Following the Jewish Jesus

COMMENTARY: In an age where antisemitism comes in many forms, Lent is a good time to reflect on the indisputable fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a son of the Jewish people.

Jesus in the Temple.
Jesus in the Temple. (photo: Paolo Veronese / Public Domain)

Twenty-four years ago this week, I was in Jerusalem to cover Pope John Paul II’s epic pilgrimage to the Holy Land for NBC. After going to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pray at the 11th and 12th stations, I went to dinner with a graduate school classmate, Father Michael McGarry, then the director of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute.

We drove through East Jerusalem to “Philadelphia,” a Palestinian restaurant Father McGarry recommended, where we had a fine meal of local specialties, prepared and served by friendly people who were evidently grateful for our trade (much of East Jerusalem being as dead as a doornail that night). The one discordant note was struck when, on the way out of the restaurant, I noticed a large color poster featuring a photo-shopped picture of John Paul II and PLO leader Yasser Arafat under the headline, “Welcome to the Palestinian Holy Land,” a variant on the “Palestinian Jesus” theme Arafat had been retailing.

Insofar as there was any religious content in this crude, not-altogether-subtle attempt to de-Judaize the one whom Christians recognize as the Messiah — the Messiah promised to the Jewish people and born of a Jewish woman — it harked back to the ancient heresy of the Marcionites: a second-century sect that rejected the Old Testament in its entirety.

Marcion and his followers claimed that the Creator God of Genesis and the God of the Jewish people’s Exodus was not the “Father” God to whom Jesus prayed; in fact, the Marcionites claimed that Jesus’ mission, as he understood it, was to overthrow and displace this “God of the Law” with the “God of Love.” Marcion rejected three of the four canonical Gospels, accepting only an edited version of the Gospel of Luke.

And therein lay this heretic’s one positive contribution to Christianity: He forced the Church to clarify its own canon of Scripture, which of course includes the Gospels Marcion rejected.

Over the past 1,800 years, other deviant Christian thinkers have tried to “take the Jewish out of Jesus,” so to speak. And lest we think that such perversions today are limited to politicians, consider that, in recent months, some politicized Christian leaders have repeated the canard that Jesus was a “Palestinian” or “Palestinian Jew.” Which, I suggest, makes as much sense as referring to Jesus as a Latvian Jew or a Luxembourgish Jew, since “Palestine” as conceived today did not exist at the time of Jesus, any more than did Latvia or Luxembourg.

Lent — even more so now as we approach Holy Week — is a good time to reflect on the indisputable fact that Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the incarnate Son of God, was a son of the Jewish people. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21) and presented to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses in the Temple (Luke 2:22ff.) He was raised within the temporal rhythms and rituals of Judaism and learned its sacred writings (Luke 2:41-52). He lived as a faithful Jew and taught as a faithful Jew (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” [Matthew 5:17]). He was mocked by the Romans who crucified him as “the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37 and parallels). And he died as a faithful Jew, invoking Psalm 22 and its confession of the ultimate reign of the God of Israel (“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord…”)

Writing as a historian using modern critical tools, Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright describes the Jewish self-understanding of Jesus in these terms:

“Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation: a vocation, given him by the one he knew as ‘father,’ to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, God had promised to accomplish. … He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God.” Or put another way (again by Wright), “Jesus believed that it was his vocation to be the embodiment of that which was spoken of in the Jewish symbols of Temple, Torah, Word, Spirit and Wisdom, namely, [God’s] saving presence in the world, or more fully, in Israel and for the world. …” Thus, in his passion, death and resurrection, the “name and character” of the God of Israel “would be fully and finally unveiled, made known.”

Antisemitism comes in many forms these days. If those who invoke the “Palestinian Jesus” don’t grasp that, they might think again.

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The Nairobi-based Vatican diplomat, who has also been representing the Holy Father in South Sudan, highlighted the need to seek God’s mercy as important and implored: “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”