The Jewish Jesus
July 21, 2018
by Barry Fike
The place to begin searching for Jesus is in the world in which he grew. His roots were first-century Judaism. If you reject Judaism, you will miss Jesus. Why? It’s difficult for many to realize the obvious fact that Jesus never was a Christian. He was born a Jew, lived a Jewish lifestyle, and died a Jew. Jesus never left Judaism. Jesus is Jewish born in his ethnic background and in his religious thought and practice.
Along with the other great sages and teacher that Jews study and revere (Judah ant Price, Hillel, Shammai, Akiva, Yokhanan Ben Zakkai, etc.), Jesus was critical of hypocrisy of some within the Temple priesthood led by the Sadducees. But Jesus never left Judaism, even when he was critical of hypocrisy. He never abandoned the practice of fulfilling the Torah’s commandments (i.e., observing the Sabbath, keeping the kosher dietary laws, observing the festivals, etc.). Almost all of the Jews that heard him loved his teachings because they were so rooted in the emerging movement that soon would come to be known as Rabbinic Judaism. His constant references to the Talmud and Mishnah and the biblical text made them feel right at home with his teaching. Jesus not only quotes the Torah and the prophets, but his teaching parallel the emerging oral tradition that existed in his lifetime.
Although Jesus was Jewish, his theology is sometimes treated as if he were Christian. But Jesus never attended a church. He never celebrated Christmas. He never wore new clothes on Easter Sunday. His cultural orientation was rooted deeply in the faith experience of his people. His teachings concerning God’s love and dignity of each human being were based upon the foundations of Jewish religious thought during the Second Temple period. He worshipped in a synagogue, celebrated the Passover, ate kosher food, and offered prayers in the temple at Jerusalem. The Jewish religious heritage of Jesus impacted his life in every dimension of his daily experience. Jesus and his followers honored Sabbath, kosher dietary laws, laws of modesty, and the purity laws (e.g., washing hands, using a mikvah for ritual bathing).
Unfortunately, 2000 years of Christian art and classical European paintings and sculptures that depict Jesus and his family and friends look anything but Mediterranean Jews. Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David even has him uncircumcised. This is not to say that Christianity doesn’t begin with Jesus—it does—however, the Christian belief must encompass all of the rich cultural and religious heritage of its founder. The religion of the Jews in the first century is the root, which produced the fruit of Christian faith. The religion of Jesus and his people was Judaism. Unfortunately, too often today theologians read the Gospels as Christian literature written by the church for the church.
When Jesus is viewed among the Gentiles, the significance of Jewish culture and custom is minimized or forgotten altogether. But when Jesus is viewed as a Jew within the context of first century Judaism, an entirely different portrait emerges. When we begin to realize that Jesus is both in his ethnic background and in his religious thought and practice a Jew he, and his teaching, take on a new dimension that helps us understand his teachings with clarity and the original meaning.
Consider what the scripture says about Jesus and his family:
*Mark and Joseph have Jesus circumcised as commanded by Torah:
Luke 2:21 “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
*Mary immerses herself in the ritual bath as commanded by the Torah:
Luke 2:22 “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
*Jesus and his family observe the Passover as commanded by both Torah and the Oral Law:
Luke 2:42 “And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.”
*Jesus wore tzitzit—religious fringes on his garment as commanded by the Torah:
Matthew 9:20 “Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringes of his cloak.”
*Jesus instructs his follower to keep the commandments of the Torah:
Matthew 19:17 “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
*Jesus instructs his followers to bring a Temple offering as commanded by the Torah:
Matthew 8:4 “Go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
*Jesus celebrates Hanukkah:
John 10:22-23 “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple…”