Jesus, the Anti-Jew?

by | Jan 26, 2015 | 8 comments

Church, it’s time to go all the way in embracing the Jewish Jesus.
Yes, 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.
I’d like to explain the phenomenon, and then give you 3 criteria to check for to see if your preaching and teaching sets up Jesus as a Jew or as an 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.
Paul wasn’t kidding when he said about his fellow Israelites, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
How do you know if you are preaching and teaching about Jesus as a Jew or an anti-Jew?  Check out these 3 critiera:
1.  You rely heavily on the compare and contrast method of preaching and teaching: Jesus is the “good guy” and his Jewish contemporaries such as Pharisees, Saducees, scribes and lawyers are the “bad guys.”  This creates an us v. them dynamic that creates enemies.  In other words, in order to stand with Jesus, I have to stand against somebody or something else.
2.  You remove Jesus from a Jewish context altogether, substituting “the church” for the actual Jewish people, Torah, land, and institutions he interacted with.  Erasing his Jewish context doesn’t help. It’s like claiming being color-blind in a society where white privilege still operates.
3.  You portray the Pharisees as uni-dimensional:  hypocritical, out to get him, narrow-minded or legalistic.  Of all the Jewish groups present in his day, Jesus himself was most closely aligned with the Pharisees. His way of teaching, setting up a fence for the Law, and seeing the world has more in common with them than any other group.
Putting this perspective into practice will take a renewed scholarship among preachers, pray-ers, poets, professors, and Bible study writers and teachers. I realize it’s going to take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes. This won’t be easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help.  It’s worth the effort.
We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized. Understanding that Jesus operated within a rich spiritual and theological context is essential for deconstructing three attitudes: first, lingering anti-Judaism; second, Jesus as anti-Jew; and third, subtle “us versus them” dynamics. While denominations have repented of these attitudes, the fulfillment of that work remains to be done in individual pulpits, in Bible studies, and in human hearts. The more we get our theology and teaching right, the more space it creates for healing between Jesus and his own people.
Excerpted and adapted from “The Jew Named Jesus:  Discover the Man and His Message,” (c) 2013 Rebekah Simon-Peter.

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    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thank you!

  1. Diana Obe

    This is most interesting and I feel as a Christian who has always been taught and rightly so that our Jewish roots are to be respected and honored at all costs, that yet I’ve never really had the total understanding of what you write about on this subject. So I sit, open to learn all I can as I feel perhaps I’m not the only person (Christian) who isn’t completely wrapping their minds around this. Even after reading your book. Our attachment to Jesus is that of one of a three person Godhead, the one who died upon a cross bearing our sins that we might be grafted into God’s chosen. While still studying and seeking to completely understand the Old Testament, our foundation, we (Christians) live without the Jewish way of life, and the church becomes our center to gather, to encourage one another into a way of life that conforms to the original laws,with grace, and we are helped by Jesus and the Holy Spirit to become acceptable to God, yet we are like immigrants to a new soil who have forgotten our roots as we sing songs, gather to learn, to serve the poor and hurting, and all the things we are commanded to do, but do we REALLY know Jesus? We are a new culture relatively speaking, aren’t we? I don’t know what else to say. I think of my husband – over the years, I’ve learned to listen to where he’s come from, family customs, heritage of Lutherans, (or not), the good bad and the ugly as were the people of the Old Testament and New, as he’s learned about mine, and without all this study of one another, we would be in a disconnect. Is that a good analogy? I’m trying really hard to “get” this. God bless you, brilliant thinker and pioneer.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Diana, Thanks for your good comments and heartfelt questions. I appreciate your wrestling with them.
      First off, I don’t think any of us has to earn God’s love or find ways to be acceptable to God. We are made in the image and likeness of God: done! Secondly, what I’m asking for is the same love we ascribe to Jesus that we understand he ascribed to his very own people, and most especially to the Pharisees, Saducees, lawyers, scribes and others who made up his milieu. How we communicate that we understand Jesus as loving toward his very own people has to do with how we speak and teach and pray about him. There are others points to be made, but I think these are the most important.

    • Fred A. Asher

      Your pointed point about “since Everything in or about Jesus WAS from his Judaism, where else could his teaching have come from or been honed by” -is RIGHT ON. After all, ‘dear Jesus’ -as we hear WAY too much of lately, SAID ALL KINDS OF HARSH, BITTER, ANGRY, AND VERY JUDGMENTAL sayings! How so many ‘good Christians’ seemingly have never even once heard of (let alone really r-e-a-d) THESE VERY NUMEROUS sayings of ‘dear Jesus’ shows that they are mere pew warmers. Or don’t EVER actually r-e-a-d the Bible.
      Keep after this, because in the tremendous upheaval just ahead as BOTH Jews and Christians HAVE to face the FACT that THEY MADE poor Mahommad WHAT he so cannily became and exploited, and that became THE RELIGION OF OPEN WAR AND MURDER. Yes, THIS fact of life and history WILL come home…, even to the ‘dear Jesus’ crowds that today are HIDING under mere crème-pufferies SO many and various -AND WRONG.

  2. Rev. MbwogeNgole

    The statement may be misleading and Christians origin not coordinated..Do you know King David?Do we know that the Jews were chosen ones of God, and out of these chosen came Jesus. We need just to honor God for his marvelous work. Don’t add nor subtract.All was to save mankind .

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Agreed. This is not about adding or subtracting, but clarifying!

  3. George Surname

    Very important article – fundamental.
    The Besuros (gospels) are polemics between two types of Judaism – one focused on G_d and spiritual things, the other on minute details of observance of the oral law and traditions. It’s entirely a Jewish discussion, by Jews, for Jews and about Jews. It’s instructive to read the Besurah of Matityahu in the original Hebrew which has recently become available in interlinear English v.
    Of course gentiles are welcome to participate in this Jewish discussion, always if they respect the context.


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