The Jewishness of Jesus

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus

This illustration might have been better used yesterday, when we read the first half of the Emmaus gospel, but I think it still has a point to make. In today’s section of the gospel Jesus explains to his disciples how everything in the Mosaic Law and the prophets pointed to himself. He identifies completely with the Jewish people and their experience. In exactly the same way, the medieval illustrator of the Emmaus story did not hesitate to show Jesus wearing a Judenhut or Jewish hat (Latin pilleus cornutus). Compare and contrast the situation today, where Jesus is too often portrayed as a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather bloodless figure who would have been entirely out of place trudging the roads of Roman Palestine or fishing with Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the best efforts of Geza Vermes and others, we still seem to have difficulty with the Jewishness of Jesus and thereby impoverish our understanding. (I speak generally, as I know there are many who are sensitive to this aspect of Jesus.) Why is there a problem?

I think part of the answer lies in fear of the stranger. People who observe different cultural norms, who eat different foods, wear different clothes, speak a different language are always suspect. If, in addition, they hold radically different ideas about the meaning of the same texts — in this case, what Christians know as the Old Testament scriptures — the problems are compounded. When history is thrown into the mix, and centuries of anti-semitism and persecution are considered, it all looks very bleak indeed. However, there are bright spots, too. In the twelfth century, the Cistercians were very keen to understand the scriptures aright, and there are a number of instances of Cistercian monks sitting at the feet of local rabbis in order to learn Hebrew and study the Bible and other Jewish texts, just as, a little earlier, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, had ordered a translation of the Koran to be made so that his monks might understand Islam better.

Understanding the other, welcoming the stranger, is still a challenge for us today. When David Cameron spoke of Britain as a Christian country, some took it as a slight on all who are not Christian. The debate continues to rage, but I think myself it is a largely phoney debate because the terms cannot be defined sufficiently precisely. From ‘cultural Christianity’ to missionary endeavour/proseletysing fervour (choose as appropriate) and the infinite varieties of church allegiance, the concept is susceptible of a thousand different interpretations. What matters, surely, is that those of us who regard Jesus Christ as our Lord and God should attempt, however imperfectly, to be as loving and generous as he. Love is the golden rule of Judaism as of Christianity and, as St Paul remarks, is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour. Perhaps we might think about that today.

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6 thoughts on “The Jewishness of Jesus”

  1. Love is the golden rule of Judaism as of Christianity and, as St Paul remarks, is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour. Perhaps we might think about that today.

    I will take this thouht with me today as you suggest 🙂

  2. As someone with a light brown-haired, blue-eyed Jewish mother (!), God rest her, I’d just venture a small caveat about the accuracy or otherwise of the portrait of Jesus mentioned in the first para.above. Isn’t there a tradition that King David had such colouring (I’ve even seen it suggested he may have had red hair)? If he did then, albeit by luck and not judgment, the much derided Western-looking Jesus may just be nearer the mark than we realise.

    • I think my point is valid as I was talking about a particular type of portrayal of Jesus that most of my readers will recognize rather than the appearance of Jews as such. If that is not clear from context, I’m sorry. It is true that after many Khazars and what we would now call Russians converted to Judaism in the eighth century, genes for blue eyes and fair hair become much commoner among Jews, but I must emphasize that I have no wish to enter into the ‘Ashkenazim aren’t really Jews’ debate one finds in some quarters today. Please don’t open this blog post up to that by homing in on a point I made only in passing, as an illustration!

  3. Such would be the mirror opposite of my intention which was, on the contrary, (a) to endorse your spotlight on Jesus’ Jewishness while (b) emphasising that that is a matter far more substantial and important than incidentals such as physical appearance would make it. Evidently I was over-elliptical. Pax.

  4. The matter of recognition in the NT is never satisfactorily explained. How for example did Peter & Co know that those with J at the Transfiguration were Moses and Elija. Then assuming Jesus was well known to the disciples closest to him why was he not readily recognised when he appeared to them after the resurrection on the road to Emmaus at only the second time the Eucharist took place and at the miraculous draught of fishes etc. Not important from a faith view but raise unnecessary questions in a classroom.

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