Depiction of Jesus from a mosaic in the Basilica di San Marco, public domain image, via Wikimedia Commons (click for larger image)
Christians have had a difficult time acknowledging that Jesus was a Jew, despite the obvious fact his mother was a Jewish woman. Therefore, he was a Jew. So, what’s the problem?
Just look at Jesus in art. He is pictured looking like a European (and mostly a northern European).
The fundamental problem: Christians see Jesus as the founder of their religion, Christianity. Therefore, he had to reject his Judaism. Furthermore, the Jews of his day must also reject his new religion. This dynamic is fundamental to Christian self-understanding. Be forewarned! To understand Jesus as a Jew challenges this fundamental assumption.
Upon this rock I will build my church.
Matthew 16:18 has been the key verse in proving Jesus’ intention to institute a new church and religion. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (KJV). On the surface this settles the question, but questions linger.
In this verse ‘church’ to our ears means our church, our religion, our denomination. For example, for Roman Catholics it establishes the Roman Catholic Church and the pope as its infallible head, all made evidently clear with the quote in Latin around the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. A whole theological scheme comes out of this verse. It has a rich history.
A major problem in understanding a writing from the ancient world is that we read its translation as contemporaneous. We project current meanings back into an ancient writing. Translations of religious writings also employ a traditional religious vocabulary that convinces a reader that the writing is about their religion. This is why history is such a necessary aid for understanding what a text meant. History questions our anachronistic interpretations.
‘Assembly’ or ‘gathering’ is a good translation for ekklēsia.
‘Church’ is the traditional English translation for ekklēsia. The English adjective ‘ecclesiastical’ comes from this Greek root. Its literal meaning is “called (klēs) out of (ek),” so an ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’ is a good translation. ‘Church,’ as a translation for today, is too formal and technical. Matthew 16:18 envisions local gatherings of Jesus communities, not a formal church institution or a new religion.
Mark 8 provided the source for Matthew’s story of Peter’s confession at Caesarea. Mark’s story lacks the ‘conferring of the keys,’ so the author Matthew either created the saying or at least inserted a saying from the oral tradition into Mark’s story. It clearly is not a Jesus saying, but a saying of a prophet speaking in the name of the resurrected Jesus promising the community protection in times of trial. The Greek word ekklēsia only appears three times in the gospels, once here and twice in Matthew 18:17. This indicates that both sayings are unique to Matthew’s gospel. Ekklēsia is not a word in Jesus’s vocabulary but comes later.
No evidence indicates that Jesus intended to establish a Christian church or a new religion.
Paul did not convert to a new religion of Christianity.
The apostle Paul presents a similar difficulty. Traditionally Paul’s conversion occurred on the road to Damascus. But in what way did Paul convert? He already believed in the one and true God, the God of Israel. He did not convert to the new religion of Christianity, because there was no such thing at the time. Nor was he living a sinful life. As he says, “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6).
Paul never avers to his conversion but says that God called him. “But when the one who had set me apart before I was born” (Isaiah 49:1) “and called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his Son to/in me, so that I might announce him among the nations.” (Galatians 1:15-6, my translation). Paul received a prophetic call from the God of Israel to announce the good news of God’s son to the nations. The nations must convert to the true God, the God of Israel, and turn away from their false gods. Theirs was a true conversion, not to a new religion, but to the promises of Israel’s God.
For the first two centuries the followers of Jesus Anointed claimed to belong to the traditions of Israel. Some of these followers were Jews by birth. How many we do not know, but the number surely is higher than commonly imagined. Paul’s prominence in the New Testament has misled us to imagine that after Paul, the followers of Jesus were mostly non-Jews. That was not the case. Paul does not represent the majority, but a minority.
Pharisees were condemned, not Judaism.
While understanding themselves as belonging to the traditions of Israel, they were debating with other Jews about the heritage of Israel. For example, in Matthew 13 when Jesus denounces the Pharisees with a series of woes, he is not condemning Judaism. These woes come not from Jesus but from a group after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE). The woes represent a fierce and intense intra Jewish debate about who is the true successor of Israel—the followers of Jesus or the Pharisees.
Of course, that is not how later Christians understood the woes against the Pharisees. By the third century, the followers of Jesus Anointed had begun to understand themselves as members of a new religion, Christianity, that was separate from and superior to Judaism. This superiority found expression in the new Christian scriptures. The Hebrew sacred writings were incorporated into the Christian scriptures as the Old Testament and Christians now understood themselves as replacing Judaism.
Pressure from the Roman Empire drove a wedge between Judaism and Christianity.
The separation did not happen at a single point, but gradually by twists and turns. Pressure by the Roman Empire on both groups drove a wedge between Judaism and Christianity and led to animosity between both groups. When the emperor Constantine became a Christian and favored his newly adopted religion, the anti-Judaism of imperial policy became Christian policy as well.
An important first step in addressing the terrible history of Christian antisemitism is understanding that a myth has masqueraded as history for far too long, with disastrous consequences.
Since Jesus was to be the founder of an entirely new religion, Christians needed Jesus to reject Judaism. But this is a myth, actually the foundational myth of Christianity. It is also a profoundly ahistorical view. A fully historical understanding of how Christianity came to be requires we understand Jesus as the Jew he was.
The schism of the religion of Israel into Judaism and Christianity was not historically inevitable. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever envisioned it. Accepting the Jewishness of Jesus rejects the false narrative and with that the real question becomes, “What kind of Jew was Jesus and how did he fit into Second Temple Judaism (536 BCE to 80 CE)?” The question is not how Jesus’s teachings differ from Judaism, but how they fit.
The next question is, “Can Christians handle this Jewish Jesus?”