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December 4, 2014 8:34 am

Christian or Jewish Gospel Figures? The Answer Will Surprise You

avatar by Bernard Starr

Email a copy of "Christian or Jewish Gospel Figures? The Answer Will Surprise You" to a friend

The cover of Gospel Figures in Art.

Here (left) is the book cover of Gospel Figures in Art by Stefano Zuffi. It contains more than 300 photos of Renaissance paintings, which were inspired by the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke , and John) tell the story of the birth, life, ministry, and death of Jesus. The image on Zuffi’s book cover  features Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and young John the Baptist.

This image tells us that the figures are Christians, with Jesus and John the Baptist displaying a crucifix to emphasize the point. Moreover, the book’s cover, together with its title, forecasts what the reader can expect upon turning the pages – a plethora of art representations of Christian Gospel figures. And if that’s what you were anticipating, you would not be disappointed. Painting after painting shows a Christian Jesus, his Christian family, Christian disciples, or Christian followers. Despite the artistic beauty of these paintings – and no one would dispute their aesthetic glories – the representations are false. These Gospel figures are not Christians.

In fact, there is no such thing as a “Christian Gospel figure.” All of the Gospel figures are Jewish. All were born Jewish and died as dedicated practicing Jews. And that’s not opinion or spin. It’s what the Gospels say, with narratives and descriptions that leave no room for doubt. It’s also what biblical scholars have confirmed from their readings of the Gospels in the New Testament.

The cover image is anachronistic in converting pre-first-century Jews (Jesus was born around 6 BCE) into Medieval or Renaissance-era Christians. Christianity did not exist at the time represented here. The painting on the book’s cover is by Renaissance artist Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) and is titled The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Saint John the Baptist. It’s based on the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-14), which reports that after learning of the birth of the Jewish Messiah, King Herod ordered the killing of all Jewish children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Herod feared that a Jewish couple had produced the new King of the Jews, a birth that was forecast in the Torah (Old Testament). That’s why Mary and Joseph are fleeing to Egypt with the newborn Jesus in Bartolommeo’s painting.

But what Bartolommeo’s painting, as well as massive numbers of other Renaissance paintings, fails to inform us is that Jesus was a dedicated Jew, that there was no Christianity during his lifetime, that the crucifix was a feared and hated symbol of the slaughter of untold numbers of Jesus’ fellow Jews, that the crucifix wouldn’t become a Christian devotional symbol for at least another 300 years, and that Christianity as a coherent separate religion would not emerge until well after the death of Jesus.

Art historians, art critics, and curators of Renaissance painting exhibits have participated in a grand deception. They have remained silent in the face of falsifications of biblical history in artworks that are staring right at them

Why should we care? The answer may not be obvious at first. But the truth is that in erasing Jesus’ Jewish identity with images that show no connection to Judaism, these powerfully rendered artworks supported the virulent anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews that infected European societies through the Medieval and Renaissance eras and that continues today.

Art historians offer spurious rationalizations to defend these falsifications of biblical history, while ignoring the lethal consequences for Jews and the antagonism between Christians and Jews that these artworks supported. They claim that the ethnic cleansing of Judaism in artworks was an inadvertent collateral effect of the Renaissance style of contemporizing figures in appearance, dress, and setting. That view is given lie to by the demonized depictions of Jews–“the others”–in artworks of the same period, as illustrated in Sara Lipton’s just published book, Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography.

Professor Lipton notes: “By the close of the Middle Ages the Jew had become one of the most powerful and poisonous symbols in all of Christian art.” This image of Jews combined with the omission of Jesus’ connection to Judaism in virtually all of Renaissance depictions set up the false dichotomy of Jesus the European Christian in contrast to the dark menacing vile Jews. With the addition of the charge against Jews of “Christ Killers,” the split between these Semitic brothers was complete in the minds of the populace.

Surprisingly, Jews participated in the deception. They unwittingly enabled the falsifications by not challenging the omission of Jesus’ Jewish identity and heritage. They may even have welcomed it. Why would they object when they were told by rabbis and other Jewish leaders that Jesus was an apostate who defected from Judaism? And the persecution of Jews throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods, often in the name of Jesus, drove Jews to distance themselves from Jesus and Christianity.

Fortunately, that rejection is turning around now that Jewish scholars and writers are on the case with groundbreaking books like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach ‘s Kosher Jesus, Dr. Michael Brown’s The Real Kosher Jesus, Professor Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, Rabbi David Zaslow’s Jesus: First Century Rabbiand other works, including mine, which differ on fine points but enthusiastically resurrect the thoroughly Jewish Jesus.

I’m always amused and dismayed at Christmas time when I notice Jews cringing at displays of the nativity scene, a totally Jewish event – displays showing a Jewish carpenter (Joseph), his 14-year-old Jewish wife (Mary), and their newborn child (Jeshua), who will be circumcised on his eighth day as prescribed in the Torah (Luke 2:21). Punctuating this Jewish scene, the Gospel of Luke (2:22) tells us that Mary performed the seven-day Jewish purification ritual after giving birth. Then she, Joseph, and Jesus entered the Jerusalem Temple for an offering and blessing, mandated in the Torah (Luke:2:23-27). After returning to Nazareth, the family traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Jewish holy days (Luke 2:41.)

