If Prof. Israel Knohl is right, history books will require rewriting and Church sermons around the world will have to be rethought
In a small Jerusalem study bursting with books, an affable professor, cap on his head and white beard covering much of his face, has found the formula to end a centuries-old controversy. If he’s right, history books will require rewriting and sermons in churches around the world will have to be rethought. “It will have far-reaching implications for relations between Jews and Christians,” Israel Knohl tells me when we meet in his office at the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood.
Bible scholar Knohl, 67, specializes in finding unconventional explanations for fateful issues and has no compunctions about angering his colleagues along the way. Earlier studies by the religiously observant holder of the Yehezkel Kaufmann Chair in Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have sparked furious debate, transcending the confines of academia. This time, the subject is more highly charged than ever: the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
In contrast to some of his colleagues – certainly in the such departments as Bible studies – Prof. Knohl has the ability to present his arguments clearly and concisely, in a way that every person can understand immediately, without unnecessary hairsplitting. That’s true of his new book, too.
In “The Messiah Controversy: Who Are the Jews Waiting For?” (Hebrew), he sheds new light on the trial of Jesus, who was sentenced to death by a Jewish court and executed by the Romans in 30 C.E. After billions of Christians were taught over many centuries that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death, Knohl sets out to reexamine this convention.
“The notion that Jesus was put to death by ‘the Jewish people’ is fundamentally wrong. The great majority of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, but espoused a messianic outlook that was basically similar to his,” he says, adding that today, “after centuries of enmity between Christendom and the Jewish people, which was wrongfully accused of bearing the guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion, surely the time has come to reexamine the events in their historical, religious and social context.”
What can be gleaned from such a reconsideration of events? To understand Knohl’s thesis we need to go back in time and reacquaint ourselves with the dramatic, multifaceted and fascinating disputes in the Hebrew Bible concerning the issue of the Messiah. A perusal of the Bible’s various books reveals two main trends. On the one hand, the Torah presents an anti-messianic stance, according to which the gulf between the divine and the human cannot be bridged. This approach rules out the possibility that a flesh-and-blood king will achieve a “quasi-divine” status, and supports a clear separation between the two realms. Accordingly, God cannot possibly have begotten a son, and eternal life cannot be attributed to a king or a messiah.
On the other hand, some of the Prophetic books and some of the individual Psalms do express a messianic approach, and attribute divine qualities to the king (whoever he may be) and portray him as the “son of God” – as sitting next to God in heaven and as possessing “divine” names.
Knohl: “The messianic idea, the belief in the existence of a king who is a lofty and exalted being with quasi-divine traits, occupies a very respectable place already in the Bible.”
Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, he maintains, constitute a “dramatic and decisive moment” in the history of the Jewish people and of Western culture as a whole. It is the moment at which the two approaches – the anti-messianic and the messianic – meet in an unavoidable collision, whose impact is still felt today.
Jesus was apparently born and raised in Nazareth. His name (Yeshua or Yeshu, in Hebrew) signified the anticipation of yeshua, salvation or redemption. As a young man, he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who similarly immersed thousands of people who flocked to him in order to confess their sins, repent and be purified. The New Testament relates that during his baptism, Jesus heard a voice saying, “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” and the holy spirit descended on him like a dove.
Subsequently, in a Nazareth synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus recites verses from the Book of Isaiah that begin, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,” and tells the worshippers, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). According to Knohl, in his deeds, Jesus “continued the messianic biblical tradition” and supported his words with references from the Hebrew Bible about the image of the Messiah.
Afterward, in Jerusalem on Passover, Jesus enters the Temple courtyard, chases away the buyers and sellers and the peddlers of doves (which were used for sacrifices), and overturns the tables of the money changers. This is an affront to ritual, which causes a tumult in the Temple and infuriates the priests.
Why was he not arrested immediately after this act?
Knohl: “Many among the Jewish people hoped he would prove himself to be the Messiah, who would redeem the people and restore its freedom. He enjoyed great public sympathy. The people were fond of him, cheered him on, supported and protected him.”
Thus Jesus was able to return to the Temple courtyard on a later occasion and to speak publicly. His principal argument was extreme: The Messiah, whose advent the people awaited, is not a descendant of David, as everyone believed until then. As such, Jesus solved the problem of his own lineage, as one who was not descended from the House of David and was a pretender to the messianic crown. In addition, he presented a new model of the Messiah: Whereas the disciples who followed him clung to the prevailing belief in a triumphant warrior Messiah and expected him to deliver the people from Roman rule, Jesus saw himself as a suffering, nonviolent, poor and weak Messiah.
