Jesus Is a Jew
Jesus Is a Jew

Jesus Is a Jew

The ineffable becomes intelligible in Israel.

January 30 th 2020
Appears in Winter 2020

This Year in Jerusalem

There are different lenses through which to see Jesus. I suppose there is a Florence Jesus—the pale, gentle, Caucasian Jesus of the Italian Renaissance paintings, with a scraggly blond beard and two fingers raised in blessing. There’s the Managua Jesus, the peasant revolutionary. There’s the Jesus of the American slaves, the suffering Christ bearing the burden of the oppressed. There’s the Oxford Jesus, the strong, elegant, protective Aslan for those who came to faith through C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Anglophilia. And then there’s the Jerusalem Jesus. This is the lens that sees Jesus the Jew.

The Israel of Jesus, like the Israel of today, was a spiritual and literal battle zone. He was love in the most hostile environment imaginable.

This is the lens that tries to see through two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism; that tries to see through two thousand years in which Jews and Christians have defined themselves against one another, magnifying their differences. This is the lens that tries to see Jesus in his original Jewish context, that tries to put his Israelite and Jewish experience in the foreground, and not in the background.

I’m always amazed by how many people who have dedicated their lives to Christ have never actually been to Israel. They have money to travel, and go off to Europe and such places, but they haven’t directly experienced the clashing confrontation of faiths, powers, and tribes that marks Jerusalem today and was just as present in Jesus’s own lifetime. They haven’t given themselves the chance to appreciate how misleading it is to associate the faith with the serenity of a church pew or the reasoned domesticity of a Bible study. The world Jesus inhabited was a world of fractious intensity. The Israel of Jesus, like the Israel of today, was a spiritual and literal battle zone. He was love in the most hostile environment imaginable.

The starting point of the Jerusalem view of Jesus is the fact that is everywhere acknowledged but rarely given sufficient weight. Jesus was Jewish. He presumably had the skin colour of modern Sephardic Jews. He wore tzitzit, or fringes, that modern Orthodox Jews wear and donned the phylacteries that Jewish men still put on. He and his disciples kept kosher. He argued with other Jews but within the context of Judaism. In Matthew he tells his disciples not to bother evangelizing among the Samarians and the gentiles. His ministry begins with lost sheep within the house of Israel itself, before it broadens to contain all the world. “Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them,” he says in Matthew 5:17.

In my experience, many Jews today know very little about Jesus. But there have always been some Jews who read about him and recognize how completely Jewish he was. Martin Buber called Jesus a “brother.” Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, a leader of reform Judaism, once declared that if Jesus came back to earth today it would be at a Reformed synagogue where he would feel most at home. The Jewish writer Amy-Jill Levine says she doesn’t worship Jesus, because she’s a Jew, but “I also have to admit to a bit of pride in thinking about him—he’s one of ours.”

Rabbi Leo Baeck, who led German Jews during the horrors of the Holocaust, put it best: “We behold a man who is Jewish in every feature and trait of his character, manifesting in every particular what is pure and good in Judaism. This man could have developed as he came to be only on the soil of Judaism, and only on this soil, too, could he find disciples and followers as they were. Here alone in this Jewish sphere, in this Jewish atmosphere . . . could this man live his life and meet his death—a Jew among Jews.”

To be a Jew in Jesus’s day was not to embrace a “religion” or to practice a “faith.” They didn’t have these concepts yet because they did not yet have the concept of secularism. Judaism was an enveloping lifepath, total worldview, a covenantal relationship, a way of living out and searching for truth. It starts with the claim that of all the many peoples of this earth, God had chosen this one scraggly little band on the eastern edge of the Judean hill country to be his people and the recipient of his covenant. As N.T. Wright puts it, the sheer absurdity of this claim, from the standpoint of any other worldview, is staggering.

To be a Jew in Jesus’s day was not to embrace a “religion” or to practice a “faith.” They didn’t have these concepts yet because they did not yet have the concept of secularism. Judaism was an enveloping lifepath.

If you were within this covenant, it must have felt completely self-enclosing. The pressure must have been intense. We today have a sense that the world is filled with many diverse cultures and nations and their rivalries are just the normal stuff of politics.

