Part I was published yesterday and can be found here.
Like most Jews, I grew up knowing next to nothing about Christianity. So what caused me to take the New Testament off the shelf? Two events of little intellectual consequence: the publication of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, and the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The Brown book came first. I thought the book was a silly page-turner, but I wondered if there might be something to the story it told of Christian origins. Could it be that the real Jesus was just an ordinary human being, with a wife and kids, and that the history of Christian-Jewish enmity was based on a misunderstanding? Answer: hardly. But I’ll give Brown credit for planting an idea in my mind, that the real Jesus might have been different than the man-God portrayed by the church.
Oddly enough, Gibson’s “Passion” movie taught me a similar lesson: that the Jesus story might be told in different ways, with different potential impacts on Jewish-Christian relations. I felt that it was important that more Jews master the nuances of the Jesus story. Yes, there’s plenty of anti-Jewish content in the New Testament, and it’s possible to tell the Jesus story like Gibson did, with Jesus on one side, and the Jews on the other. But if the New Testament is portrayed with an anti-Jewish slant, then the portrayal is anti-Jesus as well. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was a Jew, and also that his parents were Jewish, his teachers were Jewish, his friends were Jewish, he ate Jewish food, his scriptures were the Torah, Prophets and Writings, he lived in a Jewish village, he was taxed like a Jew, he began his ministry in association with the Jewish John the Baptist, he gathered Jews as his disciples, he preached “only to the lost sheep of Israel,” and he died having been accused of claiming to be the “King of the Jews”.
We have a tendency to talk about Jesus’ Jewishness in a way that’s different from how we would talk about the Jewishness of Jesus’ Jewish opponents, or Rabbi Hillel, or Golda Meir. We tend to think of Jesus’ Jewishness as something that he was merely born into and then emerged from, even escaped from … that Jesus was a Jew like my father (born in Berlin in 1927) was a German. Or we imagine that Jesus was Jewish plus, a Table-Fellowship Jew, a Feminist Jew, a Universalist Jew, a New Covenant Jew or a Jewish Christian.
But as for me -- I think Jesus was a Jewish Jew.
To show that Jesus differed from Judaism, some folks point to Jesus’ arguments with other Jews about Jewish law. But Jews have been arguing about the law with other Jews since day one. Sometimes Jesus took a lenient position (picking grain on Shabbat, see Mark 2:23-28), and sometimes he took a strict position (divorce, see Matthew 19:9). It all looks perfectly Jewish to me. There are Jews who have taken a much more radical stance towards Jewish law: there are the Karaites, who deny the Oral Law altogether, and there are Reform Jews (like me) who deny the binding nature of the law. Compared to Jews like me, Jesus’ views concerning the law were positively mainstream.
There’s another area where Jews butted heads with Jesus: the New Testament records frequent Jewish complaints that Jesus spent too much time eating with sinners (see for example Luke 15:2). But all Jews want sinners to repent; the question is how to bring this about. Evidently, some Jews felt that the best way to deal with recalcitrant sinners was to shun them, to exclude them from polite society until they showed a willingness to repent … and evidently Jesus felt that if you welcomed sinners into the heart of the community, then repentance would follow. It’s a question of tactics, and I think Jesus was the better tactician, even if the New Testament does not document vast numbers of sinners who repented at Jesus’ dinner table. But the question of tactics persists to this day, evidenced by the lack of pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, gun runners, terrorists, extortionists and other undesirables present at the average church social (not to mention the average Passover Seder).
Anthony has asked here what kind of a Jew Jesus was. I think this is an important question, but it’s also a question we can overthink. I think the best answer to Anthony’s question is this: Jesus was a first-century kind of Jew. Sure, Jesus’ point of view differed from other first-century Jews, but there were considerable differences of opinion among first-century Jews. The famous historian Josephus identified 4 principal Jewish sects, and the Talmud later counted 24 sects, so there must have been room for Jews to disagree and still be counted as Jewish. With all of the Jewish criticism of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, I see nothing to indicate that Jesus intended to take his movement outside of Judaism, or that his movement was regarded as something other than Jewish by other Jews. Moreover, the Romans regarded Jesus as Jewish – the Romans may have intended to mock Jesus by executing him as “king of the Jews”, but the final identification of Jesus as “of the Jews” seems to have been accepted without question by all concerned.
I conclude that if someone had followed Jesus out of a restaurant and asked him who he was, he would have answered that he was a Jew. If pressed, he might say that he was a Jewish Jew, and if pressed further, he would say that he was Mr. Jewish Jewy McJew Jew. This is not to say that Judaism is Christianity, or vice versa, and as for Jewish Christianity (or Messianic Judaism), I wish those folks the best of luck, but I think that the opportunity for being simultaneously Christian and Jewish passed from the world scene at least 1500 years ago.
But I do think that Jews and Christians can (and should) do their Jewish shtick and their Christian thing in closer proximity. Christians worship the Jewish Jew Jesus as the second person of a triune God, but Christians have historically mangled their notion of what is Jewish. E.P. Sanders wrote in 1977 that the then-prevailing Christian view of first century Judaism was a “massive perversion and misunderstanding”. Working with Jews, Christians should be able to improve on this.
As for Jews, we’re crazy if we turn our back on the most talked-about Jewish Jew in world history. It’s high time we claimed Jesus as our own, as a master teacher and story-teller, as the Jew who inspired more people to read our holy scriptures than any other. But here’s where we need Christian help, because we’ve too long associated the Jewish Jew Jesus with disputations, inquisitions and pogroms, and as a result we can’t make heads or tails of him. As I make Christian friends and learn how to speak the language of interfaith dialog, I increasingly come to associate Jesus with awe, reverence and an encounter with the divine that is experienced by billions of people.
Christians and Jews need each other. This is why I write a blog.
Read more from Larry Behrendt at http://jewishchristianintersections.com/.