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Jesus of Nazareth : His life, times, and teaching / by Joseph Klausner. Translated from the original Hebrew by Herbert Danby. Boston : Beacon Press [1964], p. 408-413. First published in Hebrew as Yeshu ha-Notsri: zemano, hayav ve-torato. Jerusalem: Shtibel [1922].


The influence of Jesus upon his disciples and followers was exceptional. In Galilee masses of people followed him: for his sake his disciples forsook all and followed him to the danger zone, to Jerusalem; they remained faithful to him both during his life and after his terrible death. Every word he spoke—even parables which they did not understand and the more enigmatic figures of speech—they treasured like a precious pearl. As time went on his spiritual image grew ever more and more exalted till, at length, it reached the measure of the divine. Never has such a thing happened to any other human creature in enlightened, historic times and among a people claiming a two thousand years old civilisation.

What is the secret of this astonishing influence ?

In the opinion of the present writer the answer should be looked for in the complex nature of his personality and also in his methods of teaching.

The great man is not recognizable as such by virtues alone, but by defects which can themselves, in certain combinations, be transformed into virtues. Like every great man Jesus was a complex of many and amazing contradictions; it was these which compelled astonishment, enthusiasm and admiration. 1

On the one hand, Jesus was humble and lowly-minded, tender and placable, and tolerant to an unprecedented degree. He says of himself that he came not to rule but to serve. In a moment of deepest sorrow he tells how that the foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but that the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head. There were things of which he knew nothing, things known only to his heavenly Father. He could not award "thrones" in the kingdom of the Messiah: this God alone could do. If a man sin against him, the Son of man, all can be forgiven—if only the man sin not against the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, Jesus possesses a belief in his mission which verges on the extreme of self-veneration. He is the nearest to God, and the day will come when he will sit at the right hand of God. He is greater than king Solomon, greater than the prophet Jonah, and greater than the Temple. John the Baptist was greater than any who had yet lived, yet Jesus was immeasurably greater than John.

So strong was Jesus' belief in himself that he came to rely upon himself more than upon any of Israel's great ones, even Moses; this characteristic is summed up in the formula: "It was said to you by them of old time . . . but I, Jesus, say unto you . . ." We must remember that nothing is more conducive to conviction in others than a man's belief in his own self: once a man believes absolutely in himself, others, too, come to believe in him almost as they would in God. And though exaggerated self-confidence can at times be repellent, yet Jesus was so often tender, gentle and humble as to mask his intense self-confidence.

Looked upon from one side, Jesus is "one of the people." His parables have a most popular appeal. They are, almost every one of them, drawn from life in the village or small town. As a rule he conducted himself as an ordinary, simple man, a Galilean artisan. His attraction was his simplicity, his very ordinariness, his homeliness in whatever he did or said. He loved the wild flowers with their multiplicity of colouring, and the birds which could be sold two for a farthing; he liked little children to be brought to him, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;" the cock-crow, the hen with her chickens, the flush of the skies at evening and their overcast look in the morning—all these find place in his sayings and parables.

But looked at from another side, he is by no means an illiterate, an "am ha-aretz:" he is as expert in the Scriptures as the best of the Pharisees, and he is quite at home with the Pharisee's expository devices. He is saturated with the great ideas of the Prophets and the Psalms; he can employ them for his own spiritual needs, he can expound them and adapt them and supplement them. He knows also the "tradition of the elders," the rulings of the Pharisees, and the "words of the Scribes."

And this, too, had its effect on his followers. In the eyes of the simple Galileans, the "ammé ha-aretz,"—his women admirers, the fishermen, the peasants and the petty officials, he appeared to be a great teacher of the Law—a "Rab." The Pharisees themselves could not ignore his teaching. He could dispute with them and confute them, no matter whether the argument turned on Scriptural proofs or post-Scriptural traditions.

Without doubt this aroused enthusiasm among his disciples, for among them were also to be found students of the Law—otherwise they could never have preserved his arguments and parables and sayings, which, at times, were of a depth which the ordinary person could not have fathomed. Again, on the one hand, Jesus is a teacher, a "Rab," of the Pharisaic school—not a "Ba'al-Halakha," (one concerned only in the more legalistic interpretations of Scripture) but a "Ba'al-Haggada" (one whose interest lay rather in the popular, edifying application of Scripture). He called around him the afflicted and the downtrodden, and he tells them how "his yoke is easy and his burden light;" 2 he takes compassion on the simpler folk who were "like sheep without a shepherd;" 3 and he stood aside from the three parties of his days—the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes.

