A couple thousand years ago, a trial was held at night during Passover. That was highly irregular. The defendant was Jesus, and the hearing was conducted by a minority sect within Judaism, one that did not believe in a messiah—any messiah. So, the conviction of Jesus was a foregone conclusion, and the rest is history.
But what if the Pharisees—who represented the majority of the Jewish population—had conducted the trial instead of Sadducees—who intentionally held the trial knowing the Pharisees would be preoccupied? History might have gone very differently.
This is the basic idea behind Israeli biblical scholar Israel Knohl’s book The Messiah Confrontation: Pharisees Versus Sadducees and the Death of Jesus (Jewish Publication Society, Nov. 1), which the author hopes will aid in Jewish-Christian reconciliation over the issue of who was responsible for the execution of Jesus. The book presents an evidence-based case that Jesus was the victim not of Christian-Jewish conflict, but rather an internal Jewish one. Surprisingly, Knohl says, there was very little gap between Jesus, His followers’ beliefs, and that of most Jews.
“The Pharisees, the main Jewish group of this time, was messianic in the same way Jesus was messianic,” Knohl tells PW. “Basically, they agreed with Jesus on the expectation for a messianic king who was to be elevated. They didn't accept Jesus as the messiah, but they accepted the messianic idea. In other words, they believed that a messiah would come, but it wasn’t necessarily Jesus. So, actually, they represented the majority of the Jewish people in this period, who had the same view. Thus, Jesus was convicted by a minority group.”
It’s an important distinction, Knohl believes, because it further absolves the Jewish people from collective guilt over the death of Jesus. Granted, he says, that guilt had already been absolved during Vatican II in 1965. That’s when the Catholic Church announced its Nostra Aetate, which said that the Jews should not be held collectively accountable for the death of Jesus. But Knohl said his research gives that conclusion a scholarly imprint.
“Vatican II is important,” Knohl says. “But, you know, it is a general statement. No scholar entered the discussion of the details and the disagreements and the debates within the Hebrew Bible about the messianic idea. And the detailed claims that I'm making in my book are new. I'm giving Vatican II detailed support based on a close reading of the text.”
This is necessary because, he says, the “Jews killed Jesus” accusation is still accepted by many Christians. Knohl is heavily involved in Jewish-Christian education and dialogue. Every year, he goes to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas—Angelicum in Rome to teach and conduct dialogues with Christian students and scholars.
“I can tell, in my discussions with the students, there is still work to be done with regard to this issue of blaming the Jewish people, the entire Jewish people, for crucifying Jesus. If my book can improve that in some way, I would be happy.”
The Messiah Confrontation was originally released three years ago in Hebrew and only in Israel after a peer review process, and it was met with a positive reception. Barry Schwartz, director of the Jewish Publication Society, tells PW he decided to publish an English translation of the book “because it is a thought-provoking book of Jewish history and theology based on close readings of biblical and rabbinic texts.” He adds: “The work has important implications for both Jewish self-understanding and Jewish-Christian relations.”
And improving those relations is very important to the author, who has focused on it for much of his career. Knohl has been involved with interfaith dialogues at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for many years and has taught classes on the books of Genesis and Leviticus and on the history of the messianic idea at Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California–Berkeley, and the Chicago Divinity School, in addition to Angelicum in Rome.
He notes, “This is one of the aims of my new book—the issue of reconciliation and better mutual understanding between Jews and Christians.”