The Jewish Jesus as a Christian Bias

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

mofficJesus and Jews have not always got along well together in Christian scholarship but today (and for some decades now, especially since Geza Vermes published Jesus the Jew) they have been rollicking along just fine. So close are they that some scholars have been known to censure anyone who attributes to Jesus Hellenistic tropes of “latent anti-semitism”.

Scholars like April DeConick and Louis Painchaud have suggested that the modern tend to find some good in Judas is an outgrowth of a powerful cultural need to absolve our collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews in the wake of World War 2 and the Holocaust and the widespread anti-Semitism preceding those years. Both scholars argue that the National Geographic presentation of the Gospel of Judas portrayed Judas as a hero as a result of wishful and tendentious translations the text. Both argue that in fact the Gospel of Judas by no means presents him as a would-be saint.

But back to Jesus. Of course Jesus was a Jew. But traditionally many Christians have been taught to think of him as opposing what was essential Judaism of his day, that is, the self-righteous, legalistic and judgmental Pharisees. That concept has probably historically fed in to waves of antisemitism throughout history.

Now I fully agree that that traditional perception of Judaism is a misplaced caricature, the product of hostile Christian invention. That that simplistic notion has been replaced by more nuanced reality in the scholarly literature is a good thing.

But does the emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus also indicate that Christian scholars are working outside the zone of their natural Christian biases? By no longer claiming Jesus “for themselves” and by implication as having no part with Judaism, are Christian scholars necessarily working towards a more neutral scholarly venture?

I think not. The reason is a new book I came across, What every Christian needs to know about the Jewishness of Jesus : a new way of seeing the most influential rabbi in history by Rabbi Evan Moffic.

Notice this passage from the Foreword to the book by Kent Dobson, Teaching Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church:

And discovering a Jewish Jesus is not just an academic exercise; it has widespread implications for the health of Christianity. In some sense, we cannot claim Jesus as our own anymore. He was Jewish, we need to hear him in his own Jewish context, and we need to hear from Jewish voices about how they read this rabbi from Galilee.

Personally, I learned more from my Jewish brothers and sisters about Jesus and his world than I ever learned in church. . . . 

I believe we are better people of faith when we bring our experience into a real conversation with those from other faith perspectives and convictions. The Jewish-Christian dialogue is not a politically correct game. We are conversing about meaning and truth, beauty and love, family and forgiveness, and the mystery of God. What could be better! . . . 

Jewish perspectives on Jesus clarify, strengthen, and take further some Christian convictions about his mission, teaching, and life. . . . 

This new era of Jewish-Christian dialogue is just dawning. In some sense, it’s still very fragile. It started in academia and now is spilling out into the Synagogue and the Church.

Moffic, Rabbi Evan (2016-02-02). What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History (Kindle Locations 62-83). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Then there are the words of the author in his Introduction:

This book comes from a place of openness and learning. I have spoken in evangelical and mainline churches. I have studied with Christian ministers from across the theological spectrum. What unites all these encounters is a passionate interest in living a life of faith and knowledge. When Christians study and appreciate the Jewishness of Jesus, they begin to see Judaism not as a fossil or a museum. They see it as a living tradition that can challenge, teach, and change their lives. This book takes what I have learned from those experiences and puts it into the hands and hearts of all who seek to grow in faith. . . . 

I wrote this book because I was frustrated and hopeful. I was frustrated by those who try to divide Jews and Christians into right and wrong, who try to keep alive an ancient conflict that has miraculously faded in our time. I was frustrated by those who write condescendingly about Judaism for Christians, trying to show the ways the Bible has always been “misread” and Christians “misinformed.” I was frustrated by the disconnection between extraordinary scholarship on the Jewish background of Jesus and popular knowledge of it. I am hopeful that this book can serve as a bridge between the pulpit and the pew. I am hopeful that those who walk with Jesus can walk now with greater knowledge and love.

Moffic, Rabbi Evan (2016-02-02). What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History (Kindle Locations 124-140). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

A focus on the Jewishness of Jesus is not of itself an indication that the scholar has courageously stepped out from his own Christian biases to study Jesus from a faith-neutral perspective.

And of course there are the other political (anti-antisemitic) reasons for those who are not religious at all. That may be a politically correct wave in these times but it’s a good politically correct wave. But good ideology, and even the desire to be simply a good person, is no more a guarantor of freedom from bias in a scholarly pursuit than is the current Christian desire to grow spiritually in partnership with their Jewish brethren.

In other words, there is no intellectually sound reason to accuse of lurking anti-semitism those who find at least some characteristics in the early Jesus that are more pro-Hellenistic than typically rabbinical. (After all, rabbinic Judaism appeared much later than the time of Jesus.)

