For the last four years, I have been conducting, at New York University’s School of Law, a seminar on the trial of Jesus. The Wall Street Journal inveighed against it as educational inanity: if not exactly corrupting the youth, then at least leading them astray and squandering their tuition dollars. Happily, the seminar has been oversubscribed since inception. Christians and Jews enroll in roughly their proportions at the law school, with the seminar split more or less evenly among the religiously committed, those committed to being nonreligious, and the generally uncommitted.
For Jewish students, with few exceptions, the seminar marks the first time they have actually read the gospels; their knowledge of the trial’s narrative derives from hearsay and Hollywood. They are surprised to discover how much of our general cultural idiom derives from the New Testament, and they are surprised, too—and somewhat troubled, in complex ways—by their unmediated encounter with the highly sympathetic Jesus narrative, just as they are shocked by the fierce anti-Jewishness of John. The newness of that encounter makes it hard for them to comprehend the equanimity with which the others in the seminar relate to it. They feel discomforted by the underlying cultural “you did it” sentiment.
For Catholic students, the seminar often marks the first time they have read the gospels systematically. They are mostly uninterested in the normative issues of who is responsible for the judicial death of Jesus, and they are genuinely surprised at how it dominates the rich trial literature. Nostra Aetate seems to have sunk in.
Protestants typically arrive with real command of the text, but they, in their turn, are surprised by the critical tradition that is so pervasive in scholarly analysis of the trial. Something like the mirror image of their Jewish classmates, they tend to hold a clear view of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, although they feel guilty for holding that view.
Historically, since it was not Jewish hands that physically nailed Jesus to the cross, it is the trial that became the responsibilizing act and, hence, the source of the deicide charge. A graver charge, a heavier guilt, is difficult to imagine. Not surprisingly, when the Vatican sought to turn a page in the relationship, it famously put that charge at the center of those aspects of Nostra Aetate , the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, dealing with Christian–Jewish relations.
And yet, this seemingly obvious point is in fact more nuanced than meets the eye, especially in light of the well-established difference between the accounts in the synoptic gospels and in John. In the synoptics, for the most part, the enemies of Jesus are articulated with considerable specificity: chief priests, priests, Levites, elders, some Sadducees and Pharisees, scribes. In John, by contrast, the enemies are for the most part “the Jews.” Imagine for just a minute a universe in which we had only the synoptics and no John. In that universe, if one is asked, “Who killed Jesus?” the natural answer might not be “the Jews.” It might be, following the synoptics, “those awful priests” or “a corrupt leadership.”
In a world without John, “the Jews” qua people actually come out quite well in the events surrounding the trial. Many of them were vociferous and passionate supporters of Jesus, and not surprisingly: Contemptuous of status, spiritually egalitarian, charismatic, authoritative, a man who sided with those whose lives were hard, who demonstrated mesmerizing power through his signs and wonders, Jesus inspired trust and admiration among his followers. All in all, the synoptic version is a story about Jews. Jesus was a Jew. Jews plotted against him, and Jews defended him; Jews hated him, and Jews loved him. Jews “were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified,” and Jews formed “the great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him” immediately after he was condemned.
And yet, even in our seminar, I have noted how students of all persuasions regularly fall into the Johannine mode, thus tracking the general cultural habit of close to two thousand years, in which “the Jews” are the principal antagonists of Jesus. This deep cultural habit has not always been a benign lexical shortcut but a proxy to a deeper tradition of allocating responsibility, often resulting in rage. How does one explain this?
My view is that it was not the deicide that so outraged and inflamed subsequent generations, starting with John. After all, however one apportions responsibility, the Romans, through Pilate and his henchmen, were at least indirectly complicit in crucifying Jesus. Yet, we do not hear people calling the Romans’ descendents “Christ killers.” In the matter of responsibility and guilt, there has been, from early on, what seems to be a slide of focus away from the cross to the trial.
