Was Jesus Jewish?
Would you be surprised to hear a prominent Jewish leader make the following statement?
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
Rabbi Leo Bµck, the leading philosopher-theologian and historian of religion, though sharply rejecting Christianity, saw a need to declare the Jewishness of Jesus in the above passage. He emphasized that Jesus (Yeshua) was a Jew, born among Jewish people and recognized by other Jews of his time.
Born in Bethlehem of Judea
One doesn't have to be a theologian, however, to see the Jewishness of Jesus. It is evident in the account of his birth in Bethlehem of Judea. The narrative (as recorded in the New Testament) 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."2
Herod was, by all accounts, less than just. In addition, he was not the rightful king of Judea. So it is no surprise that he was disturbed over that news 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 predicted by the prophet 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."3
Herod was less than delighted with that information. He, 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.
However, he was unable to snuff out that baby who was born in Bethlehem to a young Jewish girl named Miriam (Mary). And from the moment of his birth, to his circumcision 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 instrument of his execution, "Jesus Of Nazareth, The King Of The Jews," this one called Yeshua was identified with the Jewish people.
Did Jesus claim to be the Jewish messiah?
Some have said that Jesus was indeed a good Jew, an observant Jew, perhaps even a prophet of our people, but he never claimed to be the Messiah. Some say the notion that he was a savior, a mediator between the people and God, was put forth by his followers.
Nevertheless, what did Jesus say about himself?
One time when he was traveling with his disciples, he asked them,
"Who do people say the Son of Man is?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven."4
Jesus' true identity
Jesus not only accepted the title "Messiah, the Son of the living God," but he declared to Simon Peter that God himself had revealed that this was his true identity.
Once when he was traveling alone, he encountered a Samaritan woman at Sychar. In that encounter with Jesus she said to him,
"I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he."5
The woman rushed away to tell the men of the village about her encounter with Jesus. After an extended conversation 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."6
Jesus compared to other religious figures
He further explained that this set Jesus apart from other great religious figures who were self-effacing while Yeshua was self-advancing. Others would direct people away from themselves and to "the truth." They couched their teachings in such phrases as, "From my understanding, that is the right thing to do." In contrast, Jesus said, "I am the truth, follow me."
If Jesus (Yeshua) was not the messiah as he claimed, he was certainly the most arrogant and blasphemous rabbi of all history. If he was not "the Messiah, the Son of the living God," as he claimed to be, he deserved worse than crucifixion. So how is it that so many people believed his claims and followed him? What impressed Jesus' hearers?
Jesus spoke with authority!
Jewish sages taught by quoting opinions of other rabbis. One might say, "Rabbi Shammai says thus and so, but Rabbi Hillel said otherwise." Then the rabbi, who would be postulating, would indicate which authority, in his opinion, should be given more weight.
Yeshua didn't present the "many different sides" to the question. He spoke to each issue directly and authoritatively. He did not need to present many opinions to be weighed and considered. He delineated what was true in simple forthright statements.
In one particular teaching, commonly called "the sermon on the mount", Jesus reiterated several points of the law and gave his own teaching as the authoritative answer. For instance, he said,
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.7
The "eye for eye" dictum was part of the Torah given by Moses. Jesus taught something that superseded it, thereby claiming an authority beyond Moses. Considering that God gave the law to Moses, how could Jesus dare to assert an opinion that went beyond Moses' teaching? This was not merely arrogant, it was heretical--if he did not have the authority from God to back it up. Yet, in his teaching, Yeshua showed no hesitation, no "maybe" or "perhaps" or "it seems to me." He told of the ancient past as though he had been an eye witness to it. When asked by the religious leaders of his day,
"Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?"
Jesus replied, "...Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad."
"You are not yet fifty years old," they said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!"
"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!"8
Jesus announced his deity
In that staggering statement, Jesus not only established that his existence preceded the birth of Abraham, but by the construction of the language, he announced his deity.9
He not only knew the past and the present10, but he spoke of the future as though he was presently seeing it.11 He continually pointed to his deity as well as his messiahship by the way that he spoke with authority over all stages of time.
