Paul and Acts on the Question “Why Didn’t the Jews Believe in Jesus?”

Growing up, I was told “Jews don’t believe in Jesus.” Though I was hearing this from the vantage point of Judaism, many Christians have believed, been told, and said the same thing. But the first thing that struck me about the New Testament, when I first read Matthew 1:1 was that this was a Jewish book, written by, to, and about Jewish people. Paul, himself when posing the question rhetorically to the Roman Church, “Can we say God’s word has failed because the Jewish people have not believed?” Paul gives a 3 part answer that constitutes Romans 9-11. One of those points is “well, a whole lot of them have- like, for example, ME!”

Where does Paul get this idea that a whole lot of Jewish people believed in Jesus, and can we substantiate this. Paul would not be aware of future Jewish Believers in Jesus across the ages- like Teresa of Avilla or Benjamin Disraeli. He would have to look at the his own experience.

When we read Acts 15 we might miss details in the verses of the Jerusalem council like “Then some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said….” (Acts 15:5a). Wait, what? We have been told that the Pharisees set against Jesus, they would never believe. But the account says the Jesus believers among the Pharisees were at this council! Flip back to Acts 6:7 and get ready. “.. and a great many of the priests were become obedient to the faith” (ie in Jesus). This also seems counter to our version of the narrative- the Priests, those intimately acquainted and involved in the Temple Service believed in Jesus. So we can figure, okay this was such a small minority that it really didn’t matter right? I am so glad you asked! Let’s look at Acts 21:20 where we learn, “You see brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed (in Jesus), and they are all zealous for the Law.” So there was a large Torah observant, Jesus believing contingent in Jerusalem. How many where there? The NAS says “thousands” The text more literally says “tens of thousands.” How many thousands are tens of thousands? At least over ten thousand. To say we have more than one “ten thousand” we would have to start at twenty thousand. Of course, not to say hundreds of thousands, the figure could go up to high as say ninety thousand. That is a wide range, but either number is likely more than we previously imagined. Now we have a different picture. Many Jewish people, many influential people in Jewish society, and some of the most observant and Torah knowledgeable became believers in Jesus.

If this seems abstract, it is relevant to each of us in different ways. First, if there is a historical precedent of Jesus-believing Jews in the heart of Jewish Orthodoxy perhaps the rift between Orthodox Jews and Jesus Believing Jews is not theological, not cultural, but historical. Further, why does the most “open” and “accepting” form of Judaism, Reform Judaism, make a specific point of declaring Jewish Believers in Jesus as forfeiting their right to be Jewish?

For the Christian, this is first of all a historical clarification and recalculation regarding what it meant to follow Jesus in the first century. The old line about Paul starting a new religion would be strange news to Paul. For its first hundred years, until the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome, the followers of Jesus were following Judaism. This underscores the fact that believers in Jesus all owe a great deal to the Jewish people. Further, this demonstrates the greatness of the grace extended to Gentiles who have been made co-heirs of the promises made to Abraham. What’s more- and this is Paul’s point in Romans, if we ask the question “How can we trust God’s promises if God’s word to Israel failed?” Paul’s answer to them, and to us is this- “God’s promises to Israel have not failed. His promises to Gentile believers will not fail either!”

As I write, we celebrate the Feast of Sukkot. The offering of 70 bulls, during this season, the Rabbis teach, were for the cleansing of the Nations of the World. The New Testament ends with the Nations of the World joining the Jewish people to stream into the New Tabernacle of the LORD. The world does not look like that now. But that is what Jesus was doing, is doing. I hope you join me in living, and working toward that Day!

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