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July 15, 2013 8:20 am

Taking the Jew Out of Jesus – And Putting it Back

avatar by Bernard Starr

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A painting of a semitic-looking Jesus teaching in the Temple. Photo: Photobucket.

When I was a guest on Dr. Michael Brown’s nationally syndicated radio show “Line of Fire,” our conversation focused on a chapter in my book Jesus Uncensored, entitled “The Ethnic Cleansing of Judaism in Medieval and Renaissance Art.” Here I show that classical artworks washed out all traces of Judaism in the personae of Jesus, his family, and followers — despite the fact that they were all dedicated practicing Jews throughout their lives. The process of totally Christianizing the Jesus circle placed an artificial wedge between Judaism and Christianity that remained in place for centuries.

As late as the nineteenth century a painting of Jesus and his family by British artist John Everett Millais and another of the twelve-year-old Jesus by German painter Max Liebermann met with public uproar because they were deemed too Jewish. Lieberman repainted his young Jesus, rendering him blond with no indication of his Middle Eastern Jewish ethnicity. He took the Jew out of Jesus, which soothed and pleased the critics.

Surprisingly, that legacy of bristling at Jewish Jesus representations continues to the present day. Here’s what a listener to Michael Brown’s radio show said in response to my interview:

“While I was in high school — a Catholic high school — we had a project to draw in class. I drew a picture of Jesus, but removed his golden locks and blue eyes and replaced them with a more Middle Eastern looking man with thick hair. The teacher lost her mind. All this resulted in a trip to the Dean’s office, as if I offended her. All I heard was ‘why does it matter.’ So I said, ‘You tell me why it matters. I don’t recall too many blond-haired, blue-eyed people from that region of the world.'”

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In commentaries and descriptions of exhibits of artworks depicting Jesus, we never hear that these paintings, as magnificent as they are artistically, distort and falsify biblical history. Renaissance artists revolutionized art with the introduction of realism and naturalism over the earlier artificialism and primitivism. Unfortunately, naturalism and realism did not extend to who the figures were naturally and realistically in their actual lives. Art historians with whom I’ve spoken dismiss these criticisms as ignorance about the Renaissance style of contemporizing figures in painting — dressing people in contemporary Renaissance attire and picturing them in Renaissance settings as Northern Europeans in skin tone and physical appearance.

While it is true that this kind of historical distortion was commonplace in Renaissance painting, it does not explain the obliteration of Jesus’ and his family’s true identities or the pictorial conversion of orthodox Jews into latter-day Christians.

Nowhere in these artworks is there a hint of the subjects’ Jewish identities or origins. For example, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s sixteenth century painting The Baptism of Christ pictures John the Baptist baptizing Jesus — an act reported in the Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23). Curiously, Jesus and John are not dressed in Renaissance attire, but John is holding a crucifix staff, thus telling the viewer that this is a Christian event and a Christian conversion.

The fact is that there was no Christianity at the time of this baptism, nor did John or Jesus have any intention or desire to launch a new religion. Neither Jesus nor John ever heard the word “Christian”; it does not appear in the Gospels, although the term “Jew” appears eighty two-times. Moreover, John only baptized Jews — purifying them with the ancient Jewish practice of baptism for the coming of the Jewish Messiah.

Murillo’s powerful image supports the false conclusion that Christianity was already present. Consider too that the cross was a hated symbol in the time of Jesus and John the Baptist — a reminder of the countless times Jews were brutally crucified by the Romans. Jesus and John would very likely cringe at the image of the cross in this depiction. The cross didn’t become a Christian symbol until the fourth century CE, when it was introduced by the Emperor Constantine on his military banner and shields. No wonder that it didn’t catch on promptly as an endearing Christian symbol.

What has been overlooked by art historians and other apologists is that the pervasive distortions of biblical history in misrepresenting Jesus, his family, and followers established a powerful foundation for anti-Semitism — anti-Semitism by omission. In stripping away Jesus’ Jewish identity these paintings implanted the firm conviction that Jesus was of different ethnicity and religion than the others — the Jews. This conclusion was made even more explicit in paintings like The Tribute Money, by Peter Paul Rubens (1612), and Albrecht Durer’s sixteenth-century Christ Among the Doctors (Pharisees), both of which depict a blond ethereal Jesus in contrast to the dark, menacing and ugly Jews — the others.

