Q&A: What Kind of Jew was Jesus?

Q&A: What Kind of Jew was Jesus?

Q: I know Jesus was born a Jew, but didn’t he start a new religion called Christianity?

A: However one chooses to fit Jesus into the mosaic of first-century Judaism, faith in Jesus is understood to be Jewish at its root. We have to say “faith in Jesus” for the first few centuries, because while followers of Jesus were called “Christians” early on, it is incorrect to call the faith “Christianity” until later.

As Reform Rabbi Evan Moffic puts it, “Jesus did not start Christianity. Jesus lived and died as a Jew. Christianity emerged after his death as an off-shoot of Judaism, eventually separating and becoming its own religion. The beliefs and practices of this religion differ from Judaism, but they remain rooted in it.”[1]

Jesus shared much in common with other Jews of his day, yet also differed from them. As a Jew, he had a bris; he had the first-century equivalent of a pidyon ha-ben ceremony a month after birth; he observed Passover. He was in Jerusalem for Sukkot and was at the Temple during Hanukkah. He customarily attended synagogue, and on at least one occasion was invited up to speak on what today would be known as the Haftarah. He emphasized Jewish values such as kibud av va’em (honor of parents) and tzedakah (charity).

Yet he took issue with some traditions and with some Pharisees and Sadducees. That is why some have wryly referred to Jesus as the “first Reform Jew.” He healed people on the Sabbath when others considered healing inappropriate for the day of rest. He spoke with an authority no other rabbi dared to claim. All these disputes, however, took place within first-century Judaism. The kind of Judaism Jesus represented is debated, but Judaism it was. For again, there was as yet nothing called “Christianity.”

So, who was Jesus, if not the founder of a new, non-Jewish religion? He answered the question directly several times. In one encounter, a Samaritan woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus replied, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25-26).

[1] Rabbi Evan Moffic, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), xi.


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