This position would seem to be at odds with the general approach found in the Hebrew Bible, according to which God is above suffering, which is solely a human attribute. According to that description, it follows that if the Messiah is a quasi-divine figure, it wasn’t possible for him to suffer, as Jesus claimed. However, Knohl looked for and found evidence of divine suffering in other sources, and explains that, “The portrait of the divinity suffering with his people appeared in Jewish tradition before the birth of Christianity.”
In support of this thesis, the scholar cites Isaiah 63:9: “In all their afflictions he was afflicted.” The Hebrew text emends the word lo [spelled lamed aleph, meaning “not”] to lo [lamed vav, meaning “to him”], which is very significant in this context. According to the emended version – whose date is unknown – God is regretful, and shares in Israel’s suffering. For the first time, the image of a suffering God enters the Bible, a concept previously foreign to the biblical way of thought.
“Once the idea that God himself suffers and shares in the sorrow of his people was accepted, it became possible to attribute suffering to a messiah possessing divine status too,” Knohl observes.
After being arrested, Jesus is placed on trial. His judges were members of the priestly Sadducee sect, which controlled the courts at the time. When Jesus stood before them, he represented, in his deeds and words, the position of the Prophets and the psalmist, who awaited the arrival of a “quasi-divine” messiah. According to Knohl, this was the image shared by the majority of Jewish people during this period. However, it was Jesus’ misfortune that his judges, who condemned him to death, ruled out the possibility of the advent of a Messiah of this kind. The Sadducees were anti-messianic and objected in principle to the messianic idea. From their point of view, the notion that the Messiah was the son of God, as Jesus presented it, constituted an abomination of God’s name, punishable by death.
In other words, Jesus’ trial was actually an intra-Jewish matter?
“Yes. Jesus’ trial is not a moment of collision between the Jewish message and the Christian message. It is a conflict between two clearly intra-Jewish concepts.”
Jesus’ judges, Knohl emphasizes, did not faithfully represent the feelings of the people. “According to all the sources, the Sadducees, who sentenced him to death, represented only a minority of the Jewish people.” The majority of Jews in Jesus’ time actually supported the Pharisees, who agreed with Jesus that the Messiah would bear a “quasi-divine” status, he notes.
Like Jesus and his disciples, most of the people believed in the resurrection of the dead and the advent of a messiah bearing divine qualities. “It’s reasonable to assume that if Jesus had been judged by Pharisees, he would have been acquitted,” Knohl says. “It was not the Jewish people who tried him, but the leadership of a minority group.”
After he was sentenced to death, Jesus was handed over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who ordered his crucifixion. The execution was carried out by Roman soldiers. The Romans, for their part, saw Jesus as yet another in a series of messianic Jews who constituted a threat to their rule.
About 30 years earlier, in 4 B.C.E., following the death of King Herod, an extensive rebellion against the Romans had broken out in the same place – the Temple courtyard – and at the same time of year: during Passover. “From their perspective, Jesus was the successor to the messianic leaders of that revolt,” Knohl says, which is the reason the Romans placed a sign reading “King of the Jews” atop the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Forty years after the Crucifixion, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned down the Temple. Many of the Sadduccees perished. Thus it was, in the year 70 C.E. – along with the destruction of the Second Temple – that the Sadducees disappeared from the historical stage. The leadership of the Jewish people fell into the hands of the heirs of the Pharisees, the Mishnaic sages.
Knohl: “It is safe to assume that these sages, and notably Rabbi Akiva, would not have sentenced Jesus to death for his messianic views, which were not so far from their own approach.” Yet, the tragic circumstances of history had Jesus living during the period in which the Sadducees controlled the Temple and became his judges.
“It would be a grievous error to cast the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jewish people collectively,” Knohl concludes. Furthermore, Rabbinic Judaism, which developed under the leadership of the sages after the Temple’s destruction, also accepted the belief in the resurrection of the dead and the advent of a superhuman messiah. In this sense, he says, “basic agreement exists between the messianic concepts of Jesus and the historic Jewish concept.”
This thesis has multiple implications that go beyond academic, theological and philosophical discourse. The hatred of the Jewish people harbored by Christian peoples is based primarily on belief in the Jews’ responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.
“That is true, and we cannot ignore it. There will be no healing until this wound is opened. I suggest opening it, not covering it up. To declare courageously: Yes, there was a trial. But those who judged Jesus were a minority group, who disappeared from the Jewish map. You can’t just take what they did and use it to accuse the entire Jewish people. That is a terrible distortion.”
What happened that suddenly led you to this conclusion? Where have you been until now?
“The [assumption underlying] your question is the opposite of scientific. The role of science is to question the conventions and find new things. The question of why no one said this earlier destroys the foundation and the role of science: to think, to call into question, to turn over the stones and find new things.”
Prof. Aviad Kleinberg, director of the School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv University, and an expert in the history of Christianity and Christian theology, takes issue with Knohl. “Prof. Knohl wants to exonerate the Jewish people of guilt in Jesus’ death. But Knohl arrived on the scene 54 years late,” Kleinberg says.
He is referring to the Vatican Council’s 1965 declaration, “Nostra Aetate,” which states, in part, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
According to Kleinberg, since that historic statement, “The Catholic Church has repeatedly dissociated itself from any accusation of the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. The Church has condemned anti-Semitism and expressed contrition for its part in the persecution of the Jews in the past.” Similarly, the hope voiced by Knohl that the figure of Jesus would be reexamined in its Jewish context, and that the resemblance between his views and those of the Pharisees would be recognized, has already been realized, Kleinberg maintains. “The new trend in research – including Catholic research – is to present Jesus as a Jew in every respect, who was not out to found a new religion and certainly did not wish to turn his back on his Jewish brethren,” he says.
Knohl, for his part, maintains that the Vatican Council’s declaration did not go into the details of Jesus’ trial or the internal disputes in Judaism on this question, as he does in his new book. He adds that he is familiar with the other studies which are trying “to return Jesus to Judaism,” but they devote little space to Jesus’ messianic side, and treat his claim to be the son of God metaphorically, he says. He, in contrast, emphasizes Jesus’ messianic conception in his research.
An angel and a mute rebbe
Israel Knohl was born in Jaffa in 1952. His parents, Dov and Shoshana, who immigrated to Palestine from Galician Poland in the 1930s, were among the founders of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, near Bethlehem. His father was one of the few who survived when the kibbutz was conquered by the Jordanians in the War of Independence, in 1948. The family moved to Jerusalem when Knohl was 8, and he has lived in the city ever since.
After doing army service in a combat unit, he studied Talmud at the Hebrew University but afterward switched to the Bible department, where he wrote his doctoral thesis and found his academic home. He retires this month. In the 1980s, he was among the founders of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a center of pluralistic Jewish education and thought, where he will continue to conduct research and teaches.
“I like to think out of the box,” he says. At the same time, he does not hesitate to retract his views if new details arise that cause him to question them. In 2007 and 2008, for example, he put forward a new and surprising interpretation for the inscription, called “Gabriel’s Revelation” (Hazon Gabriel), on a stone tablet from the Second Temple period. Experts were puzzled by the meaning of the inscription, which had been discovered in Jordan a few years earlier. Knohl maintained that the text depicts the angel Gabriel as resurrecting a messianic leader from the dead after three days. From this he inferred that the belief that the Messiah died and came back to life after three days – a central tenet of the Christian faith, and one that obviously differentiates it from Judaism – existed in Judaism even before the birth of Jesus.
“The Gabriel Revelation thus confirms my thesis that the belief in a slain and resurrected messiah existed prior to the messianic activity of Jesus,” Knohl wrote in Haaretz in 2007. He told The New York Times in 2008, “Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.” He added, “His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come. This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning.”
Against this background, Jesus should be seen as a national leader of the Jewish people, Knohl concluded at the time. If a Jewish tradition already existed, whereby a Messiah who suffers, dies and rises to life – we can understand that, “Jesus wanted to be captured by the Romans and killed by them, because he believes that in this way he will bring redemption to Israel,” Knohl said in a 2009 interview. “And when I speak about redemption, I speak about national redemption… [Jesus] wanted to be the king of the Jews, because he believed that after his blood will be shed, God will come from heaven, kill the enemies – the Romans – and redeem Israel.” Jesus, then, was “a very devoted and national Jew who wanted to sacrifice his life in order to redeem his people.” And, as he told The Times, “To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.”