If we were to restore the authentic ethnicity of Jesus and others, these painting would be strikingly different, even while preserving the “Renaissance style.” Consider, for example, Michael Pacher’s fifteenth century painting The Marriage of the Virgin, which depicts the marriage ceremony (some say betrothal) of Mary and Joseph. In reality, Mary was a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl from a rural village in Nazareth. Her betrothal and marriage was to Joseph, a working-class Jew originally from Bethlehem. After their marriage they showed their dedication to Judaism by taking the arduous seven-day trip to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Jewish holidays, particularly the Passover festival (Luke 2:41).

In Pacher’s painting, Mary and Joseph are Christians, with the marriage ceremony performed by a latter-day Christian high church official in a Christian setting. Mary and Joseph’s Jewish identities are erased. Several other Medieval and Renaissance paintings of the marriage also Christianized this Jewish marriage ceremony. Similar misrepresentations of other scenes and events are typical and routine for classical artworks.

In writing about this “ethnic cleansing of Judaism in Medieval and Renaissance art” in Jesus Uncensored I presented a “what if?” that punctuates why artists would not dare to paint a Jewish Jesus:

“Imagine, let’s say, if the painter Raphael presented his patron with a scene of Jesus in a synagogue with a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), wearing tassels (tstsit), donning phylacteries (tefillin) for morning prayer, and surrounded by other Jewish worshipers in similar attire — with Jesus pictured affectionately kissing his beloved Torah. ‘Raphael, what have you given me?’ the startled patron would surely ask. ‘Sir,’ Raphael would respond, ‘this is a painting of the authentic Jesus. That’s what Jesus did every morning. Don’t you want to experience the real Jesus?’ The patron is unlikely to be impressed and Raphael might then be swiftly turned over to the Inquisition.” (This “what if” image is based on a description in Luke 4:16 of Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath.)

In recognition of the power of imagery, it’s time to counter these paintings with more authentic ones that tell the true story of who Jesus was. I’ve often wondered what many of the classical artworks would look like if Jesus’ ethnicity was restored. To answer this question I’m developing a proposal for an art contest and exhibit, “Putting the Jew back in Jesus.” Stay tuned!

Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is author of “Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew.” Website: click here.

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  • Stuart Dauermann

    I had a conversation very recently with Colin Brown, one of the premier historical theologians/systematic theologians of the 20th and now 21st centuries. He is in his eighties now. He lamented forcefully that the Church not only forgot Jesus was Jewish, but also intentionally sought to suppress this and avoid it. He is what is known as a polymath, and because he is a person of such stature, he has often held, and defended, dissenting views. This is one of them. He said that on these matters he has long been “A voice crying in the wilderness.”

    Your article is of course important, and we cannot make these points often enough.

    • Bernard Starr

      Thanks for you comment and the information about Colin Brown. Do you know in which of his publications he has written about the subject of the Church forgetting that Jesus was Jewish?

  • Unfortunately, my family commissioned many of these paintings during the Renaissance. I am a Painter (Realism) …. Maybe I can offer to repaint some of them the way they were supposed to be ? Let me know.

  • John Grullon

    Great article! I commend your frankness in exposing a historically controversial issue to say the least. I cannot agree with you more on your thesis. In short, examining him within his first-century context(i.e. Second Temple Judaism) is really the only manner to see what he really was about. Furthermore history documents up to the fourth-century his Jewish disciples, attending synagogue, observing Torah, and so forth in the land. However, with the naming of Bar Kokhba as Messiah, and the refusal of Jesus’ disciples to fight, there was an intentional divide between them and the rest of the Jewish community. In light of all the travesties and misinformed teachings done in his name, surely accurately adjusting our understanding of this individual is the right place to start and can reap serious good for the world. Kudos Mr. Starr!

  • I wanted to point out that the painting that you have at the beginning of the article is by Greg K. Olson who is a Latter-day Saint (Mormon). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the churches that does not try to downplay the Jewishness of Jesus or the importance of Israel. Instead, the church views Jews as chosen of God and believes that the whole earth has been blessed through their seed. Members see themselves as adopted into the lineage of Abraham through the tribes of Israel.

