Is Jesus of Nazareth Still King of the Jews? New Testament Christology and the Jewish People
Elliot Klayman has been a pillar of the Messianic Jewish movement since its inception in the final decades of the last century. He has also been a trusted, respected, and beloved friend to many. I count myself among them, and am grateful for the opportunity to express my appreciation for Elliot with this short article. While written by a Messianic Jew from a Messianic Jewish perspective, the piece is addressed to a Christian audience. Accordingly, it is written using terms common to the world of that audience, rather than forms of speech employed exclusively within the Messianic Jewish community. I am confident that Elliot, a master communicator himself, will not disapprove.
Jesus the Jew
A recent Pew Research Center poll asked Americans, “Who is the first person who comes to mind when you think of Judaism?” The most common answer was Jesus of Nazareth.1
Classical Christian views of “Jesus Christ” tended to stress his divinity more than his humanity. His designation as “Christ” was understood to reflect his role as the divine savior liberating the world from sin and death. The term was not associated with any political institutions, nor with any particular nation in which those institutions functioned.
This emphasis changed in the modern era, with many now viewing Jesus as the ideal human being, the man for others. But his humanity was generic and universal, devoid of any distinctive ethnic traits. While born and raised among Jews, he transcended Jewish particularity. He was everyman.
In the latter third of the twentieth century a striking new trend emerged in both the scholarly and popular depiction of Jesus, a trend reflected in the poll cited above. Even those who stress his divinity and universal humanity now acknowledge that this humanity took the particular form of a first-century Galilean Jew. As the poll indicated, this trend has impacted not only the understanding of Jesus, but also the way Judaism itself is perceived. Now that Jesus is considered a Jew, he has become the world’s most famous historical practitioner of Judaism.
This discovery of Jesus’s Jewishness has shed light on many texts in the Gospels which depict Jesus observing Jewish customs or speaking in characteristically Jewish ways. As a result, many Christians have grown in their respect for Jews and Judaism. But until recently this historical insight has had little impact on the structure or content of Christian theology.
That changed when scholars began to rethink the significance of Jesus’s designation as the Christ. N.T. Wright led the way, but other scholars soon joined in the journey. According to Wright and like-minded colleagues, the early followers of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament used the Greek term “Christos” with full awareness of its Jewish meaning and implications. To claim that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of David was to hail him as the Messiah, the king of Israel. It was to affirm that in his resurrection Jesus had begun the work of fulfilling the prophetic promises to Israel.
This cast a spotlight not only on the Jewishness of the historical Jesus, but also on the Jewishness of the resurrected Jesus. Historians had already established the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and, as the Pew poll demonstrated, this truth has now permeated major segments of popular culture. But these Christian theologians were going beyond such a claim. They were affirming that the resurrected Jesus is a Jew.
While this new claim has registered with some Christian thinkers, it has not yet had a measurable impact on the theology of the Christian church. In particular, Christian theologians have not adequately reflected on what this claim might imply concerning the relationship between the resurrected Messiah and the Jewish people. Is Jesus the present and future king of Israel? If so, what effect should this have on how Christians view Jews and Jewish covenantal identity?
To illustrate the biblical basis for these questions, and to suggest the direction to which Christians should look in answering them, I will examine a central New Testament motif related to the messianic identity of Jesus. It is territory well-travelled by biblical scholars, but little explored by theologians. The motif of which I speak is the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus as the crucified king of the Jews.
The Passion Prefigured: Gentile Sages Honor a Jewish King
As an integral element of the passion narrative, all four Gospels recount the fashioning of a Roman inscription describing Jesus as the “king of the Jews.” John’s Gospel underlines the importance of this inscription by noting that it appeared in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, and was read by many (John 19:20). The author provides further emphasis by describing a complaint by the Jewish leaders over the wording of the inscription (John 19:21).
But the phrase does not make its first appearance in the narrative in connection with the inscription. In all four Gospels the title “king of the Jews” arises earlier in the context of Jesus’s trial before Pilate. The Roman governor uses the phrase when speaking to Jesus, to the crowds, and to the Jewish leaders. The phrase is then taken up by the Roman soldiers in their mocking of Jesus.
Matthew further stresses the importance of the phrase by placing it near the beginning of his Gospel. “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’ ” (Matthew 2:1–2).2 Since Herod sees himself as the only legitimate “king of the Jews,” he seeks to remove his potential rival by murdering all the children of Bethlehem.
