Sunday, April 29, 2007

Are Jews reclaiming Jesus?

That seems to be what this guy is saying.

After two thousand years in a dark corner it seems that Jesus is making something of a comeback in the Jewish world. Not in a Christian, proselytizing "Jews for Jesus" manner, but as a historical figure, decidedly unchristian, who needs to be reassessed as a player in the Jewish tradition. In recent years the job of reclaiming Jesus has gone on in both low and high culture.


The great Jewish painter Marc Chagall, the subject of my recent biography, was, then, perhaps ahead of his time in his insistence that Jesus be seen as a great "Jewish poet and prophet." Chagall was gripped by images of Jesus from an early age, and could not, in fact, get them out of his mind. He began to paint crucifixion scenes while in his early twenties and continued to do so, sometimes obsessively, as in the years 1941-1942, throughout his long life. For Chagall it was a tragedy that religious schismatism had severed Jesus from the Jewish world. When, during the Holocaust, he searched for an image of martyrdom and suffering that would be commensurate with the suffering of the Jews, his mind moved naturally to a Jewish Jesus on the cross, a figure that, as in his great 1938 painting White Crucifixion he draped in a prayer shawl or tallit, so that viewers could not miss the point.

This Sunday, at the Center for Jewish History in New York, Nextbook is sponsoring a conference entitled "What's He Doing here? Jesus in Jewish Culture." An array of Jewish writers and thinkers: theologians, historians, poets and public intellectuals, including Leon Wieseltier, Stephen Greenblatt, Susannah Heschel, Paula Frederiksen, Jonathan Rosen, Stephen Prothero, Robert Pinsky, and I'm happy to say, myself, will attempt, as the title makes clear, to tease out the twists and turns, the history and the representation, of Jesus in Jewish culture. My man is Chagall, whose relation to Jesus is conflicted and contradictory: sometimes Chagall identified with Jesus as a suffering artist/poet, sometimes he saw him as a symbol of Jewish suffering and sometimes he portrayed him in more conventional "Christian" fashion. Others will take on Jesus and the Rabbis, Messianism, Jesus in the Promised Land. And Stephen Greenblatt, who has already let us know so engagingly what he thinks of Shakespeare, will now tell us what he thinks of Jesus.

Chagall's use of Christ to represent the suffering of the Jews is incredibly insightful, Christ went through the tribulation of the Jews on the cross (Deuteronomy 4:30) and there is no greater symbol of the suffering of the nation of Israel than the cross (I probably will develop this thought more on Life Under the Sun during the summer, so stay tuned).

I think it's great that Jesus is the current focus of Jewish thought and I'm glad that they're giving him a second look. But this type of analysis will mislead them:
and as for Jesus, we shall know him for who he was: Yeshua, a Jew who never imagined himself outside the normative Jewish tradition and who would no doubt be deeply surprised to find himself there.
It ignores the only credible record we have of Jesus' words, it totally misses what Jesus says of himself:
Matthew 5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus doesn't sound like a typical Second Temple rabbi. He's saying he's above the law and no rabbi at that time would have said that because the law was supreme. Messiah was to come and rule the nation of Israel by the law of God, he wasn't a law unto himself. The law was holy and given to the nation of Israel by God and was very precious in their sight. It's what set them apart from the other nations. It was a sign of their eternal covenant with God.

He also said this:
Matthew 12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath." 3 He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath."
A Second Temple rabbi would never call himself the Lord of the Sabbath because it is holy and belongs to God. It was the day that man focused his thoughts and attention on God and not his normal, everyday duties. He was to give the day over to God. Jesus was saying that he was somehow the master of that day and that he could determine what men did on the Sabbath. This was totally outside the norm of Jewish thinking because Jesus was saying that he was above the laws that regulated what could be done on the Sabbath. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus had delusions of grandeur.

And if he was a typical Jew, why were the Pharisees ready to stone him for blaspheming God? He very clearly committed a grave sin in the eyes of the Pharisees because he made himself equal to God:
John 10:24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." 25 Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one." 31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" 33 The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God."
There are many other examples of this in Scripture and reading the Gospel accounts would give anyone pause in thinking of Jesus as a "Jew who never imagined himself outside the normative Jewish tradition." I would also recommend A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. It is an excellent book that provides insight into why the Jews of Jesus' time rejected the claims of Jesus and why Jews of today continue to do so.


  1. Taylor A said...
    You raise some very insightful questions here as usual, and I love reading your thoughts when you post!

    I don't know if you know about the Blogger's Choice Awards but they have a "Best Religion Blog" category that you should check out. If you're not already nominated, you are welcome to nominate yourself. If you're already nominated, you can grab some embed code that puts a "vote for me" button up on your site so that your readers can make sure you win and get sent to the awards ceremony in November.

    Worth a shot to get something back. Anyway, best of luck, and keep on blogging.
    michele said...
    Thank you very much for your encouraging comment but I'm burned out from blogger awards. I just don't have enough traffic to generate enough votes. Not really worth the effort :-)
    Chris Abraham said...
    Oh come on! You should totally try it -- it is not the destination, its the journey!

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