The Jews, two thousand years ago, had a sense that Israel stood out from all the other nations and lived out its own unique destiny. They saw relations between nations not just as the normal jostling of peoples but as the running tally of divine judgment: Are we favoured or are we punished? Is the covenant betrayed or fulfilled? God shapes history to teach us hard lessons.

Welcome to the Apocalypse

Which leads to another pivotal reality that defined Judaism in Jesus’ day: foreign occupation. Jerusalem and the towns around it were perpetually under the control of foreign powers. The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 587 BC. The Syrian ruler Antiochus took over and desecrated the Second Temple in 167. The Maccabees revolted and restored Jewish independence at that time—and then squandered Jewish pride by assimilating ever closer with Hellenistic culture. The Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC.

Think of the questions that would have bedevilled the nation under occupation: Why are God’s chosen people subordinate? How do we survive within the pressure cooker of this oppression? Who among us is collaborating with the other side? Is our persecution God’s just judgment on us for the sins that we have allowed to fester? Which messiah will save us and when?

The military and political occupation kicked up all sorts of spiritual crises. There was an imminent sense that the moment of holy reckoning was at hand—the Messiah is coming, the climax of history is approaching. The Qumran scrolls give us a sense of the apocalyptic atmosphere: “This shall be a time of salvation for the people of God, and the end-time of dominion for all men of His lot and the ages of annihilation for all the lot of Belial.”

Everything was fraught, semi-hysterical, and tension-filled. Under the boot of the Romans, Jews clung intensely to the temple as the remaining foothold on this earth. Desperate criminal gangs roamed the countryside looking for plunder. Minor-league revolutionaries were perpetually rising up and getting crushed. Wright lists seven small revolts between AD 26 and 36 alone, around the time of Jesus’s ministry. A few decades later an Egyptian Jew led a mass movement to the Mount of Olives. He promised his followers that the walls of Jerusalem would fall down, and they would enter the city in triumph. Instead the Roman soldiers cut them down where they camped. The destruction of the Second Temple happened a few years after that, in 70, and the mass suicide at Masada came in 74.

Galilee was a common origin point of these revolts. The historian Simon Dubnov writes that “from Galilee stemmed all the revolutionary movements which so disturbed the Romans.” Other historians say he is exaggerating, but not by much. There was a general sense that if you were Galilean, you were mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Galileans were known for being poor and poorly educated, violent and rabble-rousing. When the elites in Jerusalem heard this Jesus fellow speaking with a Galilean accent, they would have been on high alert right away.

Galilee was late to Judaism. People there converted around 120 BC. The region was geographically separated from the other Jewish population centres, surrounded by hostile peoples, including the Syro-Phoenicians to the north and Samarians to the south. According to the biblical scholar Bruce Chilton, Jesus’s part of Galilee was so backward that it lacked a currency-based economy. When Jesus walked from Galilee to Jerusalem he was crossing worlds.

Jesus is commonly said to have been born in Bethlehem in the Judean hills near Jerusalem. But Chilton suspects that this is a geographical error. Jesus, he argues, was probably born in another town named Bethlehem, in Galilee, and just seven miles from Nazareth. Bethlehem means “house of bread.” The name was given to many towns where bakers worked.

You Are Not to Be Called Rabbi

Jesus would have been born into a tighter community than anything we can quite imagine today. Even today, Judaism feels more groupy than modern American Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity. A Christian is supposed to see himself as part of the body; part of the wild vine that was grafted onto the vine of Israel. But as it is currently practiced in real life, at least in the United States, one hears a lot more of individual salvation than group salvation; about a personal relationship with God more than a communal one. Jews experience faith as a people and not so much as individuals. Sin and repentance are communal acts, not individual acts. Identity is tied to the land of the fathers. Peoplehood passes from generation to generation. Two millennia ago, before current conceptions of privacy and Enlightenment individualism, this collective tribal consciousness would have been the ever-present flavour of Jesus’s milieu.

Jesus would have been born into a tighter community than anything we can quite imagine today.

