In the course of our two-week discussion on Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, two of our reviewers asked specific questions, to which author Brant Pitre has very graciously responded.
In Braving Rabbinic Waters to Reveal Body and Blood, Max Lindenman asked:
Pitre's book, simply by being so accessible, forced me to consider questions I'd thought unanswerable. If first-century Jews weren't expecting a military Messiah, but someone very much like Jesus, why did intellectuals receive Him so coolly? Oughtn't they have connected the dots? Did their human qualities—perhaps their attachment to the status quo—prevent their doing so? Did Jesus' claim of divinity kill the deal by itself? Or could Jesus have confounded expectations in some way Pitre hasn't considered?
Great question. My students frequently ask me something similar: If Jesus actually fulfilled Jewish expectations in Scripture and tradition about a new exodus, a new Moses, the new Manna, and the Bread of the Presence, how is it that the Jewish leaders rejected him as Messiah?
A whole book needs to be written on this, but two points should suffice here. First, it is critical to stress that, contrary to what Christians often assume, not all of the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus. To the contrary, the Gospels are quite clear that even members of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin—think here of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea—became Jesus' disciples (Mk 15:43; Jn 19:38-39).
Moreover, although the fact is frequently overlooked, the Acts of the Apostles is equally explicit about the partial success of Christian mission in Jerusalem: shortly before Stephen's martyrdom, "the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). This is extremely important: according to Acts, many, not just some, of the Jewish priests converted to Christianity. Hence, the caricature that none of the Jewish leaders who knew the Scriptures accepted Jesus as Messiah is without foundation. It is contradicted by the first-century evidence in the New Testament itself.
Second, with that said, we still need to explain why the vast majority of Jewish priests and "the intellectual classes" as you put it, rejected him. On one level, we can only speculate, but the New Testament evidence suggests that at least three factors were operative.
(1) According to the Gospel of John, there was apparently skepticism toward the Scripture itself among some of these leaders. Jesus says to some of the Jewish leaders: "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?" (Jn 6:46). In this passage, Jesus identifies faith in Scripture as a prerequisite to faith in his own teaching. Believing Scripture has always been a stumbling block, even in the first century A.D. (see Lk 24:25).
(2) Second, if you've spent any time among the "intellectual" classes, as you put it, then you know that intellectual pride is an ever-present danger, and all too often a reality. (I speak here of what I know; think of the modern-day academy, which, while populated by many wonderful, humble people, can be a breeding ground for gigantic egos.) It is very easy to be dismissive toward anyone without academic credentials, and the Gospels make very clear again that Jesus was spoken against because he had "never studied" (Jn 7:15)—i.e., he was without formal rabbinic training. What academic conference today would give the podium to or take seriously an unlettered carpenter from backwater Galilee?
(3) Third and finally, and most important of all, as I stressed in Chapter 4 (on the Manna), Jesus himself explicitly states that the gift of supernatural faith is necessary to recognize the truth of his divine identity and his eucharistic presence. After the disciples say that Jesus' Eucharistic words are "a hard teaching" he responds with this rebuttal: "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father (Jn 6:65). It is not as if one can pile up enough arguments to empirically prove that Jesus is the divine Son of God or that he is really present in the Eucharist. Rather, the Jewish prophecies and traditions are, to use the language of the First Vatican Council, "motives of credibility" that lay the foundations for faith. But they are not the same thing as faith. That is a supernatural gift from God.