Was Jesus Jewish?

The Gospel seems to offer evidence that Jesus was Jewish, but centuries later the degree of his so-called Jewishness is still something to argue about.

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Along with the centuries-old discourse concerning the appearance of Jesus – with descriptions ranging from a Nordic-type man with blond hair and blue eyes, to a black-skinned person – a major subject of controversy still surrounding the founder of Christianity is his Jewishness.

Early on, the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-17) recounts Jesus’ familial descent from the patriarch Abraham. Its author rattles off a list of Jesus’ forefathers, from Abraham through the Davidic dynasty during the Kingdom of Judah, via the Jewish community that was exiled to Babylon by Judah's conqueror Nebuchadnezzar II, and to the era of Zerubbabel, the leader who led a group of Jews back to the Land of Israel 70 years after the Babylonian exile. It concludes the list with mention of Jesus’ father Joseph, meaning that Jesus was Jewish on his father’s side.

Jesus’ mother Mary is usually considered to be Jewish as well. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke (1:1-40) suggests that her extended family was Jewish as well. When recounting the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, Luke refers to Mary as a cousin of Elizabeth, whom he says came from a priestly Jewish family and was also the wife of a priest named Zachary, who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. If Mary was indeed Jewish, this would make her son Jewish according to halakha (traditional Jewish religious law), and thus even according to the strictest ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel today.

Moreover, if one is to play an ancient version of the game of “Jewish geography” – all Jesus’ disciples and family members have Jewish names that were popular among the Jewish population of Judea in the first century C.E. This might not be obvious because their names in English are taken from the Latin version of the Greek translation of the original Hebrew/Aramaic names.

In any event, Jesus would most likely have been referred to by his followers and contemporaries as Yeshua, the Hebrew equivalent of Joshua. (After thousands of years of using the name Jesus, though, most people would probably find the name “Josh of Nazareth” much less inspiring.) Similarly, "Mary" comes from the Hebrew name Miriam, and so on.

If that were not enough, the Gospel even mentions Jesus going to synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath. According to the Gospel of Mark (1:21), he preached on the Sabbath in the synagogue of Capernaum (latter-day Kfar Nahum) on the banks of the Sea of Galilee – something which the congregants would likely not have allowed had Jesus not been Jewish.

Interestingly enough, the issue of the Jewishness of Jesus, and even of the New Testament itself, preoccupied Jewish communities in Europe and the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) in the early part of the last century. One of the founders of Reform Judaism, the German rabbi Abraham Geiger, argued in a series of lectures that Jesus was Jewish and also promoted a liberal interpretation of Jewish religious law.

In the Yishuv itself, radical Zionist ideologue Y.H. Brenner wrote a column in the socialist Zionist newspaper Hapoel Hatzair on November 24, 1910, arguing that the New Testament was actually an integral part of Jewish culture. The New Testament was “our book, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh,” Brenner wrote. The article was very controversial, with many intellectuals taking sides in what became known as the Brenner Affair.

For his part, S.A. Horodetsky, another Zionist intellectual of this era, and a scholar of Hasidim and Jewish mysticism, went even further, writing in the Zionist daily He-Atid (The Future), “Jesus was a Jew in all of his heart, who lived as a Jew and whose thoughts were Jewish.” He compared Jesus’ teaching as similar to those of the 18th-century founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (aka the Baal Shem Tov). Even the then-young David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future, first prime minister wrote in a Jerusalem newspaper in support of Brenner.

Of course, when it came to the issue of the Jewish nature of the New Testament and the question of whether a Jew could believe in Jesus and still be considered a real Jew – there was (and still is) vociferous opposition. However, all of the various parties to the Brenner Affair agreed that, at least in ethnic terms, Jesus was a Jew.

This ancient mosaic of Jesus Christ is from Turkey, where Aramaic was the common language at the time of his life.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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