Jewish scholars pursued a historical search for Jesus rather than a theological search. The starting point was to question whether sufficient attention had been paid to the Jewish tradition as it was found through Jesus. Jesus the Jew was seen as an ethicist, a prophet or a rebel.
For some he was an ethicist, centred on the core moral teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Others saw him in the prophetic tradition, building on the tradition of the prophets and their rejection of the sacrificial cult which in Jesus’ time was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. Some saw him as a rebel, a worldly messiah leading a revolution against the Roman occupation.
Geza Vermes, a distinguished Jewish scholar, wrote the book ~Jesus the Jew~ (first published in 1976) in which he made the case that Jesus was not just Jewish, but he was thoroughly Jewish. He strikes out at the Christian depiction of Jesus which is theological, rather than anything remotely connected to the historical figure. Vermes sees Jesus as a carpenter, a healer, an exorcist, teacher and miracle maker. He views Jesus as part of the Galilean historical and cultural background. He argues that Pharisees were rarely in Galilee and so the conflict with the Pharisees was not an indicator of an anti-Jewish movement, but rather an expression of the conflict between Galilean Jews and Jews elsewhere. The Pharisaic opposition to Jesus in Galilee was foreign, not local. He was seen as a political figure because he was seen as Galilean.
Jesus was also in the charismatic Jewish tradition and Vermes identifies examples of exorcism from the Essene Jews, examples of the figure of the holy Man from the Hebrew Scriptures but also with similarities to the Hassidic tradition which held in the power of prayer and the possibility of miracles.
In his prophecy, Jesus was in the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets and there was a tradition of prophetic celibacy which would explain this uncommon feature of Jesus’ life.
Vermes examines the titles of Jesus in detail. He examines the Son of God references and finds reason to doubt whether Jesus was really described as ‘the’ Son of God, but instead was consider ‘a’ Son of God, ‘a’ son of man. And of course there are many Messiah figures in Jewish history. In short, a dispassionate view of the accounts of Jesus, even in the New Testament, do not point to a radical departure from Judaism, but a mainstream Jewish figure.
Attempts to portray Jesus as anti-Jewish have more to do with the later separation of Judaism from Christianity and tensions between those communities which were more pronounced when the Gospels were written and collected together.
“The believing Christian is convinced that the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith are one and the same. For him there is coherence – identity even – between the Gospel picture and that offered by the Creed… By contrast to these imperatives of faith, the issues which writer and reader will explore together are concerned with the primitive, genuine, historical significance of words and events recorded in the Gospels… it is prompted by a single-minded and devout search for fact and reality and undertaken out of feeling for the tragedy of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Vermes, G. (1973) ~Jesus the Jew~. Collins: Glasgow.