Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jesus the Jew

Someone recently asked me if I had seen "Jesus the Jew" - the Compass episode featuring Howard Jacobson from last Sunday night (May 7).  So with considerable interest I looked up the video and watched it on the internet.

Of course Christianity is absolutely founded on Judaism.  It's no secret. The Christian faith is grounded upon the promises of God communicated and manifested  in 2nd Temple Judaism, including the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus' bible included the Torah and indeed all the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians refer to as the "Old Testament".  Jesus was a Jew - he was not a 'Christian'. The concept of a distinct 'Christian' identity did not arise until after Jesus' death. Jesus did not found a new religion or set out to do so. Also the core rites of Christianity – baptism, the communion, the structure of Christian worship itself – all these are grounded in and developed out of Jewish religious traditions.

None of this should be controversial.  It is good that the Compass show points out such things.

It is also good that the show pointed out the theological roots in Christian tradition of European anti-semitism.  Good, not because this is a pleasant one – it is indeed shameful and appalling – but because it is true.  The truth is a good thing.

Nevertheless the program is not without  flaws.  It is wrong to claim, for example, that followers of Jesus became known as 'Christians' only after the fall of Jerusalem (Acts 11:26 indicates that this happened much earlier, in Antioch).  It is not true to say that it was Paul who innovated the message that Jesus was Lord and Messiah (Acts describes this message as being first preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost).  It is not true that Christian baptism was a Pauline innovation (the tradition goes back to Christ's command at the end of Matthew to baptize the nations).  A long list of such errors could be drawn up.  So the program is not a reliable source of information on the New Testament, nor on what Christians teach and believe.  This is partly a reflection of the Christian scholars whom Jacobson chose to interact with.

But more serious than such errors was the tendency, all through the program, to speak as if the Jewishness of Jesus, and indeed of Christianity itself, was a hidden thing that Christians did not recognize,  and would be shocked to hear about.  That is not at all my experience of 50 years of worship and study in Christian contexts.  I spent three years studying Biblical Hebrew as part of my theological training: there was no cover up about what the foundations of our faith were.  The Shema is a daily part of the Anglican communion service - I always knew where it came from and what it meant in Judaism.  In recent years there have also been a veritable avalanche of books written by Christians which emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, and indeed of Christianity.

One can only agree that Christians have struggled with the Jewishness of Jesus, and have often actively  downplayed this.  A good example is the history of 20th century Christian scholarship on the parables, much of which tried to prove that Jesus was different from Jewish rabbis.  In pursuing this track, much of the meaning of Jesus' parables was obscured.  It is good that the Israeli scholar Professor David Flusser debunked this flawed scholarship.  Yes, supersessionist theology IS still a problem in Christian thinking, even to this day.  But such observations do not express the whole story.

I can understand the bitterness of centuries of rejection which Jacobson has brought to the creation of this program.  The way Christians have treated Jews has been terrible.  But the program profoundly misleads the audience when it implies – with all the breathless intensity of a news flash – that Christians do not accept Jesus' Jewishness. 

Yes, Jesus was Jesus.  He is Jewish.  He always will be a Jew.  It is a Jew who sits at the right hand of the throne of God the Father.  It is a Jew who will come again as the Messiah to save people from their sins.  It is a Jew who is the second person of the Trinity.  It is a Jew who will judge the world.

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While I am on this theme, I would like to respond to a passage in the program where the curse 'his blood be on us and on our children' is discussed.  This is reported in the mouths of a mob in Jerusalem by Matthew (27:25).

How do I read this, as a Christian?  Yes, it is a curse on one's generations.  These are terrible words to say, or to put in anyone's mouths.  Yet they are more than counteracted by Jesus' words from the cross 'Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing' (Luke 23:34).  That expresses the heart of God.  In my understanding, Jesus' words broke that curse, and it had no applicability at all even from the day after Jesus' death on the cross.  Christians who have invoked those dreadful words against Jews down the centuries have been in rebellion against God's own heart for the Jews, and in rebellion against Jesus' own words on the cross.

In every respect the libel that Jews are 'Christ-Killers' is absurd, wicked and indeed unspeakably evil. It is also nonsensical.  It was the Romans who executed Christ.  Pilate could wash his hands all he wished: that act of moral cowardice doesn't change the fact that it was his command, and Roman soldiers executed it.  So should today's Italians be called 'Christ-killers' because of what Pilate did 2,000 years ago?  The whole idea is contemptible.

There has been a great deal of cooperative theological work done by Jews and Christians together on such issues over recent decades.  It is a great shame that Howard Jacobson did not interact with or even acknowledge this important work. His silence about the positive cooperative advances which have been made in addressing the theological roots Christian anti-semitism is most disappointing.

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