Some People Still Don’t Know That Jesus Was Jewish
When I tell people that I’ve written extensively about the “Jewish Jesus,” they frequently say, “but everyone knows that Jesus was Jewish.” It would seem so.
But dig deeper, and you will find what I discovered in interviewing Christians and Jews: That most people actually mean that Jesus used to be Jewish.
Yes, he was born Jewish, but somehow he was really a Christian. They say that he preached Christian teachings, or that he officially became a Christian when he rejected Judaism and was baptized by John the Baptist.
These views are all false.
The truth is — based on depictions of Jesus in the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew Mark, Luke and John) — Jesus lived and died as a dedicated Jew. His argument with the Jewish leadership — King Herod and the Sanhedrin (the ruling body of Judaism) — was about their abandonment of the spiritual core of Judaism, which Jesus sought to restore.
The fact that Jesus was a dedicated practicing Jew throughout his life is the consensus of both Christian and Jewish biblical scholars.
For example, Episcopal priest Bruce Chilton states in his book Rabbi Jesus, that: “Everything Jesus did was about Jews, for Jews, and by Jews.” And former Catholic priest James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, expresses a similar view when he asks: “If Jesus were alive today, would he be one of those fervent black-hatted figures dovening [praying] at the Western Wall [the remnant of the Jerusalem Temple]?”
Adding his voice, Shaye J.D. Cohen, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, explicitly attests: “He [Jesus] was born of a Jewish mother, in Galilee, a Jewish part of the world. All of his friends, associates, colleagues, disciples, all of them were Jews. He regularly worshipped in Jewish communal worship, what we call synagogues. He preached from Jewish text. … He celebrated the Jewish festivals. He lived, died, taught as a Jew.”
A striking passage in the Gospel of Luke (4:16) backs up Father Chilton, James Carroll and Shaye Cohen: “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read.” That Jesus, “as was his custom,” attended synagogue services on the Jewish Sabbath and read passages from the Torah — as Jews did then and continue to do today — says a lot. And there is much more.
So why do so many people maintain the contradictory position: “Yes Jesus was a Jew, but he was a Christian.”
The tenaciousness of this incongruity was driven home to me when Bill O’Reilly, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, expressed the same contradiction on his TV show “The O’Reilly Factor,“ when he slammed one of my articles. In response to my statement quoting O’Reilly himself that “Jesus affirmed his Jewish identity right up to the crucifixion,” he said: “Of course I affirmed that because it’s true.” But O’Reilly then added: “He [Starr] goes off the rails when he says that Christianity didn’t exist in Jesus’ lifetime and he never proposed a new religion; that is false.”
I wish Bill O’Reilly would tell us when Jesus started the new religion — if he died a dedicated Jew?
O’Reilly also objected to my assertion that one of the most powerful and overlooked supports for the denial of Jesus’ Jewish identity was Mediaeval and Renaissance artwork. But search through the vast archives of these artworks spanning centuries, and you will be hard pressed to find any representation or hint that Jesus, his family or followers had any connection to Judaism.
Jesus is typically portrayed as northern European in appearance, embedded in anachronistic later-day palatial Christian settings surrounded by Christian artifacts — all totally alien to his ethnicity, religion and identity as a practicing Jew who resided in a rural Galilean village. Yet, wherever the Renaissance Christian populace turned — in churches, public spaces and homes — they would only see images of a totally Christian Jesus.
Antisemitism was so deeply embedded in Medieval and Renaissance society that it was unthinkable for an artist to paint a Jewish Jesus — that is, if the artist valued keeping his head attached to his neck or not getting burned at the stake.
But why should we care about this pervasive falsification of biblical history? Because in denying Jesus’ Jewish identify through omission, these powerful images falsely established Jesus as a Christian and Jews as “the others,” who Christian society claimed killed Jesus — a lingering and bizarre accusation, when one considers that all of Jesus’ followers were Jews — and that without those followers, there would be no Christianity.
Had Jesus been pictured authentically as a Jew, might some forms of antisemitism not have occurred, or might they have been mitigated and challenged?
The power of images has convinced me that film, rather than words alone, would be the most effective medium to establish Jesus’s true identity — and to lead to a deeper understanding of historical antisemitism. I knew that several compelling films, including “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Passion of Christ,” and “The Da Vinci Code,” despite public condemnations for blasphemy and antisemitism, generated vigorous public debate about Jesus.
That’s why I’ve written a screenplay about “Jesus the Jew From Nazareth.” I hope my screenplay, and others like it, will get produced, so that the world finally understands that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish.
Bernard Starr holds a PhD in psychology from Yeshiva University in NYC and is a professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. He is also a past president of the Brooklyn Psychological Association and the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”