Why the Jewish context of Jesus is important

Many years ago, when my daughter was around five, she suddenly asked at the dinner table (we had just reached the favoured rice pudding if I remember correctly): ‘Mum, do you think that G-d is a woman under the carpet?’

To be honest, after the initial shock at the unexpected question, I felt very warm towards my little daughter. At least she hadn’t been fooled by the usual myth – no ancient white-bearded, superior man in heaven above for her!

But what would I reply? This was one of those ‘hineni’ moments in Jewish history, and to me, my daughter was and is as important as Abraham Avinu.

But, neither was – or am – I in favour of: ‘Whatever makes you feel good, darling’, and certainly not: ‘Now, now, get on with your meal – time for bed.’

Nor did I reply to my young daughter in the way I would have done had she been older: ‘Actually, darling, G-d is transcendent, and we Jews don’t have any image of Divinity – but He is near us night and day, even though we don’t know what He looks like. And of course, He isn’t really ‘He’ – it’s just that the Torah always talks in human language.’ No, that would have been a bit much for a little girl of five to swallow with her rice pudding, I think!

So, what I actually said was: ‘How interesting, darling. Tell me more …!’

Not to put too fine a point on it, my daughter, now middle-aged is (possibly not very surprisingly, given her early beginnings) a firm feminist, and absolutely no respecter of persons, whatever their gender or status!

Fast forward 35 years and her own daughter, my granddaughter, also aged five, asked me, ‘Grandma, are you one of the Matriarchs?’ This was all in Hebrew, and what she meant wasn’t was I her mother’s mother, which would have been strictly correct, but was I in fact one of the ancient females who are the progenitors of our religion, people like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. ‘Of course, darling,’ I said, given her age and understanding.

I was reminded of these two family incidents given the recent statement by the new Archbishop of York that Jesus is no longer Jewish as many of us had always assumed, but black.

As a Jew I was, to be honest, utterly gobsmacked at this statement and it was hard not to take it as an insult towards our Jewish community by the present leadership of the Church of England, although part of me also understood the panic which gave rise to it. Having observed on our screens for ourselves the violence stemming from the USA, and especially at a time of Covid, when the Church is already under attack by many for having adopted a cautious approach to physical presence in churches beyond that required by government, it seemed to me like the Church was looking around for a scapegoat – at least this is the only explanation for the Archbishop’s words that makes any sort of sense to me as a Jew. I have tried to contact him and so have others on my behalf, but no answer has come!

Perhaps for reasons of family feeling – wanting people of colour to feel part of the big Christian family – the new Archbishop of York doesn’t mind at all rejecting 2,000 years of history which, although largely hostile and murderous towards the Jewish family of which Jesus was a member, has at least up until now (with some notable exceptions, including Marcion and Martin Luther for example), conceded that Jesus came from a real Middle Eastern country called Israel, and was a Jew who attended Temple and shul.

The best book on this subject, and which was read avidly by an earlier generation of Anglicans, including very senior friends in the Church of England, is Professor Geza Vermes’ Jesus the Jew. I knew Geza towards the end of his life as I embarked on my own career as a Biblical scholar and historian of Judaism. Geza didn’t suffer fools gladly, nor was he economical with the truth. He would not have allowed anyone to get away with the suggestion that Jesus was not Jewish. Geza belonged to that group of scholars (all too rare in our own day) who endeavoured to stick to the facts, even when pop theology tried to get in the way.

In Jesus the Jew, Geza explains the environment in which the boy Jesus was likely to have been raised, the son not so much of a lowly carpenter, but of a master builder, as the Hebrew and Aramaic word ‘nagar’ implies. And when, a few years ago, I lived in Haifa, I was introduced to a number of people living in the nearby Druze village – Christians, Muslims, Druze, Bahai and some Jews, many of whom had carried on in that very same tradition of expert carpentry and building described in the New Testament, and had done very well for themselves as a cherished part of Israeli society.

