Images of Jesus as Christian, Jew, Criminal, and Divine: Conception Drives Perception
A few years ago I gave a talk on art, perception, and anti-Semitism to a mostly Jewish audience at an adult education program in New York City. I opened with the statement “I love Jesus” and paused while I gazed at the audience for what felt like an endless 20 seconds. The discomfort in the room was palpable. Many of those who were squirming must have been surprised, since they knew I was not a Messianic Jew or even particularly religious, although Jewish. I then asked if they were disturbed by what I said. They all raised their hands.
“Why?” I asked. “What do you have against Jesus?” One man shouted, “He said he was the Messiah and he wasn’t.” Around the room heads nodded in agreement. This did not surprise me; I had heard this objection many times before. My audience was unimpressed when I pointed out — and cited examples — that over the centuries there have been at least 50 Jews who claimed they were the Messiah, some of whom are still revered even though Jews do not accept them as Messiah, and several were demonstrably harmful to Jews and Judaism.
“Anything else against Jesus?” I asked. A woman in the back of the room said, “He’s responsible for the death of millions of Jews.” Again a consensus of nods. But to the question “Can you cite anything that Jesus said or did that harmed Jews?” there was silence. Then I asked, “How many of you have read the New Testament?” No hands were raised.
The New Testament contains the “facts,” or what people believe are the facts, about Jesus’ life and ministry. Yet this group, typical of many other Jews (and me at an earlier point in my life), had a negative, if not totally dismissive, view of Jesus. It turns out, though, that their condemnation of Jesus had no factual foundation; indeed most of them knew nothing about his life or teachings. I found this shocking until I discovered that the same was true for Christians.
Although Christians have a positive view of Jesus, their degree of Bible illiteracy is astonishing. Bart Ehrman, biblical scholar and University of North Carolina professor of religious studies, posed a question similar to mine to his 360 mostly Christian students in his course on the New Testament. He asked: “How many of you believe that the bible (New Testament) is the inspired word of God?” Everyone in the class raised a hand. He followed with, “How many of you have read the entire Bible?” No hands went up.
These Christian students love Jesus but know only tidbits about him from the little they may have read and from the positive stories they were told from the Christian perspective. The Jewish audience rejects and shuns Jesus based on the stories and stereotypes they have heard from a Jewish perspective. Clearly, what we think we see out there is not what is out there but what is in us: We perceive what we conceive.
Here’s another dramatic example of how conception rules perception. In 1970 my friend, law professor Frank Askin, sued the New Jersey state police for harassing longhairs on the New Jersey Turnpike. Since 1970, Askin has directed the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers University, which litigates constitutional cases involving civil rights and social justice. His memoir, Defending Rights: A Life in Law and Politics, describes the pro bono work of his clinic. On the TV program Access for All you can hear my wide-ranging interview with FrankAskin in which he talks about his fascinating cases.
The case against the New Jersey state police started in 1970 when Askin learned that a large number of college-age men and women who looked like “hippies,” especially males with long hair and beards, were routinely stopped and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike for no apparent reason. Many of them pleaded guilty; as a first offense they would get off with a fine, which was a more practical recourse than the cost and time required for fighting the arrest on the grounds of illegal search. Askin decided to sue the State Attorney General and the New Jersey state police for the practice of illegal searches. Eventually the issue made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rendered an 8-1 decision that the police must have specified causes to stop vehicles.
Among the 67 witnesses who eventually testified as the case weaved its way through the federal courts, Askin’s favorite was Ron, a third-year student at Rutgers University from Teaneck, N.J.. He had been stopped, searched, and verbally abused 13 times as he traveled back and forth to the university. Why was Ron suspect to the police? He had long flowing brown hair down to his hips and a full beard. His piercing eyes added to the police’s suspicion. The troopers never found anything criminal in the search of his body or car.
Ron spent his senior year studying in Israel. Eager for additional spending money, he answered a newspaper ad calling for extras in a documentary film about the life of Christ. The producer was looking for extras for crowd scenes and to play Roman centurions. When he walked down the line of applicants and came to Ron (who is Jewish), the producer gazed at him and blurted out, “You are Jesus.” And indeed, Ron played Jesus in the documentary film Time of the Crucifixion. He returned to the U.S. that spring to do publicity for the film just in time for him to testify in the case against the state police. The newspapers had a field day with headlines like, “Jesus Christ Superstar against the New Jersey State Police.” When asked during his testimony if he had any animosity toward the state police Ron replied, “I forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Looking at the same image — Ron — the troopers saw a criminal, but the movie producer saw Jesus. The gap in these two views illustrates the power of conception not only to dictate perception but to convince us that what we see is the sole reality.
It’s this dialectic of perception and conception that has inspired me to examine the impact of the depiction of Jesus and his family and followers in art through the ages. In particular, I seek to expose the massive collection — spanning at least 400 years — of Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus as Christian, without any connection to Judaism. These powerful images reinforced the already existing false conceptions about Jesus’ ethnicity and identity — conceptions that are at odds with the Gospels in the New Testament. You will not find any evidence in these artworks of the Jewish Jesus of the Gospels, who is circumcised eight days after his birth as prescribed by the Torah (Luke 2:21). You will not encounter the Jesus who, along with Mary and Joseph, traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem every year to celebrate Jewish holy days (Luke 2:41), or the Jesus who routinely worshiped and preached in synagogues, particularly on the Jewish Sabbath (Matthew 4:23 and Luke 4:15-16). By denying Jesus’ Jewish identity these artworks contributed to the pervasive anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras by feeding the illusion that Jesus and Jews were of different religions and ethnicities.
Jews are not totally blameless in these falsifications. Like my students, they have shunned Jesus and failed to recognize his dedicated commitment to Judaism — a recognition that does not require accepting him as the Messiah. They have done little to challenge Jesus’ total Christianization in European culture and have thus helped widen the gap between Christians and Jews. I’ve always wondered how Christian-Jewish relations would have played out if Jews had embraced Jesus as the dedicated fellow-Jew that he was.
The art exhibit that I’m organizing, “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide,” aims to reunite the two sides of the Jesus story: Jesus the dedicated Jew and Jesus whose life and teachings inspired a new religion. The exhibit resonates with the op-ed article in The New York Times on Aug. 20, 2014, by Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder reminds us of the brotherhood of Christians and Jews in his expression of outrage at the current persecution and slaughter of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. His powerful assertion of the bond between Christianity and Judaism echoes the words of Pope Francis: “Inside Every Christian is a Jew.”
Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist, journalist and professor emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College). He is the author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew and organizer of the art exhibit, “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide.” Website:JewishJesusArt.com.