Ben HaMakom

A collection of short stories on the life of Jesus from Israeli writer Haim Hazaz recontextualizes Jesus as a Jew within Judaism.


GospelsOct 13, 2021

GospelsOct 13, 2021


Image credit: Black Campbell (Unsplash)

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Ben HaMakom is the name of an unfinished novel of Jesus’ life written in Hebrew as a series of short stories between 1946-1948 by the Israeli writer Haim Hazaz.

The term Ben Hamakom has a double idiomatic meaning in Hebrew. It can mean either “Son of Israel” or “Son of God.” Hazaz wanted to retell the Gospels as if they had never left the Jewish people. He wanted to recontextualize Jesus within Judaism and within the Jewish people. He’s not the only Jewish writer to make that effort.

The Jewish people’s relationship with Jesus is strained. Generations of Christian persecution fueled by a theology that undermines their relationship with God hasn’t helped either.

For the Jewish people, their rejection of Jesus is not so much a rejection of him per se but an affirmation of their faithfulness to God. To paraphrase Messianic scholar Dr. Rabbi Mark Kinzer, the Jewish people’s resistance to Jesus in honor of the Torah is their “Yes to God.” [1] After all, God himself warns the Jewish people to reject any prophet who takes them away from the Torah or establishes a new religion (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Therefore, so long as Jesus is presented as the “Torah free Jew” or the “Judaism is just a dusty old bag of manmade traditions Jew,” he will continue to remain in a state of estranged exile from his people.

In addition to this contorted view the portrait of Jesus in the Jewish psyche is often colored by vivid strokes of mistrust and animosity shaded in by contrasting tones of polemical retellings of his life and teachings based on reactions to Christian anti-Semitism. For the most part, Jesus remains a foreign god and not the Messiah of Israel. A false prophet. An enemy, and certainly not a brother.

Despite this, over the centuries a reconciliation between Jesus and his brethren has been occurring much like the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, who did not recognize him due to his long exile in Egypt. We may not always understand the ins and outs of this reconciliation, and it may even at times look rather bizarre to us, but it’s happening, and that’s what matters most. Just as Joseph cleared the room and stood alone with his brothers and declared, ani Yosef achihecm, I am Joseph your brother,” so too, Jesus has been preparing the hearts of his Jewish brothers to finally reveal to them Ani Yeshua achichem, I am Yeshua your brother.”

Messianic pioneer, Abram Poljak spoke about this reconciliation process as taking place in seven stages:

  1. Cease to condemn Yeshua as an apostate.
  2. Begin to think about him as a historical figure.
  3. Recognize him as a brother (a Jew).
  4. Accept him as a teacher of Torah.
  5. Acknowledge him as a prophet.
  6. Acknowledge him as the Jew who is the central figure of Israel.
  7. Acknowledge him as King and Messiah.

We’ve written extensively on these steps in various places. I’d like to take a closer at how steps one and four, “Cease to condemn [him] as an apostate and accept him as a teacher of Torah,” have been unfolding in Jewish history. We will start with a few examples from the Babylonian Talmud (sixth century CE). The following stories and statements shine a spotlight on an often-overlooked reality of Jewish interactions with Jesus, namely that at times he is defended by the Jewish community and the rabbis as a Torah observant Jew. Why should this matter? Why should it matter if they defend him as a Torah observant Jew yet still reject his Messianic claims? We can ask the same question in reverse, why shouldn’t this matter? After all, the scriptural benchmark for any prophet or man who proclaims to speak for God is that he is faithful to the Torah. This issue matters a lot to the Jewish people because it matters a lot to God. There is no way Jesus’ messianic claims will ever be considered without this issue being resolved.

We begin with two talmudic stories; each portrays Jesus’ words as faithful to the Torah.

The first story Rabbi Eliezer (second century CE) and a disciple of Jesus, Yaakov of Kfar Shekinah, discuss the halachic (Jewish law) permissibility of using a prostitute’s wages in the construction the high priest’s privy:

Once I [Rabbi Eliezer] was walking in the upper market of Sepphoris and I came across a man by the name of Jacob of Kefar Sekaniah. He said to me, “It is written in your Torah, ‘You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both are an abomination to the LORD your God’ (Deuteronomy 23:18), but what if the money is given to privy of the high priest?” I [Rabbi Eliezer] remained silent. He answered me, “This is what my teacher [Jesus of Nazareth] [2] taught me, ‘For from the fee of a prostitute she gathered them, and to the fee of a prostitute they shall return’ (Micah 1:7). This means that the fees of a prostitute come from a place of filth [3], so they are fitting to go to a place of filth.” I was pleased with this answer. (b.Avodah Zarah 17a)

In this short exchange the famous second-century Jewish sage, Rabbi Eliezer listens to and enjoys a teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. While he does not walk away from the encounter in any way convinced of Jesus’ messiahship, and his enjoyment of the teaching is leveled against him by his rabbinic contemporaries, we still see a kernel of truth here. Jesus is presented as a Jew who is engaged with the Torah and offers a respectable answer to the problematic issue of using a prostitute’s wages in the Temple. [4]

In another story, his teachings, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (Matthew 5:17) and “let your light shine before men” (Matthew 5:16), are quoted in a story within the context of Rabban Gamliel and his sister, Imma Shalom catching a philosopher in a bribe:

Once, there was a philosopher who lived in Rabban Gamliel and [his sister] Imma Shalom’s neighborhood. He earned a reputation for himself as someone who did not take bribes when judging cases. [However, he did take bribes in private] One day, Rabban Gamliel and Imma Shalom decided to expose him. Imma Shalom brought him a golden lamp [as a bribe] and said to him, “I wish to share the inheritance of my father’s estate.” He said to them, “divide it.” They said to the philosopher, “It says in the Torah, ‘A daughter does not inherit when there is a son.’” The judge said to them, “From the day you were exiled from your land the Torah of Moses has been taken from you and in its place the Gospels [5] have been given to you, which say, “A son and a daughter inherit together.” [6] The next day Rabban Gamliel sent him a Libyan Donkey [as a bribe for the entire inheritance]. The judge said, “Actually in this book it says, “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Torah or to add to it,” [7] and it says in the Torah “A daughter does not inherit when there is a son.” Upon hearing this, Imma Shalom said, “Let your light shine forth like a lamp!” (b.Shabbat 116a-b).

