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September 23, 2013 1:02 am

Artwork Can Help Heal the Jewish-Christian Divide

avatar by Bernard Starr

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Rembrant's The Head of Christ and The Supper at Emmaus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

From its very beginnings, Christianity sought separation from Judaism. No small task since Christianity arose from Jewish prophesies and a connection to the Jewish Davidic line, which, according to the Torah, would produce the Messiah.

Adding to the challenge of breaking away from Judiasm was the fact that Jesus, as documented in the Gospels, was a dedicated practicing Jew throughout his lifetime and never indicated any desire to establish a new religion.

Even Paul, recognized as the founder of Christianity, never gave up his Jewish identity. Rather, he sought to make his brand of Judaism, which would eliminate circumcision and dietary laws, a new, more accessible Judaism that would be open to everyone. At the helm would be the Messiah Jesus.

Some scholars still persist in asserting that Paul rejected Judaism from the outset of his mission. For example, Reza Aslan, in his new book, Zealot, says that after Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road, from persecutor of Jesus’ followers to believer in Jesus, he “…immediately began preaching the risen Jesus, not to his fellow Jews, but to the gentiles. …” But Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles Paul’s mission, explicitly states that for the first few decades Paul reached out primarily, if not exclusively, to Jews.

Wherever he traveled his destination was synagogues: “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues…”–in Salamis, Antioch, Iconium, Phillippi in Macedonia, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus (Acts: 9:20, 13:5, 13:14, 14:1,16:13, 17:1-2,17:10,17:16, 18:4, 19:8–also, see Paul’s travels in his timeline).

Aslan and others who maintain that Paul rejected Judaism must also explain why Paul never made such a declaration. Furthermore, he went to his death charged by the Sanhedrin as a blasphemous Jew. If Paul had merely stated that he was no longer a Jew but a Christian, the Sanhedrin wouldn’t have had authority to indict him, because the Sanhedrin only had jurisdiction over Jews for religious matters and especially because Paul was a privileged Roman citizen. Paul repeatedly said that the Romans had no quarrel with him: “Who, when they [the Romans] had examined me, would have let me go…” (Acts 28:17-20).

After Paul’s death, Christian ties to Judaism rapidly faded; pagan converts became the dominant Christian constituency. With the establishment of a unified Church at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century (325 CE), the separation from Judaism not only accelerated but became a principal tenet of Church policy. Widening the rift were edicts that discouraged Christians from owning or reading the New Testament on their own and forbidding translations of the Bible into native languages — edicts that remained in effect well into the Renaissance.

Thus, Christians only knew what they were told by Church officials. What they were told focused on devotional prayer, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the suffering of Jesus, the resurrection — and that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death. The populace was protected from discovering what Episcopal Priest Bruce Chilton noted in his book Rabbi Jesus: “It became clear to me that everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews.”

As the Church expanded through the Middle Ages and attracted conversions from the upper classes of society, a market for Christian art developed. Wealthy patrons, as well as the Church itself, generated a brisk demand for artworks to display in homes, castles, churches, and public places — and the more Christian the paintings the more desirable. In the fierce competition for patrons, artists were eager to give their benefactors what they wanted and to ensure they didn’t get what they didn’t want. Not surprisingly, therefore, Medieval and Renaissance artworks omitted any Jewish connection to Jesus, his family, and close followers, thus adding a powerful wedge between Christianity and Judaism.

In many of these paintings, the viewer sees a blond fair-skinned Northern European Jesus immersed in anachronistic Christian settings — with Saints, High Church officials, and Christian artifacts. In contrast, and reinforcing the implied difference, Jews were commonly pictured as dark and menacing.

In setting Jesus apart from Jews and Judaism, these artworks, in combination with other persecutory Church actions, provided an overlooked and formidable underpinning for anti-Semtism.

The Louvre Museum in Paris set out to correct these distortions of biblical history in its 2011 exhibitJesus and the Face of Christ: “For Rembrandt, working from a Jewish model would have been a means of returning to a historical truth, or portraying Jesus unadulterated, as the Jew that he was — a form of realism scoffing at tradition.”

Rembrandt’s religion-neutral portraits of Jesus are a welcome departure from the distortion of classical paintings. But they don’t override the powerful impact of the bulk of artworks spanning hundreds of years — images that fostered an illusion that Jesus was of a different religion and ethnicity than the others — the Jews.

That’s why I’ve invited artists to submit new renditions of Renaissance artworks for an exhibit that puts Judaism back in the picture. Viewed side by side, these paintings represent two themes that interface Judaism and Christianity: Jesus the dedicated Jew, and Jesus whose life and teachings inspired a new religion.