In the present climate of reconciliation of Christianity and Judaism, led by the healing statements of Pope Francis (e.g. “Inside every Christian is a Jew”), isn’t it time for the art world to tell the truth about the falsification of biblical history in artworks? Toward that goal I’ve organized a unique art exhibit: “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide.” The participating artists have created images that remind us of the two sides of the Jesus story: Jesus the dedicated Jew and Jesus whose life and teachings inspired a new religion. Examples of these artworks for the exhibit are included in my new bookJesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity and How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.

The upcoming holiday season celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas is an ideal time to redress past errors of omission. Perhaps the miracle of the lights of Hanukkah can illuminate the common ground of the two faiths.

Bernard Starr, PhD is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College).

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  • Julian Clovelley

    Not quite right I’m afraid and the error is clearly embodied in one particular paragraph “In fact, there is no such thing as a “Christian Gospel figure.” All of the Gospel figures are Jewish. All were born Jewish and died as dedicated practicing Jews. And that’s not opinion or spin. It’s what the Gospels say, with narratives and descriptions that leave no room for doubt. It’s also what biblical scholars have confirmed from their readings of the Gospels in the New Testament.” Before i speak on I should state my bias – my birth family were Christians and “Gentiles”

    The Gospels are entirely spin. The figures portrayed within them are for the most part at least as artificial and as constructed as any painting or sculpture. The artists painted what they were asked to paint in masterpieces that were as surrealist as any painting by Salvador Dali. Jesus was portrayed as a white Italian or a Nordic figure. Mary was portrayed as eternally young- never older than the age of thirty two that Jesus supposedly died at. The backgrounds were Italian and Northern European landscapes. The costumes were often Renaissance clothing. Angels were suspended in mid air. It’s surrealism, centuries before surrealism was recognised as an artistic style

    But so it was in the Gospels. The heroic characters are inventions made to appeal to the already international Roman Empire readership of the late First century and beyond. They weren’t clear Jewish figures but literary inventions. There likely was no Judas Iscariot, no Joseph of Arimathea. Pontius Pilate was far from the weak hand-washer he is portrayed as being, and no Jew screamed for Jesus’s crucifixion – it’s all political fiction, much of it created in Asia Minor (Turkey) probably by the sect we know under the name “Paul of Tarsus”. It was an image later filled out by the later written Gospels – none of them by eyewitnesses

    To portray something closer to the reality, Joseph would have to be clearly portrayed as Jesus’s real father, Mary as a person having normal sexual relations and additional children – as clearly stated in the Bible. It would have to be recognised that what is constructed is a patently antisemistic sexually sterile, narrative, honed to appeal to a Roman audience, with figures they could accept as heroes…

    Scholars in fact largely recognise that the Gospels leave vast amounts of room for doubt. Could one really describe the Sanhedrin as accurately portrayed in the Gospels. Did these Jewish disciples really symbolically drink human blood and eat human flesh? – what do the kosher laws say about that? Nazareth almost certainly never existed in the time of Jesus.

    Christianity and Judaism do indeed need to come together – but on the right terms, which should be the act of demythologising BOTH religions – for in truth there is no evidence to attest to the Exodus, the Divine donation of the land of Caanan to particular tribes, no Great Flood, no Davidic Kingdom of the Biblical description.. Neither of the two slaughters of the innocents happened – and the Christian one is obvious pattern copying from earlier myth.

    The writer seems to think- and it deserves two hearty cheers – that it would be progress for Christianity to recognise that Jesus and the disciples were Jewish – but that isn’t enough. What is needed is to recognise that it is mostly all myth – that there really is neither Gentile nor Jew. Both religions are in error and need each other to unwind a mythical Scheinwelt, that has largely become incorporated into other religions of the region, and supplies the motivation for so much selfishness and violence.

    The author mentions a couple of scholars. To properly understand the Judeo Christian dilemma, I would add to them the two which I believe are the most important and the most attacked from both sides – Hyam Maccoby and Schlomo Sand. To them I would add SGF Brandon and Bishop John Shelby Spong

    It is not as simple as “Jesus and the disciples were Jews” not by a long chalk. It is more about dealing with religions that became so important in Ancient Rome and in the Byzantine Empire that one was shaped for political purposes and the other vilified for the same reason. Christianity is about Power and land, and Zionism is the form of Judaism that most copies it in that.

    There is a picture in Malta that I am rather fond of. It is of Saint Joseph. When I looked at it, it was almost as if I could read what the artist really intended me to see – a Jewish father holding his beloved son and saying “This is my son, the treasure of my life and of whom I am so proud”

    That sacred relationship between father and son was what Christianity – in the Gospels – took away, to create “the Virgin Mary” I find that unspeakably cruel and sad, and demanding of an apology from Roman Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, that I fear we will never hear in my lifetime..

    With the greatest respect Bernard you need to go vastly further than you do here. It is a step in the right direction but not the giant one that is needed. That vital step is an honest recognition of what we are really dealing with – It is the most painful step – the rest is easy. To prevent people taking that vital step religions have been prepared to persecute, vilify, imprison, torture and murder in the cruellest manners they could imagine for a very long time now. Because religion is about Power and property – and class. Like it or not. Theologically and spiritually insightful they may be, well intentioned paths to understand transcendance

    But still myth. Scripture, painting and sculpture – all manifestations of mythology.

  • Mike P.

    Luke was a gentile.