On the other hand, he demands that a man forsake all for his sake, family, home and possessions, and even his very self ("let him hate even his own soul"), for such a one only can be his disciple and enter the kingdom of heaven and be accounted worthy of the "Days of the Messiah." Gentleness and charm on the one side, the extremest moral demands on the other . . . nothing can more influence and attract people to something new, no matter whether that something be of the smallest or the gravest importance.

Yet again, one time we see Jesus indulgent and forgiving and easily appeased; he pardons his disciples when they commit light or grave offences; he does not play the pedant with the sinner; he knows that "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." But another time we find him utterly unbending, pedantic and passionate, protesting and reproving in the severest terms. To his most favoured disciple, Simon Peter—whom but a little while ago he had named an enduring "rock"—he calls out, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" He threatens transgressors with the fire of hell, with "outer darkness," with "weeping and gnashing of teeth." He curses Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. He applies the harshest possible terms of rebuke to the Pharisees, terms which, in their general application, are by no means justified. He is capable even of acts of violence, of expelling the money-changers and dove-dealers from the Temple.

These two extremes, extreme kindliness of heart and the most violent passion, show in him a character akin to that of the Prophet save only that he had not the wide political perspective of the Prophets nor their gift of divine consolation to the nation. However this may be, these two contradictory attributes are the sign of the great man. Only such a man, mighty in forgiveness and equally mighty in reproof, could exert so ineffaceable an influence on all who came in contact with him.

Finally, Jesus is, on the one hand, "a man of the world." To a great extent he has a sense of realities. His parables and sayings prove amply that he knew life and the world as they really are. He can avoid his enemies and persecutors when such action is necessary; he can be evasive in his answers (e.g., the payment of tribute to Caesar, or the authority he claimed for his action in the Temple) and sometimes he parries in argument with a delicate though crushing sarcasm, unequalled in acuteness and pungency.

On the other hand, he shows himself a most unworldly visionary in his belief in the supernatural. He considers himself the Messiah and retains this belief to the end in the face of every disappointment. He believes that he performs miracles; he believes that he will sit "on the right hand of Power;" he believes that "heaven and earth shall pass away but that his words will not pass away ." 4 Even when he is awaiting his trial before the High Priest and before Pontius Pilate he is still convinced of his Messiahship in a supernatural sense. Not unreasonably did his mother and his brethren think that "he was beside himself." The simpler folk were unable to understand the source of this strange power of faith. The Scribes attributed his power to Beelzebub, while the people of Nazareth scoffed at the miracles of this carpenter and son of a carpenter, whose brothers and sisters were men and women like themselves. But with another type of men nothing exerts a greater influence on their minds than this mystic faith in one who is otherwise perfectly normal, and even promptly alert in everyday matters.

The complete visionary and mystic exerts an influence only upon other visionaries like himself, and his influence soon passes. The man of practical wisdom, alert in worldly matters only, merely influences the brain while leaving the heart untouched; and never in this world was anything great achieved unless the heart, deeply stirred, has played its part. Only where mystic faith is yoked with practical prudence does there follow a strong, enduring result. And of such a nature was the influence exerted by Jesus of Nazareth upon his followers, and, through them, upon succeeding generations.

Such is the secret of Jesus' influence. The contradictory traits in his character, its positive and negative aspects, his harshness and his gentleness, his clear vision combined with his cloudy visionariness—all these united to make him a force and an influence, for which history has never yet afforded a parallel.

His method of teaching tended to the same end. Just like the Prophet, he invested himself with the greatest authority and depended but little on the Scriptures. Like a Pharisaic "Scribe," he spoke in parables and pregnant sayings. He was a great artist in parable. His parables are attractive, short, popular, drawn from everyday life, full of "instruction in wise conduct" (Prov. i. 3), simple and profound at the same time—simple in form and profound in substance.

And this (even the difficulty in grasping the point of the parable) certainly served to interest the simple Galileans who, while they could not understand the whole, instinctively felt that this attractive covering hid beneath it a kernel of great value.

