Recently in an online Christian forum, a couple of people declared Jesus was not a Jew and that he was killed by the Jews. Now the only time I’ve really ever heard Christ’s ethnicity being questioned, even if it was in a rhetorical sense, was when chapel speakers were trying to push their agenda for Jesus to be black and not white with blonde hair and blue eyes. (Personally, I have never seen that depiction of Jesus in any church; though I can imagine it in a KKK and neo-Nazi meeting house.) Other than that most people I’ve come into contact with have generally accepted Christ to be of Jewish descent. So it was rather baffling to encounter two people were obstinately sure that the Lord was not a Jew. After a couple of attempts to reason with them, I left them to their own deception. But it made me wonder, “How many of us take this fact for granted? Do we know how to back up this claim?” So that is the purpose of today’s post, to find evidence of Christ’s Jewish background.
Let’s first see if Jesus was ethnically Jewish. In the first gospel of the Bible, that is the book of Matthew, the very first thing that we read is a genealogy or a list of ancestors and their descendants starting with Abraham and ending with Christ. While most of the names are unfamiliar to many Christians because we tend to skip over the genealogies in the Old Testament, we can pick few out like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Boaz, and David. The first three are the great patriarchs and ancestors of the Jewish people. Judah is the head of an Israelite tribe made up of ethnic Jews. Boaz and David were both Jews as well. If Christ descends from them, then it would follow that Jesus was also ethnically Jewish. Now someone might argue that an ethnic Jew from the Roman territory of Galilee would not have a Greek name like Jesus. And there is some validity to this argument. However, it should be pointed out that Jesus is not Greek in origin but a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew name “Yeshua” which we know in English as Joshua meaning “God saves.” Also the Jewish scriptures at the time were primarily written in Greek, not Hebrew. Thus Christ’s parents were not giving their child a Greek name, but a Jewish one based on a Greek translation of their Scriptures.
Is there any evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus was Jew? Well, yes and no. It isn’t so much that extra-biblical sources explicitly stated that Jesus was a Jew as it is they never seem to question that assumption. The Talmud references a Yeshua of the 1st century was crucified and was said to be born of a Jewish virgin and carpenter (n.b.: the Talmud does not agree with the virgin birth story). Josephus calls Jesus a Jewish wise man (n.b.: Josephus didn’t believe Jesus to be the Christ). And Suetonius records the Emperor Claudius throwing the Jews out of Rome for their heated debates over a man called Christ. That’s rather odd for the Jews in Rome to do if Jesus was Greek, Trojan, Gallic or Egyptian and had nothing to do with Jews or Judaism.
Okay, so the evidence points toward Jesus being ethnically Jewish. Was he also an adherent to Judaism? This is a little more difficult to answer because as Christians we have to assume that Jesus was the Messiah while the Jewish leaders in the New Testament and many Jews today would say that he was not the Messiah. However there is ample evidence to indicate that he did observe Jewish religious traditions and customs. He accepted the holiness of the Sabbath, though he declared to be Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11, Matt. 12:8-12). He recognized the importance of the Shema (Matt. 22:37-38). He upheld the authority of the Law (Matt. 5:17-20). He observed the Passover festival, the festival of tents, and Hanukah (Luke 2:41-42, Mark 14:12; John 7:2-10, 10:22-23). He compared his death to Jewish symbols, the sign of Jonah and the bronze serpent made by Moses (Matt. 16:4, John 3:14-15). And when he was tempted by Satan and questioned by the Jewish leaders, he relied on Jewish texts (Matt. 4:1-10, 22:23-32, 22:41-45). Yet there is an absence in the gospels of Christ rejecting the faith of his parents, his neighbors, or of his community leaders. And we do not see him giving any credence to Gentile philosophies or beliefs. Even Tradition supports these things.
Therefore we must conclude that Jesus held the Jewish religion in high regards, going even so far as to say that its prophecies were about him (Matt. 26:52-56). It is then both unlikely to conclude and absurd to say that Jesus was not a Jew. He could trace his lineage back to an ancient Israelite king, to the head of his tribe, and to the great patriarchs of his people: Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. And he faithfully observed and upheld the faith of his people. He was not a Gentile born in a Jewish society. He was not some ancient European invention. He was a Jew.
Okay, so what? Does this radically change who Jesus was?
No, not really.
Even if you thought of a Jesus as an American who looked like Marvel’s interpretation of Thor, not knowing that he was Jewish didn’t change the fact that he was God incarnate who died for our sins. Does this mean that his Jewish identity is unimportant? No, but it isn’t central to the Christian faith. Remember even the early Church creeds didn’t emphasize Christ’s ethnicity and religious background. (Granted, I don’t believe very many questioned if Jesus was a Jew back in those days.) It is more liking buying a chocolate Easter bunny. You could get the one that is hollow, or you could purchase a solid chocolate bunny. Both are still bunnies and both are sold during Easter. But one is solid while the other is hollow. A non-Jewish Jesus is a hollow bunny and is okay for those new to the faith. But as believers, we should all be striving to get a more solid picture of who Jesus is. As the Apostle Paul teaches, we need to move from baby food to solid substances to nourish our soul and part of that is to recognize the Jewish nature and background that made Christ who he is.
Now if you excuse me, I need to see if there’s an early Easter sale for chocolate bunnies.