Yeshua proclaimed the “good news of the kingdom of heaven” as he travelled around the Galilee. He healed the sick. Crowds followed him. The good news spread like wildfire. The news that the kingdom of heaven might finally become a reality captured people’s hearts.
There were those, however, for whom the “good news” was bad news. There were those who rejected Yeshua and his message. Others disputed with him over matters of Torah beliefs and practices. This was not uncommon in first-century Israel. And there were others who opposed him for reasons such as greed or power. There were scribes and Sadducees and Pharisees, Herodians and tax collectors, priests and government officials—both Jewish and Roman, each having his own issues with what Yeshua said and did. Finally, there were those who were so threatened that they sought to destroy him.
When people say, “the Jews rejected Yeshua”, they are blaming the entire people for the actions of some, but not all, of us. Therefore it is worth investigating who accepted, and who rejected Yeshua, and why.
Who Accepted Yeshua?
There were many Jews in Israel who did follow Yeshua for many reasons. There were those who followed him because he was healing people, and they needed healing. There were those who simply wanted to see the miracles. There were those who received food from him, and wanted more.
Then there were many who heard his teachings and were astonished by the way he spoke (Matthew 7:28). He offered mercy, love, and hope to weary and oppressed people.
There were his disciples whom he called—not only the twelve, but many who were called disciples, whom he taught, and later sent out.
Some of the Pharisees invited him into their homes. Some Pharisees came to warn him of Herod’s plan to kill him (Luke 13:31).
There was Nicodemus, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, known from the Talmud (Gittin 56a), who came to Yeshua secretly, but later spoke up for him at his trial, and eventually became a disciple (John 3:1ff, 7:50-52). Together with Joseph of Arimathea, he prepared Yeshua’s body for burial in the tomb provided by Joseph (John 19:38-39).
Across the Jewish spectrum, there were many who embraced Yeshua, each for his own reasons. There were, of course, others who did not.
Rejection because of Inconvenience
Among the first to reject Yeshua were some herders of pigs, and the people of the city where they lived, east of the Sea of Galilee in the Decapolis region (Matthew 8:28-34). He cast the demons out of two demonized men, and into a herd of pigs, which drowned themselves in the sea. The herders went to the city to tell what had happened, and the people came out and pleaded with Yeshua to go away.
In Matthew 19:16-22, a rich young man came to Yeshua asking what he must do to gain eternal life. When Yeshua told him to keep the Torah, this was no problem for him, as he said he already did so. But when Yeshua told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him, that was too much to ask.
When Yeshua tells a parable of the unjust steward and gives some exhortations about not elevating money over the love of G-d, some of the Pharisees choked on his words and ridiculed him (Luke 16:14). Such rejections are sad, but it gets worse.
Disputes over Faith and Practice
Most of the conflict during Yeshua’s public ministry was over Torah beliefs and practices. This was not unusual, since the Rabbis and their schools also disagreed with one another over such matters. Pirkei Avot 5:17 says there are disputes “for the sake of Heaven”, that is, in order to find the truth, as those between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and there are disputes “not for the sake of Heaven”, to make conflict, as was Korach’s dispute against Moses. The two main schools of Hillel and Shammai took different approaches to the Torah. Hillel was more inclined to be flexible, patient and understanding, while Shammai was inclined to be strict and critical. Pay careful attention to which kind of disputes various people had with Yeshua.
One of the first things some of the Pharisees noticed was the strange company that Yeshua kept. Matthew 9:11: And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luke 15:2: And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
When the gospels talk about “the Pharisees” they don’t mean all Pharisees, but rather some of them. Notice how in Matthew, the Pharisees asked the disciples a question, and may have been willing to hear their answer. Luke says they complained and accused him. The former group sounds like the school of Hillel; the latter like the school of Shammai.
Another common area of dispute was over washing hands before eating. Matthew 15:1: Then Pharisees and scribes came to Yeshua from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”
Luke 11:38: The Pharisee was astonished to see that (Yeshua) did not first wash before dinner. Treating the dinner table and food as holy was a feature of the Pharisees’ approach to Torah. Even so, the school of Hillel was more lenient than the school of Shammai. I believe that Yeshua accepted the Oral Torah in principle, though there were times when his interpretation differed from that of his contemporaries. In the first story, the Pharisees asked him an honest question, and listened to his answer. In the second case, the Pharisee has a stronger reaction, and Yeshua’s answer indicates much more tension and animosity between them.
A major issue between Pharisees and Yeshua was over Shabbat. “But when the Pharisees saw (Yeshua’s disciples picking grains to eat on Shabbat), they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’” (Matthew 12:2) Maybe this was an honest question, and maybe they considered Yeshua’s answer. However, when he went into their synagogue, the conflict escalated.
Matthew 12:9: And he … entered their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, whole like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him.
These incidents happened in the North. John tells of a healing in Jerusalem on Shabbat, a case of a man who had been ill for 38 years. Yeshua tells the man to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. Yeshua knew it was Shabbat, and carrying was not permitted. The man, either in his infirmity or in his excitement over being healed, may have forgotten, so he picked up the bed and began to walk away. “The Jews” immediately stopped him, saying carrying is not permitted. He said the fellow who healed him told him to do it, and he looked around for Yeshua, who had disappeared into the crowd. Later …
John 5:14: Yeshua found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Yeshua who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews persecuted Yeshua, because he did this on the sabbath.
