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If Jesus Was a Jew, Why Are His Followers Christian?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Pulpit in the parish and pilgrimage church Saint Veit in Brezje, Slovenia. Work of Jožef Pavlin (1875-1914). Photo: Johann Jaritz

Pulpit in the parish and pilgrimage church Saint Veit in Brezje, municipality Radovljica, Slovenia. Work of Jožef Pavlin (1875-1914). Photo: Johann Jaritz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Click for larger version.

To get a feel for public opinion, I asked Google, “Was Jesus Jewish?”

Three of the top five results correctly identified Jesus as a Jew and situated him within the Jewish culture of his time. But I was startled to see that two of the results linked to articles claiming that Jesus was not Jewish at all! Apparently, even though we have easy access to scholarly works that confirm the Jewishness of Jesus, a public perception of Jesus as a Christian, not a Jew, persists.

If Jesus was a Jew, why are his followers Christian?

The problem with this question is the implied assumption that there was such a thing as ‘Christianity’ during the lifetime of Jesus or his early followers. None of them changed religions or abandoned their Jewish heritage.

As J. Dominic Crossan pointed out in my recent Bible and Beyond interview with him, the question we should be asking is: “What kind of Jew was Jesus?”

The answer to that question requires us to consider the Jewish cultural context of Jesus’s experience. In understanding the diversity of Jewish theology of that time, we can better comprehend how the Jews following Jesus eventually become separated from the Jews who followed other leaders.

Okay, so what kind of a Jew was Jesus?

Jews of the first centuries—like modern Europeans, or Hispanics, or any other nationality or ethnic group today—held extremely different views about their own national identity. They disagreed, even vehemently, about their shared historical identity and how to address their contemporary predicament with the Roman Empire.

Different segments of the Jewish population identified their Jewish heritage quite differently. Bible readers would already recognize differences existed between the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jewish tax collectors, who gained wealth by cooperating with the Romans, were considered to have betrayed their Jewish heritage.

There was a whole community of Jews known as Essenes, who were quite frustrated with the way the Temple was run. They opted out of the larger Temple-priest community and devised their own rules of conduct to reflect what they considered to be a more original and pure form of Judaism. Although Jesus and his cousin John, the baptizer, were also displeased with the Temple practices, there is no record of either man associating with the Essenes.

They concurred with each other in their displeasure and opposition to the Roman Empire, but even they were different kinds of Jews. John focused on baptism with an apocalyptic eye on the future, whereas Jesus was more concerned about the kingdom of God already present and active.

Zealots were still another subset of Jews more politically oriented and motivated to incite rebellion against the Roman Empire by force of arms. Most notably, their mission ultimately failed in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70, when the Romans finally (and completely) destroyed the Temple.

These are but a few examples of the great diversity of Jewish identity that existed during the time of Jesus.

How do we know Jesus was a faithful and devout Jew?

While Jesus did not affiliate with any of the distinct groups mentioned, he was nonetheless a faithful Jew. Rabbi Evan Moffic explained in my Bible and Beyond podcast with him how the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer that Jesus taught, and that Christians claim as their own—fits very well within the context of first-century Jewish life.

A couple of examples from Moffic’s book, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Jewishness of Jesus, illustrate how such familiar words as the Lord’s Prayer can take on more meaning, even foster a more intimate relationship with God, when we reflect on their Jewish context.

For example:

  1. Although the Hebrew Bible does not include the phrase “our Father,” the voice of God does refer to the Israelites as His “firstborn.” The phrase “father in heaven” begins to appear during the second Temple period (530 BCE – 70 CE), but Jesus’s addition of “our Father in heaven” evokes a close and tender relationship with the divinity of God.
  1. Also in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invokes the arrival of the kingdom (basileia). The kingdom of God (or heaven) appears frequently in the New Testament. It refers to the messianic age envisioned by the Hebrew prophets. For example, Isaiah’s proclamation that “Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war” (Isaiah 2:4) is just one aspect of this prophetic tradition.

But what about Paul’s conversion to Christianity? Doesn’t this imply Jesus was a Christian?

The traditional view is that, as a follower of Jesus, Paul converted to Christianity.

But in B. Brandon Scott’s blog post,”Is Jesus the Founder of Christianity?” he points out that Paul never mentioned being ‘converted.’ Paul’s own description of the event along the way to Damascus involved a prophetic call from the God of Israel to announce the good news of God’s son to the nations. Paul’s goal was to inspire nations to convert to the true God—the God of Israel. This was, as Scott puts it, “a conversion, not to a new religion, but to the promises of Israel’s God.”

Jesus is the inspiring link between Christians and Jews.

When we understand the diverse Jewish culture within which Jesus was situated and start to recognize the deep Jewish roots of his teachings, the Jewishness of Jesus becomes clear. Jesus was a particular kind of devout Jew, and Paul was a follower of Jesus and the good news promised by Israel’s God.

The formal organization of a ‘Christian’ religion, one that established doctrinal guidelines to preserve particular memories of Jesus, didn’t come until centuries later.

I think Rabbi Moffic summarizes it best.

Christians, he says, can understand Jesus’s words and works much better by learning all we can about the Jewish world of Jesus. The added benefit for everyone to learn more of the Jewishness of Jesus, is that doing so will help Jews and Christians to understand each other better.

In this light, we can discover Jesus, not as a figure of bitter division, but as the inspiring link between Jews and Christians.

This post is just one installment in our Bible and Beyond series on the Jewishness of Jesus. The topics range from whether Jesus was the founder of Christianity to what kinds of Jewish practices he engaged in, some theological questions about the role he played, and how his death became entangled with Jewish concept of atonement. See what else you can learn by accessing the series index here.

This post is available as a Bible and Beyond Video Essay. Watch it on YouTube here.