Nota bene: I am not making a substantive argument about responsibility but commenting on the almost natural and organic way in which this cultural choice was made. Is it implausible, then, that the source of rage is less the trial and more the steadfast refusal of many Jews to accept Jesus, thereafter and until this day? Had “the Jews,” after the crucifixion and Resurrection, echoed the Roman centurion in finally acknowledging that “indeed, this is the Son of God,” would not all have been forgiven and forgotten? It is that refusal that is really unforgettable (the Jews are still around) and, to some, unforgivable. And, of course, the refusal of the Jews is different from the refusal of all others who have not turned to Jesus. As the great John Paul II has patiently explained, from a Christian perspective, Christianity’s relation to the Jews is unlike its relation to any other religion. It is intrinsic, not extrinsic. In his gentle eyes, this meant privilege. But in the eyes of some, and in some epochs of many, the Jews’ steadfast refusal—the fact that they continue to claim to be the one and only Israel, that for them, OT does not stand for “Old Testament” but for “Only Testament”—has a special, challenging poignancy.
I do not find it too difficult to explain the cultural shift from the synoptic “Jews” to the Johannine “the Jews,” nor the seeming natural selection of trial, rather than cross, as the locus of responsibility for the death of Jesus. Quite apart from the risk of pointing a finger at mighty Rome, it is more difficult to castigate a people who remained steadfast in upholding their covenant with God than to castigate them as the killers of the Christ. As the mutually excluding cleavage between synagogue and church deepened, the Christian frustration at Jewish covenantal fealty was easily channeled to the charge of deicide.
In its key provision, Nostra Aetate confronts squarely the issue of collective responsibility of the Jews, at the time of the trial and for subsequent generations: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” To hold otherwise, I believe, would be to negate a fundamental principle of justice that affirms individual moral agency and militates against collective guilt. It is, thus, a welcome affirmation.
But, at the same time, it may be noted, the logic and timing of Nostra Aetate indirectly also absolved Christians of any collective responsibility for holding the Jews collectively responsible for the death of Jesus for so many centuries, and of the oft-dire consequences that flowed from doing so. It is another measure of the integrity of John Paul II that he never attempted to hide behind that logic, and in taking Nostra Aetate forward he was capacious in apology—which, individually, he never owed—and in asking God for forgiveness. His successor has shown the same moral rectitude.
At the same time, Nostra Aetate is still quite negative and firm in relation to the “charge” against the Jewish authorities responsible for the trial and its outcome and those who followed their lead. I will revisit the nature of that responsibility below.
What problem does the trial actually raise for us? The redemptive purpose and function of Jesus’ death is realized only if the Paschal Lamb died blameless, innocent, pure, and without blemish. The problem of the trial is not simply that it resulted in Jesus’ death. The problem is that he was convicted at the trial, which threatens that purity—and, thus, over the centuries, a huge literature has emerged to impugn the trial as grossly unjust.
Much of this injustice literature focuses on the procedure of the trial rather than the conviction for blasphemy, perhaps because, in replying to Caiaphas, Jesus affirms that he is, indeed, the Son of the Blessed, which—to our modern ear, at least—makes attacking the conviction seem more complicated. Consequently, there is a turn in the literature to the procedure as the focus of the injustice. Interestingly, much of the literature does not protest the putting of Jesus on trial. It protests the conduct of the trial and, hence, the outcome.
Taking their cue from the gospel narrative, which expresses doubts about the procedural propriety, and supplementing this with the elaborate procedures outlined for criminal trials in the Sanhedrin Tractate of the Mishnah, scholars demonstrate, with different levels of indignation, outrage, and sadness, the myriad ways in which the trial violated those procedures. The timing, the location, the manner of interrogation of the witnesses and of Jesus himself, the manner of the decision, the unanimity of the verdict—the list is long, and most of the violations seem grave. In contemporary language, this was not a harmless error but a colossal denial of due process.
This is consistent with the gospels’ image of Caiaphas, who, by hook or crook, was determined to put Jesus to death. After all, he considered him a major threat to the nation.
Yet, historically, this judgment on the procedural aspects of the trial is suspect: We have no way of knowing accurately the prevailing procedural norms, with the Mishnaic code redacted two hundred years after the trial. What is more, the scriptural account itself suggests that procedure, whatever its precise content, mattered. Surely, it could not have been too difficult for Caiaphas to suborn witnesses and effectively frame Jesus.