The Jewish Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger of blessed memory, notes how the meaning of Matthew 2 has been distorted by centuries of interpreters. “The most common reading of this chapter assimilates Herod to Israel and sees Jesus as [only] Jesus himself. Whereas, in fact, the entire logic of the narrative is directed toward showing that Israel is Jesus and that Herod is not the king of Israel. . . . This second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel is already a prophecy of Jesus’ Passion, and Herod plays the role that will later be that of Pilate the pagan.”3 Herod is an Idumean by birth, not a Jew, and he rules over Judea only as the loyal client of a pagan empire. As Pilate decrees the death of the “king of the Jews” because no rival to Caesar could be tolerated, so Herod issues the same decree because Herod has adopted the title for himself—though only with the permission of Caesar, whom he serves as a loyal vassal.
For Matthew, Jesus is indeed the king of the Jews. He is killed by the representatives of the one who claims to be king of the world. Herod prefigures Pilate, but he also prefigures those Jewish leaders who gain their authority by collaborating with Rome and ruling according to pagan standards of governance.
“King of the Jews” and “King of Israel”
The gentile sages “from the East” refer to the child Jesus as “the king of the Jews.” In the four passion narratives the phrase is likewise employed only by non-Jews. (In John 19:21 the Jewish chief priests cite the title, but only when disputing with Pilate about the wording of Pilate’s inscription.) In contrast, when Jews in the Gospels refer to the royal identity of Jesus, they call him “the king of Israel” (Mark 15:32; John 1:49; 12:13).
This distinction in usage makes sense in first-century terms, for Jews at that time—and in the pre-modern period in general—preferred the self-designation “Israel” when speaking or writing in-house. This is also customary in rabbinic literature and the Jewish prayer book. When speaking to or writing for gentiles, or when speaking or writing about situations in which Jews and gentiles interact, the name “Israel” tends to give way to the name “the Jews.” Therefore, when the Gospels depict people referring to Israel’s messiah as “the king of the Jews,” they are highlighting the gentile identity of those using the title.
In the passion narrative the gentiles who use the title do so in mockery. But in Matthew’s infancy narrative the gentile sages employ the title in all seriousness, intending to honor its recipient. They come to pay him homage, with the implication that the righteous rule of this “king of the Jews” would extend far beyond the territory of Judea. As the Catholic Catechism recognizes, by employing the title in this context the Jewish author makes an important theological point. The coming of the gentile wise men to Bethlehem to honor the king of the Jews “means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 528).
The distinction between the titles “king of Israel” and “king of the Jews” has great theological import. In the post-New Testament church the term “Israel” is used in a way that detaches it from its exclusive reference to the nation that traced its genealogical origins to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. When Christians acclaim Jesus as “the king of Israel,” they may readily equate Israel with the church, and imply nothing more than the fact that Jesus rules over those who have been baptized in his name (along with the heavenly company of angels and “Old Testament saints”). While gentile Christians have claimed to be Israel, they have not claimed to be “Jews.” That name in the New Testament is unambiguous in meaning and reference, and it remained unambiguous in the centuries that followed.
So, when Jesus is honored by the wise men as “king of the Jews,” and mocked by Pilate and the Roman soldiers under the same title, we have no doubt what the title means. He is honored and mocked as the rightful ruler of the Jewish people—a people to which the gentile speakers in the narrative do not belong, a people identified in relation to common ancestors, a common history, a common way of life, and a common geographical center. Jesus is honored and mocked with a title that has indisputable national, political, and territorial connotations—a title that obstinately resists universalization and spiritualization.
In his dialogue with Pilate in the Gospel of John, Jesus states that his kingship is “not of this cosmos” (18:36, literal Greek). This has often been understood as a rejection of a “Jewish” conception of messiahship, in which the king has a special relation to a particular nation or territory, and rules over an earthly (rather than a purely heavenly) domain. But this is not what John means by the phrase “this cosmos.” For John, the phrase is roughly equivalent to the rabbinic term olam hazeh, and refers to the current age and order of the world, which (for John) is subject to the power of dark forces. Jesus comes to save and give life to the world (John 3:16–17; 4:42; 12:47), but to do so he must deliver it from the power of the one who currently dominates its affairs (12:31).
Jesus’s kingship is not exercised according to the pattern on public display in the royal courts of the ancient world; nevertheless, he was crucified as the king of the Jews, and this title connects Jesus to a particular nation, territory, and political institution. There is no contradiction between these two assertions. In fact, as we will see, the first assertion explains the significance of the second.
The King of the Jews and the Rulers of the Gentiles
Why does the title “king of the Jews” feature so prominently in Pilate’s discourse? Why does Pilate insist on this precise wording for the inscription on the cross, and reject the plea of the chief priests who demand, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’ ” (John 19:21)? Why do the Roman soldiers take so much delight in mocking Jesus by hailing him as the Jewish king? The answer is simple, but interpreters rarely note it, for the question itself does not occur to them.
While Pilate and his soldiers employ this title to insult and humiliate Jesus, they intend far more by their actions. After all, they have little reason to hate this particular Jew. But they have many reasons to show contempt for the ungovernable tribe to which he belongs. Their primary purpose here is to insult and humiliate the Jewish people. In effect, they are saying “This is the king you deserve, an impotent sovereign helpless in the face of Roman authority. This man hanging naked on a cross represents you well! As he is, so are you—or so you will be, if you do not heed the warning!”
