek Gospel texts to show otherwise.

This Aaron-like Messiah role conforms to the general picture of Jesus in the events narrated of him in the three Synoptic Gospels and to his self-description as the “Son of Adam”/ “Son of Man.”  That is, while Jesus was a wonder-worker, a Jewish teacher, a prophet, and a messiah, he was most certainly not a begotten “son of god.”

“It is not befitting to [the majesty of] Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! When He determines a matter, He only says to it, “Be!” and it is. …They say: “[God] the Most Gracious has begotten a son!” Most certainly, you [who say this] have put forth a thing most monstrous. From it the heavens nearly burst, and the earth split and the mountains [all but] fall down in collapse that they should invoke a son for the Most Gracious. …Indeed, every being in the heavens and earth comes to the Most Gracious One as a servant.” (Quran 19:35, 88-93)

Each year Jews around the world sing the most popular Hanukah song called Maʿoz Tzur, a hymn from the 12th/13th century written in response to the mass slaughter of dozens of Jewish communities by the Crusaders, which ends with a request that has two variants: God should either raise up; the shepherd of the seven, or raise up the seven shepherds. 
These two versions point to two different biblical verses that reflect divergent perspectives on what should happen at the end of days. Professor Yitzhak Y. Melamed of Johns Hopkins University points out ‘Significant parts of the poem are violent, calling for Divine revenge for the blood of tens of thousands of Jews who were murdered or forced to convert to Christianity. 
The first five stanzas, survey the miraculous redemptions in Jewish history, but the final stanza, reflecting the reality of the crusades, directly asks God to end the oppression, and for redemption to arrive.’ Raise up for us the shepherd of the seven / the seven shepherds.

The ‘shepherd of the seven’ may come from Prophet Isaiah 11:6 which states: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” The verse lists seven animals, all of them led by a little child. Professor Yitzhak Melamed writes that if Maʿoz Tzur’s was alluding to Isaiah 11:6, then the last stanza is a prayer for a peaceful end of days: Following the collapse of the “evil kingdom” (i.e., the European inheritors of Rome), Ma’oz Tzur begs God for a world filled with universal love, peace, and human brotherhood, where even a young child can shepherd a wolf alongside a lamb, a leopard with a kid, and a lion with a calf.”

But the more popular version in the last few centuries Professor Yitzhak Melamed says is the second version, “seven shepherds.” This “the seven shepherds” is taken from Prophet Micah, who promises that when the King of Assyria invades Israel, God will raise seven shepherds to save the People of Israel from the King of Assyria (Micah 5:4/5) “Should Assyria invade our land and tread upon our fortresses, We (God) will raise up over him seven shepherds, eight princes of men.” References to the seven shepherds in a messianic context abound in Jewish eschatological literature, especially of the past five centuries. 

I am a Reform Rabbi who thinks that all three of the Abrahamic religions and scriptures have unique insights to offer to each other. In the case of Jesus, I believe the Prophets who descended  from Prophet Aaron (John and Jesus), and the Prophet who descended from Prophet Ishmael (Muhammad), and the pre-Messianic Age Prophets; Messiah Jesus and the Mahdi who will usher in a  peaceful world under  the spiritual rule of the leaders of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. 

Jesus was not the Son of God, but he was the son of mankind, a name Jesus himself usually used. The gospel writers, and some other people including one man possessed by evil spirits (Mark 5:2-7), did call Jesus the ‘Son of God’; but Jesus himself strongly preferred the term ‘Son of Man’, although he often did refer metaphorically to God as his father. If son of man was the title Jesus preferred then that is the title we should use.

Yet the Aramaic term son of man is a Messianic term. So the Qur’an is correct in calling Jesus a Messianic figure; not the son of David, but one of the seven shepherds of Israel who is sometimes called the son of Joseph.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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