And yet that is not the image of the trial. Witnesses were needed, and the testimony of those witnesses, as prescribed in the Bible, had to be consistent. Even after two witnesses whose testimony did agree were finally found, there was apparently not sufficient evidence for a conviction, and Caiaphas turned to interrogate Jesus, who eventually was convicted only after giving incriminating answers. Yet if, according to Caiaphas, it was indeed “expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:48), it is odd that he did not use that evergreen technique of a “targeted killing,” not uncommon in the Biblical narrative.
From our perspective, two thousand years later, a major significance of the trial of Jesus is the fact that there was a trial. What helps make this trial so normative is the figure of Jesus—both the ultimate enemy threatening the entire nation, as perceived by his detractors, and the Son of the Blessed, as understood by his adherents. The trial reflects some of the key ideals of justice that characterize our civilization: First, everyone, even the most abject, is entitled to a trial. No one, not even the most exalted, is excused from a trial. Second, a trial must be fair—procedurally just. Although we have no way of judging the trial’s procedural propriety, the germane fact is that generations of readers of the gospels have believed firmly in its injustice.
Both these great norms write themselves into civilizational consciousness in the trial of Jesus. The trial normalizes the expectation of the equalizing potential of a fair trial. It makes us expect it from and afford it to our enemies, for to behave in any other way is to do that against which the culture has protested so vehemently: the perceived unjustness of the trial of Jesus.
These norms, sometimes consecrated in their breach, were not invented at the trial. The trend is set in Genesis, when Abraham challenges the Justice of all earth to do justice himself, and is codified in Mosaic Law. We often talk of the trial of Socrates in this context. But the trial of Socrates has been known over the centuries and millennia to a few, and the trial of Jesus to all. To live in Christendom is to know about the trial of Jesus, to protest its injustice.
Questions of procedure aside, with what was Jesus charged? And of what was he convicted? Do not the claims of Jesus, in response to Caiaphas, that he was indeed the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed destined to sit next to the Power, amount, in and of themselves, to blasphemy?
Apparently not. There is no certainty about the Hebrew equivalent of that Greek word blasphemy , and Jesus’ responses correspond neither to the biblical nor to Mishnaic definitions that might constitute such equivalence. Is it kll, or nkv, or gdf? None of these three biblical offenses, all translated as blasphemy , correspond to Jesus’ answers. When the Talmud, four hundred years later, speaks of the trial—a version in which there are no Romans and Jesus is convicted and put to death by the Jewish authorities—he is accused not of blasphemy but of incitement. The Talmud sages are not, of course, a reliable historical source, but they knew something about Jewish law, and they point away from the classical biblical and Talmudic rendition of blasphemy. And so do the gospels, for in the story of the healing of the paralytic, in which Jesus himself forgives his sins, he is considered by the Pharisees to have committed blasphemy by doing something that only God may do—again, pointing away from the more specific and technical definitions.
Of all the theories put forward to explain both the charge and conviction for blasphemy, I find the most plausible that which regards the use of the word blasphemy not as a technical, legal term but as a generic and general allusion to some offense against God, the concrete manifestation of which is not spelled out by the nonlegal narrators. What, then, might have been the charge? Herein lies a theological challenge.
On the one hand, Jesus does seem to be, as theologically required, blameless and innocent, the Paschal Lamb. The entire testimony of the gospels is of a Jesus who loves and seeks to follow what he understands to be his duty to God. There is not, at first blush, the kind of arrogance we notice in other contexts where blasphemy is invoked in the Bible. So, not only procedurally, but substantively, too, the trial seems to be a miscarriage of justice. Surely Jesus should be exonerated.
When I teach the trial, a delicate moment, pregnant with meaning, arrives every year: when someone raises the question, “And then what?” For his followers and believers, a statement such as “I wish he were never convicted and executed” is more complicated than in the case of the martyrs. In some profound sense, a just trial would negate the entire sense of the Passion, his destiny, and the design of God for a sacrifice of the Son, intended to redeem the world. (To be sure, in the long history of Christian theology, this what-if question has been discussed, but the answers given may not convince all; and, in any event, Christianity would be very different deprived of the Passion, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection.)
But, if it is God’s wish that Jesus die, and die innocent, then some human agent must transgress against God, for we are surely commanded not to convict and kill the innocent. Of course, it is not uncommon in the biblical narratives that God’s design be fulfilled by wrongful or even evil deeds. Consider the story of Joseph’s brothers, electing to do wrong although at the end it serves the purposes of God. There is a difference: In the case of Joseph, the design of God could possibly have been achieved with Joseph’s arriving in Egypt through means other than the brothers’ evil action.
