Church or Synagogue: Which Would Jesus Choose?
Most theologians and biblical scholars agree that Jesus lived and died as a dedicated practicing Jew, who never proposed a new religion.
Yes — Jesus fiercely criticized the Sanhedrin (the ruling body of Judaism) and other Jewish leaders for hypocrisy and for their pretentious embrace of formalism — the do’s, don’ts, and public displays of piety. These, he said, did not represent the spiritual core of Judaism. Far from rejecting Judaism, however, Jesus called for a deeper and more authentic understanding of the faith.
Despite the theological consensus about Jesus’ beliefs, a single passage in the Gospel of Matthew has been seized upon to reach the conclusion that Jesus defected from Judaism and planned a new religion in a new building called the church: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
In fact, the popular Christian interpretation of that passage has been widely debated and questioned.
First, the word “church,” derived from the Greek, merely means assembly hall. And the only religious assembly hall for Jews other than the Temple in Jerusalem was the synagogue. At the time, there was no concept among Jesus and his Jewish followers of a new religion — nor of a new structure in which to worship.
The “church on the rock” most likely referred to the new synagogue that would radiate spiritual Judaism.
If Jesus was proposing a new religion in a building other than a synagogue, as many believe, why didn’t his disciples know that? And behavior demonstrates more accurately what confusing words often obfuscate. After the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples continued to worship and teach in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were Jews who believed that Jesus was the prophesized Messiah. Had there been even a hint that they were trying to create a new religion, they wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the Temple.
When Paul, a Jew who had earlier studied under Rabbi Gamaliel ll, made his third visit to the disciples in the Temple — nearly 30 years after the crucifixion — he and his accompanying Jews had to go through a seven day Jewish cleansing ritual before they could enter the Temple, because they had dwelt in unclean places: “Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them” (Acts 21:26).
Furthermore, a separate building called a Christian church would not appear until the third century. That is about the time that the great divide between Judaism and Christianity widened. After a unified Catholic Church was established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, draconian restrictions on Jews and Judaism were introduced to accelerate the distancing of Christianity from Judaism
This divide was powerfully reinforced by religious artworks during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Antisemitism was so deeply entrenched in European Christian society that you would be hard pressed to find within the vast artistic productions even a hint of a connection between Jesus and Judaism. The pesky notion of Jesus the dedicated Jew was obliterated. These artworks transformed the thoroughly Jewish Jesus into a thoroughly European Christian man in physical appearance, and with settings totally alien to his Semitic heritage and Jewish identity.
The falsification of biblical history in these artworks, whether inadvertent or deliberate, reinforced the platform for antisemitism by establishing Jews — minus Jesus — as the despised “others.”
Then who is the real Jesus? To address that, let’s return to the question: which would Jesus choose — church or synagogue?
I once applied the psychological technique of role playing and imagined Jesus standing in front of two adjacent buildings — a Catholic church and a synagogue. I put myself in the situation and asked Jesus to look inside each building, and choose the one that he would prefer to enter.
My query got a big boost this past year when artist Israel Tsvaygenbaum created a powerful oil on canvas painting (click here). “Crossroads,” shows Jesus confronted with the choice of church or synagogue.
Tsvaygenbaum was born and trained in Russia, and is now living and working in Albany, New York. His artworks focus on Jewish history, biblical themes and nature. He is also a participating artist in the proposed exhibit, “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide.”
Tsvaygenbaum has this to say about “Crosswords” — “The painting depicts Jesus returning to our modern times at the crossroads between a Jewish synagogue and a Catholic church with the question, which one would he be drawn to enter?” Chameleons in the painting represent the theme of identity.
Jesus would likely be put off — if not shocked — by the cross on Tsvagenbaum’s church. First-century Jews feared and hated the cross, which was a symbol of the brutal crucifixion of untold numbers of Jews. Note, too, that the cross would not become a devotional Christian symbol until the fourth century.
When he looked inside the church, Jesus would be puzzled by the artworks displaying crucifixions and the unfamiliar statues in a building that he would think is a Pagan Temple: “Where are Venus, Jupiter, Apollo, and the other Pagan Gods?” he would wonder.
In sharp contrast, a peek into the synagogue would surely warm Jesus’ heart. His eyes would fixate on the altar, where he would see the Holy Arc housing his beloved Torah — the Torah that he read from every Sabbath at Jewish prayer service: “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” (Luke 4:16).
Is there any doubt which building Jesus would choose to enter?
Christians seeking to experience Jesus often travel great distances. High on bucket lists is a visit to Jerusalem, in order to walk the steps of Jesus in the 14 Stations of the Cross, as he was dragged to his crucifixion. Other places where Jesus taught and walked in the Holy Land, as described in the Gospels, are on bucket lists as well.
Yet while many Christians wait to pursue these distant journeys, there is a place in their community or nearby where they can experience the life of Jesus easily and at no cost: a synagogue — Jesus’ spiritual home, where he could be found every Sabbath during his lifetime, praying and reading from the Torah.
Attending a synagogue service can also contribute to the reconciliation process initiated by Vatican ll in 1962. Among its goals is to restore the common foundation and bond of Judaism and Christianity — a bond that was severed by destructive forces spanning more than a thousand years.
Visiting a synagogue will also confirm the bold pronouncement of Pope Francis: “Inside every Christian is a Jew.”
Bernard Starr, PhD, is professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. 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.”