Despite the common misperception, Jesus was deeply Jewish.
by Susan Perlman | May 17 2021
Although there have been various portrayals of Jesus throughout history, Jesus was born, raised and died as a Jewish person. Even those who don’t believe in Jesus cannot effectively deny his Jewish background:
Most portrayers of the life of Jesus neglect to point out that Jesus is in every characteristic a genuinely Jewish character, that a man like him could have grown only in the soil of Judaism, only there and nowhere else. Jesus is a genuine Jewish personality, all his struggles and works, his bearing and feeling, his speech and silence, bear the stamp of a Jewish style, the mark of Jewish idealism, of the best that was and is in Judaism, but which then existed only in Judaism. He was a Jew among Jews; from no other people could a man like him have come forth, and in no other people could a man like him work; in no other people could he have found the apostles who believed in him.1
Would you be surprised to hear a prominent Jewish leader make the above statement? Rabbi Leo Baeck was a leading philosopher-theologian and historian of religion. Though he adamantly rejected Christianity, he saw a need to declare the Jewishness of Jesus. He emphasized that Jesus (Yeshua) was a Jew, born among Jewish people, and recognized by other Jews of his time.
One doesn’t have to be a theologian to see the Jewishness of Jesus—even from the time of his birth. The account of his birth in Bethlehem of Judea tells of wise men who came from afar to Jerusalem, inquiring of King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).
Herod was, by all accounts an unjust ruler, and he was not the rightful king of Judea. It is no surprise that he was disturbed by the proclamation of the wise men. Herod asked the more-knowledgeable religious leaders where the Messiah was to be born and learned that the place had been prophesied by Micah, hundreds of years earlier:
“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:6)
Herod, in a diabolical plot much like Pharaoh’s, massacred Jewish babies in an attempt to maintain his own kingship. He wanted to put an end to the life of the one who would become ruler over Israel. But he was unable to snuff out the baby born in Bethlehem to a young Jewish girl—Miriam (Mary).
From his family pedigree (Matthew 1), to his birth and circumcision (Luke 2), to his pidyon ha ben ceremony, to his bar mitzvah, to his d’roshes in the synagogues, and even to his final epitaph, a sign over his head on the cross reading “The King Of The Jews” (Matthew 27:37), Yeshua identified as a Jewish person and was identified with the Jewish people.
Some claim that Jesus was indeed a good Jew—an observant Jew, perhaps even a prophet—but that he never claimed to be the Messiah. Some say the notion that he was a savior and a mediator between the people and God was advertised by his followers.
But what did Jesus say about himself?
One time when he was traveling with his disciples, he asked them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:13b–17).
Another time when he was traveling alone, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at Sychar. In that profound and unusual encounter with Jesus she said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”(John 4:25–26). She ran to tell those in the village about her encounter, and after they spent time with him, they declared their own belief in his Messiahship.
One commentator, John Stott, said that “the most striking feature of the teaching of Jesus is that he was so frequently talking about himself.”2 And no matter who you think Jesus was or is, we cannot ignore what he claimed about himself.
Jesus was distinct from other religious leaders of his day; while they were self-effacing, Yeshua was self-advancing. The religious leaders would direct people away from themselves and to their respective understandings of the truth, couched in discretionary phrases.
But Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
If Yeshua was not the Messiah as he claimed, he was certainly the most arrogant and blasphemous rabbi of all history. So how is it that so many people believed his claims and followed him? What impressed Jesus’ hearers?
Jewish sages taught by quoting opinions of other rabbis. The rabbi would indicate which authority should be given more weight. But Yeshua didn’t present many different sides to the question at hand—he spoke to each issue directly and authoritatively. He didn’t weigh or consider different opinions, he spoke the truth clearly in forthright statements. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reiterated several points of the law and gave his own teaching:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38–39).
The “eye for eye” dictum was part of the Torah given to the people by Moses. Considering that God gave the law to Moses, how could Jesus assert an opinion that went beyond Moses’ teaching? Unless he had the authority from God, this assertion was not merely arrogant, it was heretical. But Yeshua showed no hesitation in his answers.
“Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? . . . So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”(John 8:53, 57–58).
In this staggering statement, Jesus not only established that his existence preceded the birth of Abraham, but announced his deity.3 He not only knew the past and the present (Matthew 10:23, 12:40, 16:27) , but he spoke of the future as though he was presently seeing it (Luke 4:21). He continually pointed to his deity as well as his Messiahship by the way that he spoke with authority over all stages of time.