Pope Francis’ dramatic message on September 11, 2013, lends support for this exhibit. In a giant step toward reconciliation, the pope declared, “We have discovered that the Jewish people are still, for us, the holy root from which Jesus originated.” On the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah, Pope Francis sees a common yearning: “By Jews persevering in their faith in God they remind everyone, even us as Christians, that we are always awaiting the return of the Lord and that therefore we must remain open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already achieved.”

It is my hope that the art exhibit Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian-Jewish Divide will help celebrate the Pope’s vision of a common ground for Judaism and Christianity.

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

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  • Debra Michels

    Dr. Starr,
    I am delighted to read of and to see your art exhibitions and your thoughts.

    I think our species is evolving past either-or, black-white ways of seeing things, into an ability to perceive and even understand and love each other in more open-minded and -hearted ways. I think the work of people like you is very helpful in that process of evolution. I thank you for the time and trouble you are taking to do this kind of work.

    Have you ever seen Bishop Spong’s books? He has some interesting things to say about the Jewishness of Jesus. He also writes very honestly and movingly about how he grew up in the South, absorbing anti-Jewish sentiments, and how he went through a big metamorphosis and outgrew such ways of thinking and feeling. I remember being attracted by the cover of his book – a depiction of Jesus in which he looks like a Jew. (Hurray!)

    I’m sure Hashem will bless you in your work! Again, thank you.
    Debra M.

    • Bernard Starr

      Thanks for you comments Debra. Yes, I know of Bishop Spong’s works. In fact I’ve comunicated with him and sent him a copy of my book.

  • The real differences between Christianity and Judaism are far fewer than those which belong to both faiths. Christians and Jews should have more trust in each other. No one disputes the FACT that Jesus was a Jew and only sought to bring his fellow (but ignorant, non-religious) co-religionists to a more spiritual life.


    Why do you think the Pope wears a head-covering identical to that which almost every Jew in the world wears every time he’s in a synagogue!!!

    • Debra Michels

      I know what you mean about the Pope’s “kippah” – also priests wear something around their necks that reminds me of a tallis, though it’s much smaller/narrower!

      I’m so glad Pope Francis is saying loving things about Jews! Also that a rescuer like Pope John XXIII helped get Vatican II going – and its more loving things to think and say about Jews and Judaism…

  • Mark Zucker has said it as well as anyone on today’s ‘Net.

    Read it and weep, Jew-haters and other jerks.

  • murad

    How can man be so stupid as to create so much animosity between the same stem/ trunk? Some Jews believed in the New Testament. They became Christians 40 years later. Some didn’t. Because their elders, and rightly so, asked Jesus to give then a sign that he was divine. He said no. So they did not follow him. Was the Jewish elder’s demand too much? Later, why, as Christians claim that their motto is love, didn’t they continue to love their brethren the Jews.
    But human stupidity is everywhere. The same problem with Shiite and Sunni, Lutherans and Catholics. Man is insane.

    • Debra Michels

      It’s true, our species can act and think as though we really were insane.

      But we are also capable of moving in the direction of sainthood… Don’t give in to despair all the time!

    unfortunatly bernard starr is real and in need of rehabilitation.

    He feels this strange need to write about what the hebrew prophets said, is HATED.

    where ever a TORAH YESHIVA IS the evangelist xtians and jews4jesux opens a church disguised as a synagogue to trick JEWS to convert.

    xtians are spiritually trying to destroy JUDAISM.
    and bernard starr HAS TO BE PART OF THAT SAME INSANITY AS HE IS OBESSED FOR JEWS TO think jesux is a good guy.
    boteach and starr where not in the mickey mouse club together. They just happened to be club memebers

    • Elliot J. Stamler

      This is a phony e-mail from some anti-semite so the rest of them can use it to show Jews are anti-Christian.

  • Leon

    The reality of Jeshua, his birth, life, ministry to the Jewish nation is real fact. He made the great atonement as the Lamb of God when he allowed himself to be crucifed.
    He was buried and he Arose from the dead, and was seen, felt touched and ate with his disciples for forty days after he resurection. He completed all the laws and ordinances contained in the Torah and is Returning as prophesied by the Prophets. He will Reign as the King of Israel.
    Halelujah !!!!

    • Rabelad

      Thank you, Leon! You just demonstrated my point about how most Christians today are intolerant of Jews as we are. You’re the one using proselytizing to entice Jews away from our heritage, our religion and our way of life.