    I was raised Jewish, but after praying and soul searching made the decision to believe in Jesus Christ and be baptized. He is the savior, but my faith in him does not denigrate or diminish my respect and love for Judaism.

  • והתניא בערב הפסח תלאוהו ליש”ו הנוצרי והכרוז יוצא לפניו מ’ יום קודם שהוא יוצא ליסקל על שכישף והסית והדיח את ישראל כל מי שיודע לו זכות יבא וילמד עליו ולא מצאו לו זכות ותלאוהו בערב הפסח אמר עולא ותסברא בר הפוכי זכות הוא מסית הוא ורחמנא אמר (דברים ×™×’) לא תחמול ולא תכסה עליו אלא שאני יש”ו דקרוב למלכות הוה: ת”ר חמשה תלמידים היו לו ליש”ו מתאי נקאי נצר ובוני ותודה אתיוהי למתי אמר להו מתי ייהרג הכתיב (תהילים מב) מתי אבוא ואיראה פני אלהים אמרו לו אין מתי ייהרג דכתיב (תהילים מא) מתי ימות ואבד שמו אתיוהו לנקאי אמר להו נקאי ייהרג הכתיב (שמות ×›×’) ונקי וצדיק אל תהרוג אמרו לו אין נקאי ייהרג דכתיב (תהילים ×™) במסתרים יהרוג נקי אתיוהו לנצר אמר נצר ייהרג הכתיב (ישעיהו יא) ונצר משורשיו יפרה אמרו לו אין נצר ייהרג דכתיב (ישעיהו יד) ואתה השלכת מקברך כנצר נתעב אתיוהו לבוני אמר בוני ייהרג הכתיב (שמות ד) בני בכורי ישראל אמרו לו אין בוני ייהרג דכתיב (שמות ד) ×”× ×” אנוכי הורג את בנך בכורך אתיוהו לתודה אמר תודה ייהרג הכתיב (תהילים ק) מזמור לתודה אמרו ליה אין תודה ייהרג דכתיב (תהילים × ) זובח תודה יכבדנני:}

    מסכת סנהדרין פרק ו

    בדינא אונקלוס בר קלוניקוס בר אחתיה דטיטוס הוה בעי לאיגיורי אזל אסקיה לטיטוס בנגידא אמר ליה מאן חשיב בההוא עלמא אמר ליה ישראל מהו לאידבוקי בהו אמר ליה מילייהו נפישין ולא מצית לקיומינהו זיל איגרי בהו בההוא עלמא והוית רישא דכתיב (איכה א) היו צריה לראש וגו’ כל המיצר לישראל נעשה ראש אמר ליה דיניה דההוא גברא במאי א”ל דף × ×–, א גמרא במאי דפסיק אנפשיה כל יומא מכנשי ליה לקיטמיה ודייני ליה וקלו ליה ומבדרו אשב ימי אזל אסקיה לבלעם בנגידא אמר ליה מאן חשיב בההוא עלמא א”ל ישראל מהו לאידבוקי בהו א”ל (דברים ×›×’) לא תדרוש שלומם וטובתם כל הימים א”ל דיניה דההוא גברא במאי א”ל בשכבת זרע רותחת אזל אסקיה {ליש”ו} בנגידא א”ל מאן חשיב בההוא עלמא א”ל ישראל מהו לאדבוקי בהו א”ל טובתם דרוש רעתם לא תדרוש כל הנוגע בהן כאילו נוגע בבבת עינו א”ל דיניה דההוא גברא במאי א”ל בצואה רותחת דאמר מר כל המלעיג על דברי חכמים נידון בצואה רותחת תא ×—×–×™ מה בין פושעי ישראל לנביאי אומות העולם

    מסכת גיטין פרק ה

  • RABBI LURIA HINTED BUT HE DIED THAT HE WAS THE SON OF YOSEF. So the speculation that Rabbi Luria was the Messiah never came to fruition and many other jews who believed of certain character was the messiah also never came to fruition.
    So too about jesux who others may think was the messiah were also fooled and deceived and seduced into believing and hoping for IT TO BE THE MESSIAH.