When Jesus spoke, people listened. They might not have liked what he said, but they could not divert their attention elsewhere. He was impossible to ignore.
Miracle workers were not unusual in first-century Judea. There were sorcerers and soothsayers and healers. Some used trickery, others consorted with familiar spirits, using incantations, amulets, and potions to accomplish their feats of magic. Unlike Jesus, they did not heal in their own power.
Sometimes Yeshua used what might be considered a type of medical treatment, such as a poultice on the eyes of a blind man. Yet even if the mixture of mud and spittle had medicinal value, the healing far surpassed any effect the technique could possibly have had. It went far beyond what an ordinary cure could achieve. A man, blind from birth, could suddenly see. At other times he simply asked the question, “Do you want to be healed?” or “Do you believe?” And many were healed.
Jesus often told people not to tell others how they had been healed—he knew that he would be a public figure as soon as the people saw his power. However, once it became known that he could heal even the most hopeless infirmities and that he could feed thousands of people by multiplying a few loaves and bread and some fish, he had throngs of people following him.
During the course of his public ministry, one man was lowered on a pallet through the roof because the room was too crowded. Yeshua commented on the faith of the friends who had gone to such lengths to present their paralyzed friend to him. Then he told that paralyzed man to pick up his pallet and walk—and he did!
Jesus healed so “That you may know that the son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Unlike the prophets before him, he was not merely the agent used by God; he claimed the power of God for himself.
Perhaps most amazing of all Yeshua’s miracles was his ability to raise a person from the dead. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, Elisha the prophet did bring back a boy from the dead (2 Kings 4). However, in the case of Lazarus, the man had not only died, but had been in a tomb for four days, decaying. Yet Jesus assured the dead man’s grieving sister, Martha, that her brother would rise again. It was a common belief that when the Messiah came, he would resurrect all the dead, so when Jesus called Lazarus forth from the grave, it was an unprecedented act of God (John 11).
Jesus’ miracles conveyed magnitude and authority. His miracles backed his claims of being the Messiah.
The mystery of Jesus was in the parables he told and the claims he made that seemed to be beyond comprehension but pointed to his character and his Messiahship in profound ways.
When Yeshua met with the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, he told him that he needed to be born again. Nicodemus was puzzled. Yeshua explained the concept of a spiritual rebirth, yet it was not much easier to grasp than the physically impossible re-entry into the womb. Jesus used imagery to take people from the familiar to the unknown, and much of what he said was a mystery to his hearers.
And on the final day of the Feast of Succoth, he told the worshipers at the Temple that whoever was thirsty needed to drink from the keren Yeshua, the living waters. He went from that which was easily understood to something unseen. Yeshua could have spoken very plainly but he chose to speak truth on a deeper level that caused people to ponder through hyperbole, metaphor, understatement, and irony. Yeshua spoke in a way that those he encountered were moved to search the mysteries in their hearts and minds. He changed the lives and altered the courses of everyone that met him.
In many respects Yeshua led a very normal life—born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth—he was a person of his time and place. But he also was alienated because of who he was and what he was committed to. He was fundamentally separated from people. From the time he was a young child, Yeshua’s otherworldliness was apparent. In a frightening incident when he was separated from Miriam and Joseph, upon finding him at the Temple he said: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” referring to a parentage that was beyond this earth (Luke 2:49).
Jesus told people details about their lives that he would have no earthly way of knowing. But he did not merely know what was in their hearts—he cared about them as people.
Yeshua, unlike many other leaders of his day, showed a profound love for people—all kinds of people. Yeshua extended forgiveness, acceptance, approval, and appreciation to all except the self-satisfied and self-righteous who did not want to receive it. Jesus spoke and spent time with all kinds of people—fishermen, the marginalized, women of questionable reputation, sinners, tax collectors, learned people, farmers, Jews, Samaritans, and Romans. He enjoyed the company of small children. Whereas other rabbis would have feared defilement, he welcomed and appreciated the company of women and even gifts from them.
Yeshua was loving, but he also never failed to confound the haughty or bewilder the arrogant. He was a man who had calluses on his hands, a magnificent sense of humor that transformed itself into ready wit. He was a compassionate and caring and loving person to those who were vulnerable, frightened, despairing and downtrodden. He never failed to leave people somehow better off than when he first met them.
Yeshua ate with people, laughed with them, wept with them and for them, and ultimately died on their behalf.
