My friend Elaine gave me a copy of the the March 8, 2004 issue of US News & World Report with it's headline: The Real Jesus - Searching for the Truth Between Jesus and the Gospels. Then, in the body of the magazine, the article is entitled: The Real Jesus - How a Jewish reformer lost his Jewish identity. The titles alone tell you about the biases and objectives of the article.
Bias - neither Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, nor the New Testament gospels tell us the truth about Jesus.
Objective - restore Jesus to his "rightful" place as a Jewish reformer, not the founder of a new religion.
While most of us would not be bothered by the charge that Gibson's movie doesn't tell us the whole story about Jesus, those who take the Bible as the Word of God are very bothered by the implied assertion that the Gospels do not give us the real Jesus. After all, Gibson's film is a work of art. Although it makes a claim to be generally faithful to the gospels, most will forgive Gibson's movie if it takes a little artistic license with the story here and there - as long as it doesn't outright deny something in the gospels. But, to charge the gospels with misrepresenting the truth about Jesus cuts at the heart of the Christian faith, for the Christian church bases its faith on what is contained in the gospels. If the gospels misrepresent Jesus, then the foundation of our faith crumbles.
As to the objective of rehabilitating Jesus' Jewish identity, it gets a little more dicey.
As a pedigreed conservative evangelical who has spent many years worshipping in conservative evangelical churches and studying in conservative evangelical institutions, I can't recall any of the scholars I have read or heard deny Jesus' Jewish identity. This seems to be plain in the gospels and there is really nothing in the New Testament that would dispute that. In trying to restore Jesus' Jewish identity, these scholars are seeking to restore something that was never really lost. To call Jesus a "Jewish Reformer" is not far from the mark. In Matthew 15:24 a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus asking Him to deliver her daughter from a demon. His reply seems callous, but it shows His solidarity with the Jews - He answered,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”In fact, Jesus, and His apostolic interpreters claim that Jesus was the true Jew, and those who follow Him are the true Jews. In Romans 2:28, the apostle Paul says:
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Mt 15:24). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.In Colossians 2:11-12 Paul will equate this "circumcision of the heart" with baptism in the name of Jesus, thus demonstrating that Jesus and His earliest followers saw His ministry as seamless with the Jewish religion of the Old Testament. Further, the apostle Paul says in Galatians 3:7-9
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Ro 2:28-29). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, l “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.I realize in making these assertions that I am opening a whole new can of worms. I understand that my Jewish friends will dispute Paul's words with me, but at this point, I am only claiming that the gospel writers and the rest of the New Testament writers understood Jesus' ministry in a totally Jewish context. Those who want to restore the Jewishness of Jesus are seeking to restore
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Ga 3:7-9). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
something the New Testament never denied.
The US News article says:
The distancing of Jesus from his Jewish roots is a complex story involving the gradual separation of the Christian movement from Judaism both in Palestine and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean world, beginning shortly after the crucifixion.I would argue that Jesus earliest followers, those who were there "shortly after the crucifixion" were not the ones who sought to distance Jesus from His Jewish roots. However, I am willing to concede the point that, through the centuries the post-apostolic followers of Christ have sought to do this.
Referring to Geza Vermes of Oxford, US News says that after the Jewish revolt and subsequent destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD, the early Christians had to distance themselves from the unpopular Judaism. Vermes believes that the gospels were written after AD 70, (a dubious claim), and:
Since many of the intended readers of the Gospels were gentiles, . . . they shared the strong anti-Jewish sentiment that followed the unpopular rebellion against the Romans. It would have been unwise and counterproductive for the Gospel writers to claim that Rome was responsible for killing a Jewish redeemer. So it's no surprise, Vermes contends, that the Gospel writers - espeically Matthew - blame the Jews for Jesus' death.There are numerous problems with these statements. First of all, we ought not to take the claim that the Gospel writers and particularly Matthew are anti-semitic at face value. In an article on the Jewish-Christian relations website, Dorothy A. Lee, Professor of New Testament at the United Faculty of Theology and Dean of Chapel at Queens College, comes to the conclusion that, though she believes there are pro and anti Jewish elements in the book, it is ultimately not anti-Semitic. She believes that the strongest anti-Jewish elements are found in Matthew 23. However, I would point out that in this chapter Jesus is speaking to the crowds and His disciples to warn them about the Scribes and Pharisees of the day. The crowds would be made up of Jews and these warnings are designed to protect them (Jews) from the harm that comes their way through the Scribes and Pharisees of that generation. Rather than being anti-Semitic, this chapter is given to protect the majority of the Jews harm that would come to them by way of a small minority of Jews. These comments are not directed at the Jewish race, but a particular group of Jewish leaders.
The notion that the gospels were written after the destruction of the temple is disputed by conservative and critical scholars alike. While I may be accused of allowing my conservative biases to influence my position in favor of earlier dates, I would still argue that Vermes and US News should acknowledge that Vermes' position on dating is much disputed. Many still follow John A. T. Robinson in his contention that all of the New Testament documents were written before AD 70. Therefore, Vermes and US News are unwise to build this theory on the foundation of such a disputable point.
Having said this, for the sake of argument I am willing to concede the point that, throughout history, the church has sought to separate what God has joined together - Jesus and His Jewishness. But, since the US News article focuses on the Gospels, I am compelled to defend their truthfulness in this matter. The truth is that the Gospels themselves affirm, in the strongest possible terms, the Jewishness of Jesus. It is fair to criticize professing Christians throughout history when they have tried to interpret the Gospels in such a way as to justify their anti-Semitic views and actions. But when they have done so, it is because they have departed from the teaching of the Gospels.