Once, when Yeshua was in the synagogue, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling it, he read the portion, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Yeshua then rolled up the scroll, returning it to the gabbai (attendant) and he sat down.
The account in the gospel of Luke says that "The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."11
When Jesus spoke, people had to listen. They might not have liked what he said, but they could not take their attention elsewhere. He was impossible to ignore.
Jesus had the power to perform miracles
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?"
Jesus' miracles and the public eye
In the beginning of his ministry, Jesus told people not to tell others how they had been healed. This would seem to indicate that his miracles were of a superior class than any others of his day. Jesus knew that he would be a public figure as soon as the people saw his power. He seemed to have a timetable which temporarily kept him out of the public eye. 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 for him to brought in the standard way. 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!
And what was Jesus' comment about the healing? "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.
Jesus' miraculous power, even from far away
Jesus' power was such that he did not even have to be physically present with people in order to heal them. That was the case with the slave of the Roman centurion (soldier). That centurion was not without authority in his own right, and yet he understood that the essence of Yeshua's power was an authority that far exceeded his own. "Only say the word," the soldier urged, "and he will be healed."
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.12 However, in the case of Lazarus, the man had not only died, but had been in a tomb for four days. The process of decay had already begun. Yet Jesus assured the dead man's grieving sister, Martha, that her brother would rise again.
Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
(It was a common belief that when the messiah came he would resurrect all the dead.)
"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."13
When Jesus called Lazarus forth from the moldering grave, it was an unprecedented act of God.
Jesus' miracles were light years beyond those of any healer of his day, from the standpoint of magnitude and from the authority they demonstrated. And throughout his public ministry, Jesus performed those miracles to back his claims.
Jesus (Yeshua) was mysterious
There are people whose mysterious behavior leads other to regard them as eccentric. The mystery surrounding Yeshua, however, was not odd or eccentric behavior. Rather, his "mystery" was in the parables he told and the claims he made that seemed to be beyond comprehension.
For example, Yeshua met with the Jewish leader, Nicodemus and told him that he needed to be born again. Nicodemus was puzzled. He pointed out the obvious impossibility--how could he go back into his mother's womb? Yeshua lifted some of the mystery by saying that a person is born of both water and the Spirit and that what Nicodemus needed was a spiritual rebirth. Yet the idea of a spiritual rebirth was not much easier to understand or accept 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.
On the final day of the Feast of Succoth, he told the worshippers at the Temple that whoever was thirsty needed to drink from the keren Yeshua, the living waters, the wellspring of salvation. Again, he went from that which was easily understood to something unseen, mysterious.
Yeshua could have spoken very plainly but he chose to disclose truth on a deeper level that caused people to ponder. Through hyperbole, metaphor, understatement and irony, he gave answers that were not easily understood. A person couldn't encounter Yeshua and merely have a pleasant chat. He phrased things in a way that made people seek solutions for the mysteries he raised in their hearts and minds. He changed the life of everyone that met him.
Jesus was "otherworldly"
Yeshua was born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and was, in many ways, very much a person of his time and place. Yet not only was he surrounded by a sense of mystery but he was separated by a sense of alienation. It's not that he was hostile or that he sought to exclude others. The alienation occurred because he knew and loved what was perfect and was committed to that perfection. Others had a difficult time understanding the beauty and wonder of the perfection Jesus experienced, and that separated him from other people.
Even as a boy of twelve, Yeshua's other worldliness was apparent. When he was separated from his mother Miriam, and his foster father, Joseph, they thought he had strayed, that he was lost. Upon finding him in the Temple they scolded him as parents naturally would. "I've been about my Father's business," he told them, and he was not referring to Joseph, but of a parentage that was beyond this earth.
Likewise, when Yeshua told Nicodemus that a person cannot see the kingdom of God without being born again, he was revealing his otherworldliness.
Jesus told people details about their lives that he would have no earthly way of knowing.14 When Jesus told a man that his sins were forgiven, he knew what the religious leaders present were thinking and he responded to their unspoken thoughts. It was said of him, that he knew what was "in the hearts of all."15 But he did not merely know what was in their hearts. He cared about them as people.
