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Jesus was a Jew: A challenge to anti-Judaism in our churches

12.22. 2015 Written By: James Hamrick 877 Times read

James Hamrick is a doctoral student researching early Judaism at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
München in Germany and a member of North Suburban Mennonite Church in Libertyville, Ill.

As Mennonite Church USA congregations reflect on the abbreviated Israel-Palestine resolution that was passed by our delegates in Kansas City, Mo., last summer and the more extensive Israel-Palestine resolution that was tabled, I hope we can give some attention to the issue of anti- Judaism in the Mennonite church.

In speaking and acting against some of the oppressive and violent actions of the state of Israel, how do we also express solidarity with the global Jewish people?

We can start by critically reflecting on the ways our sermons and other public interpretations of the Bible often unintentionally assume and perpetuate anti-Jewish stereotypes. We may see anti-Judaism most clearly in interpretations of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels.

Think for a moment about the picture you have of Judaism in the time of Jesus. What are some images that come to mind? Some key words? What do you think of when you hear the word “Pharisee”? Or “Judaizer”? Legalistic. Exclusivist. Patriarchal. Purity-obsessed. Hypocritical.

These are some of the words commonly used by Christians when we talk about first-century Judaism. Jesus and the early Christians, on the other hand, advocated grace, inclusiveness and equality.

In our sermons and devotional resources we have often heard this said:

  • Jesus liberated women from an oppressive, Jewish, patriarchal culture.
  • Jesus crossed the boundaries created by Jewish purity laws and welcomed those Jewish law made into untouchable outcasts.
  • Jesus violated oppressive Sabbath laws that were enforced by Jews who cared more about rules than loving their neighbor.
  • Jews excluded Gentiles, but Jesus welcomed everyone.
  • All the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting a military Messiah and planning violent revolts, and Jesus upset all their values and expectations by preaching and practicing the way of peace.

In short, Jesus was the good guy, the lone ranger who reflects our highest values, and the Jews were the bad guys who Jesus struggled against and was opposed by.

Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine identifies some of these and several other common stereotypes and argues that in such cases Judaism serves as a “negative foil” for Christian portrayals of Jesus (The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus). The worse Judaism looks, the better, more unique and revolutionary Jesus looks.

In a sad irony, our portrayal of this liberating, nonviolent Jesus actually does harm to our Jewish neighbors by mischaracterizing their faith and history. Such stereotypes are part of a long history of Christian hatred toward and persecution of our Jewish neighbors, and they continue to be hurtful, offensive and dangerous. Not only are they harmful to our neighbors, they are also bad history, since they do not do justice to the wealth of evidence we have about the ancient Jewish world.

Here are some practical things we can do to challenge this anti-Judaism in our churches:

We can remember that Jesus was a Jew. This may seem obvious, but there is a long history of Christians minimizing or even outright denying the Jewishness of Jesus.

Jesus and his followers were first-century Jews. Judaism was the world in which they lived and moved and had their being, and when we study ancient Judaism we quickly see how thoroughly Jewish Jesus was. The “Our Father” or “Lord’s Prayer” we have prayed in our churches for 2,000 years is similar to a traditional Jewish prayer.

Jesus’ teachings have strong parallels in other Jewish texts. For example, other Jews also believed love of neighbor was at the heart of the law and allowed for violation of the Sabbath to save human life. There are texts that parallel Jesus’ call to love enemies. One of our most cherished Christian beliefs—that “God so loved the world”—is not unique to Jesus and his followers. Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish writing that may have been read by Paul and the author of Hebrews, also professes God’s universal love: “For you [God] love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wisdom 11:24; NRSV).

Jesus was not the only Jew to proclaim God’s love or to be passionate about peace and social justice. Instead of seeing Jesus’ ministry of liberation as opposed to Judaism or liberating people from Judaism, we should see Jesus’ ministry as growing out of and participating in early Jewish liberation movements. God was at work in Jesus’ Jewish world.

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7 Responses to “Jesus was a Jew: A challenge to anti-Judaism in our churches”

  1. Cameron Altaras says:

    Thank you, James, for raising this issue. It is one that hit home for me, recently, when my husband and I visited a Mennonite church. I grew up Mennonite. He grew up Jewish.

