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I read an interview with a scholar recently in which he talked about the patronizing concept of the Jewishness of Jesus. I’m not precisely sure what he had in mind as the interview did not get specific enough on this point and I have not read enough of this scholar’s work to be sure what opinions he holds. I do know one complaint he had: people who say their historical presentation of Jesus is a Jewish Jesus and then proceed to explain how Jesus is radically different from their notion of the Judaism of his time.
He seemed to be ready to dismiss the value of speaking of the Jewish Jesus completely, and yet I know he did not mean by this that we should view the historical Jesus through some other cultural lens (such as the Cynic philosopher theory of Crossan). That got me thinking: what value is there, overall, in speaking of the Jewishness of Jesus? Is that a description and a category we could better live without? What are the simplistic ideas of a Jewish Jesus we want to avoid? What are the alternatives to a Jewish Jesus in our way of speaking of the historical Jesus? I would have to start with my own story: because the “Jewish Jesus” idea is the very basis of what impelled me to study and to become what and who I am today. I cannot exaggerate the importance of the “Jewish Jesus” idea for me personally.
Perhaps some scholars, knowing the complexity and diversity of Judaism, and lamenting the ways popular presentations can distort our potential knowledge of the historical Jesus, might wish people simply wouldn’t use the language of a Jewish Jesus at all. Yet I can say that for me, in late 1987, as a college student with no religious background, the notion was life-changing.
I had just come from an agnostic background into full-on belief in God and in the person of Jesus. I had not yet read the gospels. A Sunday School teacher at a nearby church was stupefied that my faith was based on a reading of the historical narratives of the “Old Testament” and half a book by C.S. Lewis. He castigated me: “You have to read the New Testament.”
Being very impressionable at the time, I woke at 6:30 the next morning to start reading the New Testament. I had an eight o’clock class and the church told me I was supposed to read the Bible in the morning, so even though it was hard to wake so early, I thought I had to do it that way. But I was about to develop a bit more independent thinking and to become less naive.
Matthew 1:1 is where the New Testament starts and it is where I discovered the Jewish Jesus. It says he is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. I had read recently the stories of David and Abraham. They were fresh in my mind. I can say that the moment in fraternity room reading the gospels was a turning point.
It was a turning point because I saw in an instant that there was a difference between the historical Jesus, and the Jesus of the gospels as well, and the church Jesus. And, though I want to be more forgiving, though I believe in the goodness of Christianity, even after years of reflection I have to chastise the shepherds who have allowed and continue to allow this distortion to continue.
Why doesn’t the average church and the average pastor present a fuller picture of who Jesus was and is? Why aren’t the gospels read and taken seriously? I could do a series of podcasts on that one. But my point is that the Jewish Jesus idea, as I encountered it early one morning at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in my Zeta Beta Tau house, specifically led me to the place I met and married my wife, led to my choice of career, and has been the basis of all my work since then.
I guess you could say that Jewish Jesus idea is not something I’m ready to toss away.
I’ve heard one interesting way of talking about the perception people have of Jesus. Some see him as the “first Christian.” That is an interesting way of putting it. No one, as far as I know, actually uses that terminology. But it is between the lines of much, maybe most, writing about Jesus. The really bad stuff, the all-too-common rhetoric that makes us wince, is the Pharisees-as-Judaism and Jesus-as-the-first-Christian approach.
But the Christian Jesus idea is rampant even in less naive presentations. As this scholar said in his interview, many say their presentation includes the Jewishness of Jesus and then they proceed to explain how Jesus radically departed from the Judaism of his time. Many people are unaware of how supple, how diverse, how stretchable the various streams and ideas within broader Jewish religion and practice really were in Jesus’ time. Much of what people see as the Christian Jesus departing from his own culture and religious context is actually not new. Jewish thought and practice was full of potential reformers and renewers.
Jesus the first Christian is the Jesus I heard about, if I heard about Jesus at all in my early church experience. Mostly talk about Jesus was limited to three things: (1) the savior dying on a cross so I could have a very pleasant afterlife, (2) the resurrected man whose return to life meant I could believe in a very pleasant afterlife, and (3) the man in heaven next to the Father to whom all our prayers were directed. Sermons on the actual deeds or sayings of Jesus were quite rare. If I did hear them, the point of the sermon was always the same as the point of every sermon: you should ask Jesus into your heart so you will have a very pleasant afterlife.
An aspect of Jesus-the-first-Christian I heard more often was the converse: the Pharisees-as-what-is-wrong-with-all-religion. And Pharisees meant Jews in general.
I asked people at church during this formative stage: if Jesus was Jewish, why don’t we do anything Jewish?
I was told in various ways that: (1) the Old Testament was hard and unspiritual, (2) that Jesus died on the cross to set us free from Judaism, and (3) that Jewishness is the opposite of having Jesus in your heart so that you can have a very pleasant afterlife.
I decided that my Christian teachers were wrong about this. I decided this within the first month of my new-found faith. It wasn’t easy to resist the pull. But, fortunately, I found a few resources early on to help.
I found a Jewish Christian who saw Jesus and Judaism in a bit more of a synthesis than the other Christians I talked to. Through him I found out about and went on a trip to Israel, where my interest in the historical Jesus, Jesus the Jew, increased all the more. And I found out about Messianic Judaism. I wasn’t ready to sign on to the Messianic Jewish movement as yet, but I attended and learned from afar.