Pilate’s malicious intent is transparent in John’s passion narrative:
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’ ” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:19–22)
The chief priests do not object to the Roman charge that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews. If Pilate wants to inscribe such a charge on the cross itself, let him do so! On the other hand, they object vigorously to the wording of the Roman charge which Pilate actually posted—for the wording implies that Jesus not only claimed this title, but rightfully owns it. And that is why he was crucified. Pilate implies that when the Jews look at him, hanging naked on a cross, they are looking at their king, they are looking at themselves. And in forty years this metaphor would become a literal reality: the terrain will be littered with Jewish corpses as the smoke rises from a smoldering Jerusalem.
This was Pilate’s malicious intent according to the Gospels, whose readers all knew that Jerusalem herself had indeed been crucified in the likeness of her king. But the authors saw a deeper meaning in the title inscribed upon Jesus’s cross. Pilate sought to contrast the glory and overwhelming force of Roman imperial rule with the lowly subservience of Judea’s king and kingdom. The early followers of Jesus welcomed this contrast and made it central to their message, just as they eventually turned the brutal Roman mode of execution into a shocking symbol of their movement.
The perspective of the Gospels becomes clear in the story of Jesus’s response to the request of James and John (Mark 10:35–45). They ask to be seated at Jesus’s right and left hand after he is enthroned as king. Jesus answers by contrasting Israelite kingship with the way royal authority is exercised among the nations of the world: “You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (vss. 42–45). The humble service of Jesus on the cross confirms the royal claim on his behalf made contemptuously by the Roman governor. This is in fact the visage of a Jewish king—of the Jewish king. In offering his life as a “ransom for many” Jesus becomes the paradigm for true Jewish leadership, and for the nation as a whole, over which he is destined to reign.
By raising Jesus from the dead God renders judgment on the gentile mode of kingship. Glory is given to the crucified one. Moreover, the crucified one remains such even in his resurrection glory, as is stressed by the narrative in which Thomas places his fingers in the wounds of the risen Jesus (John 20:24–29). All of this shows what Jesus means when he tells Pilate that his kingship is “not of this cosmos.” With these words Jesus does not deny his identity as “king of the Jews”—that is, as the sovereign of a particular tribe, a governor whose political role was defined by that tribe’s sacred constitution. Jesus’s response to Pilate informs the Roman governor what it truly means to be “king of the Jews.” In doing so, he is speaking as much about Jewish identity as about his own.
King of the Jews, Now and Forever
What are the implications of this New Testament motif for Christian theology?
Just as Jesus was crucified as the king of the Jews, so was he raised from the dead and enthroned in heaven as the king of Jews, and so will he return as the king of the Jews. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever—and his Jewish kingship is an essential part of who he is. He is also head of the church of the nations and Lord of all creation, but he fulfils those universal roles as the descendant and sovereign of a particular human family.
Jesus was a Jew then, and he remains a Jew today. As king of the Jews in his trial before Pilate and his crucifixion at the hands of Roman soldiers, he displayed a uniquely intimate (though conflicted) bond with his own people. As the resurrected king of the Jews today this is all the more the case. The Jewish people are his people, and he is their king. The Jewish people and their king are joined by a cord as unbreakable as the king’s own eternal faithfulness. And just as gentile sages at the time of Herod could honor the Jewish king only by entering Jewish territory, so the same remains true today. A right and healthy relationship with the king requires a right and healthy relationship with his kinfolk.
Recognition of Jesus as king of the Jews entails a Christological perspective on the Jewish people, and a Jewish perspective on Christology. It also makes the Jewish people a central theme for all Christian theology.
Robert Jenson is one of the few Christian theologians who has grasped the potential Christological and ecclesiological implications of this theme. He has argued that “the embodiment of the risen Christ is whole only in the form of the church and an identifiable community of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. The church and the synagogue are together and only together the present availability to the world of the risen Jesus Christ.”4 Those unwilling to go as far as Jenson are still duty-bound by the Gospels to reflect on the identity of the Jewish people as those to whom Jesus remains attached as king.
A Christology of Jesus as crucified and resurrected king of the Jews will challenge the sensibilities of Christians across the theological spectrum.
- Traditionalists who are supersessionist, believing that God is finished with the Jewish people, and that the church has taken its place: they will be challenged by the enduring theological significance of Jews in the divine plan.
- Christians committed to missionary outreach to Jews, who acknowledge an enduring covenantal identity for the Jewish people but who think that only Christian Jews are connected organically to the Messiah: they will be challenged by the call to reckon with the historical reality of Judaism and its Christological character.
