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Jesus the Jew

February 1, 2013

The Gospel of Matthew is commonly described as the most Jewish Gospel: Jesus here fulfills the Old Testament; Jesus is the descendant of David, the Jewish Messiah, the King of the Jews; Jesus does not abolish the law and the prophets, but fulfills them; Jesus sends his disciples on mission only to the lost sheep of Israel; Jesus attends the synagogues in Galilee and travels to the Jewish festivals at the temple in Jerusalem; and he tells a Gentile woman who asks him to heal her daughter that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So case closed. Jesus was a loyal Jew focused on Jews in Israel.

Of course Jesus was a Jew. And he grew up immersed in the Jewish culture and language, in the Jewish scriptures and rabbinic interpretations, and in the Jewish nation and its authorities. All of that, along with the Old  Testament, is part of the context that helps us understand Jesus.

But the Gospel of Matthew adds a great deal more to the story; Jesus, and his new kingdom, transcend his Jewish context. While Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed king, his kingdom will come to include many Gentiles, from the east and west, while most Jews will be “thrown into the outer darkness.” While Jesus fulfills the law, he does so by correcting rabbinic interpretations, and by giving new laws that change what Moses wrote. These new commands are given to his disciples, his new kingdom, although the crowds are amazed at his authority in such teaching. And from the beginning, the crowds are composed of Gentiles as well as Jews, with those from (Gentile) Syria bringing all sorts of sick and possessed people to Jesus to be healed, which he does. All of this upsets the Jewish authorities, especially the scribes and Pharisees who rule in the synagogues; so when Jesus faces them in and out of the synagogues, there is conflict about Jesus’ new teaching and kingdom, and increasing hatred on the part of the rabbis. In the end, they and the temple authorities, the chief priests, get their way and have Jesus crucified. But this just leads to the climax of the whole Gospel: Jesus is raised as Lord with all authority, and sends his disciples to all the nations to make new disciples through teaching them to follow all Jesus’ commands in the presence and power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So in the case of Matthew, Jesus is hardly a loyal Jew. The main theme is instead the plot conflict between Jesus, as king with his new kingdom of disciples, over against the Jewish authorities and their kingdom of Israel. Understanding Jesus’ Jewish context helps us understand his opponents more than it helps us understand Jesus, though it does do the latter also. As for the Hebrew language, the Gospel writers (and the rest of the N.T. writers) all used Greek. While some of Jesus’ original disciples probably kept notes in Hebrew or Aramaic about what Jesus said and did, the inspired writings of the N.T. did not choose to write anything in Hebrew. For by the time Paul’s letters and the rest of the N.T. were written, Jesus’ kingdom had spread out to include many Gentiles (outside Israel).

A final element found in some of those who focus on the Jewish Jesus is an ongoing love for, or even obsession with, the modern nation of Israel. It seems anything Jewish is special in God’s eyes, and thus in their eyes. Yet Jesus, and the N.T., found mostly conflict with most of those in Israel, especially authorities like the rabbis and chief priests. And Jesus spoke strong words that warned his new kingdom of disciples about the false prophets and messiahs who would try to deceive them into following their leadership. The main Jewish authorities outside Jerusalem were the scribes (rabbis) and Pharisees, whose traditions came to predominate even more so after the fall of the temple (and chief priests), and became the basis of the Mishnah and Talmuds that have guided rabbis up to the present.

To approach all things Jewish with reverence is to revere what Jesus and the N.T. do not revere. We should learn even from the Gospel of Matthew that the kingdom of Israel is a negative contrast with Jesus’ new kingdom of heaven.

  1. Yes, and current Israeli policy is an instance of how bad religion can be used to support injustice and inhumanity. Secular states will of course do evil things, but states ruled or strongly influenced by bad religion will often do worse, because they can belive they are in the right.

    • Religion is indeed often used to legitimate acts that people would normally recoil from. Or such acts are disguised as serving “humanitarian” goals, or as a means of protecting the “innocent.” Israel’s ongoing domination and humiliation of Palestinians sometimes uses O.T. passages about getting rid of the Canaanites as a justification. If Jesus was simply a loyal Jew, then Christians should simply be loyal to Israel. But Christians have to see that Jesus was not a loyal Jew, and opposed the evil policies of the Israel of his day. So Christians should oppose such policies today, including the support their own nation(s) might be giving to Israel (with the main supporter being of course the U.S.).

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