Image: Apse mosaic in basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Built 547. A.D. Photo by Petar Milošević via Wikimedia.

“Don’t you believe in Jesus?” the young woman asked me, her eyes wide.

Whenever someone asks me that question, I have a flashback to my Introduction to Theology class at the University of Chicago Divinity School back in the fall of 1980. Langdon Gilkey, the Shailer Mathews professor of theology was beginning his lecture on Christology, the study of Jesus. He began, “All we know for sure about the historical Jesus is that he did once live and he didn’t die in bed.” Every student in that class was shocked (which I suspect was Mr. Gilkey’s intent.)

As an observant Jew, I’m willing to go a bit farther than that eminent theologian. Here is what I believe about Jesus:

  1. Jesus was a man who lived in the Roman Province of Judea in the first century of the common era (what Christians refer to as “A.D.”)
  2. Jesus was born a Jew, and died a Jew, according to the accounts of people who knew him or lived near his time (documents Christians refer to as the “New Testament.”)
  3. Sometime shortly after Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, his followers had a series of experiences that set them on a path that would eventually diverge from Judaism.
  4. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was sent by God to save humanity from their sins. They called him “messiah.”
  5. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was divine, that is, that he was God.

When someone asks me “Don’t you believe in Jesus?” usually what they mean is “Don’t you believe Jesus is God?” or “Don’t you believe Jesus died for your sins?” The answer to both those questions is no. I believe he was a real person and a Jew like myself. I also believe that he died a very long time ago. He did not die for my sins, and he did not rise from the dead on Easter.

For those Christian readers who are thinking, “But what about the prophets?” I suggest you read another article I’ve written about the difference between Jewish and Christian concepts of the prophets, What is a Prophet?

While there is much that Jews and Christians have in common there are also important differences, and first among those is our disagreement about Jesus. For a Christian, Jesus is the messiah and most important person in history. For a Jew, he is a Jew who died in about the year 30 CE and whose followers started a new religion, Christianity.

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