Jesus was born into a tight collective, but he would probably have been treated as an outsider within it. Others in Nazareth would have seen Jesus as a mamzer, Chilton argues, as a child born from a forbidden relationship or with questionable parenthood. Mamzers were untouchable, often destined for the servant class. “No mamzer shall enter the congregation of the Lord,” is how the book of Deuteronomy puts it. Jesus would have been treated as something of an outcast from the beginning—though obviously he was not barred from the synagogue for it.

He was also born into a world of sects. The intense pressure of life under Roman rule produced a profusion of Jewish factions. Some aligned with rebel groups to keep Judaism pure and distinct from Hellenic influence. Others withdrew into deeper private study of the Torah, creating a Judaism far removed from Roman influence and the corrupted forms of Judaism in the cities. Josephus, writing at the end of the first century AD, reports that there were twenty thousand priests, four thousand Essenes, and six thousand Pharisees. The Pharisees’ agenda was to purify Israel, to return her to her ancestral traditions, to be a vanguard spiritual army in the study of Torah and the theocratic liberation of the Holy Land. Faced with pollution all around, they focused on cleanliness. They evolved complex rules about the purity of meals, how food was kept in the home, the rituals for washing the hands and storage vessels. They put purity into practice in the humble acts of everyday life.

When he began his adult ministry, Jesus would have cut a familiar figure. He fit the pattern of miracle-working prophets like Elijah and Elisha. He also fit the pattern of the many great rabbis and teachers who were emerging amid the tumult of that time. The great Rabbi Hillel lived in Jerusalem during the time of Herod, probably just before Jesus’s birth. The Rabbis Akiva, Tarfon, and Gamaliel, also giants in Jewish thought, emerged shortly after his death. Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa was a first-century healer rabbi and miracle worker who also lived in Galilee, about ten miles north of Nazareth.

Like Jesus, Hanina chose a life of poverty. Like Jesus, he showed relatively little interest in legal and ritual matters, and concentrated on moral and spiritual questions. For example, Hanina teaches, “Any man whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but if his wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure. “

Like Jesus, Hanina could fall into spiritual trances. There is a story of him praying so deeply that he was bit by a poisonous snake and did not notice. He didn’t die, but the snake did. “It is not the snake that kills, but sin,” he told his followers

The adult Jesus seems at first in league with these other great teachers. He preserves the core of Judaism. His great commandment that you shall love your God with all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself comes straight out of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

Jesus is not presenting himself as just another kind and learned rabbi. There is a story he tells about his own person that is different, more powerful and bizarre.

But ultimately he stands apart from these figures. Jesus is not presenting himself as just another kind and learned rabbi. There is a story he tells about his own person that is different, more powerful and bizarre. He doesn’t fit into any group in the culture wars of his day. He sometimes offends the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but other times wins them over. He is uncategorizable. He transcends the fractious din.

He is somehow playing a different game. He is taking all the traditional categories of Jewish thought and somehow seeing them differently, from a different vantage point, and fusing them together in new ways. He is at once a product of his time, but he is also offering a new paradigm, sparking a new gospel, and so is standing beyond his time.

For example, all Jews speak of abba, the Father. But when other Jewish groups do it, it sounds like a communal father, the founder and lord of our people. When Jesus speaks of the Father it feels different. There is a direct mystical intensity to it—my own father. As Amy-Jill Levine puts it, when Jesus talks to abba in Gethsemane “his address is entirely personal. He is not speaking on behalf of anyone but himself.” The category abba is transformed.


All Jews speak of messiah. But for Jews the word has a clear historical meaning. The messiah will bring about an earthly paradise in which nation will not lift up sword against nation. The Jewish messiah brings an end to politics and an end to history. The Jesus messiah is a redeeming messiah, a healing messiah, one who casts out demons. In the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, and the forgiveness of sin, Jesus provides a foretaste of the paradise to come. The category of messiah is transformed.

Similarly, all Jews speak of purity and sanctification. For other Jews it was the tangible purity in the here and now, enacted physically on the outside. Jesus tends to speak from a purity that happens within. “There is nothing outside a person, entering in, that can defile one, but what comes out from a person defiles the person” (Mark 7:15).

Jesus is amid the muck and armed with the Word, and yet emerges as a figure ultimately alone—a vortex of spiritual forces converging in one person, no one else quite like him.