In the case of Jesus’ trial, however, the divine plan seems to require an innocent man to be found guilty and put to death. That, of course, runs directly contrary to God’s law. For the Passion on which salvation hangs to take place, evil must occur, God must be defied, and his servants must disregard his wish that humans act justly. It would be as if the golden calf were required for the giving of the Torah. How could the Passion depend on transgression against God?
Trying to unravel this conundrum must begin in the Book of Acts, with the trial of Stephen, almost universally accepted as completing the truncated narrative of Jesus’ trial in Luke: “For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.”
There are several reasons this Lucan lead is attractive. One should always prefer an explanation that derives as directly as possible from Scripture. For that matter, of all New Testament narratives, this is the only one that explicitly addresses the question of the actual charge against Jesus. It harmonizes well with the narrative in the gospels. And it is consistent with the thesis that renders blasphemy as a generic description of an offense against God, which then requires concretization.
There is in fact a ready-made biblical offense that may serve the purpose. Deuteronomy 13:1–5 is the most germane biblical passage that gives legal form to the account in Acts. As early as the thirteenth century, the Cologne Jewish writer Jacob ben Ahser—the famous Baal HaTurim—made the suggestion that the passage alludes to Jesus, although it was censored out of many editions as offensive. The passage runs (in the Revised Standard Version):
If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him, and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and cleave to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.
The prophet described here—the one who gives a sign (ot) or wonder (mofet)—is not a magician or a sorcerer, one of the operators of supernaturalism, which the Bible acknowledges and, in certain cases, forbids. Moses and Aaron gave signs and wonders to pharaoh to verify their provenance. Some of these are replicated by pharaoh’s underlings, but that does not make those Egyptians prophets or their demonstrations divinely authenticated. The acts called signs and wonders when performed by a prophet become enchantments (lahatutim) when performed by magic workers. In fact, the language of sign and wonder is the common terminology to indicate the authentic divine authority of a prophet.
Neither is the person in Deuteronomy 13:1–6 a false prophet, in the normal sense of that phrase. Deuteronomy 18:18–22 lays down general provisions concerning prophets, and the test of the truth of a prophet is the veracity of his prophecy over time. The issue of advocating a straying from the law is not even discussed there, for, as Maimonides noted, the prophet, whose authority is explicitly derived from the law, would have no authority if he undermined that law. You cannot ask to be followed in the name of the law and, at the same time, claim to be above that law. The authority of the normal prophet is found within the legal system itself.
But what if a prophet were to step outside the law and appeal to the authority on which that law is predicated? The people are told in Deuteronomy that they are not to add or subtract from the commandments of God. But surely a prophet, adding or subtracting with the authenticating authority of signs and wonders from God, can be followed?
Not so, according to the text. The prophet may perform unmistakable signs and wonders that replicate the signs authenticating Moses as a prophet. But if that prophet were to insist on a breach with the Mosaic law, then he should be taken as a divine test—the real meaning of which is that the prophet is sent by God to test the love, loyalty, and fidelity of the people to God’s revealed word to Moses at Sinai.
This is legally ingenious. Should a human come along to entice us to stray from God’s commandments, that fact of enticement condemns him for violating the law of God, since, clearly, humans with their own agency may neither add to nor subtract from the law. But even if a prophet comes with signs and wonders authenticating his divinely sanctioned authority, we still may not follow him, because the real purpose of exercising that divinely sanctioned authority is in testing our loyalty to the events on Mount Sinai.
What seems distinct about Deuteronomy 13 is that, in binding the community forever to his eternal law, God has tied his own hands. He binds the community, and at the same time he binds himself. The Mosaic code is thus not only immutable but also eternal. Indeed, it is often referred to as a Law till the end of days (chukat olam) or for a thousand generations. Some may find the notion of God binding himself compromising the omnipotence of the Almighty. The opposite is true. Had he not the power to bind himself, his omnipotence would be compromised. What value would attach, say, to the Noahide Covenant with humanity whereby he would never again destroy the world, if an implicit codicil were attached to that undertaking—namely, “never, until I change my mind”?