By all accounts, Yeshua did not fight for his life or even seek to defend himself legally—though he had the grounds to do so. When the authorities came to take him away, he could have reminded them that they had no authority beyond the Temple grounds. Yeshua could have reminded them that according to Jewish law, they had no right to take him into custody without an indictment. If Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities, had been his accuser, Yeshua could have impugned the integrity of Judas as a witness by showing that Judas was a thief who had been stealing from the treasury. He could have answered false accusations with the obvious truth.
When the governor asked Jesus if he was “the king of the Jews,” he said, “You have said so.”(Matthew 27:11b). Just as a sheep who is brought to the slaughter does not complain—so Yeshua did not open his mouth to utter one word of protest. He knew he was destined to rule but he also knew he was destined to die first. No one ever died like Yeshua died and no one ever accomplished so much with his death. His death was not the end, but the beginning.
Most of us live by a calendar that measures time in the number of years before Yeshua walked the earth and the number of years since. This in itself is evidence of his profound impact on our world. Entire libraries could be filled with books written about him. He inspired such musical masterpieces as Handel’s Messiah centuries after he walked the earth. Great masters, such as Michelangelo and Botticelli sought to glorify Yeshua in works of art that can be found in the most renowned museums and galleries on this globe.
Because of Jesus, people in remote jungles as well as in the highest halls of learning, know something about the Jewish people and our teachings. They are even often familiar with the geography of the Jewish homeland—especially Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
From Augustine to Adler to Einstein, the greatest philosophers and scientists alike had to grapple with his teachings and ponder his person. And those philosophers who lived before he came spoke of ethics and aesthetics which Yeshua’s life embodied.
Eastern religions taught that people who suffered, pain, disease, and untimely death were being justly punished for dishonorable behavior in a previous life. Whereas Eastern religions accepted suffering as karma to be repeated over and over in lifetime after lifetime, Yeshua taught compassion for the suffering. Grace and forgiveness flowed from him and yet his righteousness was not compromised. That is why people loved him, and still love him. And even if they don’t love him, it does not negate his overarching presence over history.
Not all who said that they were Christians behaved according to Yeshua’s example. He taught love, humility, and the dignity of all people. When you find hatred, prejudice, and intolerance in the name of Jesus, you find a failure to follow the one whose name is being used. Any Christians who show a lack of compassion are ignoring—even countermanding—the example of Jesus.
It’s all too easy to shift blame to Jesus for persecution—which he never taught or tolerated. Human beings are quite capable of persecuting one another, not because of Jesus, but in spite of him. People who truly are Jesus’ disciples should show discipline in following his teachings.
But, there’s also a continued good impact in Yeshua’s name. Hospitals were established out of Christian compassion. Missionaries brought schools and literacy to far-away places because of Jesus. Medical and agricultural professionals traveled far to give their services because of the love of Yeshua. People like Martin Neimöller, Raoul Wallenberg, and Corrie Ten Boom stood up to Hitler and the hatred he spewed out because of the love they found in Yeshua.
If Jesus had merely lived and died, the world would not have been forever altered by his coming. But his resurrection puts Jesus on the scene of every episode of history. His observable life after the crucifixion has made Jesus the most powerful and influential person who ever lived, because he still lives. And the fact that he still lives and desires to change people’s lives is wonderful to those who want what he offers and an offense to those who do not.
When Jesus walked the earth, some of the rabbis and leadership of his day did follow him, but it took tremendous courage for them to go against the tide. Some of the wealthier people who had position and power were able to see past their riches to the spiritual poverty that Jesus came to alleviate.
Today, many deride believers in Jesus as weak, looking for a quick fix to their problems. Some view Jesus as a crutch and see no need for him. To such people, it is irrelevant as to whether or not Jesus is who he says he is. To consider him is to agree to associate with the kind of needy people he attracts and that they do not wish to do.
But Jesus is as patient and loving as he ever was. He does not restrict his grace to those who are well educated and highly employable. He does not reserve mercy for the politically correct and well-connected. He is interested in giving hope to the oppressed and the oppressors to the haves and have-nots alike. Yet still he’s unseen, unknown and unheard except by those who have an ear to hear and a heart to understand.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
1. Leo Baeck, Harnack Vorlesungen über das Wesen des Christentums (Breslau: n.p., 1902)
2. John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity, (London, InterVarsity Fellowship)1968, 22.
3. The name that the Almighty gave Moses to make demands was “I AM’. “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”Exodus 3:14b.