The Jewishness of Jesus

THE FACT THAT JESUS was a Jew has not gone unrecognized. Libraries and bookstores are replete with volumes bearing such titles as Jesus the Jew, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus and the World of Judaism, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, Jesus in His Jewish Context, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus, and three volumes (and counting) of A Marginal Jew. The point is more than simply a historical observation. Numerous churches today acknowledge their intimate connection to Judaism: connections born from scripture, history, theology and, as Paul puts it, Christ “according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:5).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the pew, the pulpit and often the classroom, even when Christian congregants, ministers and professors do acknowledge that Jesus was Jewish, they often provide no content for the label. The claim that “Jesus was a Jew” may be historically true, but it is not central to the teaching of the church.

The problem is more than one of silence. In the popular Christian imagination, Jesus still remains defined, incorrectly and unfortunately, as “against” the Law, or at least against how it was understood at the time; as “against” the Temple as an institution and not simply against its first-century leadership; as “against” the people Israel but in favor of the gentiles. Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the “poor and the marginalized” (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; whatever Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.

This divorcing of Jesus from Judaism does a disservice to each textually, theologically, historically and ethically. First, the separation severs the church’s connections to the scriptures of Israel–what it calls the Old Testament. Because Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jews, they held the Torah and the prophets sacred, prayed the Psalms, and celebrated the bravery of Esther and the fidelity of Ruth. To understand Jesus, one must have familiarity with the scriptures that shaped him (or, as a few of my students will insist, that he wrote).

Second, the insistence on Jesus’ Jewish identity reinforces the belief that he was fully human, anchored in historical time and place. This connection is known as the “scandal of particularity”: not only does the church proclaim that the divine took on human form, it also proclaims that it took on this form in a particular setting among a particular people. The church claims that divinity took on human flesh was “incarnated”–in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore the time and the place matter. Christianity follows Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Cleveland or Jesus of Mexico City; the incarnation dates to the first century, not the 21st.

Further, the Jewish tradition into which Jesus was born and the Christian tradition that developed in his name were “historical religions,” that is, their foundational events took place in history and on earth, rather than in some mythic time and mythic place; they have a starting point and a vision for the future. To disregard history, to disregard time and place, is to be unfaithful to both Judaism and Christianity.

Historically, Jesus should be seen as continuous with the line of Jewish teachers and prophets, for he shares with them a particular view of the world and a particular manner of expressing that view. Like Amos and Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, he used arresting speech, risked political persecution, and turned traditional family values upside down in order to proclaim what he believed God wants, the Torah teaches and Israel must do. This historical anchoring need not and should not, in Christian teaching, preclude or overshadow Jesus’ role in the divine plan. He must, in the Christian tradition, be more than just a really fine Jewish teacher. But he must be that Jewish teacher as well.

Further, Jesus had to have made sense in his own context, and his context is that of Galilee and Judea. Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears. The parables are products of first-century Jewish culture, not ours; the healings were assessed according to that worldview, not ours; the debates over how to follow Torah took place within that set of legal parameters and forms of discourse, not ours. To understand Jesus’ impact in his own setting–why some chose to follow him, others to dismiss him and still others to seek his death-requires an understanding of that setting. If we today have difficulty fathoming how our grandparents could function without the Internet and cell phones, let alone without television, how can we possibly presume to understand the worldview of Jesus and his contemporaries without asking a few historical questions?

WHEN JESUS IS located within the world of Judaism, the ethical implications of his teachings take on renewed and heightened meaning; their power is restored and their challenge sharpened. Jews as well as Christians should be able to agree on a number of these teachings today, just as in the first century Jesus’ followers and even those Jews who chose not to follow him would have agreed with such basic assertions as that God is our father, that God’s name should be hallowed, and that the divine kingdom is something ardently to be desired. Jesus does not have to be unique in all cases in order to be profound.

Jesus’ connection to Judaism can be seen not only in his general comments about Torah but also in his practice of its commandments. For example, Jesus dresses like a Jew. Specifically, he wears tzitzit, “fringes,” which the book of Numbers enjoins upon all Israelite men, which a number of Orthodox Jewish men still wear, and which can be seen today most readily in the tallit, or “prayer shawl,” worn in the synagogue during worship. Numbers 15:37-40 reads: ,The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God.'”

These tzitzit may be compared to WWJD bracelets. Just as the bracelets remind their Christian wearers to ask, “What would Jesus do?” so the fringes remind Jewish wearers of all 613 commandments, or mitzvot (Hebrew; singular, mitzvah). The Gospels do not shy away from the fact that Jesus wore these fringes: it was these fringes that the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage affliction touched in hopes of being healed, according to the account in Matthew.

Similarly, Mark 6:56 says: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.” The fact that Jesus, according to Matthew 23:5, criticized the Pharisees and scribes because “they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” suggests that his phylacteries were narrow and his fringes shorter. Jesus does not dismiss Torah; to use modern idiom, he wears it on his sleeve.

The reminder of the fringes has a practical payoff for Christians, The Gospels’ preservation of this detail indicates that the Old Testament must be acknowledged as more than just an anticipation of the coming of the messiah as more than a book that can now be discarded or, more respectfully, put on the shelf next to the other antiques, to be admired but not used. By preserving the fact that Jesus wore fringes, the New Testament mandates that respect for Jewish custom be maintained and that Jesus’ own Jewish practices be honored, even by the gentile church, which does not follow those customs.

NOT ONLY DID Jesus dress like a Jew; he ate like a Jew as well, He kept kosher; that is, he kept the dietary requirements established in Torah. Leviticus 11:3 is explicit about what animals are permitted for human consumption: “any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud”; thus the pig, the camel, the rock badger and the hare are not kosher. Jesus would never have consumed a ham sandwich. Nor, by the way, would the occasion often have presented itself—archaeological investigation finds few pig bones in Galilee.

The only contact Jesus had with pigs is described in its most complete form in Mark 5:1-20. Following their expulsion from a severely possessed man, a group of demons so numerous that their former host identified himself as “Legion, for we are many,” requested that Jesus send them into a herd of swine. Jesus agreed, “and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about 2,000, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.” Mark’s narrative anticipates the mission to the gentiles, for the city of Gerasa, where the story is set, was part of the De capolis, a league of ten predominantly gentile cities, and the presence of the pigs is a less than subtle clue to the non-Jewish composition of the population. The story also allows a political dig against Rome, given that the “unclean spirits” identify themselves as Legion, the Latin term for an army cohort. But as for Jesus’ Jewish identity, neither he nor his Jewish associates would have mourned the loss of a herd of hogs–animals that are not kosher and that represent conspicuous consumption in that they cost more to raise than they produce in meat.

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