Monday, November 2, 2015

Jesus Of Nazareth Was Not A Christian

Jewish Thought

Last week’s post was on “Paul Of Tarsus: Father Of Anti-Judaism;” this week, we look at the man who became the centre of Christian faith.

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“If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.
If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach.
He will then improve the entire world, motivating all the nations to serve God together, as Tzephaniah 3:9 states: ‘I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.’
If he did not succeed to this degree or was killed, he surely is not the redeemer promised by the Torah. Rather, he should be considered as all the other proper and complete kings of the Davidic dynasty who died. God caused him to arise only to test the many, as Daniel 11:35 states: ‘And some of the wise men will stumble, to try them, to refine, and to clarify until the appointed time, because the set time is in the future.’ ”

Maimonides, “Laws Concerning Kings & the Messiah,” 
Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Melachim11:4

It might seem like an obvious statement, but Jesus of Nazareth was not a Christian. Such a statement is not only factual, but becomes necessary to make here and now, notably when one reads comments on various social-media sites and how he is portrayed in popular culture. This is often as the blue-eyed fair-haired ethereal figure wearing long robes. (Only one descriptive might have validity: Jesus might have worn long robes.)

More important, the central figure in Christianity is often mistaken as its founder and its first follower. But this is not so. Not only did his life precede the formation and evolution of Christianity, which of course occurred hundreds of years after his death, but more important, because the tenets of Christianity, formed by Paul of Tarsus and the Church Fathers, would seem foreign and unholy to the central figure of Christianity, to the man to whom billions of followers now claim allegiance and devotion. Jesus would never endorse Paul’s religion, let alone follow it.

That Jesus considered himself the Mashiach, the Messiah, the Anointed One is true; that he considered himself the Messiah of the Jewish People is also true; that he considered himself the Messiah of all of humanity is doubtful. That he failed as Messiah of the Jewish People is also true. As is his cruel execution by the Roman authorities as a criminal. Again, this is not news to anyone who has read the history of the Church, including the teachings of Jesus found in Christianity’s central document, the New Testament.

One of the difficulties in faith is that once you have it, your views and ideas are coloured by it. All the more so when such a faith revolves around a central narrative that has been formed and hammered out over hundreds of  years—and it has the stamp of authority and of consensus through large numbers. It thus becomes more difficult to read and view the narrative in a different way other than it has been presented for almost two thousand years.

To see things differently requires reading a story for the first time, as if it was never heard before. To read it with fresh eyes and to have ears that have not been indoctrinated with what everyone else sees as true. But this is the task before us, and as a Jew who has nothing invested in Christianity and its historical narrative, I might offer some fresh insights.

So, I will keep my thesis statement simple and to the point: Jesus had no intention of starting a new universal religion. Concomitant to this is that Jesus was addressing a Jewish audience in what can best be described as an internal debate, with the desire of changing Judaism. As time went on, he believed, falsely, that he was the long-awaited Jewish messiah foretold in the prophetic books.

Now, my expectation is not to dismantle Christianity—this is not possible—but to deconstruct it from the belief that it was Jesus of Nazareth’s desire to form a new universal religion that would make not only the first century Jew unwelcome and alien, but any Jew of any century feel the same way.

Here are some verses from the Gospels in The New Testament that are worth considering:
  1. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.18. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5: 17-18).
  2. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5;20).
  3. These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10: 5-6).
  4. But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

Such are only a few verses that present Jesus of Nazareth’s view as being in direct opposition to what Paul of Tarsus writes decades later in his many epistles. The man from Galilee never displayed any desire to abolish the Mosaic Law; never considered the Pharisees as his enemies (the Pharisees were precursors to rabbinic Judaism); never wanted to start a new universal religion that included Gentiles; and never displayed a desire to speak or teach non-Jews about Judaism. His whole mission revolved around the Jewish People and of his understanding of where Judaism had to progress, so to speak. If anything, Jesus was an affirmed Jewish nationalist who desired to break the yoke of Roman oppression. He believed that he was the chosen instrument of G-d to achieve this victory over Roman occupation. He believed that he was the redeemer promised in the Torah.

If Jesus was not (and is not) what Christians consider him to be, then who was he? Joseph Klausner, a professor of Hebrew history and literature at Hebrew University. in Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (1922) writes what I consider the best description of the man. Klausner places Jesus firmly within the framework of First Century Judaism as a great teacher of morality, who was pure in his teaching while expounding undiluted Hebraic thought, free from any prevailing ideas of the surrounding culture:
Jesus of Nazareth, however, was a product of Palestine alone, a product of Judaism unaffected by any foreign admixture. There were many Gentiles in Galilee, but Jesus was in no way influenced by them. In his days Galilee was the stronghold of the most enthusiastic Jewish patriotism. Jesus spoke Aramaic and there is no hint that he knew Greek—none of his sayings show any clear mark of Greek literary influence. Without any exception he is wholly explained by the scriptural and Pharisaic Judaism of his time (p. 363).
In the 1990s, products with the initials of WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do”) were popular in evangelical Christian circles. One thing Jesus of Nazareth would do is daven at shul along with his Jewish co-religionists; there are examples of this in the gospels of the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:38). The disciples continued to do the same after his death (i.e., Acts 3:1; Acts 21:23-26).

That Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew from Galilee, became the central figure in Christianity is one of those ironies of history. That he became a divisive figure to the Jewish People is a failure of the Church to understand the place of Judaism and of the Jewish People. It is never too late for the Church to repent.

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Next week: “The Church & The Holocaust”

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