When we tell the story of the miracle at Cana, the turning water into wine, we always focus our attention on the wine. But in the Jewish context the water may have been the more important element, Chilton argues. The waters Jesus transformed were waters of purification. By turning them into wine, and having people consume them during the festivities, Jesus was demonstrating that purity could happen from the inside. The category of purity is also transformed.

There’s one final truth that becomes clear about Jesus when you see him through the Jerusalem lens: He was a total badass. He lived in a crowded, angry world, and yet took on all comers from all sides. He faced stoning in Nazareth. He took on the debt-laden elite in Capernaum and ridiculed their banquets. John the Baptist was beheaded after he attracted a mass following. Jesus, undeterred, did the same thing and courted the same early death. “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace but a sword,” he declared, “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother….And a man’s foes shall be they of his household” (Matthew 10:34–36). He was a prince of peace with a flair for conflict.

Chilton describes the contradictions admirably in his book Rabbi Jesus: “What a weird combination he was! Both humble and proud, overflowing with compassion but adamant in his assertions of the terrible judgment of God. He seemed lost at times, the direction of his life unclear, but he then could turn around and flaunt his prophetic conviction. His certainties could be frightening.”

His climactic confrontation at the temple was in character. Jesus entered Jerusalem at a time of power jostling between Roman and Jewish elites. Pilate’s power was ebbing. He had lost a mentor and protector back in Rome, who had fallen out of Caesar’s favour. The high priest of the temple, Caiaphas, took advantage of the moment to strengthen his position.

The temple was the great gathering spot where people brought their animals for sacrifice. But the vast throng of animals produce piles of dung, which defiled the grounds. Pilgrims often lost their own animals amid the throng. So Caiaphas ruled that henceforth animals would not be brought from home; they’d be purchased in the Great Court. This was commerce that Caiaphas could control. When Jesus came to the Great Court and saw the new policy in place, he was appalled. He made a whip out of short cords and drove the merchants out of the temple, putting himself in direct conflict with Caiaphas and his police.

Essentially what Jesus did was this: He walked into a complex network of negotiated and renegotiated settlements between various factions of the Jerusalem elite, and he challenged them in a stroke. We all know the story of the overturned tables in the temple, but when you see it from the perspective of Jewish history of that moment, you realize how many powerful parties Jesus was confronting all at once. His boldness is stunning.

Or maybe there’s a better way to put it. When you see Jesus from the perspective of Jewish history of that moment, you see how many power structures he was simply circumventing. He was bringing access to the kingdom directly to the poor. He was offering a triumph directly to the downtrodden and outcast. There was a fractious social structure—a logic of contention in which a thousand factions and powers engaged themselves in an intricate and violent dance. He fit in with none, but pierced through them all.

The Jerusalem lens gives us one way of seeing Jesus, like the Florence lens, the Managua lens, or the Oxford lens. But in one important way the Jerusalem lens is different from all the other lenses. It is the one on which all the other lenses depend. That’s because it is the prism within which the historical Jesus lived his actual life. It is the lens all of Jesus’s disciples used to see Jesus because they were Jews encountering another Jew.

Christianity does not supersede Judaism. It does not replace it. But Judaism does precede Christianity and make it possible. There is no Jesus without Jews. There is no Son of God without God, who is the God of the Israelites. There are no beatitudes without the Ten Commandments and the 613 mitzvot. There is no Last Supper without Passover. There is no way to meet Jesus except as the Jew he was, one chosen among the chosen people.

Jesus is inherently mysterious—a lion who is also a lamb. But he is also intelligible. And that’s because he lived an actual life in an actual historical context. Through the Jerusalem lens you see what a maelstrom that context was, with mud and sticks and stones and spears and insults and prophecy flying in all directions. You see Jesus up to his waist in the muck of it all. And yet you also see the powerful and ultimately triumphant word of God, which had been passed to the disciples and all the Israelites, friend and foe, through the Torah. Jesus is amid the muck and armed with the Word, and yet emerges as a figure ultimately alone—a vortex of spiritual forces converging in one person, no one else quite like him.

Topics: History
David Brooks
David Brooks

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, author of The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (Random House, 2019), and director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project.


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