The Jewish Jesus made so much more sense to me for a number of reasons than the first-Christian-Jesus. He quoted sacred texts from Deuteronomy and Samuel and Isaiah with ease. He went to synagogue on Saturday. He read from a scroll. He kept Passover. He gave an important speech at Hanukkah. I understood his crucifixion largely through the lens of Isaiah 53. His resurrection, I found out, was part of a Jewish theme of bodily afterlife.
My understanding of the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history needed a lot more work. It still does, of course. I got side-tracked for over a decade on my path of discovery. I was fooled for a long time by certain distortions of the message of Jesus and the apostles. But through this long period of confusion I did some things right. I am especially glad that I decided to engage in a long study of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), including a Masters degree from Emory in Atlanta in Hebrew Bible. I never went on to doctoral work and don’t know if I will, but the Hebrew Bible continues to be a love of mine even though I am specializing in the gospels and the life and message of Jesus.
My basic point is that the idea of a Jewish Jesus is far from an unnecessary correction. And the notion is much needed. And those who want to understand Jesus would do well to understand the first five books of the Bible and at least some of the Psalms, wisdom literature, and prophets.
Another distorted view of Jesus I have encountered is Jesus, the last Jew. I do not mean, of course, that Jewish people disappeared or ceased to exist after Jesus, but that the people of God were the Jews until and through Jesus, after which, everyone needed to be a Christian.
It was okay for Jesus to be Jewish, such interpreters tell us, but he was the last Jew in terms of God’s election and inclusion of people. Thus, we should read in Jesus’ teachings advanced notions that will take his disciples outside of the orbit of Judaism.
This Jesus-the-last-Jew approach is a way of affirming that Jesus is Jewish while denying and/or ignoring the fact that his deeds and message are equally Jewish and that his renewal movement is a Jewish movement.
I am not at all saying that I think non-Jews must become Jewish in order to follow Jesus. Perhaps that is the kind of distortion that well-meaning teachers of Jesus-the-first-Christian and Jesus-the-last-Jew were hoping to avoid. But I don’t think Christians can benefit from making Jesus a gentile. The path of discipleship must include and recognize the Jewish Jesus. Non-Jews follow a Jewish Messiah. I don’t care how simplistic that may sound in some academic ears. The Jesus of the gospels, and I would argue of history as well, is the Jewish Messiah. I will grant you that the term Messiah has been grossly over-simplified as well.
I first picked up on the Jewish Jesus theme from Matthew’s gospel, but all of the gospels begin with a theme of continuation, not discontinuity.
What I read in Matthew was about Jesus the son of David and the son of Abraham. That characterization of Jesus continues in Matthew’s gospel. Some have considered Matthew to be the product of a Jewish Christian, or as I would prefer to call it, a Messianic Jewish, movement in the early days.
But the other two synoptic gospels and even John begin equally with a theme of continuity. The arrival of Jesus on the scene in the gospels’ literary presentation of him is Jewish and continuous with the tradition of Israel.
Mark begins with the good news of Messiah and Son of God, Jewish terms best understood from the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism. Mark locates Jesus from the movement of John the Baptist and identifies his message as the reign or kingdom of God, a central theme of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible.
Luke begins with a priestly family in Jerusalem and writes in the style of the Greek or Septuagint version of the book of Judges. Luke’s Jesus leaps off the pages of the Hebrew Bible and has more to do with Jerusalem than Mark or Matthew have indicated.
And then there is John. His gospel has a prologue, generally thought to be added at a later stage of formation. The prologue presents Jesus as the Word. Many have sought in this a Greek notion of the Logos, and perhaps that is secondary. But the Jewish idea of the Memra, the Dibbur, the spoken words of God by which all things were created, is evident. And John, like the other gospels, locates the origins of Jesus’ movement in the work of the Jewish prophet John.
From this theme of continuation, the idea that Jesus is the next chapter in the unfolding drama of God and Israel, is matched by the theme of renewal in the gospels. This has been mistaken for a theme of replacement. The idea of the Jewish jesus is essential for rightly interpreting Jesus’ stance on things like the Temple.
To say that Jesus is anti-Temple is a gross error. It is his Father’s house. He has a zeal for it that his disciples remark about in John. He affirms its sanctity specifically in Matthew. His infancy is shrouded in a Temple community of the faithful in Luke. Even Mark is careful to show that the testimony about Jesus as a Temple-destroyer is false testimony.
Jesus is against the Temple state, the organizational entity running the Temple. His protest, the one that got him arrested and killed, is not against the edifice of God, but against its desecration and against its injustices toward the common people. It is a Temple state which demands the religious and economic obedience of the people, but which does not practice the economic redistribution of God’s Torah.
So, while I understand, probably, some of the frustration of the scholar who was interviewed, I think the statement that the historical Jesus is best understood in a Jewish context has lasting value. In fact, I think it is essential. Maybe if history had not developed the Jesus-the-first-Christian or Jesus-the-last-Jew notions we’d have been fine without using the adjective “Jewish” in our description of Jesus. But the fact that Jesus is Jewish and that his teaching and deeds are Jewish is far from obvious to most people. And the idea of the Jewish Jesus is very much needed.