For a long time Christ thought of himself purely as a Jew, sharing the ideas of the prophets, continuing their work, and preaching like them only to Jews. In dispatching his disciples to spread his gospel he sent them only to Jewish cities; “go not into the way of the gentiles, nor into the city of the Samaritans”; hence the apostles, after his death, hesitated to bring the Good News to the “heathen” world. When he met the Samaritan woman at the well he told her, “Salvation is of the Jews”- though we must not judge him from words perhaps put into his mouth by one who was not present, and who wrote sixty years after the event. When a Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter, he at first refused, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He told the leper whom he had cured to “go to the priest and… offer the gift that Moses prescribed.” “Do everything that the scribes and Pharisees tell you, and observe it all; but do not do as they do.” In suggesting modifications and mitigations of the Judaic Law Jesus, like Hillel, did not think that he was overthrowing it; “I came not to destroy the Law of Moses but to fulfil it.” “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the Law to fail.” Nevertheless, he transformed everything by the force of his character and his feeling. He added to the Law the injunction to prepare for the Kingdom by a life of justice, kindliness, and simplicity. He hardened the Law in matters of sex and divorce, but softened it toward a readier forgiveness, and reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for man. He relaxed the code of diet and cleanliness, and omitted certain fasts. He brought religion back from ritual to righteousness, and condemned conspicuous prayers, showy charities, and ornate funerals. He left the impression, at times, that the Judaic Law would be abrogated by the coming of the Kingdom.

Jews of all sects except the Essenes opposed his innovations, and especially resented his assumption of authority to forgive sins and to speak in the name of God. They were shocked to see him associate with the hated employees of Rome, and with women of low repute. The priests of the Temple and the members of the Sanhedrin watched his activity with suspicion; like Herod with John, they saw in it the semblance or cover of a political revolution; they feared lest the Roman procurator should accuse them of neglecting their responsibility for maintaining social order. They were a bit frightened by Christ’s promise to destroy the Temple, and not quite sure that it was only a metaphor. For his part Christ denounced them in sharp and bitter terms:

The scribes and Pharisees… put heavy loads of the Law upon men’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. They do everything they do to have men see it. They wear wide Scripture texts as charms, and large tassels, and they like the best places at dinners and the front seats in the synagogues…. But alas for you hypocritical scribes and Pharisees… you blind guides… blind fools!… You let the weightier matters of the Law go- justice, mercy, and integrity…. You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. You hypocritical scribes and Pharisees are like whitewashed tombs!… Outwardly you appear to men to be upright, but within you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness…. You are descended from the murderers of the prophets. Go on and fill up the measure of your forefathers’ guilt! You serpents! You brood of snakes! How can you escape being sentenced to the pit?… The publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.