Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Jewish Gospels: Part 1- Jesus, the Jew?

Traditional Christians believe Jesus Christ had a flesh and blood mother. Joseph and Mary followed Jewish practices and customs, so what about Jesus? He couldn't have been Jewish, could he? The Jews argued with Jesus and later tortured and crucified him, so how could he possibly be one of them? Well unless you're a Docetist, believer in Christ being fully divine, then I can't see any logical argument that could undeniably support Jesus being anything other than a 1st century Palestinian Jew.

[Jesus teaching in a Synagogue, Author Unknown.]

Oh, people have tried to argue that he wasn't Jewish, which surprised me when I attempted to read their fear-induced propaganda. Now, I must confess that I never connected the dots between Jesus and his Jewishness until well into my teen years. In fact, I never really considered Jesus' humanity throughout my childhood because we were raised to believe he is the Son of God. The divine nature of Jesus was incredibly emphasized, overshadowing his humanity. Rereading the Gospels as an adult there is no escaping that Jesus was born and raised Jewish. I should probably attempt to clarify what it means to be Jewish. Today, you can be considered Jewish by birth (your parents, specifically your mother, are Jews), by nationality, and by religious status (converted to Judaism). I'm sure the lines were more black and white when it came to being a Jew in 1st century, Roman-occupied, Palestine. In fact, I can't think of any group/nationality/persons that would have been allowed to participate in Temple practices if they weren't Jewish. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Temple and all things Jewish was an exclusive enterprise: either you were Jewish or you weren't.

Luke 2 is riddled with Jewish traditions and practices that the holy family practiced during the early years of Jesus. There are plenty more examples of the Jewishness of Jesus scattered throughout the Gospels which begs the question, if Jesus was a Jew, and his disciples were Jews, then shouldn't we be reading the Gospels, which were written for Jewish Christians, with a modicum understanding of Judaism? Should we not read the Gospels as Jewish works? John Shelby Spong brings up this fundamental question in his book "Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes". This excerpt summarizes the need to rethink and reread the Bible from a Jewish perspective.
"So the Jewishness of Jesus, the Jewishness of Mary, his mother, the Jewishness of the Apostles, the Jewishness of Paul, and even the Jewishness of the heroes of the Hebrew past was at worst systematically denied and at best subtly understated. It is thus easy for me to understand today that few people in the Christian West have been able to think of the Bible, including both testaments, as a Jewish book. If one cannot even embrace emotionally the Jewishness of Jesus, then why would one study the sacred scriptures of the Jewish people as the primary means of knowing and understanding this Jesus? How aware are people today, for example, of the fact that every author in the entire Bible was Jewish by birth or conversion and that there was only one convert? How often has the interpretive task of the Christian expositors of the Gospels begun with the suggestion that, since the books we call Gospels were written by Jewish authors, we might want to study just how it was that Jewish people wrote sacred narratives so that we might understand even the Gospels? Has it not occurred to anyone to ask, 'How can a Jewish work be understood if one ignores the Jewish context, the Jewish mind-set, the Jewish frame of Reference, the Jewish vocabulary, and even the Jewish history that shaped and formed the writer?' But that has been the reality of the Christian West for most of our history."(Ch. 2. The Gospels are Jewish Books)
Are we not ignoring the human nature of Jesus by ignoring his ethnicity, traditions, and culture? If Jesus was truly fully God and fully Man what aspects of his humanity are compromised or even dwarfed to obscurity by his divine nature within Traditional Christianity? If our religious beliefs, culture, traditions, and ethnicity helps to shape our individuality and are important elements to being human, what pieces from the enigma that is Jesus of Nazareth are we throwing out by excluding his Jewishness? Even though the Gospels are seen and read as Christian works I believe that even the most conservative of Christians could learn something important about Jesus and his teachings when understood through Jewish eyes. If we struggle to understand the world and culture that shaped Jesus of Nazareth, how can we come close to understanding his message?


Tracy said...

I think you're right - we do need to understand Judaism, especially in the days of Jesus, for a fuller understanding of Jesus and His message.

Don said...

Great post! And, of course, great book (Liberating the Gospels)! It was a most enlightening book. Gave me a new perspective on Matthew, and why it was written the way it was. Also, the gospel of Luke takes on new meaning when read as a book by a "converted" gentile.

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