Discovering the Jewish JesusBy SHMULEY BOTEACH
Jesus Christ is the most famous Jew of all time, but is today remembered as a Christian.
Surprisingly, the Jewish community has accepted this distortion of history, and tends to regard Jesus as an apostate. How odd that the Jews would accept a Christian version of one of their brethren rather than seeking to discover the man entombed beneath the myth.
Like a mummy whose bandages must be removed, 2,000 years of Christian gauze must be stripped away so we may discover the Jewish Jesus. We may do so by reading the original story of Jesus in the New Testament, before it was modified by Pauline and Lucan editors, who worked after the failed Jewish rebellion against Rome in the years 66-70, and whose intention it was to make Jesus less Jewish and more Roman, less a political rebel against Roman rule and more a Jewish religious revolutionary who inveighed against a corrupt Jewish hierarchy.
These Christian editors hid the real Jesus' message of political revolution against Rome, thereby transforming him into a sound-bite-speaking do-gooder who loved the Romans and hated his people.
THE REAL Jesus was a deeply religious Jewish patriot who despised the Romans for their cruelty to his people and for their paganism. He never once abrogated the laws of the Torah, and expressly condemned those who advocated doing so (Matt. 5:18). Jesus walked the earth with a yarmulke and a beard rather than a halo and a cross.
The portrayal of Jesus as being at odds with the Pharisees, the Jewish rabbinical leadership, is a later Christian device designed to implicate the Jews in Jesus' death. The proof that Jesus was a committed Pharisee throughout his life can be gleaned from how nearly all of his teachings are merely restatements of classical biblical and Pharisaic (talmudic) teachings.
Examples include some of Jesus' most celebrated sayings, like the Sermon on the Mount's "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," which is a restatement of Psalms 3: "The meek shall inherit the earth, and delight themselves in the abundance of peace."
Likewise, Jesus' pronouncement that "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39) is a restatement of Lamentations 3:30: "Let him offer his cheek to him who smites him."
When Jesus is described by the Gospels as desecrating the Sabbath, he offers well-reasoned talmudic arguments for doing so, arguments based on sound Pharisaic teachings. As Hyam Maccoby writes in The Mythmaker: "Jesus' celebrated saying, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath' is found almost word for word in a Pharisee source, where it is used to support the [rabbinical] doctrine that the saving of life takes precedence over the law of the Sabbath."
Jesus shows no interest in founding a new religion or in converting non-Jews, a point he makes repeatedly in the Gospels. Indeed, at various points Jesus expresses contempt for Gentiles (Matt: 10: 5-7, Matt. 15:22-26), an attitude that would be consistent with the extreme anti-Romanism he preached.
WHILE CLAIMING to be the Jewish messiah, Jesus did so only in the Jewish historical sense of a promised Jewish king who would arise to fight Israel's enemies, evict them from Israel and reestablish Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land. Fired by his religious zealotry, Jesus' intention was to lead a political insurrection against Roman occupation, for which he was killed.
Luke 23:2 makes it abundantly clear that the charge against Jesus was political rebellion: "We found this fellow perverting the nation and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ, a King." This is also why we find Jesus instructing his followers each to buy a sword, in preparation for a military action with the Roman cohort in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Romans ordered his swift execution because any claimant to the throne of David was met with instant crucifixion. Jesus' enemy was therefore the corrupt Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, who was Rome's political muscle in Jerusalem and was despised by his fellow Jews as a collaborator.
Indeed, Luke 13:31 makes it clear that the rabbis had previously saved Jesus' life, and that the Pharisees later saved the lives of Peter, Paul, and the rest of the apostles from execution by the corrupt High Priest and his cronies (Acts 5:33-40; 23:6-9).
MANY JEWS today believe that the rabbis hated Jesus because he claimed to be divine, but he never made any such claim. His oft-repeated expression, "Son of Man," is common among Jewish prophets, especially Ezekiel. Likewise, Jesus' penchant for speaking in God's name in the first person singular is practiced by Moses in Deuteronomy and by Elijah in the book of Kings. Prophets often failed to distinguish between themselves and God, since they were deputized to speak in God's name.
Later, after millions of Jews were killed in the revolt of the years 66-70, the Gospels were edited to purge Jesus of any trace of anti-Roman vitriol. The story was changed to a conflict between Jesus and the hated Jews rather than Jesus and the powerful Romans. But the editing was incomplete, and a great deal of the original story remains, especially since there were so many different Gospel texts.
The transformation of Jesus from lover of Israel to a sworn enemy of the Jewish people, with John 8 quoting Jesus as berating the Jews as children of Satan who are condemned to damnation in hell, is a contemptible act of character manipulation that led to 2,000 tragic years of Christian anti-Judaism.
Restoring Jesus to his Jewish roots, by contrast, could usher in a new era of Jewish-Christian rapprochement. Jews and Christians may not meet through the same religion. But for the first time in two millennia they can forge a bond of kinship using the personality of Jesus of Nazareth as a bridge, even as they continue to understand him in completely different ways.
The writer, a rabbi and author, regularly participates in broadcast discussions with leading Christian scholars and is currently working on a book on the Jewish identity of Jesus (www.shmuley.com).