Saying “Jesus was Jewish” sounds so obvious to most Christians that it doesn’t seem worth the energy to exhale. Yet, many Christians never give the idea a second thought, which is why it needs reasserting despite its obviousness.
Christians, according to author James Carroll, have forgotten Jesus’ Jewishness. And this has has severe consequences. So the New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award winner has penned Christ, Actually: The Son of God for The Secular Age to reintroduce Christians to the Jewish Jesus. Here, Carroll discusses the negative effects of forgetting Jesus’ religious tradition and how modern Christians can recover a more accurate understanding of their Messiah.
RNS: You point out that we often overlook Jesus’ Jewishness. But Jesus in some ways bucked the Jewish law and the strictest Jewish leaders were often at odds with him. From a religious standpoint, how Jewish was he really?
JC: This is the key question. Religion is a human adaptation to the basic fact of the human condition that the Holy One is not directly accessible to finite creatures. Religion is an indirect, mediated, but real way of being connected to God. Jewish religion is a case in point. The Temple, the Law, the Tradition, the Scriptures, Sabbath observance, keeping Kosher, reciting the Shema–all of it serves the purpose of bridging the gulf that stands between creatures and their Creator.
The affirmation of Jesus’ divinity, which is essential to Christian faith, has often led to the conclusion that Jesus had no need of the bridging elements of Jewish religion. If Jesus engaged in these cultic practices, he was going through the motions, since his communion with God was a given of his condition. Religiously speaking, He was pretend Jew.
But that is like saying he was a pretend human being. If we start with his humanity, we affirm, with the tradition, that Jesus was like us in all ways, except sin. That means he could not foresee the future, could not defy gravity, could not avoid death. Nor could he, while alive on earth, have direct access to what’s called the beatific vision. Therefore, his need of Jewish religion was real and absolute. [tweetable]Jesus was no pretend Jew.[/tweetable] That must be the starting point of our commitment to Jesus.
If Jesus was at odds with fellow Jews over what it is to be a faithful Jew–and the tradition suggests that he was–we must understand such contention as occurring within the Jewish community, not from outside it. So he did not “buck the Jewish law;” he insisted upon it, even if he disagreed with others over its meaning and applicability at a given moment.
RNS: Early Christianity was more like an offshoot of Judaism, wasn’t it? When did this shift?