    Talmud is clear he was NOT A GOOD JEW.
    Even NT statements say jesuc called for violations of basic TORAH laws such as SHABBAT.
    YOU are trying to make an insignifant figure into an important centerpiece within judaism creating a centerpiece to support your personal misguided philosophy.

    Talmud tells us that during the roman era, those romans who suggested that the Jews should be ‘one people’ with the romans was rejected by our holy sages of that time who are more knowledgable about TORAH THAT YOU CAN EVEN DREAM OF.

    Dont you THINK that the sages at that time
    RABBAN GAMLIEL WOULD HAVE MENTIONED jesux as a messiah or possible messiah as Rabbi Akiva did concerning Bar Kochba??
    In addittion the TORAH tells us
    “Israel is a nation that dwells alone”
    This means that there is no aligning or combine or interrelate inter associate any other belief with
    THE TEACHINGS OF MOSES OUR PERFECT SECRETARY OF HASHEM.

    we are ,by Jewish law required to reject you, your book and your whole philosophy as well as any other idol worshipper.

    YOUR CONCLUSIONS HAVE NEVER AND NEVER WILL BE ACCEPTED BY MAIN STREAM TORAH ORTHODOX RABBIS IN THIS WORLD OR THE NEXT WORLD…
    and the tens of thousands of Jews who martyred themselves thoughout the centuries who refused to accept jesux proves my point which shouldnt need any proving if you studied TORAH PROPERLY.

    WHY IN THE WORLD DO YOU AND SCHMUELY WANT TO KOSHER A MAN AND A PEOPLE WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATH OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE, JEW AND GOY ALIKE

    • Bernard Starr

      Name one act or principle of Jesus that led to Killing Jews? That fact is that Christian leaders later hijacked Jesus persona to front their acts of violence and genocide in his name—acts that he surely would have condemned. I address that subject in my book with a mock trial in which Church leaders, monarchs and others from the fourth to the twentieth century are put on trial for anti-Semitism and murderous acts. Then Jesus testifies against them asking “where in my teachings to you find justification for your acts of violence and anti-Semitism?”
      You obviously have not (and will not) read my book—or Shmuley Boteach’s. But you are quick to exhibit the same kind of bigotry as Christians throughout the centuries exhibited when they jumped to false conclusions about Jews without examining facts or logic—eg. “Christ Killers,” Blood libels, etc. Like them you believe what you conceive and protect your conclusions by blocking out anything that will contradict or challenge what you conceive. A perfect example of The Emperor’s New Clothes! With this kind of thinking is it any wonder that the world is in the terrible shape that it is? What happened to the Jewish principle (that Christians later adopted): Love thy neighbor as thyself?

      • LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF
        APPLIES TO FELLOW JEWS…
        IT DOES NOT APPLY TO FELLOW GOYIM..READ TALMUD.
        with others we are taught by Hashems words to,
        ”separate from other nations”
        all inquisitions all pain and sufferings are figments of our jewish imagination? because we dont want to listen to you….you deny and refuse to accept anything that contradicts your belief.You learned from the xtians who refuse to accept responsiblity in the name of jeusx for their horrors which culminated in the holocaust by the church teachings of hatred for Jews.

        its easy for you to forgive xtians but we dont forgive the tortures and abused which continues today by way of seducing jews to convert.This is now another holocaust against Judaism…and you empower that also…you boteach and michael brown.

        they did not hijack jesux.
        jesux hijacked judaism..
        AND HIS FOLLOWERS DISTORED LIED REWROTE REVISED TORAH.

        LUKE 19:27= BRING MY ENEMIES BEOFRE ME WHO DO NOT ACCEPT ME AS KING AND god.. AND KILL THEM BEFORE ME SO I MAY SEE THEM DIE.

        and you still havent addressed that jeusx went and preached to go against the rabbis and sabbath.

        you are so grossly misinformed.
        many many many other violations.

        If jesux was so pure and righteous….
        and you claim ‘people’ hijacked jesux then why did they not learn purity and goodness which is not the case.

