You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus

Gordon C. Stewart     Feb. 14, 2012

“Who was Jesus?” I asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had rung the doorbell. Through the upstairs window where I do my writing, I had seen the van pull over across the street and empty out. I thought perhaps there was a family gathering next door until two of them walked up the drive way.

An email response to “Whitney Houston, the Leper, and You” (posted below) reminded me of the conversation that ensued. Here’s the email from Ann in Texas:

“So nice to hear from you and feel your energy out there flushing out injustice and ranging around in the ‘big ideas,’ and formative experiences. Bravo!  Passion writes action… and here’s mine… an odd reaction, I’m sure, but to the leper story, and the overturning of the tables and all the examples we use to cast aspersions on ancient Judaism that help perpetuate in my mind a subtle continuing contemporary anti-Judaism and the continuing need for an Israel that has morphed into “pants” to small to hold it.  Now there’s a view from the edge!”

I share Ann’s concern. I hold my breath every time I preach or write on texts like this, painfully aware of the anti-Semitism that continues in subtle and not-so-subtle forms.

When the Jehovah’s Witness rang the doorbell, I was deep into writing a sermon on planetary stewardship and sustainability in the wake of the B.P. oil “spill” – Deep Water Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The dogs were barking up a storm at the two men standing on their porch. I went down, answered the door, and stepped outside to meet them.

They were kind and gentle people. They wanted me to know that the world was coming to an end. “Yes, I know,” I said, “what do you fellas think about the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico?” They preferred to talk about Jehovah, the Book of Revelation, the end of the world… and Jesus.

“Okay, let’s talk about that. “Who was Jesus?”

“He was the Son of God.”

“And who was the Son of God?”

“Jesus Christ.”

“And who was Jesus Christ?  Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s a title. So who was Jesus?”

“The Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

“Let me ask it differently. Who was Jesus of Nazareth?’ Who were his people and what was Jesus’ religion?

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Jesus was a real man, in real time. He lived in a particular time and place. Jesus didn’t suddenly plop down out of the sky. So who was Jesus of Nazareth?

“He was the Messiah, the Christ. He came to bring the new Covenant.”

“And what about the first covenant? What was Jesus’ religion?

“He was a Christian,” they said.

“Jesus was a Christian?! You can’t follow yourself. A Christian is someone who follows the Christ.  Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And he’ll always be a Jew. You don’t get to make him up like that. We can’t create Jesus in our own image. You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus!”

We talked then about Jesus and the Book of Revelation. We discussed the fact that the Book of Revelation is a literary genre of the first century called “apocalyptic” that was peculiar to that time; that it was written by a disciple of Jesus held prisoner by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos, who was denouncing the imperial claims of the Roman Empire, and proclaiming its end in bizaare images of Jewish Scripture (in Danile and Ezekiel). The Book of Revelation wasn’t, as so many think today, a book of predictions about the future or the end of the world.

“You’ve thought about this a lot,” said one of the men. “You really seem to have spent a lot of time studying this.”

I thanked him for the compliment and responded that although I’ve been thinking about these matters all my life, I still know very little.

At the end of the 45-minute conversation, I told them how much I respected their commitment to their beliefs and their sacrifices of time and money. I took their literature and invited them to think about what Jesus would have us do about the crabs, the oysters, and the oil-soaked birds drowning in oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we were all as committed to the healing of the planet and to the care of the poor as my visitors were that day to spreading their message with urgency, the world would be a better place.

Those of us who carry the name “Christian” don’t get to have a Jesus who is a Christian. The only Jesus we get to have was and always will be the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, whose people have been crucified many times by the anti-Semitic pogroms of those who claim to follow him.

The Jesus who heals the leper also tells the leper to “go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing….” Jesus is telling the man to practice his Jewish tradition, but Christian interpreters typically fail to notice the startling clarity of Jesus’ Jewishness. Likewise, any reading that begins with the assumption that Jesus was a Christian mistakes Jesus’  turning over of the money-changers’ tables in the temple as his rejection of Jewish faith and practices rather than the deepest affirmation of the Jewish covenant by which he lived. In faithfulness to the covenant, he protested the abuse of the covenant by the religious leaders of his time who had forsaken their high calling by collaborating with and cozying up to the Roman economic and military powers that occupied Jerusalem – just like today.

Thank you, Ann, for the email that reminded me.

6 thoughts on “You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus

  1. Pingback: Pontius Pilate | VIEWS from the EDGE

  2. A Bit of History:

    The Romans Destroy the Temple at Jerusalem, 70 AD

    In the year 66 AD the Jews of Judea rebelled against their Roman masters. In response, the Emperor Nero dispatched an army under the generalship of Vespasian to restore order. By the year 68, resistance in the northern part of the province had been eradicated and the Romans turned their full attention to the subjugation of Jerusalem. That same year, the Emperor Nero died by his own hand, creating a power vacuum in Rome. In the resultant chaos, Vespasian was declared Emperor and returned to the Imperial City. It fell to his son, Titus, to lead the remaining army in the assault on Jerusalem.

    The Roman legions surrounded the city and began to slowly squeeze the life out of the Jewish stronghold. By the year 70, the attackers had breached Jerusalem’s outer walls and began a systematic ransacking of the city. The assault culminated in the burning and destruction of the Temple that served as the center of Judaism.

