Note: Terms approximating “Jewish religion” refer to the overall religious framework of the day and are not intended to imply a lack of diversity in religious thought.
"Consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you." [Romans 11:18b]
The religion of Jesus
Jesus was not only a Jew by accident of time and place but he was also a Jew by faith, by temperament and by spirit, an apocalytic teacher who observed Torah, frequented Temple and synagogue, and kept the Jewish religious festivals, a Jew bent on the uniquely Jewish business of preaching the coming Kingship of God.
Jesus spoke always from within the Jewish religion, not once abandoning the faith of his ancestors. His teachings, like those of his followers, reflect a distinctive ethnicity and culture.
Jesus fully identified with the Hebrew Scriptures. He garnered spiritual support in his battle with temptation by quoting three times from the book of Deuteronomy. He began his public ministry by quoting from the Book of Isaiah. He and his followers referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as the "word of God" and quoted from many of its books and from every major division [Tanakh - Torah, Prophets, Sacred Writings].
Jesus taught radical obedience to God and a new way of living. He did not come to abolish the Law of Moses but to add the new commandment of love to the Law, to "fulfill" it. Jesus did not come to call his people out of their religion but to inspire them to take its precepts to heart because the time of reckoning was near. He did not preach future change in some otherworldly place but advocated change in this world of the here and now.
The preferred teaching method of Jesus was the parable. His parables have similar themes and similar structures to those of other great Jewish sages. Indeed, as Brad Young has argued in Jesus and his Jewish Parables,1 without a familiarity with rabbinic parables, it is difficult to fully understand gospel parables. Young's study of Jesus's parables further demonstrates just how close Jesus was to his own people and to the religious thought of his day.
The Lord's Prayer [Matt. 6:9-13] is thoroughly Jewish and, as Samuel Sandmel said: "could readily have appeared without change in Rabbinic literature." 2
When Jesus was asked what the foremost commandment was, he answered according to the Hebrew Scriptures just as an observant Jew would:
"The first is: Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." [Mark 12:28-31].
The first commandment consists of The Shema, the foundational statement of the Jewish religion, and is taken from Deuteronomy 6:4:
"Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One."
The second part is taken from Deuteronomy 6:5:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."
The second commandment echoed that of that other great Jewish sage Hillel who was still teaching at the time of Jesus' birth. Both men, Hillel and Jesus, drew on Leviticus 19:18:
"Love your neighbour as yourself."
The author of Luke takes particular pains to present the life of Jesus as thoroughly informed and characterised by the Jewish religion: from the day when his parents present him to the Temple to fulfill the Law of Moses, until the day of the crucifixion when Luke provides a wonderful insight into Jesus the observant Jew by recording Jesus' cry from the cross which, even today, is part of a standard Jewish deathbed confession:
"Into your hand I commit my spirit." [Psalm 31:5].
The life of Jesus, both in word and deed, set an example for man that by universal emulation had the potential to change the world, but that potential was very soon diverted and distorted into a form of Christianity which indoctrinated its believers with anti-Jewish thought and anti-Jewish doctrines.
A wholesale ignorance and disregard of Jesus' self-identification with the Jewish religion and the Jewish people persisted from the post-apostolic age until modern times. Before the Enlightenment, no one even considered the possibility that when Paul said that all Israel will be saved [Rom. 11:26], he referred not to the Christian Church but to the Jews.
As recently as the early 20th Century, the German Assyriologist and Semitist Freidrich Delitzsch not only denied the Jewish origins of Christianity but went so far as to claim that Jesus was a Gentile.
This failure to recognise or understand the fact that Jesus was committed to his Jewish religion, and to his fellow Jews, has had profound consequences both for Jews and for Christians.
For an example of the anti-Jewish, supersessionist triumphalism endemic to Christianity, I chose this statement made by Cardinal Michael Faulhaber in 1934 because he ordained the current Pope Benedict XVI in Freising Cathedral on June 29, 1951.
