Jesus: Myth, Man, or Messiah?
Confusion about Jesus and Jews abounds, which really should come as no surprise. I mean, Christians have, by recent count, several thousand denominations, a good percentage of them born of disputes over the nature and person of Jesus (the others resulting from disputes about Church governance - Jews like to argue over the calendar, if it makes you feel any better). So if they are confused about Jesus, what chance to Jews have?
Most people, even a few Jews, seem to thing Jesus has the status of a prophet in Judaism. I have to explain to them that that's Muslims who hold Jesus to be a human prophet, in the line of prophets to Muhammad.
Truth be told, we have done our part to contribute to this particular confusion. Back in the 19th Century, when all kinds of new theories were being floated about Jesus, "the historical Jesus," Jews got into the fray. There were those skeptics, for example, who posited that Jesus was not a historical figure at all, that he was a myth constructed whole cloth out of the imagination of the early Church. Some Jews at the time jumped on that bandwagon (a few are still on it), insisting there was never a historical figure who bore any real resemblance to the literary Jesus at all. Almost at the same time, however, some rather prominent Jewish thinkers, like Kaufmann Kohler and Martin Buber, wanted to reclaim the "historical" Jesus (but not the doctrinal Jesus) for Judaism. A couple of rabbis even wrote essays about Jesus the "Jewish prophet." I think these efforts set into motion this persistent idea that Judaism regards Jesus as a prophet.
But that notion was 86ed almost as soon as it was proposed. Most Jews regard Jesus neither as a myth, a prophet, or a (successful) messiah. Judaism certainly gives him no religious status (Though Jewish scholars have lately given more serious thought to Christianity as a whole - see the document Dabru Emet posted on the Web). So how do we think of him? Well I think of him as Jesus IHS. Not Iesus Hominum Salvator, "Jesus Savior of Humanity", but IHS meaning - "Interesting Historical Semite."
When people ask what I mean by that, I explain it this way: "For Jews, Jesus is like Albert Einstein." (I used to use Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx also, but too many people got hostile about those analogies; everybody apparently feels positively about Albert). To Jews, Jesus is like Albert Einstein: A Jew who formulated new ways to think, and in doing so, transformed the way the world thinks and works. Like Einstein, Jesus offered up novel ways to understand the world. Like Einstein, he had many Jewish disciples; like Einstein his ideas were embraced by people outside of Jewish circles, and like Einstein, none of this makes him a religious authority for Judaism. He's just an IHS, an "Interesting Historical Semite."
C.S. Lewis is famous for formulating the "3L" argument: given what he said about himself in the Gospels, Jesus has to be one of three things: Lunatic, Liar, or Lord. I for one hate these forced choice questions, questions like - "Given the choice, would you rather be blind or give birth to the Anti-Christ?" Well, circumstances are such that Jews don't have to make that choice, and by the same token Jews don't have to make the 3L choice either. Lewis is, I suppose, relying on us not to be so impolite as to tell our Christian friends we think their savior is a fraud or delusional. But, in fact, we don't have to argue either of those positions. Since the Gospels are not sacred scriptures to Jews, we are under no obligation to assume that the Gospel authors provide us with an inerrant transcript of Jesus' actual words, much less his thoughts. We know from the Gospels what the authors thought Jesus thought of himself, but absent an autobiography, we needn't take the Gospels as, well...gospel.
I can also imagine that Jesus sincerely thought himself to be the eschatological messiah. But that doesn't make him a lunatic, it just makes him wrong. Jewish history gives us multiple examples of well-meaning, sane Jews who thought themselves to be positioned in such a unique time and place in history that God had placed messianic power in their hands. Its just never worked out. The world is still unredeemed. While Jesus has transformed the hearts of his followers, he has failed to transform the world at large. Changed it, yes, but not to messianic dimensions.
So until the world changes to the extent that lions lie down with lambs, men beat their M-4 carbines with undermounted M-203 grenade launchers into composite plumbing fixtures for the poor; until oppression and cruelty ceases, we Jews, at least, know the Messiah has yet to come.