The Prophets

by Rebecca Bynum (Jan. 2009)

Irecently had lunch with Dr. Richard L. Rubenstein, the distinguished historian and professor of religion, and in the course of the conversation asked him, “Do you think the Jewish people could ever accept Jesus as a prophet?” His answer was an emphatic, “No,” explaining that because Jesus, during his Sermon on the Mount, is recorded as teaching by his own authority not always according to the scripture, he cannot be considered a prophet.

Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

And he continued,

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Since none of the other Hebrew prophets did this, according to Dr. Rubenstein’s understanding of Jewish theology, therefore Jesus cannot be given prophet status in line with the older Hebrew prophets.

In his book After Auschwitz, Rubenstein also contends that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day examined the evidence concerning his work dispassionately and “sadly concluded” that Jesus was not a prophet and his words should not, therefore, be added to the Jewish scripture.

“At the time of the birth of Christianity, Christians asserted that something decisively new had occurred which had the power to transform the human condition. The Pharisees, my spiritual predecessors, hoped for such a transformation as earnestly as did the Christians. They looked both within and around themselves. They sadly concluded that no such transformation had occurred and there was no alternative but to remain faithful to the Law.”

I think the evidence put forward in the New Testament account is different. It shows that Jesus threatened the religious structure which was the source of power and wealth for a few men and it was these men, led by the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, who, in removing Jesus’ challenge to their authority, also managed to put an end to serious Jewish consideration of his work. I believe the split between Judaism and Christianity is more acurately described as having been caused by the reaction to Jesus’ teaching, rather than having been caused by Jesus himself. And though to many early Christians, Jesus’ teaching was radically new especially in comparison with the state religion of Rome, the mystery cults, or the cult of Mithras, if we compare his work to that of the earlier prophets, what he brought was not so very different and may be viewed as part of a continuous process in which the concept of God was gradually expanded and enlarged. Jesus built solely upon the existing Hebrew scripture. In the same sermon quoted above, he said,

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”

Let us examine the older prophets and consider whether they too expanded the concept of God and morality in the same way that Jesus demonstrates in the passage above. For it seems to me that Jesus’ teaching “by his own authority” is a very tenuous excuse for ruling out the possibility Jesus was a Hebrew prophet and the need to consider his teachings in light of that possibility. The older prophets also gave voice to God. Jesus consistently referred to the scripture and constantly referred his authority back to the “Father in Heaven.” In the example cited above, he clearly sought to place the older teachings on a higher moral plane, not to overturn them.

There is no better record of the development of religious thought than that contained in the Bible. Like gazing at archeological strata of religious and social development. Biblical stories provide descriptions of life as human beings lived in acient Israel where they created first a tribe and then a nation; a nation that was destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed again. Throughout what is thought to be some twenty centuries of recorded time, from the time of Abraham to the destruction of the Second Temple, one may clearly discern the interplay and interdependence between religion and culture.

It is also important to remember there are vast distances of time between Bible stories. Between the stories of Abraham and those of Moses lie 500 to 600 years and between Moses and the splitting of the Kingdom (not long after Solomon) lie about 300 years and yet another 300 years passed before the Babylonian captivity, for which we have precise dates (between 587 and 539 B.C.).

These holy books were likely put into their present form around the time of the Babylonian captivity after Ezekiel had his visions and the initial shock of defeat wore off. We know they have remained in their present form at least since their translation into Greek in the third century B.C. We also know that after Babylon was conquered by Persia and Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews returned to Jerusalem, the temple was rebuilt in 516 B.C. and the Torah was canonized during the 5th century B.C. The scriptures were translated into Greek in the 3rd century B.C. So we know that sometime between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C. the Hebrew scriptures came into their present form and have remained so until the present day.

The history of the Jews begins with the story of Abraham, who, once he left the city state of Ur sometime between the 20th and the 18th centuries B.C., entered a world much like that which still persisted in Arabia in the time of Muhammad. No government functioned outside the cities. Tribal warfare was the rule of the day and each tribe (like each city state) had its own god. There were also household “gods” which must have taken the form of figurines (Rachel stole the household gods from her father Laban’s house). These numerous gods were anthropomorphic, angry, vengeful and required constant appeasement in the form of blood sacrifice and burnt offerings. Abraham’s is the story of the founding of a tribe and the importance of fidelity to God as demonstrated through faith in him and belief in his word.

Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

The tribe was greatly weakened during the Egyptian captivity (which lasted from roughly the 16th Century to the 13th century B.C.) and had to be revived or re-created by Moses after his daring flight. There is evidence not only that the descendants of Abraham, but also many others fled with Moses and so the imperative of that time was the re-establishment of the tribe and the exaltation of the original tribal God, Yahweh. To this end, Moses seems to have utilized the superstitious awe of the people for what must have been an active or semi-active volcano, Mt. Sinai, to emphasize the punishing power of God.

Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. Then the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.

Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.

There is still an emphasis on sacrifice to appease God’s anger and the Ten Commandments were all negative injunctions. Don’t do this, or God will punish you. Blood sacrifice and burnt offerings were still required and Moses seems to have ruled with an iron hand to enforce tribal solidarity.

After the reestablishment of the tribe in Canaan, came the birth of a real nation. The first of the Hebrew prophets, Samuel, emphasized the power and justice of God. The effect of his teaching was to legitimize the king.

“There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.

“Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.”
“The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.