In his 1934 book, Judaism, Christianity and Germany, Faulhaber tried to distance himself from the Jewish people and at the same time justify the inclusion of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Christian Canon by saying that:
"By accepting these books [Hebrew scriptures] Christianity does not become a Jewish religion. These books were not composed by Jews; they are inspired by the Holy Ghost, and therefore they are the word of God, they are God's books. The writers of them were God's pencils, the psalmsingers were harps in the hand of God, the prophets were announcers of God's revelation...
"We must acknowledge that the sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament have contributed material a great permanent value for the construction of the social order for all time. Social activity has assument a different form in matters of detail, for example in legislation for the poor or in the administration of justice, but its fundamental ideas are these universal values for civilisation which come to us as a priceless heritage from the sacred books of pre-Christian Judaism. This wealth of thought is so unique among the civilised nations of antiquity that we are bound to say: People of Israel, this did not grow in your garden of your own planting. This condemnation of usurious land-grabbing, this war against the oppression of the farmer by debt, this prohibition of usury, is not the product of your spirit." 3
Statements such as this made in 1934 would go on to bear terrible fruit, as we all know. Unless this age-old attitude of mind typified by the Catholic Church is kept firmly in the forefront of memory we cannot hope to guard against history repeating itself. Anti-Semitism is once more on the rise, especially in Europe, and the Catholic Church for one appears to be lapsing into frighteningly familiar ways, if recent developments are any indication. For instance, all the Church's empty gestures and sanctimonious mouthings give the lie to her actions in pushing the canonisation of Pope Pius XII and in recently re-communicating the holocaust-denying Bishop of the Society of St Pius X. These actions cause distress to the Jewish people generally and make it abundantly clear that the Church's attitude to them remains essentially as it always has been - one of contempt.
Even in the field of biblical scholarship and even though the majority of biblical scholars, both Christian and Jewish, today strongly support the Jewish background to the life and teachings of Jesus, some are unwittingly adopting anti-Jewish positions which go largely unrecognised as such because they take subtle and indirect forms.
One such form is that modern biblical scholarship now favours "demythologizing" the Gospels thus robbing them of their Jewish content in the process. For example, we now often hear of the "myth" of the Virgin Birth as if the New Testament teaches such a preposterous idea. The very concept of a Virgin Birth is antithetical to everything biblical. It is anti-Jewish.
When Luke compiled his genealogy, it was not to record a Virgin Birth but to record Jesus' right to "sit on the throne of his father David." To relegate Luke's account of Jesus' birth to the realms of "myth" is to strip it of its thoroughly Jewish content and destroy its connection with previous Jewish history.
The Christian Church was meant to be built upon the foundation of the Jewish apostles and the Israelite prophets with the Jewish Jesus as the chief cornerstone [Ephesians 2:20] so this challenging question posed by Abraham Heschel should give Christians reason to pause and think:
"The vital question for the Church is to decide whether to look for roots in Judaism and consider itself an extension of Judaism, or to look for roots in pagan Hellenism and consider itself the antithesis of Judaism." 4
No, I'm not suggesting that we should all convert to Judaism but Heschel's question nevertheless pinpoints the essential choice facing Christians. As Christians, it is important to keep in mind at all times that the election of Israel was never abolished and that Christianity is part of the people of God only by virtue of its engrafting into the Olive Tree of Israel.
Attempting to make the New Testament more palatable to the modern mind by "spiritualising" its content, by casting doubts on its veracity, by relegating part or all of it to the mythological, and by tinkering with the immature and the unbelievable, will do absolutely nothing to rescue the Christian churches.
Jesus preached radical transformation to his contemporaries at a pivotal point in their history. At this pivotal point in our history, the Christian churches must rebuild themselves on the foundation of the Jewish apostles and the Israelite prophets, with the Jewish Jesus as the chief cornerstone, or face certain doom.
1 Jesus and his Jewish Parables: Rediscovering the roots of Jesus' teaching, Brad H Young, Paulist Press, 1989.
2 Judaism and Christian Beginnings, Samuel Sandmel, New York, Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 358.
3 Judaism, Christianity, and Germany, His Eminence Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich,Translated by Rev. George D Smith, Macmillan, NEW YORK, 1934.
4 The Insecurity of Freedom, Abraham J Heschel, New York, Schocken Books, 1972, pp. 169-70.