It was in the wake of a different reading of one of the lines in the Gabriel Revelation inscription, as suggested by an American scholar, and in light of technical difficulties in deciphering the text, that Knohl announced in a 2008 article that he was revoking his earlier interpretation.
In his bestselling Hebrew-language book entitled “Where Are We From? The Genetic Code of the Bible,” published that same year, Knohl also offered a new reading of ancient texts. In the book he explains that the Jewish people sprang from different groups that brought with them diverse beliefs and rituals – a view that contradicts what is taught to most of those who pass through Israel’s school system. The book was widely discussed, and not only in academic circles. Prof. Yaacov Shavit, former head of the Jewish history department at Tel Aviv University, savaged the work in an article in Haaretz, writing that it rests on “flimsy foundations and imaginary connections,” and is characterized by “an abundance of fertile imagination, conjectures like castles in the air and leftovers of groundless theories.”
In a rebuttal published in the newspaper, Knohl asserted that Shavit’s words were not the stuff of a critical review, but rather “a crass attempt to shut people up by hurling garbage and nonsense.” He excoriated Shavit as “a historian of the modern era who is unfamiliar with the study of the Bible and its era,” adding, “A person needs a healthy dose of arrogance, effrontery and vulgarity to review a book that is not from his particular field of study and to hurl unbridled accusations at its author without grounding and proving even one of the accusations. As an outsider to the field, he is unable to address the substance but only to scream his head off. As the saying goes, ‘empty vessels make the greatest noise.’”
Knohl’s 2018 book “How the Bible Was Born” (Hebrew) also became a local best seller. In it the author conducts an industrious search for the historical core that underlies biblical accounts of the Jewish people’s origins. He concludes that the Bible is not a history book, but contains “seeds” of historical memory.
In that book he positions himself between two conflicting approaches. The first, traditional one believes fully and blindly in everything the Torah relates: from the emergence of the Jewish people, to the patriarchs, Joseph and the bondage in Egypt, and down to Moses and Joshua and the entry into the Land of Israel. It’s all true, in this telling, even if contemporary archaeology and other sources don’t confirm it.
The second approach is that of Bible scholars who maintain that all the stories in the Torah, from Genesis onward, are a total invention that doesn’t necessarily reflect any historical truth. Thus, for example, according to this approach, the Exodus from Egypt never happened.
For his part, Knohl thinks the stories of the Jewish people’s origins do not constitute historical truths but a literary compilation of myths, traditions and tales that had some sort of anchor in history and over hundreds of years were handed down orally. “Unlike the view of many scholars, my position is that the Torah story is not without historical value and historical context,” he writes. “The Torah is not out to teach us history, and therefore should not be judged like a history book. The important question is not whether the story happened or not, but what the story’s spiritual, religious meaning is. The Torah story provides us with an ‘Israelite mythology of the nation’s beginnings.’”
In his newest book, Knohl offers a survey of the disputes over the messianic idea and its roots, beginning with the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms, and including the written texts discovered at Qumran, the views of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and even discussions of Maimonides and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
“Although the great majority of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, they espoused a messianic concept that was fundamentally similar to Jesus’ messianic concept,” he tells me, placing Jesus back at center stage. “The messianic expectation was an operative, driving force throughout the 2,000 years of exile.”
It is in this connection that Knohl refers to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who is a contemporary messianic figure. In 1992, almost nearly 90 years old, he suffered a stroke. Although he lost his power of speech permanently, when he recovered, he resumed his public appearances. His followers danced before him, singing, “Long live our master, our teacher and our rabbi, the Messiah forever and ever.”
Knohl: “The mute rabbi frequently encouraged the singing with gestures of his head and hand. The messianic fervor among his followers grew more intense.” Thus, the professor reasons, the Rebbe’s condition and suffering were interpreted in a messianic context. “His followers read his agonies as a sign of his messiah-hood.” Thus another link was added to the chain of images of the suffering Messiah.
Still, Messiah-hood is not solely a religious matter, the scholar asserts.
“Zionism, which was a secular movement, was nevertheless founded on the basis of the messianic expectation, which had existed among the Jewish people for thousands of years,” Knohl notes. “It cannot be understood without the background of the messianic expectation.”
So, if we like, we can add another suffering Messiah to the chain: Theodor Herzl.
By Ofer Aderet