For 2,000 years, the Jewishness of Jesus hasn’t counted

The de-Jewification is part of a long tradition, from early paintings covering his circumcision to modern progressive portrayals of him as Middle Eastern from anywhere but Israel

January 12, 2023 09:06

I’d like to talk to you about Jesus. I mean, I would, but also I was keen on starting a column with those words (particularly in the JC). Partly because it reminds me of a sketch I did many years ago when I played a Christian — the character was hard of hearing, and I can remember only the line, in response to another character saying, “I’m afraid I think Jesus is irrelevant”, “No, I can promise you Jesus is not an elephant” — but mainly because over Christmas I had a discussion with the historian Tom Holland about the man Himself (I’ve gone for capitals: sorry, Jews. Just makes the grammar clearer).

The discussion concerned a recent two-part episode about Jesus on the immensely successful podcast Tom makes with his fellow historian Dominic Sandbrook, The Rest Is History.

The podcast was brilliantly interesting in general, but the bit that triggered me was Tom’s reluctance, as a historian, to describe Jesus straightforwardly as a Jew. He drew a distinction between Judeans, the people who lived in that region at the time of Jesus, and the modern or indeed medieval conception of Jews, concluding that when, in the Gospels, you read Jews, you should think Judeans.

This bothered me, because of something removed from Tom’s historical point, which is the de-Jewification of Jesus. There is a long tradition of this, firstly from the Church — early pictures of him on the cross portrayed Jesus as he would actually have been crucified, naked, but a loincloth was quickly added, not just for modesty but also to conceal the fact of his circumcision — but latterly, from progressives, keen to reclaim Jesus as non-white. Which is of course correct. The European Robert Powell, blue-eyed, often indeed blond version of Jesus of Nazareth is obviously a retrofit. Jesus had dark skin. He was Middle Eastern. But I’ve noticed that this reclamation sometimes comes with a Jews-don’t-count-y spin, which involves a distinct forgetting that he could have had Middle Eastern dark skin and still be Jewish. The bringing-Jesus-back-to-his-roots party is one to which it feels like Jews, imagined by some progressives as basically white, are not invited.

I battle against this, because it’s Jewish (a term not generally allowed to Jews) erasure. And also because like all Jews, except maybe the most extreme frummers, I like being able to claim Jesus as unsere (one of ours — but you knew that). Yes, the Church founded in his name turned out to be quite bad news for us in the long run, but his basic words and teachings are fairly sound, plus of course he’s undeniably a very big historical macher.

So Tom Holland’s historical finessing disrupted my thinking. But then I delved a bit further into what scant evidence there is of the life of the historical Yeshua. And even if ancient Judeans do differ a fair bit from the good men and women of Hampstead Garden Suburb, there’s a lot that speaks to me of Jewishness.

Jesus was, as already noted, circumcised; he was expected to keep kosher, but has his own thoughts on that (Gospel of Mark) — I think we can all relate; at the age of 12, his parents took him to the temple for Pesach (Gospel of Luke) and OK, he wow’d the rabbis with his own thoughts, which is a bit unusual, but he may have been planning to get Barmitzvah’d there and do Maftir and Haftorah; and of course, his mother thought he was The Messiah.

I ended up having a long chat with Tom Holland about it all on my Twitter DMs, and eventually just asked him outright: was Jesus a Jew?

He replied, very historically: “After the sack of Jerusalem, Vespasian obliged Judaeans to pay the tax they had previously paid to the Temple to Jupiter, whose own temple had burnt down in 69. This became so intrusive that Suetonius records seeing an old man having his genitals inspected by a magistrate, to see if he had been circumcised. So the Romans recognised Judaean identity as something very definite, and understood that it was not merely ethnic, but framed by the idea of a covenant with their god that was marked by circumcision. So had Jesus been alive under the Flavian emperors, would he have been obliged to pay the tax? Yes, he absolutely would.”

Which I like because I believe that the thing which, in the end, marks Jews out as a specific ethnic minority, over many centuries, is how we have been treated by more powerful others.
You are a Jew, that is, because you are persecuted for being one, and that happened to Jesus as much as it happened to my Nazi Germany-born mother.

There’s good stuff too, obviously, but in the end we know that, “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat” is said by all Jews before all festivals. Even Christmas. Although the failure of that particular kill attempt doesn’t actually become clear until Easter.

January 12, 2023 09:06

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive