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

12.22. 2015 Written By: James Hamrick 689 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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