This time it is not Pharisees, but “the Jews”. I am reasonably sure that John means “Judeans”, possibly the Judean authorities. He was not intending to implicate all Jews. This happened in Jerusalem, right next to the Temple Mount. It is no wonder that people were more strict. Nevertheless, Yeshua’s questionable acts on Shabbat were a trigger for persecution. His reasoning may have been accepted by some Jews, but the authorities did not approve of his creative deviations from the traditional laws at all.
John writes soon after (7:1) “After this Yeshua went about in Galilee; he would not go about in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him.” Surely Yeshua did not worry that every Jew wanted to kill him. There were also Jews in Galilee. Clearly he means Judeans, probably the authorities, were getting ready to arrest and try him for what they considered to be crimes of insurrection, treason and blasphemy. Apparently he did not spend much time in Jerusalem after this, until he was ready to make his final appearance there. Meanwhile, he was able to move about freely in the North.
Besides the matters of Shabbat and the washing of hands, there was a doctrinal discussion raging about the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in it; the Sadducees did not. So in Matthew 22:23, some Sadducees confronted Yeshua with a contrived question intending to discredit him publicly by “proving” there is no resurrection. Yeshua silenced them, and demonstrated—from the Torah!—that there is indeed a resurrection.
The Samaritans had their turn, too. Luke 9:52: And (Yeshua) sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; 53 but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
The Samaritans worshipped at Mount Gerizim, which they considered to be holier than Jerusalem. Yeshua’s recognizing Jerusalem as the central place of worship was enough reason for the Samaritans to reject him without even giving him a chance to be heard.
When he began to call disciples and send them out to cast out demons, his own family tried to stop him (Mark 3:21). “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, ‘He is beside himself.’” This was perhaps not so much rejection as it was out of concern for him, or for themselves. But it must have been difficult for him to take.
Some scribes, and some Pharisees, accused Yeshua of the serious crime of sorcery, of casting out demons by means of some demonic power. For example (Mark 3:22): “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’”
These are examples of Jews who challenged or rejected Yeshua because of things he taught or did. Now we will examine the kinds of people who actively opposed him.
While preaching in the synagogues of Galilee, though he was well received by most of them, he encountered serious opposition in his home town, Nazareth. One Shabbat he visited the synagogue (Luke 4:16ff), and was called upon to read from the scroll of Isaiah (61:1-2). The passage announces, “the L-RD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted”. Yeshua stopped reading in the middle of the passage and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” “And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” (Luke 4:21-22).
Yeshua must have detected some second thoughts in that question. He began to warn them that no prophet is honored in his home town, and how G-d did miracles for gentiles during times when the Israelites were not following Him. This provoked the people:
Luke 4:28: When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.
Yeshua got away. But from that time, some of his opponents decided to look for evidence to use against him. Not long afterwards, in another synagogue (Luke 6:7): “And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.” Yeshua’s fame was spreading in Galilee, and some scribes even came down from Jerusalem to check him out (Mark 3:22). Some of them intensified their efforts to incite Yeshua to say or do something that incriminate him.
Luke 11:53: As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say.
They even tried to get him in trouble with the Romans. Matt 22:15: Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, … 17 “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
The Herodians were Hellenistic (secular) Jews, loyal to the dynasty of King Herod the Great, the puppet rulers installed by the Romans. They had an interest in maintaining good relations with the Romans. They plotted together to get Yeshua to say that Jews should not pay taxes to Caesar. Such a statement would have got him in trouble with the Roman authorities, who were already concerned about his growing following, and talk of making him king.
When he came to Jerusalem, things got more complicated: Matt 21:12: And Yeshua entered the temple of G-d and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.”
A crowd of people followed him into the Temple, and he healed many of them. The crowd hailed him as the Son of David. This aggravated the chief priests and the Temple authorities.
Matt 21:23: And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Yeshua, knowing there was no answer that would satisfy them, answered shrewdly. He asked whether they thought John’s baptism was from G‑d or from men. The crowd was watching. They could not say, “from G‑d”, because they did not follow John. And they could not say, “from men”, because the people considered John a prophet. So they didn’t answer, and left him alone for the moment.
He then told a couple of parables about corrupt and selfish leadership. The chief priests, scribes and Pharisees mentioned here were very likely connected with the Sanhedrin, the supreme court, that convened in the Temple.
Matt 21:45: When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.
At that point Jerusalem became a dangerous place for Yeshua. Even when he did a good thing, he got into trouble. One day he healed a man who was blind from birth (John 9). He made some clay, put it on the man’s eyes, and told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man did so, and he could see. It was Shabbat. His neighbors brought him to the Pharisees, and an investigation ensued. They argued whether someone who heals on Shabbat could be from G‑d. They suspected that the man had not been blind in the first place. So they called his parents.
John 9:20: His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Messiah, he was to be put out of the synagogue.
The authorities already agreed to excommunicate anyone who believed him to be the Messiah. And they were planning to arrest him, convict him of some serious crimes, and execute him.
Once, in the Temple on Hanukkah, a crowd of Judeans confronted him, demanding to know if he was the Messiah. The confrontation escalated until they tried to stone him. Then he asked them a brilliant question, “For which of the good works that I’ve done are you stoning me?” (John 10:33) The Jews (i.e., Judeans) answered him, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself G‑d.”
While there were Jews who embraced Yeshua, various kinds of Jews rejected him in different ways. Some went away because following him was inconvenient. Others disagreed with his Torah teaching and practice. Still others became so incensed by what they considered to be violations of Torah that they took steps to arrest and execute him. How did a man who preached and practiced the love of G‑d stir up so much opposition? In the next article, I will examine this question in more depth, and we will study the circumstances of his arrest, trial and execution.