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

31 thoughts on “The Jewish Jesus as a Christian Bias”

  1. “Scholars like April DeConick and Louis Painchaud have suggested that the modern tend to find some good in Judas is an outgrowth of a powerful cultural need to absolve our collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews in the wake of World War 2 and the Holocaust and the widespread anti-Semitism preceding those years.”

    The same motivation behind the need to “find some good in Judas” is also driving the need to “find some Jewishness in Jesus.” Christians need a scapegoat to absolve their collective guilt over the Holocaust. Blaming the Romans for the crucifixion fulfills that need and absolves the guilt that Christians had previously put exclusively on Jews for the past 2,000 years.

    The whole point of Christian mythology is that “the Jews” had to act collectively as a sacred executioner and kill the Messiah, as Christian exegesis of the Bible predicts, so that the Gentiles could be “saved” by YHWH. There was no other way this could happen, according to this theology. See Hyam Maccoby’s book “The Sacred Executioner.”

    Keep in mind Geza Vermes’ “Jesus the Jew” only appeared in 1973. It would probably be a challenge finding any Christian scholarship prior to that time that spoke of Jesus’ Jewishness in a positive light.

    1. “The whole point of Christian mythology is that “the Jews” had to act collectively as a sacred executioner and kill the Messiah, as Christian exegesis of the Bible predicts, so that the Gentiles could be “saved” by YHWH. There was no other way this could happen, according to this theology. See Hyam Maccoby’s book “The Sacred Executioner.” ”

      This is only true of later, Johannine Christianity. Earlier versions are deeply Jewish; the earliest apostles and evangelists were Jews preaching to Jews about a Jewish Messiah. Nothing about the Jesus story or sacrifice makes any sense without a Jewish background. And as Richard Carrier points out, the fact that Paul never cites the authority of Jesus when defending his innovation of preaching to Gentiles proves that, if there was a historical Jesus, he was a Jew preaching only to Jews.

      1. Keep in mind, though, that sectarian “Jews” were quite capable of condemning all “Jews” as godless, with the implicit understanding that their sect were the exception.

        From the time the Judas character was invented the “Jews” were very likely epitomized as the betrayers of Jesus, epitomized in his name.

        Jewish sects were quite capable of “casting into out darkness” all rivals, condemning “the Jews” and still be considered as part of Second Temple Judaism. Outsiders would see them all as “Jews” nonetheless.

  2. I argued for two or three years with Larry Hurtado on his blog; arguing for seeing more Greek and Roman influence in Jesus and early Chritianity. Surprisingly, about three or four months ago, Hurtado began accepting, endorsing, much of what I was saying. I’m expecting a reinstatement of this classic view, in years to come. In part hopefully, due to my own efforts.

  3. So, does this Rabbi believe that Jesus was the messiah? Or is he simply explaining that Jesus was a Jew and while not the messiah, played a role within the Jewish community and had Jewish values? I was trying to understand his basic perspective. It seems that he doesn’t believe that Jesus was the true Messiah that the Jews expect like the Messianic Jews do, but wanted to get your thoughts on this since you read his book.

    1. The popular attempt to fully reconcile Jesus, Christianty, and Judaism, does indeed run into many problems. No matter how much ecumenicalists, say, might pursue that goal.

    2. So far I have only read the opening and closing pages, but Moffic is clear about his thoughts on the question of Jesus’s messiahship. He sides with those liberal Christians and Jews don’t care what you believe just so long as you do good. In his final chapter he sets out five different Jewish views about Jesus, including one that he was the first Messiah — with the “second coming” implying that there is to be another. This first messiah was a “failed messiah” in the sense that prophets of old (Jeremiah, e.g.) were “failed prophets” — people did not listen but their message was from God and for the benefit of all.)

      Others see him as a “righteous leader” — the embodiment not of God but of the Torah — he was “Torah incarnate”. This view is said to be a better concept than that of Messiah because it focuses our attention on his works to be emulated than his status as an object of worship.

      Then there is Jesus the “Liberal Rabbi”:

      While Jesus lived a traditional Jewish life, his followers introduced significant changes to it. Most famously, the apostle Paul permitted the consumption of nonkosher food and entry of uncircumcised gentiles into the Jewish community. These changes helped facilitate the split between the more traditional Jewish community and the emerging group of Jesus’s followers. From a modern perspective, however, we can see Paul as introducing changes into traditional Judaism that many Jews today embrace. More specifically, Reform Judaism does not require Jews to follow the kosher laws or perform the traditional circumcision ritual on the eighth day. Now, certainly we encourage both practices, but they are not at the core of Jewish life as they were in the first century. We have also de-emphasized ritual and the significance of the law and replaced it with focus on ethics and community. In other words, aside from the divinity of Jesus, Paul’s teaching would have been perfectly acceptable to many modern Jews.

      Many Reform rabbis of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made this argument in an effort to reclaim Jesus as a liberal Jew.

      At times Moffic writes as if to identify with this “liberal rabbi” view.