Of course, it is not self-evident why God would want to test the people in the manner suggested by these verses. If they are transgressing, as they seemed regularly to do throughout the biblical narrative, there is nothing to test. And if they are actually following the ways of the Almighty and observing his commandments, why seek to entrap them?
Nonetheless, Deuteronomy clearly indicates that God contemplates such a test. The prophet here is an agent of God, an instrument for testing Israel, which suggests a grave moral dilemma in putting this agent to death. After all, in fulfilling his agency, he was following what God permitted or intended for him. If he is acting in accordance with God’s scheme and empowered by God to give signs and wonders, then, unlike Joseph’s brothers, he is innocent. Why, then, must he die? Why does the test of Israel—God’s trial of the nation—implicate God’s demand for killing the innocent messenger of God? There have been attempts over the centuries, more or less plausible, to attach moral blameworthiness to him, but his agency, manifest in both the signs and wonders and his functional role in the hands of God, is undeniable. The dilemma persists.
The prophet described in Deuteronomy 13 begins by encouraging his listeners to go after and serve elohim acherim , which is usually translated in English as “other gods,” which is plausible. But the real evil lies in inviting people not to “walk after the Lord your God and fear him, and keep his commandments and obey his voice.” Keeping the commandments and obeying the voice that spoke at Sinai is the way in which the people will manifest that they have withstood the test and show that they love the Lord with all their heart and soul.
It makes sense: These are the commandments that the same text has instructed us neither to add to nor to subtract from—with all the attendant problems between the ontological necessity of interpretation and the theological imperative of not tampering. From the perspective of his listeners, he must be considered as an evil that needs to be put away—and, from his perspective, he appears innocent because he is simply following God’s wishes.
In the gospels Jesus inveighs against the corruption and hypocrisy of those who follow the ritual but forget the commandments of the heart to do justice and show mercy. He is annoying, threatening, and destabilizing, but fully within the prophetic tradition of an Amos or an Isaiah. And, as far as the law goes—the “customs that Moses gave”—did not Jesus explicitly claim, “I have not come to change one iota of the law”?
A close reading of all passages where Jesus engages with the law reveals a constant and tantalizing duality, which can lead to an explosive ambivalence in the perception of them. In Mark 2:27–28, for example, when the Pharisees question him, he answers, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
It is, of course, not the transgression of the Sabbath per se that so bothers the Pharisees but Jesus’ teaching, the casting of the behavior as normative, and, above all, the authority of his new proposed rule. The matter is simple enough. As an interpretation of the scope of the prohibition on plucking corn on the Sabbath, the move by Jesus is unexceptional. It is almost trivial; we find debates in the tradition with far greater difference, even about Sabbath observance. Not only in result but in his reasoning, too, Jesus is within the canon of legalistic disputation (not forgetting that the canon was at that time in its formative years).
No, the final phrase is what gives pause. The law says that plucking is forbidden, and Jesus teaches that, at least in the circumstances of the incident, it is not forbidden. If that teaching is only a hermeneutic conclusion, based on analogical reasoning from the incident of David, then the final reference to the Son of Man being the Lord of the Sabbath could simply be a conclusion applying to all men. But if the Lord of the Sabbath is a reference to Jesus himself, exercising an autonomous, nonhermeneutic authority, with the power to add to—or, in this case, subtract from—the law, then Jesus is claiming a much more exalted status.
The Sermon on the Mount is no less tantalizing. The duality is equally present. He says that he does not want to change one iota of the law but then adds, “Until the Law is fulfilled.” What is the status of that statement? And how does one explain, then, the long list in the sermon of norms he talks about changing, most famously in relation to divorce? Is that interpretation, or is Jesus adding to and subtracting from the law?
It is possible to show similar duality in practically all passages of legal engagement. Imagine now, as a mental exercise, the reports coming from Galilee about his teaching and his signs and wonders. Imagine further the questioning of those bringing the reports: What was he actually claiming? What was he teaching? Was he merely interpreting the law? Or was he claiming the right to change or even abolish it?
Hypothesizing that the central concern was prompted by the perceptions and implications of the teachings of Jesus on the law helps explain many of the legal conundrums of the trial. Since the material content of his teaching was known—fundamental rulings on the Sabbath, on the purity of food, on divorce, and so on—the specific legal concern for the authorities in Jerusalem must have been the authority that Jesus claimed while expounding these rulings. Was he simply a rabbi making classical hermeneutic moves? Or was he actually adding things to and subtracting from the law on the basis of divine authority—and thus, possibly, the person referred to in Deuteronomy 13:1–5?