    While walking through the church, we saw some beautiful works of art on display that were created by members of the congregation. One was titled: “The Kiss of Betrayal.” It depicted Judas’ kiss of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Although somewhat abstract, what struck both of us was how bloody the image was. My husband asked the pastor who was with us, what the congregation is doing to combat antisemitism. Seeing this image through my husband’s eyes has caused me to re-evaluate the stories I grew up with which, as you’ve so aptly indicated, were filled with insidious messages of antisemitism.

    The first time I became aware of the possibility of seeing Judas in any other light than that of a traitor, was when I read William Klassen’s book Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus. (SCM Press, 2009). I remember being engaged in interesting discussions with other Mennonites around the questions Klassen raised. National Geographic produced an excellent documentary on this subject and featured Klassen and his research. (It’s called “The Gospel of Judas,” and is available for free viewing on-line.)

    During graduate school, I became aware of how Hitler attempted to manipulate the production of the well-known Passion Play of Oberammergau into a tool of Nazi propaganda. In 1932, the community of Oberammergau requested that a certain Leo Weismantel (a professor and writer) revise their script, which had seen only minor modifications since the 1860 version. The community had recognized for years that not only was the text as a whole insufficient, but that its real difficulty lay with the hidden promotion of antisemitism. After much work in response to the request, Weismantel explained that mere modifications were not possible, rather, one would have to re-write the entire script. In 1934, the community was ready to have him re-write the whole thing. However, their plan was derailed by the Reichskanzlei. The community was told they had to use the old text. The reason: Hitler welcomed this old text precisely because of its negative portrayal of Jews. I was horrified to discover that what I considered a benign script could so easily be used as a tool of an ideology bent on the obliteration of an entire people.

    In our house, we celebrate both the Jewish and Christian holidays. We engage in discussions with our children, in the hopes that they will not just blindly accept what they read or hear. We are encouraging them to ask questions and deconstruct assumptions.

    I must say, while I am pleased to see that on-line more than 300 people have read your article published on Dec.22, I am disappointed that it has been met with silence. This raises for me horrific images of good German citizens who silently watched the train-loads of Jews pass through their towns on the way to the gas chambers. And yes, you are correct, Mennonites are not innocent on this front. We know that while some Mennonites maintained their Pacifist Theological positions, others not only supported the Nazi ideology, but also joined the party, enlisted as soldiers and then aided known Mennonite Nazi war criminals to escape Germany after the war. (Prior to my own research, I would have thought that to put Mennonite and Nazi in the same sentence would be an oxymoron.)

    Thank you for raising our awareness, for pointing out how the stories we tell shape the theology we believe and the framework for how we unconsciously condemn our Jewish brothers and sisters. I wish you well with your research and hope that this is not the last we hear from you on the topic.

  2. Frank Lostaunau says:

    Can you name specific Mennonites who sided with Hitler and helped end the lives of Jews?

  3. Frank Lostaunau says:

    Are there any living relatives of the Mennonite Nazis living in the USA today?

    Have they ever been interviewed by The Mennonite?

  4. Frank Lostaunau says:

    Do German Mennonites who supported Hitler still reflect the attitudes of others who are perceived as undesirably different?

  5. M. South says:

    I don’t think critical thinking concerning Likud policies in Israel ought to be automatically conflated with anti-semitism. As the only nation founded recently upon ethnic exclusivity, Israel is in this way an anomaly, so there are inherent and intrinsic contradictions with grace, inclusiveness and equality in Israel.

    It’s also trying to read into the scripture recent ideology and what is only wishful thinking on the part of some moderns, to claim that Jesus’ ministry originated from and was just a continuation of Jewish political liberation movements.

  6. Frank Lostaunau says:

    There are many citizens who live in the Old City who are not Jews.

    My sister lives in the Old City and she is not Jewish.

  7. If Not Empire, What?, a survey of the Bible written by John K. Stoner and me, views Jesus within a tradition begun by the authors of the book of Exodus, carried forward by First Testament prophets, renewed by the authors of Genesis and Leviticus, and celebrated in Second and Third Isaiah, Ruth, Jonah, Joel and Second Zechariah. The saving way Jesus brought us is in this sense a Jewish way.

    Our book also views Jesus as vigorously opposed to Second Temple Judaism, that accommodation to empire launched by Ezra and Nehemiah that remained in place during Jesus’ life. The gospels contain many quotes from Jesus where in speaks in this vein.

    Hamrick writes, “God was at work in Jesus’ Jewish world.”

    The same is true today and the substance of that “work” today is as anti-imperial and has as little to do with “a Jewish state” as it did in Jesus’ time.