  • R


    Jeez, Dave, thanks a lot! You’ve obliterated the last thousand or so years of history with jus’ a stroke of yer’ fingers on t’ th’ Inneret!

    I betcha you think most o’ the history of d’ world never happent, neither!

    Sooo…when does yer’ new Hist’ry of da World book come out in d’ stores??

    Kin I have yer’ autigraph?

  • david

    Jesus is pure myth like moses. The website is very informitive. Ps Nazareth was not a human abod till the 3rd century. ….ie Jesus was not from there.

    • Even if you are correct in you comment, fact is that Christianity has had billions of followers and artworks erased Jesus’ Jewish identity, which contributed to anti-Semitism by separating him from Judaism– and falsely implying that he was an enemy of Jews and Judaism.

  • Rabelad

    I don’t know why this issue of a “Jewish/Christian divide” is even a question. What’s wrong with there being a divide? Christians have their religion and we Jews have ours. If the twain should meet and agree, fine, if not, so what?

    Anyway, the real problem has historically been when Christians refused to allow Jews to be Jews. When Christianity had political power she had long sought to oppress and abuse us for being Jews. Then when some Jews dropped their Jewish beliefs and became Christians the Christians ultimately persecuted and abused the converts for not being native Christians.

    After Christianity lost political power they still can’t tolerate Jews, but they can’t use the vinegar of abuse to influence us. Now they use honey. They send their missionaries (armed with Replacement Theology and Supercessionism) who try by sweetly, smilingly and displaying gushing “love” in calculated moves to win the hearts and minds of Jews and turn them into believing Christians. “Friendship Evangelism” is a major manipulative tool in this effort. Hebrew-Christian sects attract spiritual but very naive Jews by employing a mere veneer of Jewishness to suck us in, but underlying their false face is pure Christian doctrine.

    The problem of this divide has never been with us Jews or Judaism. The problem has always been with Christianity. It is Christianity that has vastly outnumbered and overpowered Jews and Judaism so if there has been a divide and intolerance it was they who were the ones who created and yet perpetuate it. They have been the ones who’ve been historically intolerant. Christianity should make amends, apologize and then leave Jews and Israel entirely alone.

    Having been born a gentile, raised a Catholic and spent way too much time as a Born-Again fundamentalist I know Christianity from the inside. Only a tiny minority of Christians are willing to allow Jews to have a relationship to God different from theirs and allow Jews to follow Torah instead of influencing Jews to believe in their demi-god messiah.

    These are those Christians who have no interest in converting us or influencing us. I salute that tiny minority as we all should, but for the rest of them who want us to change to their way of doing and believing, it’s long overdue for us to tell them where to stick their eternal quest to cozy up to us.

    The best that they can all do for us is to apologize for a long and painful history and then just leave us alone.

    • Judaism and Christianity surely are two different religions but there is also common ground and a common heritage that when fully grasped should heal some of the historic antagonism.

      See the current Chagall exhibit at the Jewish Museum which addresses this issue.

  • Joseph Silver

    A very interesting, thought-provoking article. Dr. Starr is to be commended.
    Chag Sukkot Sameach

  • Sandy Brown

    Well I always knew that Jesus was Jewish and his family, et al. And I always knew that the Romans were the ones who killed him, not the Jews. I was brought up a Catholic. I am not one now. But I have never felt any sort of hatred towards the Jews, in fact, it is now my religion. I am still learning all about it. There is a lot to learn. I always preferred the Old Testament to the New Testament, even when I was young.

  • Mark Zucker

    I think the Pope’s remarks should be welcomed by Christians and Jews as an historic turning point in Jewish-Christian dialogue. It is a fact that Jesus was a devout Jew and that many Jews at the time of Jesus’ ministry and eventual death at the hands of the Roman state were followers of Jesus and firmly believed that he was the promised Messiah for which almost all Jews at that time hoped would herald God’s Kingdom on earth. Indeed Christianity and Judaism flow out of the same Biblical roots and share many common beliefs even though Christianity is a separate religion and is no longer part of Judaism and has been a separate religion for aproximately 1900 years, the core of Christianity is the Jewish Bible and prophesies made by Jewish Prophets and the teachings of a devout Jew named Jesus . There should be no conflict based on hate between Judaism and Christianity which are two different faiths that share many common roots. Indeed Western culture rests on a Judeo-Christian foundation of shared values. Differences in belief are profound but we share a great deal and must build on that to help eliminate hatred and intolerance wherever it exists.

    • Thanks for your comments Mark. Yes there are real differences. We Jews wait for the Messiah and Christians believe that the Messiah arrived and will come again. But the common heritage should generate mutual respect.