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]