        As I posted luke
        jesux also said I have come with the sword not to make peace.
        You can claim they are allegories all you like, but all the allagories have been cruelty.
        all the history has been death since jesux

        You are so lost and confused in anything you THINK you know that it makes me think that your own lineage has been compromised.

        Me read you and schmuely?
        NOT EVEN RIGHTEOUS TORAH RABBIS WILL ALLOW YOUR BOOKS IN THEIR TOILET.

        THE PITY HERE IS YOU ARE ATTRACTING AND EMPOWERING OTHER JEWS WHO LOST THEIR PATH.

        AND I AM *NOT A HASID.
        I AM A SIMPLE JEW, WHO SPEAKS TO TORAH ORTHODOX RABBIS MANY TIMES A DAY EVEN RELUCTENTLY THEY DISCUSSED YOUR COMMENTS WITH ME AND THEY CRIED FOR YOU, ANOTHER LOST JEW….sad..you are the one with closed eyes and mind.

        WHY SHOULD i READ YOUR DISTORTIONS WHEN I CAN GO TO THE ORIGINAL SOURCES AND NOT YOU STREET CORNER INSANITY.
        WHY DONT YOU LEARN…YOUR ATTEMPT AT INTIMIDATING ME ONLY SHOWS YOUR INSECURITY IN YOUR OWN MIND

  • I JUST LISTENED TO MAYBE 10 MINUTES OF YOUR INTERVIEW WITH THE MASTER RASHA ,MICKEY BROWN
    Up to where you say to a Jewish audience that jesux was more Jewish then any of you.
    NOW THATS AN ABSOLUTE LIE MR AUTHOR.

    Its is well know that jesux told the people to disobey the rabbis and disobey G-D to harvest wheat on shabbat.
    You are a rasha a heretic…

    you know so much about Jesux..
    what do you know about MOSES OR ABRAHAM OR KING DAVID OR SOLOMON OR RASHI OR RABBI AKIVA OR VILNA GAON CHOFETZ HAYIM OR MOSHE FIENSTIEN and all the practicing TORAH ORTHODOX RABBIS OF TODAY.

    YOU GOT IT ALL WRONG.
    MAYBE JEUSX WAS MORE JEWISH THEN YOU
    BUT NOT YOUR AUDIENCE.
    MAYBE THATS YOUR ONLY REFERENCE AND MEASUREMENT OF WHAT A JEW IS.
    You stated your beginings were with Rabbi Jacobsen..
    The idea is you may have been physically in his presence..
    but mentally you were far from his presence.

    xtians have to learn from JEWS
    NOT JEWS LEARN OR CARE ABOUT XTIANS CRUSADERS AND INQUISITIONS AND CREATORS OF HOLOCAUST AND WORLD WARS..

    YOU MR AUTHOR ARE A JOKE TO TORAH ,,,
    AND JUDAISM….

  • Big Marn #15

    What an insightful article! Thank you for taking the time to share this with others. The importance of your thesis can not be overlooked by anyone who walks with G-d!

  • I HAD COME TO THE PAINFUL CONCLUSION
    THAT YOU THE AUTHOR,
    ARE ACTUALLY EITHER LIVING WITHOUT
    FURNITURE IN YOUR TOP FLOOR OR…
    you are a jew4jesux.
    well…maybe you arent Jewish at all….
    IT SEEMS you dont have the soul of a JEW.

    • Bernard Starr

      I’m not a “Jew for Jesus”–but I am a Jew who believes that Jews shoould recognize that Jesus was a dedicated Jews, even if not the Messiah. And by the way, there have been many “Jewish Messiahs” who Jews today continue to revere, although they do not believe they are Messiahs. For example, Jews who study the Kabalistic teachings of Isaac Luria are embracing the teachings of ” Messiahs” Isaac Luria and HayimVital. See Jerry Rabow’s book “50 Jewish Messiahs,” or read the chapter in my book about Jewish Messiahs (Chapter titled “Winking and Blinking at Messiahs.”
      Otherwise, I have no idea what you are talking about in your “comments.” Please be specific. What exactly are you criticizing–and what do you believe in opposition to the ideas presented in my article?

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