Don’t turn away — Jesus was ours

It is a cultural obligation for us to get the man Christians call the Son of God into context

By Howard Jacobson, January 8, 2009

So Ahmadinejad — in his Christmas Day address to the British public — thinks Jesus would have been on his side. I have news for him. Jesus would no more have been on his side than the Holocaust never happened. Jesus was a patriotic Jew — not quite the freedom fighter Jews living under Roman occupation were hoping for but a prophet of the Jewish people, a devout believer in the Jewish God and stringent preacher of His law, a fierce ethical polemicist, a lover of peace but in so angry and ironic a spirit that it sometimes feels the opposite of peace. Maybe too Jewish in that case — but that is to make another point.

I argue this in a Channel 4 film to be shown this Sunday, Jesus the Jew. Forty years ago, while teaching English at King David High School in Manchester, I got into a spot of bother with my pupils’ parents for saying something similar. It had disturbed me that when Jesus’s name came up in the course of a class on John Donne or DH Lawrence — it doesn’t matter which: study English literature and you’ll hit upon Jesus — the overwhelming response was angry embarrassment. Jesus was not someone my pupils felt they should be asked to talk or even know about.

I don’t say I understood nothing of their feelings. Jews have crowded memories enough; there are some things we would rather forget. But Jewish or not, high-school children of 15 and 16 were culturally obliged, it seemed to me — obliged to themselves no less — to be informed about Jesus and not to be thrown into confusion by his name.

So I got them to write an essay on Jesus. “Over our dead bodies,” a number of the parents responded. A few rang the headmaster. If this was what was meant by a Jewish education they would have to consider taking their children elsewhere. Let them, was my attitude. Religion is no excuse for ignorance.

But the school, of course, thought differently. They were not going to allow a mass exodus on account of Jesus Christ. Not again.

Of the pupils who did write the essay, many rehashed the scurrilous defamations of Jesus which have circulated within Judaism for centuries. To keep it brief — Jesus (real name Yoshkie) was the son of a whore, a bastard who abused the rabbis assigned to teach him, engaged in all manner of blasphemy and lewdness, and was finally kicked out of yeshivah.

For what he went on to do by way of revenge on the Jewish people — ie invent Christianity (so be careful who you throw out of yeshivah) — he now sits for all eternity in boiling excrement.

That this is no more than answering like with like, given the libels Christians have visited on Jews for two thousand years, I accept. Christianity has been our calamity; it would be no surprise, all things considered, if we were to tell viler stories still. But it is depressing, nonetheless, to see us fail, when challenged to be serious, to rise above the ugly superstitious libels of those who have superstitiously libelled us.

Intellectually, we might just as well be sitting in boiling excrement ourselves. Not only does our reluctance to engage with Jesus shut us out from knowledge of other religions — and that was what I hated about the shrinking and revulsion I encountered at King David: the gating of ourselves in — it denies us access to a crucial chapter in the history of our own.

For no matter what has been done subsequently in his name, the truth is that Jesus spoke as a Jew, for Jews and to Jews — exclusively to Jews, he often claimed (“I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel”) — and was not only innocent of Christianity but would have railed against it.

“I believe with Jesus,” Martin Buber wrote, “but I don’t believe in him.” Believing “in” him is of course impossible for us, because believing in him means believing he was the son of God. This would have been impossible for Jesus, too. He never blasphemed against the One God by claiming to be his Son. And never claimed to be setting up a rival religion. A renewed Judaism was his goal, a Judaism re-affirmed according to the word of God, in fulfilment of His laws and in Messianic expectation of His coming.

We forget that the Messiah was a Jewish concept, and baptism a Jewish ritual. The words have grown alien to us by association, or, if you like, by misappropriation. I am not suggesting we go knocking on the gates of the Vatican and asking for our Jesus back. But we should be historians, at least, of our own wisdom. We need that wisdom today, but then when do we not?

Howard Jacobson’s latest book is The Act of Love (Jonathan Cape). “Jesus the Jew” will be shown on Channel 4 as part of the Christianity series at 7pm on Sunday January 11

Last updated: 7:41pm, January 8 2009


Rev Mark Troughton

Fri, 01/16/2009 - 22:27

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Greetings Dr Jacobsen,
I caught the end of your very interesting programme and was sorry not to have seen it all. Thank you for not being squeamish about Jesus who was a Jew. It's always bemused me why his ethnicity should be denied - he was a Jew, an Israeli, a rabbi and brought up in the Torah and in the traditions of the Elders. He celebrated Hannukah; he went up to the Temple 3 times a year etc. I can sympathize with the general sense of deep offense and hurt that some types of so-called 'Christianity' have caused the Jewish people down through the centuries and assert that there is absolutely no defence for crimes of inhumanity done in the name of God, Church, State or anything else, but I would doubt if such 'christianity' passes muster with the teaching of Jesus himself. Oftentimes it was but a veil for political and economic ambition.
I must respectfully and graciously beg to differ with your statement above, however, that 'He never blasphemed against the One God by claiming to be his Son'. This flies in the face of several passages in the New Testament or B'rit HaDashah (as Messianic Jews call it) e.g. Mattiyahu/Matthew 26.62-68 where it is stated quite clearly by Mattiyahu, a Jewish observer and recorder of Jesus life and times, that the charge against Jesus was blasphemy for having dared to claim to be the Mashiach, the Son of the living God, v 63-64. The challenge to Matthew's (and all the Gospel writers') Jewish monotheism is precisely the reason why they more than once record these claims. It was shocking, yet he did make the claim and backed it up with divine power e.g. John 5.14-17; John 6, John 11 et al.
With kind regards,
Rev Mark Troughton