From what we know of Jewish life in that time of huge turmoil and upheaval, given the Roman occupation, Jesus was born into a Jewish household, was circumcised at eight days, and would have had the normal Jewish schooling. This would have consisted of Hebrew Bible study when very young, together with oral teachings. That great fount of wisdom, ‘Pirkei Avot’ contains sayings and advice that Jesus would probably have followed and discussed.

We know that Jesus visited the Temple and various home groups which served as what later became the synagogue and we know that he loved arguing with learned scholars, as this was and remains part of Jewish tradition. He would also have experienced the normal bar mitzvah at the age of 13, no doubt offering words of wisdom on his Torah portion which would have impressed family and friends. I am sure that Jesus would have felt at home with fellow Jews and Jewish religious practice.

So as far as the present-day Church of England is concerned, in my view they should cherish the Jewish roots of their founder and ‘put away childish things’ when it comes to describing the person of Jesus, instead of simply trying to fit into the latest fashion.

Bending the truth for appeasement purposes often results, in my experience at least, in the first fib simply growing into a lie – which itself then often turns into defamation – and eventually truth itself is destroyed. So what price Christianity then?

It is the saddest Nine Days of the year for us Jews, during which we ponder on our behaviour and collectively strive to ‘do better’; when we recall the destruction of our Temple in 70 CE, read the book of Lamentations (attributed to the prophet Jeremiah) and remind ourselves of all the terrible things that have happened to the Jewish people in history – including as one of the worst, the massacre at York, which still hasn’t been adequately recognized by the authorities. This massacre of 1190 (under Richard the Lionheart) was followed exactly 100 years later in 1290 by the expulsion of the Jews of England (the first such recorded event in global history).

So this is all the more reason that any Archbishop of York should be very careful with their words before speaking and especially on matters pertaining to Jews in a city, which until very recently was a place largely avoided by observant Jews.

I think there are lessons we can learn here from American martyr Martin Luther King, who incidentally worked together with the ‘brand plucked from the fire’ of the Holocaust, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, originally from Warsaw, in order to counter bigotry, murder and to promote peace on earth and goodwill to all. It’s worth considering for a moment MLK’s marvellous 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech, which even anticipates our biblical reading from Isaiah 40, to be read in synagogues all over the world on the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av, otherwise known as ‘the Shabbat of Comfort’.

Verses 4 and 5 from Isaiah 40 are the ones especially chosen by MLK to illustrate all his points, and if only his words were to be heeded properly today. Because one can safely say that for real heroes like MLK, to be Jewish wasn’t something to reject and hammer out of existence by being economical with the facts, but to be revelled in and celebrated, by Christians as well as by Jews.

In any case, the Archbishop of York’s comments only make me all the more eager to get started in my new role of training Anglican clergy, starting next term. A good friend of mine, a retired Church leader, recently lamented to me that there is a “huge deficit” in priestly formation in the Church Of England which, in his view, is rooted in a “failure to give adequate teaching about Jesus, who was a Jew, even though there are many books about the Jewish context of Jesus and the Christian New Testament.”

To re-visit Vermes again, it was he who argued in his 2012 work Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, that there is a tendency still far too prevalent among Christians to view Jesus through “the distorting Gentile spectacles that the church developed in the early centuries”.

To again quote my Church friend directly, the ordinands I will be training “will be people who through their priestly ministry will often preach on, or make reference to, the Hebrew Scriptures”.

In his words, not mine: “Many clergy have little clue what they are talking about on such occasions. That is because the Jewish understanding of those scriptures, that were, as it were, in the DNA of Jesus, was never explained to them in their period of training.”

And to quote him further, “The two faiths may interpret the Hebrew Scriptures differently, but that does not excuse the Christian preacher from taking the trouble to ask: how was/is this passage understood by Jews and how did Jesus understand it? And, going further, in what ways did, for example, Paul and others reinterpret those Scriptures and disconnect them from their original meaning?”

In asking and seeking to answer such questions, Christians can surely enrich their understanding of their own faith, while at the same time not needlessly offending their Jewish cousins, because surely it is counterproductive for the Church to extend its hand to one group of people while simultaneously disenfranchising another!

Dr Irene Lancaster

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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