There are some other matters where the US News article gets it wrong about Jesus Himself. For example, the article again refers to Geza Vermes in saying that
declaring oneself the Messiah . . . was not blasphemy by Jewish law.Vermes goes on to say that if Jesus's crime had been truly blasphemy, as the Gospels assert, then the priests would have rightfully condemned Jesus to death by stoning - rather than handing him over to Pilate for the Crucifixion. Quoting Boston University scholar Paula Fredriksen, the article states:
If Pilate didn't have an itchy trigger finger, the Crucifixion, which was a specifically political punishment, probably would not have happened.All this seems to be written to say that Jesus was crucified for political reasons, not religious reasons. And, like those who follow the Da Vinci code thesis this article seems to accept the fact that it was not until the Council of Nicaea that Jesus began to be recognized as God.
The problem with all of this is that the gospel accounts say that Jesus was accused by the Pharisees of blasphemy because He claimed to be God. I realize that this is inadmissable evidence to those who follow the Da Vinci code, with theira priori commitment to the theory that Jesus wasn't made "God" until Nicaea. But the fact is that the gospel records show that Jesus did in fact claim to be God. For instance, John 10:33 refers to the desire of the Jewish leaders to stone Jesus for blasphemy. What was the blasphemy Jesus was accused of?
The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but wfor blasphemy, because you, being a man, xmake yourself God.”Whether we believe Jesus claimed to be God or not misses the point, Jesus's contemporary enemies believed He was claiming to be God.
The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (electronic ed.) (Jn 10:33). Wheaton: Good News Publishers.
There is a sense in which the scholars in the article got it right. Claiming to be the Messiah is not necessarily blasphemous in the Jewish religion. In the Old Testament, the title "Messiah" was used to refer to priests and kings. It is often translated "anointed" or "anointed one." The title refers to King David and also to the Persian King Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1. There is a sense in which you could say that David, Cyrus and others were "messiah's" with a little "m," as types of "The Messiah," the ultimate King, who would one day come. These "messiah's" were often given a specific task by God.
So, US News is correct in stating that a claim of being Messiah, in and of itself, was not enough to get Jesus criticized. But it is also just as unlikely that Jesus would have been crucified for political purposes. In Luke 20:25, Jesus affirmed the right of Rome (Caesar) to collect taxes, contra the Jewish leaders. Jesus rebukes His disciple Peter for trying to defend Him with the sword in John 18:10. He said that His kingdom was not of this world in John 18:36. In all of these ways Jesus made it very clear that He was not pursuing a political end.
Which brings us back to the event that precipitated the crucfixion. It was not Jesus's claim to be the Messiah that got Him in trouble, it was His claim to be the Son of God, thus making Himself equal with God. To claim to be the Messiah is not blasphemous, but to claim to be the Son of God is. Jesus was a threat to the political power of a certain group of Jewish leaders (He was not a threat or an enemy to the hopes and aspirations of other Jews). These leaders pulled the necessary strings on Pilate to move Him to crucify Jesus. I am again willing to concede a point from the article - they say that Pilate was in fact a "notoriously harsh prefect, quick to crucify even potential political rebels." This may explain why the Jewish leaders were able to push his buttons. But none of this takes away from the fact that Jesus claimed to be God and this is what led to His crucifixion.
It is again worth pointing out that in saying that a particular group of Jewish leaders, at a particular point of time in history pulled the strings and pushed the buttons that led to Jesus crucifixion, but this in no way implicates the entire Jewish race in that event.
What I see in all of this is a very "Da Vinci-an" agenda. The "Da Vinci Code" offers the critical theory du jour. As Al Mohler says in his weblog of July 29, 2003
The Da Vinci Code's driving claim is nothing less than that Christianity is based upon a Big Lie (the deity of Christ) used by patriarchal oppressors to deny the true worship of the Divine Feminine.In fairness, the US News article doesn't speak of "patriarchal oppressors," who "deny the true worship of the Divine Feminine." But it does accept the notion that the deity of Jesus was invented at a later date in history for political purposes.
For example, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who died in 110AD says this of Jesus:
For our God Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost.
"...God Himself appearing in the form of a man, for the renewal of eternal life."
Continue inseparable from Jesus Christ our God."
"For even our God, Jesus Christ, now that He is in the Father".Clement, who was identified as Paul's fellow laborer in Philippians 4:3 and who is believed to have died around 99AD, wrote the following:
For Christ is with those who are humble, not with those exalt themselves over his flock. The majestic scepter of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, did not come with the pomp of arrogance or pride (though He could have done so), but in humility, just as the Holy Spirit spoke concerning Him."
"Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ as of God : as of the judge of the living and the dead".Justin Martyr, who died around 165AD wrote:
For Christ is King, and Priest, and God and Lord..."
"...He preexisted as the Son of theCreator of things, being God, and that He was born a man by the Virgin."Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who died around 160AD wrote:
"Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High Priest Himself, the God Jesus Christ, build you up in the faith..."For a longer list of quotes from early church fathers on the deity of Christ, see this site. But for now, suffice it to say that the deity of Christ is not a third or fourth century invention - it was the view of the early church.
The US News article, contrary to its claim, does not give us "the Real Jesus." It gives us a biased view of Jesus, The kind of view that is described by Brent Bozell in an article discussing the way most modern media covers religious stories.
Progressive religious fads often emerge from academia, where professors can be located to tout as the most credible, objective, social-scientific findings loopy conspiracy theories like "The DaVinci Code" or phony "gospels" that teach Jesus was less like God and more like a profound Grateful Dead groupie. Sadly, the media’s Rolodex of religion experts was dominated by academics who are hostile to religious orthodoxy. They are never described for the viewer at home as boutique liberals or hard-line secularists.