The trial, on this reading, was conducted to establish not the content of Jesus’ teaching but the authority he was claiming—and, once that was established, the necessary outcome was also established. This reading fits comfortably within the Historical Jesus literature about the trial, and it coheres well with much in scripture. Most often, this question of Jesus’ status is what all those who tried to “trick” him were trying to ascertain. It coheres with the reference to blasphemy in the episode of the paralytic: As a healer, Jesus was legitimate, but as a forgiver he crossed the line. And it explains the questioning about Jesus’ claim to destroy and rebuild the Temple, whether he meant that he would do it with some form of divine power or that God would do it, as in the prophecies of such prophets as Jeremiah and Micah.
It is also in line with the final impatient questions of Caiaphas, which point out that, if Jesus claims to be the Messiah or the Son of the Blessed, then he is doing something different from mere exegesis. It explains why all factions of the Sanhedrin, which on many other issues would have been at one another’s throats, could agree—for both Sadducees and Pharisees would agree that change of biblical law that goes beyond interpretation and exegesis was hugely violative. The unanimity of the verdict at the trial becomes plausible.
Interestingly, it may also explain why Jesus seemed so important to his detractors. Why is he a threat to the existence of the nation? The usual hypothesis is that his destabilizing activity would threaten the Romans, who, in turn, would act against the Jews. But there is little evidence for that being a real danger. Rather, the self-understanding of the leaders was of the nation of God, defined by the Covenant—a people constituted as such at the moment of the giving of the law and defined by its observance. If this is undermined, the people disappear.
This fear should not surprise us, given that, in the message of Jesus, religion becomes both individual and universal, the two opposites of national. The significance of Deuteronomy 13 is not simply in obedience. Undermining the law undermines not only the content of the Covenant but the subject with whom God covenants.
But perhaps it is possible to go beyond this modest and ultimately conventional hypothesis, to contemplate something theologically more audacious: the idea that Jesus was, in fact, the person referred to in Deuteronomy 13 or intended by God to appear as such. (It is not, after all, theologically impossible that, in the hands of the Divine, Jesus could have served more than one purpose.)
It would, first, solve some of the theological and moral dilemmas raised by the trial. Under this hypothesis, Jesus is entirely innocent and blameless—he is doing the bidding of God and doing so objectively, since God gives or allows him the signs and wonders to prove it. At the same time, however, by convicting him and bringing about his death, the Sanhedrin would also have been doing God’s will, for Deuteronomy instructed them that a messenger tampering with the eternal law must be put to death, even if he provides authentication through signs and wonders.
In other words, not only was Jesus on trial, but so were those who tried him. They were being put to the test, required to prove their loyalty to the living word of God as expressed in Mosaic Law. From a Christian perspective, the Sanhedrin can be seen as fulfilling God’s will by convicting Jesus, while, unknown to itself, fulfilling another part of God’s plan by setting in motion the crucifixion of Jesus as redemption for everyone else. Since the death of Jesus has, in the eyes of his believers, a deeply meaningful significance, desired by God, it obviates part of the moral dilemma about the fate of the prophet in Deuteronomy 13.
The question remains, however, of why God would want to put the Jews to the test at this particular moment. There are things we can never know, but we can speculate that such trials made sense and were desirable precisely at times when major theological changes were taking place. The moment of Jesus’ coming, with such an attractive and tantalizing message destined to sweep so much of the world, would be just the right moment to put the Children of Israel to a new Abrahamic test—one that would be able to renew their eternal betrothal with God as well as give an example for future generations when so tempted.
The binding of man to the law was, at one and the same time, the binding of God himself—to his people. He wants our fealty through conviction and internalization, not through coercion and habit—which is covenantal monotheism at its most glorious. Is it not possible, then, on this reading, that, in this double trial, that of Jesus and that of the Jews, everyone was following in the path of God?
J.H.H. Weiler is University Professor at New York University and the Director of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at the New York University School of Law. This essay is adapted from the Erasmus Lecture he delivered on March 7, 2010.