Theater Review

Jesus the Jew as Told by his Brother James

Playing now through March 26 at the Greenhouse Theater, Chicago

I received an unexpected call from the marketing director of Greenwood Theater, a local theater here in Chicago. The owner of the theater, William Spatz, wrote a play called Jesus the Jew as Told by His Brother James. Being Jewish himself, Mr. Spatz has been fascinated with Jesus, not as the Messiah and Son of God per se, but with his Jewishness and his connection to the Jewish people. So he wrote this play to highlight Jesus’ Jewishness.

The marketing director found Jews for Jesus by Googling us and wanted to know if we would like to come and see the play on opening night. I wasn’t going to turn down this opportunity that landed in my lap, so I said “yes”. I invited a few others to join me.

The play was intriguing and provided an inside peek as to how a Jewish person who doesn’t follow Jesus views him. The play is a one-man act portraying James, the brother of Jesus. Jesus has died and now James is given an ultimatum: deny Jesus as the Son of God and live, or confess him and die. This meshed with the historical fact that James did indeed die for his faith in Jesus.

The play portrays a very Jewish James who wears a tallis, lays tefillin and says the Shema every day. James recalls growing up with Jesus and how they both became rabbis and Torah-observing Jews. To both a Gentile Christian and a Jewish audience, this may come as a surprise to some.

One of the overarching story lines is the animosity between James and Paul. James is the leader of the Jerusalem church, consisting of Torah-observing Jews who also follow Jesus; Paul is portrayed as an ex-rabbi who now teaches his followers to disdain and reject the Torah. Although the play never explicitly says, the audience is led to believe that Paul’s followers are Gentile Christians. This perspective of Paul and James being worlds apart when it comes to their view of Jesus, their view of the Law and their view of what it means to be a Jew is not new. Both Christian as well as Jewish theologians alike have hopped on this bandwagon.

It is easy to see how people can come to the conclusion that Paul rejected the Mosaic Law and James embraced it. Passages abound in Paul’s writings that seem at first glance to be anti-Torah. Since James was the head of the Jerusalem church, it stands to reason that he maintained a very observant life as a Jew, even after the death and resurrection of his brother Jesus. While the resolution of this dilemma is beyond the scope of this writing, suffice it to say that Mr. Spatz wrote this play from a historical perspective and tried to be as accurate to the time and culture as possible.

As a Messianic Jew, I found myself wrestling with the tension between Paul and James as portrayed in the play. In the Messianic world, James represented the right-winged “Torah observant” Messianic Jew who believes the Torah is still binding on the life of a Jewish believer today. In the view of the play, James was in the truest sense of the term, a “Jew for Jesus”—fully Jewish and believing in Jesus. However, although James says in the play that he believes his brother to be the Son of God and Messiah, he does not subscribe to Paul’s claim that faith alone in Jesus is the way to heaven. That view, from the play’s perspective, is a Gentile Christian belief, not a Jewish one.

It is at this juncture that I humbly disagree. Of course like all art, it is open for individual interpretation, but I believe that the Tanakh agrees with the New Testament—there is only one way to God, and that’s God’s way. And that is a very Jewish idea!

I would highly recommend that both Christians and Jews see the play, as it is bound to stir up a great conversation. The play is showing in Chicago until March 26th. If you go here and enter in the promo code J4J, you will receive 20% off!

-reviewed by Jeremiah Zaretsky