“The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up.

“He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and he hath set the world upon them.

“He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail.

“The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

Amos lived during the time when the kingdom was split into two, the northern (Israel) and the southern (Judah), which occurred in the tenth century B.C.  He proclaimed that the Lord would not only punish the enemies of the Hebrew kingdoms, but would punish the children of Israel for their transgressions as well. He proclaimed God as Lord of all the nations and declared his justice would come to all, nations and individuals alike.

Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the LORD, and have not kept his commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers have walked:

“But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem.

“Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes;

“That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name.”

“Says the LORD.
       “ For surely I will command,
      And will sift the house of Israel among all nations,
      As grain is sifted in a sieve;
      Yet not the smallest grain shall fall to the ground.
      All the sinners of My people shall die by the sword,
      Who say, ‘The calamity shall not overtake nor confront us.’”

This assault on the chosen people doctrine was continued by Hosea. While emphasizing the mercy of God, he also stressed the international nature of God.

“And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies.

“I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the LORD.

“And it shall come to pass in that day, I will hear, saith the LORD, I will hear the heavens, and they shall hear the earth;

“And the earth shall hear the corn, and the wine, and the oil; and they shall hear Jezreel.

“And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God.”

It was Isaiah, however, who made the transition from a punishing, angry God to a loving, fatherly God. Isaiah seems to have lived after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, which fell to the Assyrians in 751 B.C. and before the Babylonian captivity in 578 B.C. The chronological setting in the first paragraph of his book refers only to the kings of Judah.

“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.”

The prophet Micah seems to have lived in approximately the same time. The same kings of Judah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, are listed in his chronological placement paragraph as are listed in the analogous paragraph of Isaiah. Micah prophesied not the victory of the Hebrews over their enemies, but the end of war altogether.

“And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.”

Furthermore, he attacked the sacrificial system which was the source of priestly power and wealth, not only for the ancient Hebrews, but for the ancient Egyptians, and ancient Mesoamericans as well. The Christian church also controlled the method of appeasement through the sacrament, confession, penance, intercession of saints and the sale of indulgences during the Middle Ages. Yet, this early prophet of Israel in approximately the seventh century before Christ declared,

“Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
“Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Jeremiah lived through the defeat of the kingdom of Judah, the destruction of the first Temple and the taking of the people into captivity at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians in the year 578 B.C. He restored the god of punishment, but for Jeremiah, God is not a national deity. God reigns over all the nations and uses one to punish another. In the passage below, God calls Nebuchadnezzar “my servant.”

“And the LORD hath sent unto you all his servants the prophets, rising early and sending them; but ye have not hearkened, nor inclined your ear to hear.

“They said, Turn ye again now every one from his evil way, and from the evil of your doings, and dwell in the land that the LORD hath given unto you and to your fathers for ever and ever:

“And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt.

“Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the LORD; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.

“Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts; Because ye have not heard my words,

“Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the LORD, and Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, and an hissing, and perpetual desolations.”

Such pronouncements in time of war skirt close to treason.

“Therefore the princes said unto the king, We beseech thee, let this man be put to death: for thus he weakeneth the hands of the men of war that remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them: for this man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt.

“Then Zedekiah the king said, Behold, he is in your hand: for the king is not he that can do any thing against you.

“Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the son of Hammelech, that was in the court of the prison: and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sunk in the mire.”

Yet, Jeremiah is still considered a prophet and the words he presented as the voice of the Lord were duly recorded in the Hebrew scripture. Many of the early prophets were killed for precisely the same reason as was Jesus. They denounced the corruption and threatened the power of those who controlled the religious system.
As Dr. Rubenstein noted to me, Christians take the word of Jesus as their highest religious authority, but whatever Christians believe Jesus to be, should not preclude Jewish scholars from studying his work and his role in the Jewish tradition. Though there has been some work done to place Jesus in his historic context (Joseph Klausner and Bruce Chilton, for example), there has been no real systematic study by Jews of Jesus' religious work.

Perhaps they may in time reconsider Jesus' placement in the line of Hebrew prophets.

[1] The Bible, Matthew 5: 21-22 King James version
[2] The Bible, Matthew 5: 27-28 King James version
[3] The Bible, Matthew 5: 38-39 King James version
[4] The Bible, Matthew 5: 43-44 King James version
[5] Rubenstein, Richard L. After Auschwitz, History, Theology and Contemporary Judaism, second edition, The Johns Hopkins University Press 1966, 1992
[6] The Bible, Matthew 5:17 King James version
[7] The Bible, Genesis 22:15-18 New King James version
[8] The Bible, Exodus 19:16-20 New King James version
[9] The Bible, Exodus 20-18-21 New King James version
[10] The Bible, 1 Samuel 2: 2-3 King James version
[11] The Bible, 1 Samuel 2: 6-10 King James version
[12] The Bible, Amos 2: 4-7  King James version
[13] The Bible, Amos 9: 9-10 King James version
[14] The Bible, Hosea 2: 19-23 King James version
[15] The Bible, Isaiah 1:18 King James version
[16] The Bible, Isaiah 61:1 King James version
[17] The Bible, Isaiah 61:10 King James version
[18] The Bible, Micah 4: 3-4 King James version
[19] The Bible, Micah 6: 6-8 King James version
[20] The Bible, Jeremiah 25: 4-9 King James version
[21] The Bible, Jeremiah 38: 4-6 King James version

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