    In victory, the Romans slaughtered thousands. Of those sparred from death: thousands more were enslaved and sent to toil in the mines of Egypt, others were dispersed to arenas throughout the Empire to be butchered for the amusement of the public. The Temple’s sacred relics were taken to Rome where they were displayed in celebration of the victory.
    The rebellion sputtered on for another three years and was finally extinguished in 73 AD with the fall of the various pockets of resistance including the stronghold at Masada.

    “…the Jews let out a shout of dismay that matched the tragedy.”
    Our only first-hand account of the Roman assault on the Temple comes from the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Josephus was a former leader of the Jewish Revolt who had surrendered to the Romans and had won favor from Vespasian. In gratitude, Josephus took on Vespasian’s family name – Flavius – as his own. We join his account as the Romans fight their way into the inner sanctum of the Temple:
    “…the rebels shortly after attacked the Romans again, and a clash followed between the guards of the sanctuary and the troops who were putting out the fire inside the inner court; the latter routed the Jews and followed in hot pursuit right up to the Temple itself. Then one of the soldiers, without awaiting any orders and with no dread of so momentous a deed, but urged on by some supernatural force, snatched a blazing piece of wood and, climbing on another soldier’s back, hurled the flaming brand through a low golden window that gave access, on the north side, to the rooms that surrounded the sanctuary. As the flames shot up, the Jews let out a shout of dismay that matched the tragedy; they flocked to the rescue, with no thought of sparing their lives or husbanding their strength; for the sacred structure that they had constantly guarded with such devotion was vanishing before their very eyes.

    No exhortation or threat could now restrain the impetuosity of the legions; for passion was in supreme command. Crowded together around the entrances, many were trampled down by their companions; others, stumbling on the smoldering and smoked-filled ruins of the porticoes, died as miserably as the defeated. As they drew closer to the Temple, they pretended not even to hear Caesar’s orders, but urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands. The rebels were powerless to help; carnage and flight spread throughout.

    Most of the slain were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, and they were butchered where they were caught. The heap of corpses mounted higher and higher about the altar; a stream of blood flowed down the Temple’s steps, and the bodies of those slain at the top slipped to the bottom.

    When Caesar failed to restrain the fury of his frenzied soldiers, and the fire could not be checked, he entered the building with his generals and looked at the holy place of the sanctuary and all its furnishings, which exceeded by far the accounts current in foreign lands and fully justified their splendid repute in our own.

    As the flames had not yet penetrated to the inner sanctum, but were consuming the chambers that surrounded the sanctuary, Titus assumed correctly that there was still time to save the structure; he ran out and by personal appeals he endeavored to persuade his men to put out the fire, instructing Liberalius, a centurion of his bodyguard of lancers, to club any of the men who disobeyed his orders. But their respect for Caesar and their fear of the centurion’s staff who was trying to check them were overpowered by their rage, their detestation of the Jews, and an utterly uncontrolled lust for battle. Most of them were spurred on, moreover, by the expectation of loot, convinced that the interior was full of money and dazzled by observing that everything around them was made of gold. But they were forestalled by one of those who had entered into the building, and who, when Caesar dashed out to restrain the troops, pushed a firebrand, in the darkness, into the hinges of the gate Then, when the flames suddenly shot up from the interior, Caesar and his generals withdrew, and no one was left to prevent those outside from kindling the blaze. Thus, in defiance of Caesar’s wishes, the Temple was set on fire.

    While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance.
    Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise – nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.

    There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off above, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate. The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below; and now many people who were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, when they beheld the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail. Peraea and the surrounding hills, added their echoes to the deafening din. But more horrifying than the din were the sufferings.

    The Temple Mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base; yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers. The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives.”

    References:
    Josephus’ account appears in: Cornfield, Gaalya ed., Josephus, The Jewish War (1982); Duruy, Victor, History of Rome vol. V (1883).

    “The Romans Destroy the Temple at Jerusalem, 70 AD,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2005).

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    • Thank you, John, for sharing Josephus. I first read him in seminary way back when. It would be hard to over-estimate the impact of the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem on the community of Jesus’s followers and on the entire Jewish community. The Gospels, especially Mark, are best read in the light of this horror. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Very well said. I am very glad you have started these discussions – I feel my IQ rising along with my consciousness and my mind has things to think about besides what is for dinner. Do continue feeding your blog with all of these wonderful posts. You inspire me to – one of these days – read from my book of Emerson’s essays/quotes, and to wander amongst his great thoughts, hopefully to emerge with some of them still stuck to my coat tails.

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  4. You make a very valid point and one I never thought of before: Jesus could not have been a Christian. People forget that ‘Christian’ indicates you believe in Christ – while not being a Christian does not define you as an atheist. I am really glad you put that so clearly as I had never put it all together like that.

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    • For the most part, I’m afraid, we Christians were raised with an anti-Jewish Jesus, the Jesus who is a fignment of anti-semitic imagination, not the Jewish Jesus os Nazareth who was executed by the Roman Empire for sedition and for refuisng to pay tribute to the Roman Emperor. The only Jesus any of us gets to have is the real Jesus, no the one who hated his people, not the one who was “a Christian.” The Jesus of faith is black, white, red, yellow and brown; Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, American, Chilean, Icelandic, Indian – he speaks to us in our own culture and in our own skins, whatever they are. But any “Jesus of faith” wrenched loose from Jesus’ own Jewish faith and practice is a recipe for the continuation of the pogroms of Hitler and the lesser jeers and sneers that paint Jesus’ own people as “Christ-killers” instead of compatriots.

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