Besides the parables, there are the striking proverbs of Jesus. They are short, sharp and shrewd, hitting their mark like pointed darts, and, in the manner of homely epigrams and proverbs, impossible to be forgotten. Herein lies the secret why his disciples could preserve the bulk of his proverbs, almost unchanged, precisely as he uttered them. Almost all are stamped with the seal of one great, single personality, the seal of Jesus, and not the several seals of many and various disciples. To quote a few:

"They that are whole have no need of the physician but they that are sick."
"Let the dead bury their dead."
"Blind leaders of the blind."
"Who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel."
"Whited sepulchres."
"It is easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."
"The rich man giveth alms of his superfluity, and the widow—of her lack."
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."
"Let him that is free from sin cast the first stone."
"It is better to give than to receive."

And there are very many more of the same type. We cannot fail to recognize in them a single, remarkable personality, showing exceptional ability to grasp the innermost principle and to voice it in a short, shrewd proverb, grasping the idea in its fulness and drawing from it some conclusion which can never again be forgotten.

This device of teaching, combined with his own complex character, explains why Jesus' teaching was never forgotten, and why it became the basis of a new faith, though there is in it nothing that is new (i.e., not already contained in Judaism) except its arrangement and construction. The personality of the teacher was taken and mingled with the teaching, for most of what he taught had its origin not in theory but in practical fact, arising out of some event, some chance encounter or question, for which there promptly came the apt and penetrating rejoinder.

The tragedy of the dreadful death which came upon Jesus wrongly (though in accordance with the justice of the time), added a crown of divine glory both to the personality and to the teaching. Later arose the legend of the resurrection, heightening every value, obscuring every defect and exalting every virtue—and Jesus the Jew became half-Jew, half-Gentile, and began to hold that supernatural rank which is his today among hundreds and millions of mankind.


There is no page in this volume, no step in the life-story of Jesus, and no line in his teaching on which is not stamped the seal of Prophetic and Pharisaic Judaism and the Palestine of his day, the close of the period of the Second Temple. Hence it is somewhat strange to ask, What is Jesus to the Jews? "Jesus," says Wellhausen, "was not a Christian: he was a Jew," and, as a Jew, his life-story is that of one of the prominent men of the Jews of his time, while his teaching is Jewish teaching of a kind remarkable in its truth and its imaginativeness.

"Jesus was not a Christian," but he became a Christian. His teaching and his history have been severed from Israel. To this day the Jews have never accepted him, while his disciples and his followers have scoffed at and persecuted the Jews and Judaism. But even so, we cannot imagine a work of any value touching upon the history of the Jews in the time of the Second Temple which does not also include the history of Jesus and an estimate of his teaching. What, therefore, does Jesus stand for in the eyes of the Jews at the present time?

From the standpoint of general humanity he is, indeed, "a light to the Gentiles." His disciples have raised the lighted torch of the Law of Israel (even though that Law has been put forward in a mutilated and incomplete form) among the heathen of the four quarters of the world. No Jew can, therefore, overlook the value of Jesus and his teaching from the point of view of universal history. This was a fact which neither Maimonides nor Yehudah ha-Levi ignored.

But from the national Hebrew standpoint it is more difficult to appraise the value of Jesus. In spite of the fact that he himself was undoubtedly a "nationalist" Jew by instinct and even an extreme nationalist—as we may see from his retort to the Canaanitish woman, from his depreciatory way of referring to "the heathen and the publican," from the terms "Son of Abraham," "Daughter of Abraham" (which he uses as terms of the highest possible commendation),1 from his deep love for Jerusalem and from his devoting himself so entirely to the cause of "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" in spite of all this, there was in him something out of which arose "non-Judaism."


1 On Jesus' character see J. Ninck, Jesus als Charakter, Leipzig, 1906; W. Bousset, Jesus (Religionsgesch. Volksbücher, herausg. v. F. M. Schiele), 3 Aufl. Tübingen, 1907; 0. Holtzmann, War Jesus Ekstatiker? Tübingen u. Leipzig, 1903; F. Peabody, Jésus-Christ et la question morale, Paris, 1909, pp. 47-80.
2Matt. xi. 28-30.
3Mark vi. 34; Matt. ix. 35; xv. 32. References are not here given to every quotation, since most of them have already been given in the earlier portions of the book.
4Mark xiii. 31; Matt. xxiv. 35; Luke xxi. 33.
1Luke xix. 9; xiii. 16. Cf. "Son of Abraham our father" (T. Hag. 11 I); "Daughter of Abraham our father" (B. Hag. 3a).