- Two-path Christians who affirm the unique role of Jesus as the authoritative source of revelation for gentiles, and the unique role of Torah as authoritative revelation for Jews, but who treat Jesus and Torah as two separate paths of salvation: they will be challenged by the claim that mature knowledge of Jesus requires engagement with the historical reality of the Jewish people and its Torah, and the claim that the deepest mysteries of the Torah are grasped only when the text is read in light of Israel’s resurrected king.
- Pluralist Christians who treat Jesus and Judaism as two of the many valid religious means of encountering the transcendent, but who see neither as unique or universal in their significance: they will be challenged by the assertion that both are unique and universal, though each is also incomplete apart from the other.
As a Messianic Jew, I belong to one of the few ecclesial groups who do not find this Christology offensive. In some ways the marginal community to which I belong embodies this Christology and the challenge it poses. It is thus no coincidence that our existence troubles those inhabiting all four points on the Christian spectrum sketched above. (Of course, practical rather than theological problems also arise when assessing the Messianic Jewish movement. Like other religious groups, we are not always in practice what we claim to be in theory.)
While challenging to many, a king-of-the-Jews Christology has three noteworthy advantages. First, it is faithful to the message of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are united in their witness to Jesus’s messianic identity. With the title “king of the Jews,” that identity takes a strikingly national and political form. All four Gospels place that controversial messianic formulation at the heart of their passion narrative.
Second, by underlining the present and future identity of Jesus as the resurrected, ascended, and returning king of the Jews, this Christology renders Jesus’s Jewish identity essential to our understanding of both sides of the mystery of the incarnation. Rather than privileging his mortal humanity over his eternal divinity, this approach to Christology enriches our vision of the one who is fully divine and fully human. He is a Jew, but he is a glorified and resurrected Jew! He who was “declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” is the same as he who “was descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3–4).
Third, this king-of-the-Jews Christology offers a post-supersessionist perspective on Judaism and the Jewish people that coheres well with Nicene orthodoxy. This perspective takes full account of the historical failure of the church and Christian theology to deal fairly with Judaism and the Jewish people. However, it remains rooted in the core Christological truths which have animated Christian faith through the centuries. Rather than reducing Christology to anthropology or comparative religion, it expands the field of reflection by accessing the universal through and in the particular.
But will a king-of-the-Jews Christology—and its resulting view of the Jewish people—not offend the Jewish community? Obviously, most Jews today will reject such a Christological view of themselves. But just as Christians should respect the fact that religiously-committed Jews interpret Christianity in light of the distinctive truths they hold as heirs of a particular tradition, so Jews should respect the fact that religiously-committed Christians interpret Judaism in light of the truths they hold as heirs of a related by nevertheless distinct tradition. The key question is not whether each side agrees with the way the other side sees them, but whether the perception each side has of the other fosters love, honor, empathetic listening, mutual esteem, and cooperative action. A king-of-the-Jews Christology has the capacity to foster just such spiritual fruit.
Moreover, this Christological perspective on Judaism and the Jewish people poses questions about Jewish identity which resemble those heard within the uncontested Jewish tradition. What does it mean for Israel to have God alone as king? In a time of geopolitical stress, Israel demanded a human king who would make them “like the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). God accepted Israel’s demand for a human king, but summoned those kings to act in a way contrary to the conduct of gentile rulers (Deut 17:14–20). Since that time Jews have wrestled with the question of how much they can be like the nations without losing their particular character and vocation. Perhaps the issues raised by a king-of-the-Jews Christology might contribute to this internal Jewish discussion by adding an intriguing new voice to the conversation—the voice of the world’s most famous Jew.
We have come a long way from the days when few Christians or Jews took seriously the Jewish identity of Jesus. For many today he is the first person who comes to mind when they think of Judaism. But, if Jesus is really the king of the Jews, yesterday, today, and forever, we may ask a related question: Who are the first people who come to mind when you think of Jesus? If the title he bore on the cross is taken seriously, we might well answer: the Jews.
Dr. Mark S. Kinzer is the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Zera Avraham in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and president emeritus of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. His books include Jerusalem Crucified, Jerusalem Risen: The Resurrected Messiah, the Jewish People, and the Land of Promise (2018), Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church (2015), Israel’s Messiah and the People of God (2011), and Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (2005).
1 Aiden Pink. “Pollsters Asked Americans to Name a Jew,” The Forward (March 29, 2020), https://forward.com/fast-forward/442649/poll-jewish-jesus/, accessed 8/4/20.
2 Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
3 Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, The Promise, trans. Rebecca Howell Balinski, Msgr. Richard Malone, Jean Duchesne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 33–34.
4 Robert W. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism,” in Jews and Christians: People of God, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 13.
4 Robert W. Jenson, “Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism,” in Jews and Christians: People of God, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 13.