Jesus loved people!
Yeshua, unlike many other leaders of his day, showed a profound love for people--all kinds of people. The only people who were not touched by that love were those who did not want it. Yeshua extended forgiveness, acceptance, approval and appreciation to all except the self-satisfied and self-righteous. Apart from them, Jesus wanted to be with whomever wanted to be with him.
Yeshua taught in a way that made people smile, but he never failed to confound the haughty or bewilder the arrogant. He was a man who had calluses on his hand, 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.
The company he kept
He spent time with the tax collectors, fishermen, women of questionable reputation, learned people, farmers with dirt beneath their nails, Jews, Samaritans--even Romans. He enjoyed the company of small children when others wanted to shoo them away. He appreciated the gifts of women, whereas other rabbis wouldn't allow contact with a female for fear of defilement.
Yeshua ate with all kinds of people, he laughed with them, he wept with them and for them, and ultimately he died on their behalf.
Jesus was willing to be tried, convicted and crucified.
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 ecclesiastical police 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 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 ringing truth: "I did not say that."
"The King of the Jews"
When the governor asked Jesus if he was "the king of the Jews", he said, "Yes, it is as you say." Certainly, if he was a king, he was remarkable for his ordinariness. Yet this remarkably ordinary person, Yeshua, boasted a boast that was beyond the imagination of most insane people. He not only admitted he was destined to be king, but he claimed that he could call twelve legions of angels to his defense--if he chose.
Yet he made a different choice. 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.
The world has been changed by Jesus' coming.
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 Michaelangelo and Botticelli sought to glorify Yeshua in works of art that can be found in the most renowned museums and galleries on this globe.
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.
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 familiar with the geography of the Jewish homeland. People are more familiar with Bethlehem than Bombay and feel more of an attachment to Jerusalem than Rome. People of all races are named Abraham, David, Jacob, Isaiah and Rachel because of Yeshua. They feel related to the Jewish people through Jesus.
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 so.
In Jesus Christ's name...
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 Christ.
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 show some discipline in following his teachings.
The good side
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 Neimµller, 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.
The dark side
Detractors dwell on deeds of "name only" Christians or the deeds of Christians gone astray, rather than dealing with the person of Yeshua, even when confronted with the fact that the two are separate. After all, Judaism is not made invalid by the deeds of those Jewish people who violate any of the 613 precepts of the law.
In the same way, those people who take Jesus seriously and try to live by his teaching are a minority. Why is it that the majority of people, Jews and Gentiles, don't want to hear about Yeshua?
The cost of following Jesus
The irony is that, as the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." 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.
But those who avoided or despised him felt they didn't need his love or his compassion for they saw themselves as self-sufficient. They didn't understand why Jesus kept company with people who were beneath their contempt. And they seemed to reason that, if Jesus was as noble as they were, he would distance himself from the dregs of society.
Today, many deride believers in Jesus as weak, helpless losers, looking for a quick fix to their problems. Some view Jesus as a crutch and see themselves as spiritually fit, having no need of 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.
The truth about Jesus
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.
Jesus is also as mysterious as he ever was. Those who have accepted his love and forgiveness and have committed their lives to him, can't quite explain the quality of their spiritual life to those who have not yet experienced the new birth. But one can catch glimpses of it in the lives of those who know him best. They continue to be motivated by his person and moved by his power.
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 Bµck, Harnack Vorlesungen über das Wesen des Christentums (Breslau: n.p., 1902)
2. Matthew 2:2
3. Matthew 2:6
4. Matthew 16:14-17
5. John 4:25,26
6. Basic Christianity, John R. W. Stott, p.22, London, InterVarsity Fellowship ? 1968
7. Matthew 5
8. John 8:53-58
9. The name that the Almighty gave Moses to make demands on Pharaoh was 'I Am'. Tell Pharaoh I am sent you. Exodus
10. Matthew 10:23, 12:40, 16:27.
11. Luke 4:21
12. 2 Kings, chapter 4
13. John 11:24-27
14. See John 1:48-50, 4:18
15. Acts 1:24