Jesus is seen as a Jew in many pulpits and pews, but usually as an exception, an anomaly. In too many sermons, commentaries, and hymnals his teachings on love, inclusion, and forgiveness are set up as a contrast against the Jews and Judaism of his day. What makes him distinctive, we say, is that he’s not like the other Jews. He reached people on the margins. He talked to women. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. But these characterizations of a Jewish Jesus are still distorted. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains why:
“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; what Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”
Yes, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people. Yes, he counseled mercy and patience. Yes, he healed and set people free. But rather than see Jesus as different from the Jews around him, I suggest it is time to see Jesus’ ministry as a natural evolution of the whole history of Jewish teaching, ethics, morality, practice, and service of God. Otherwise he serves as an archetypal anti-Jew.
Think about it. If Jesus was fully Jewish, operating in a Jewish context, living a Jewish life, studying Jewish texts, praying to a Jewish God, clothing himself in the Jewish commandments, where else did it come from? If we believe that Jesus was one with the God of Israel, then surely, Jesus drew upon the same Source and sources that inspired all the other teachers, miracle-workers, prophets, and kings that preceded and surrounded him. Quite often the rabbis of his era were arriving at the same conclusions he was, from the Golden Rule, to teachings on Sabbath, the importance of love of God and neighbor. Others were engaged in calling disciples, healing, and miracle-working. Even his interactions with women, children, and Gentiles were not anomalous.
More than that, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked by theological and behavioral leaps, beginning with Abraham’s innovation that God is one, not many; continuing with Moses’ skilled but previously unknown leadership in leading the Israelites from slavehood to peoplehood; game-changing visions from prophets; and the courageous renewal of Judaism under Nehemiah and Ezra after the return from Babylonian exile. Jesus is the product of generations of Jewish innovators, completely in line with the spiritual genius that went before him and even those that came after him.
If we were to truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus, it would take a renewed scholarship among preachers, prayers, poets, professors, and Bible study writers and teachers. It would take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes. Not easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help, many of which I note in my book The Jew Named Jesus. It’s worth the effort. We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized.
This historic reconciliation points out an underlying truth: it hasn’t always been good between Christians and Jews. A long history of Christian teaching of “contempt of the Jews” made positive interfaith relations all but impossible for centuries. After hitting a theological bottom in the Holocaust, though, the church has intentionally hammered out new theologies and reached for new understandings that allow for love, acceptance, and embrace of Jews. In response, Jews have done the hard work of forgiving and rapprochement too.
All of this brings us to the point where we can ask the question: Can we truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus? In good Jewish fashion, I assert that even the question is a good one.
It leads to all kinds of other interesting questions. If Judaism and Christianity could hammer out a new relationship, is the same possible for Christianity and Islam? If we could, should we?
The truth is, the work has begun. And it’s been initiated by Muslims. In 2007, 138 Muslim clerics and scholars representing every branch of Islam sent a beautifully worded and carefully researched letter to Christian leaders. This letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” stated that as the two largest world religions, the peace of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.It used as its reference point the Hebrew Bible teachings of love of God and neighbor, saying they were common to both Islam and Christianity.
We have the opportunity to turn a new page. To restore and revamp our understandings of Jesus and Judaism. And to open our hearts to new understandings of our Muslim neighbors. What a great start to the Easter season this would be.
They’re risky moves for sure. Especially in an age of nationalism, terrorism, and blame-game politics. But isn’t that when the resurrection is needed most?