      Another view of Jesus is that of a Bridge. Focusing on the deeds and teachings of Jesus (as Moffic does) stresses what Jews and Christians have in common and provides a place where they can meet in harmony.

      Moffic’s reason for the book is summed up in his Epilogue:

      A few years ago, following a lecture I gave at a local church, a student confessed to me that she wished she had been born a Jew so she could know what Jesus experienced. Moved by her words, I asked her what— aside from being reborn in a different era— could help her gain that knowledge. She said, “A real understanding of Jesus’s life as a Jew.” This book is the result of that conversation. It is a result of thousands of hours spent in learning and conversations with devoted Jews and Christians who care about growing in faith and knowledge.

      I hope seeing Jesus’s life as a Jew opens up new ways of appreciating and growing closer to him. I hope it helps Christians move beyond the simple understanding of Jesus as a ticket to heaven to Jesus as a way of living within a tradition and relating to others. I hope it helps Jews move beyond a simple association of Jesus with anti-Semitism to Jesus as a teacher of Judaism. I also hope it creates new encounters with God and with one another.

      As people of faith, our challenge is to try not to undermine one another. It is not to try to prove our faith superior to every other. It is living and teaching our message of life and hope in a world filled with violence and indifference. It is finding and articulating faith in ourselves. In such a world, the more we learn from one another, the more confident and knowledgeable we can be in living our faith.

      Victor Hugo once said, “All the forces in the world are not as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Seeing Jesus as a Jew is an idea whose time has come.

      Moffic, Rabbi Evan (2016-02-02). What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History (Kindle Locations 2488-2499). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

  4. Both argue that in fact the Gospel of Judas by no means presents him as a would-be saint.

    I suspect that the same suicide of Judah (in Matthew and Luke-Acts) is an anti-marcionite addition.
    According to Marcion, the true God is not able of doing evil or punition after death. He is able of giving only pure love.

    Therefore when the marcionite Jesus says:

    But look – the hand of the one who betrays me is here with mine on the table, for the son of man must go as it has been determined, but woe to the one by whom he is betrayed!”

    the future author of that ‘woe’ can be only the Creator god, the Demiurge: Judah is transgressor of the Torah (”Thou shalt not kill!”) and he will be punished. Only by using Judah ”to destroy” Jesus, the priests and pharisees can observe the Torah from a technical point of view (just as the ‘wicked servant’ of the parable).

    If Judah doesn’t kill himself, then the Demiurge will kill him.

    Hence the anti-marcionite need of a suicide for Judah.

    1. Nearly every element in the Matthew story of the death of Judas can be found in Jeremiah 19, Zechariah 11:12-12, and Jeremiah 32:8-9 while 2 Samuel 17:23 has a suicide by hanging. The Acts version isn’t even a suicide. The only common factors are that a field was bought, but by different people, and the “Field of Blood”, but with a different reason for the name. There are references to pottery in Jeremiah 19 and in Matthew 27:7 says it was a potter’s field, so it may have actually been called the “Field of Blood” or the “valley of Slaughter” because it was full of red clay.

      Acts seems to be more of a negation of Matthew where Judas so remorseful he returned the money and killed himself. In Acts, good people die as martyrs:
      1. Stephen, Acts 7:54-60
      2. James, Acts 12:1-2

      while bad people die sudden or gory deaths
      1. Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-12, both dropped dead from accusations from Peter
      2. Herod, Acts 12:20-23, eaten by worms for not giving enough glory to God

  5. (a) I Thessalonians 2.14-16. A statement early in NT history, or a later interpolation?

    (b) It is not difficult to collect from Jewish and Christian writings, especially in recent years, the suggestion that the NT was “ultimately” responsible for The Holocaust (though this seems to have been downplayed lately somewhat in the welcome given to Christian Zionists and Christian refugees in political support for Israel re “Islamic anti-Semitism”). The theological aspects of anti-Judaism are pronounced in the preaching of e.g. Chrysostom and Luther, and fed into violent persecution of Jews in Europe, but there has always been an adversarial interaction between “Synagogue” and “Church”. The Holocaust itself has taken on a quasi-religious function in some Jewish minds, with the “Jewish” execution of the Son of God set against the “Christian” executions of the People of G’d, or as a unity substitute in the non-observant collective consciousness for the Torah and Talmud.

    (c) Historically, there were “economic” and later “scientific” elements in anti-Semitism that (apart from the persistent “stereotype” of Judas) were not derived from Christianity itself. See e.g. the books by Jacques Attali Jerry Z. Muller on the former aspect.

    1. (a) Paul seems to have been reading a coming Messiah into the Suffering Servant songs as “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed” (Romans 16:25-26). He may have thought Jesus was on Earth after David as he was “he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” and that he was “descended from David” (Romans 1:2-3), but before or contemporary with Isaiah who wrote in the past tense of the Suffering Servant. So having Jesus listed as killed before the prophets would be consistent with that view and it needn’t be thought of as an interpolation.