Jesus’ words in this story are meant to make the judge look like a fool. On the one hand, he is willing to disobey the Torah in favor of the “New Torah,” yet when convenient for him, he affirms the Torah in honor of Jesus’ words, “Do not think I have come to do away with the Torah.” Thus, the Talmud ironically uses Jesus’ teaching as a rebuke against a dishonest judge and his anti-Torah verdict.

A few centuries beyond these talmudic tales, we find rabbinic figures like Rabbi Yosef Albo (fifteenth century) who wrote highly of Jesus as a Torah-faithful Jew who “commanded [his disciples] to guard the Torah of Moses” (Sefer Ha’Ikarim 3:25). He further affirmed that “neither Jesus or his disciples ever advocated for the Torah to be uprooted or changed” (Sefer Ha’Ikarim 3:25). Likewise, Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) spoke of Jesus as bringing a great kindness to the world by “strengthening the Torah of Moses within Israel” and “bringing the light of God to the nations” (Seder Olam Rabbah Vezuta).

These Jewish opinions about Jesus are unfortunately in the minority. However, they are indications of a great transformation at work in the hearts and lives of the Jewish people to restore their relationship to their Messiah.

Israeli writer Haim Hazaz’s unfinished Hebrew work on the life of Jesus is an example. In Ben HaMakom, Jesus’ life and teachings are reimagined as tales you’d find in the midrash of any great sage. His disagreements with the Pharisees are reworked as talmudic legal debates, and his actions are peppered with slight literary nuances that tie them to Jewish law. For example, Hazaz imagines Jesus saying the evening Shema in accordance with the Mishnah’s [8] ruling that it be said at the hour the priests undergo ritual immersion:

A star began to flicker, and another began to shimmer and spread its rays outward. Soon many stars became fixed in the night sky, appearing one by one until the sky swarmed. The time at which the priests entered their homes to eat their food after immersing had arrived. Yeshua arose and whispered the evening Shema (Ben HaMakom 80-81).

This brief narrative also alludes to the Star of Jacob, a prophetic name of the Messiah. The Messianic light is gently flickering and spreading its rays outward in Israel. His light may shine dimly now but, with time, it will shine like a sky swarming with stars. May the light of the Messiah spread quickly and in our days, and may we merit to witness the full reconciliation between him and his brothers. May he be recognized by all as the King of Israel, Hope of Jacob, and as ben HaMakom.

* All translations are my own.

Footnotes:
  1. Mark S. Kinzer, Post Missionary Messianic Judaism, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, 225.
  2. According to all manuscripts. However, the Vilna and Pizero print editions do not contain this reading. In Tosefta version (t.Chullin 2:24) Jesus’ teaching is not preserved. Despite this, the version in the Babylonian Talmud is not necessarily a later interpolation of Tosefta version but is most likely an alternate version from the same period [second century CE] that is simply preserved in the Babylonian Talmud.
  3. The Torah specifically forbids the use of harlot’s hire for purchasing a sacrifice (Deuteronomy 23:19). See also Rambam Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Isuri Mizbach 3:7. The Tosafot (on b.Avodah Zarah 17a) note that the Torah itself does not forbid using a harlot’s wage in the building of the Temple; it is only a rabbinic prohibition. Rashi, on b.Avodah Zarah 46b, comments, “even for the building of the Temple” [her wages are forbidden].
  4. An echo of Jesus’ teaching here can be found in Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor commentary on Deuteronomy 23:19, “Do not use the money for a sacrifice for it comes from filth.”
  5. This is the majority reading. However, in a fourteenth-century Sephardic manuscript (Ms. Oxford 366 [Oxford Bodleian Library, Opp. Add. Fol. 23]) an alternate version reads, “From the time you were exiled the Torah of the Gospels has been given to you.” Despite this reading appearing in only one manuscript, I do not think its authenticity should be rejected. Sephardic manuscripts are generally considered highly reliable, and furthermore, this reading makes more sense than the majority reading, which literally says, “from that time a perverse scroll [On Gilion] has been given to you. This is a clear play on the Greek word for Gospels “Evangelion.” The reading in Ms. Oxford 366 seems to preserve the story before it was further satirized.
  6. This is obviously a fiction as this is found nowhere in the New Testament. But this judge isn’t an honest man to begin with.
  7. Majority reading. However, Ms. Munich 95 and Ms. Vatican 108 read, “I have not come to take away from the Torah but to add to it.” This reading is favored by David Flusser considering early Jewish Christian writings on Matthew 5:17. The weakness of his argument, however, is that he does not engage with the textual tradition of this passage in the talmudic manuscripts or print editions. See, David Flusser, Judaism, and the Origins of Christianity, Jerusalem, 1988, p. 379.
  8. m.Brachot 1:1.
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About the Author: Jeremiah Michael is pursuing a degree in rabbinic literature from a university in Israel. His desire is to bring a greater understanding of Jewish literature to Messianic Judaism. Jeremiah lives in Israel with his wife and children. More articles by Jeremiah Michael