Jesus was a Jew (and I am not) by Josh Graves

Jesus was a Jew (and I am not) by Josh Graves August 6, 2014

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Jesus taught like a Jew. Dressed like a Jew. Thought like a Jew. Ate like a Jew. Sabbathed like a Jew. Spoke like a Jew. Jesus taught, dressed, thought, ate, talked, and got his sabbath on like a Jew because–are you ready for it?–Jesus was a Jew. He came from Jewish parents. He was raised in a tiny Jewish town. Probably grew up learning Torah, the primary sacred text for Jewish children.

Now that we all agree, I have a story to tell you. And, this story is true. Meaning, this story happened and it has meaning.

One of the strangest theological arguments I’ve ever been part of took place (surprise, surprise) in a church building on a Sunday morning after I had taught a class on the parables of Jesus and preached a sermon on the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24.

An impeccably dressed man walked up to me after worship with concern and anger in his eyes. “How can you assert that Jesus was a Jew?” He asked. I thought someone was pulling a prank on me. Like a church’s version of “Candid Camera” or something. I looked around, there were no cameras. Only a guy in an awesome suit bearing down on me with toxicity and frustration.

“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“How can you assert that Jesus was a Jew? We know Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Jesus’ father was the Holy Spirit. It’s never been proven that Jesus’ mother-Mary-was a Jew. Therefore, Jesus was not a Jew. If Jesus were/is a Jew, God would be a Jew and that would be no good for the rest of the people on Planet Earth.” That is a direct quote. I kid you not (note: “kid” is not the word I would prefer to use but this is a family friendly blog).

I stood there stunned. I could not believe that I was having this conversation. A conversation that was about to turn into a full-fledged argument.

So, I struck an inner yoga pose, took deep breaths, and tried to remember what Brene Brown is teaching all of us about courage and said something like this.“Well, Jesus is from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem. He has a Jewish name. He taught like a Jew. Dressed like a Jew. Thought like a Jew. Lived among Jews. Probably ate like a Jew. Had Jewish male and female disciples. He obviously had studied Torah diligently like a good Jew. He believed in baptism and Eucharist, two practices that were birthed out of the heart of Jewish teaching (River Jordan crossing in the Exodus account and Passover).  Plus, Jesus’ mother was related to Elizabeth whose husband Zechariah was a priest. Matthew and Luke both trace Jesus’ family history through the story of Israel, showing how God has chosen to reveal himself in the particularity of Israel in order that all people might come to faith in YHWH, the one true God.”

On the spot, still not convinced that I wasn’t being filmed for later comedy, that was the best I could come up with.

This man then proceeded to unleash one of the most anti-Semitic, conspiracy-laced treatises I’ve ever heard in my entire life. To be fair, you need to know that this gentleman is not crazy. He’s not an outlier. He is, by all accounts, an intelligent and successful person. So don’t read this and think, “Who cares? The guy is a conspiracy theorist.”

For too long, evangelical churches have put up with dangerous theses like “Jesus was not a Jew.”All I’m saying is this post-sermon debater is dead wrong. I love to answer people’s questions, on other settings, with “…maybe…but it could be this or that…” but I’m not even playing with this topic. This guy, as I would have said 15 years ago, was straight trippin’.

Alas, ten more minute of debate ensued, he kept repeating that he didn’t believe Jesus was a Jew and really didn’t care for preachers who suggested otherwise. He believed Jesus was a universal “everyman” with no regard for Jesus’ biblical and historical correlations to Judaism, Galilee, and the nation of Israel.

This wasn’t about Jesus. This was about Israel. As in Israel today, the nation-state. Obviously. It took me a few minutes but then I got it.

And now, a rant of the electronic nature.This is an important moment to note that the cancerous notions of anti-Semitism which led to the mass genocide (The Shoah) of over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust under the oppressive and death-dealing hand of Hitler, was a cancer that grew within Protestant Europe generally and the German Protestant churches that thrived in Germany specifically. This inflammatory hatred of Jews emerged from the (false) teaching by some that Jews could not be trusted because Jews—after all—killed Jesus. The truth—according to the New Testament—is that everyone had a hand in Jesus’ public execution: some of his disciples, Jewish leaders, Roman political figures, and Roman military soldiers.

Furthermore, many contemporary historians have traced such anti-Semitism to statements and actions of Martin Luther near the end of his life. You can read about this disturbing truth in his work On the Jews and Their Lies (see Chris Probst, Demonizing the Jews) in which he refers to Jews as “envenomed worms and the devil’s people.” He even suggests that Jews “should be murdered if they did not accept Jesus.” Consider attitudes towards brown and black skinned humans in England in the 17th century that reared its ugly head again during the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. in Detroit and Nashville and Jackson, MS in the 20th century. Are these hatreds not passed down? Where do said hatreds come from? They are passed, like a toxic disease, from generation to generation.

History is always messier than we want it to be. That is, the anti-Semitism that emerged in the Protestant Reformation resurfaced during Hitler’s reign of terror in Germany. To the credit of the Lutheran Church in Germany, this denomination eventually and adamantly distanced itself with Luther’s anti-Semitic teachings, writings, and speeches.[1] Is it fair to suggest that Martin Luther is responsible for the Holocaust? Of course not. Nor is to fair to ignore the immense contributions of Karl Barth (the Barman Declaration) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church to resistance of evil’s power unleashed in the ideological and physical mission of the Third Reich.

But to suggest that Luther’s anti-Semitic sentiments (clearly expressed near the end of his life) had nothing to do with the Lutheran church’s near silence in the face of the Third Reich’s terror is naïve at best, dishonest at worst.[2] But you don’t need a sermon at this point because a song has already said what needs to be said: Jesus was a Jew who came to announce to Israel and the whole world, that the love God is available to all. Even Jews. Even Gentiles. Praise be to God.[3]

Charles Wesley’s (1707-1788) Come Thou Long Expected Jesus bears these words:

Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth Thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart
Born Thy people to deliver
Born a child and yet a king
Born to reign in us forever
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring

And the whole church said (today and one day in the future), Amen. This is the Gospel. This is the Gospel birthed by the kingdom of God.

Joshua Graves is the lead minister for the Otter Creek Church in suburban Nashville, TN. He is author of The Feast (2009), Heaven on Earth (2012), and How Not To Kill a Muslim (2015). You can follow Josh on twitter@joshgraves.


[2] Full disclosure. One of my smartest friends (a brilliant theologian) had this to say about the previous few paragraphs: “It is fair to say that the Nazis and liberal German theologians used Luther to justify their approach, and Luther certainly opened himself up for that.  But, theologically, I would lay the most weight at the feet of the mid-19th century theologians who believed (like Hegel among others) in the progress of history and who identified the Kingdom of God with social progress, or with the Volksgeist (the spirit of the people) of the nation. When that is nationalized, as in the case with late 19th century German thought through the unification of Germany under Bismark, the identity of the German Nation and the Kingdom of God is more secure. With Wagner and others, the German Nation is understood racially rather than politically, and thus you have the groundwork for Nazis.  So, more specifically, I would lay the weight in the 19th century rather than Luther. Something about Lutheran theology, despite its rants against Jews on occasion (which has more do to with Medievalism, economics, and fear than it does Luther’s theology), hindered a Holocaust for over three hundred years.” So, there you are. A nuanced, conservative point of view.

[3] With all of the events happening in the Middle East today, please don’t read this as a Pro-Israel blog. This is a blog about telling the truth (as much as possible) of Israel, mistreatment of Jews, Jesus . . . and about our history and skeletons.

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