  6. Much of Christianity was once antisemitic. But much of it went the other way, even in an exaggerated way. Insisting Jesus was wholly Jewish. Or that Christianity and Judaism, followed the same God, loyally. Or the same idea of God. Even though some scholars note significant differences, even quite early. Even in the time of Jesus.

    Why were differences downplayed?Partially out of 1) ecuminism. But also to resolve a major theological problem in the Bible: 2) that Jesus and Christianity constantly claimed to absolutely follow God; the God of the Old Testament, of the Jews; but looking more carefully, countless scholars noted that the biblical Jesus, and the New Testament, and Christianity, actually deviated in many significant ways from Old Testament laws, and it’s notion of God.

    Today the notion of a Wholly Jewish Jesus is accepted academic dogma. But there are hundreds if not thousands of earlier, classic articles noting non-Jewish or Jahwist elements even in very, very early Christianity. Even in the very earliest Jesus that we can discern historically.

    So I suggest that the today-prevailing model of a Wholly Jewish Jesus is actually politically, ideologically, religiously motivated, and biased.

    1. I agree with your last sentence, Bee. However, some Jews today insist that any Christian concept that the NT supersedes or “fulfills” the “OT” is ipso facto “anti-Semitic”. If Jesus existed, maybe he was a “marginal Jew” in the sense that both his paternity and much early learning fell outside the range of contemporary orthodox Judaisms, in particular those associated with the Temple in Judea.

      1. That may be partly true. But until very, very recently, not only conservative Christians, but also orthodox and conservative Jews themselves, very firmly rejected Jesus as Jewish.

        Suggesting that the Wholly Jewish Jesus construct originally comes from a secular group, or liberal ideology. And not from original, deep, historical, ethnic roots.

        1. Or from a liberal but still religious theology: e.g., ecumenicalism. The effort to reconcile all religions, including Judaism and Christianity, into one. Which, being still religious, would not normally be endorsed by many on a mostly secular website.

  7. I have a question about The Trinity. How good is The Trinity at characterizing Jesus? For example, when Jesus calls out to God (such as in the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, the cry of dereliction from the cross, when Jesus teaches The Lord’s Prayer, etc), he is calling out to another, to God, not to himself. Isn’t it wrong to think that Jesus and God are one?

    1. I think the Trinity doctrine emerged relatively late in Christianity and I doubt the evangelists had it in mind. What is of interest (have posted a few times on this before, still much more to write) are some notions of God among Second Temple Jewish ideas: God could have emanations of himself, separate from yet identified with him. Some of these ideas appear to me to be somehow similar to certain neo-Platonic ideas that come to feed into gnosticism, including Jewish gnosticism. God thinks into existence an image of himself, etc….

      1. I would hesitate in calling Jesus an emanation or image of God. It would be odd that Jesus disagrees with God and feels the need to petition God, as he does in the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, if he was the emanation or image of God.

        1. Jesus in the gospels is just a literary figure. The Jesus Christ of worship was the Logos as in Paul’s letters. The Gospel of Mark tells a midrashic or metaphorical tale to teach about baptism, conversion, faith, etc.

            1. I don’t see any indication that he has an interest in Jesus as a person. The gospel comes across to me like a story of “God in us” or God in Paul (?) as a paradigm for the convert. He’s writing about God in and with us. Not about trying to teach everyone to come to Jesus like a modern preacher.

        2. John 1.1-18 fits the notion of Jesus as an emanation of Deity. A common explanation of the prayer on the cross is that Jesus had two natures, Deity and Humanity, and as a man would never pray to himself but to God the Father. (Cf. Hebrews 5.7-9.) The Incarnation and then the Trinity were attempts to solve difficulties in the NT texts, but whether successfully or coherently or credibly is another matter.

          Tertulllian (d. c. 240 CE) was the first important writer of known to spell out the Trinity with the the Holy Spirit added to Father and Son. I trust it is relevant to add that this concept is viewed with abhorrence by Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
          The Mormons have a rather laughable version of it.

            1. I shall look this out.

              The notion of the three personages in the “Godhead” (Father & Son identical in appearance, and the Spirit a sort of fuzzy scribble) struck me as a form of tritheism, while their whole “theology/angelology” seems bizarre, quite apart from the fabrication of the Book of Mormon, &c.

              One of the best scholarly summaries and critiques of various myth theories of Christian origins, however, I found some years ago on one of the LDS websites. Their argument for identifying the one True Church among the available selection is similar to the old approach of RC apologists.

              Their civic record is very good, and shows that social behavior while probably dependent on religious conviction is not dependent on the detailed credibility of the religious doctrines themselves.

              If this comment is regarded as irrelevant, please delete it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading