When I tell people that I’ve written extensively about the Jewish Jesus, they frequently say “but everyone knows that Jesus was Jewish.” It would seem so. But dig deeper and you will find what I discovered in interviewing Christians and Jews.
Most people actually mean that Jesus used to be Jewish. Yes, he was born Jewish, but somehow he was really a Christian. They say that he preached Christian teachings, or that he officially became a Christian when he rejected Judaism and was baptized by John the Baptist.
These views are all false.
The truth is -- based on depictions of Jesus in the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew Mark, Luke and John) -- Jesus lived and died as a dedicated Jew. His argument with the Jewish leadership -- King Herod and the Sanhedrin (the ruling body of Judaism) -- was about their abandonment of the spiritual core of Judaism, which Jesus sought to restore.
The fact that Jesus was a dedicated practicing Jew throughout his life is the consensus of both Christian and Jewish biblical scholars.
For example, Episcopal priest Bruce Chilton states in his book Rabbi Jesus, that: “Everything Jesus did was about Jews, for Jews, and by Jews.” And former Catholic priest James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, expresses a similar view when he asks: “If Jesus were alive today, would he be one of those fervent black-hatted figures dovening [praying] at the Western Wall [the remnant of the Jerusalem Temple]?”
Adding his voice, Shaye J.D. Cohen, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, explicitly attests: “He [Jesus] was born of a Jewish mother, in Galilee, a Jewish part of the world. All of his friends, associates, colleagues, disciples, all of them were Jews. He regularly worshipped in Jewish communal worship, what we call synagogues. He preached from Jewish text. ... He celebrated the Jewish festivals. He lived, died, taught as a Jew.” Correspondingly, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in his groundbreaking book Kosher Jesus also proclaims that “Jesus lived, taught, and died a Jew”--and adds: “Almost all of his teachings derive directly from the Torah.”
A striking passage in the Gospel of Luke (4:16) backs up Father Chilton, James Carroll, Shaye Cohen, and Rabbi Boteach: “And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read.” That Jesus, “as was his custom,” attended synagogue services on the Jewish Sabbath and read passages from the Torah -- as Jews did then and continue to do today -- says a lot. And there is much more.
So why do so many people maintain the contradictory position: “Yes Jesus was a Jew, but he was a Christian.”
The tenaciousness of this incongruity was driven home to me when Bill O’Reilly, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, expressed the same contradictionon on his TV show the O’Reilly Factor, when he slammed one of my articles. In response to my statement quoting O’Reilly himself that “Jesus affirmed his Jewish identity right up to the crucifixion,” he said: “Of course I affirmed that because it’s true.” But O’Reilly then added: “He [Starr] goes off the rails when he says that Christianity didn’t exist in Jesus’ lifetime and he never proposed a new religion; that is false.”
I wish Bill O’Reilly would tell us when Jesus started the new religion -- if he died a dedicated Jew?
O’Reilly also objected to my assertion that one of the most powerful and overlooked supports for the denial of Jesus' Jewish identity was Mediaeval and Renaissance artwork. But search through the vast archives of these artworks spanning centuries, and you will be hard pressed to find any representation or hint that Jesus, his family or followers had any connection to Judaism.
Jesus is typically portrayed as northern European in appearance, embedded in anachronistic later-day palatial Christian settings surrounded by Christian artifacts -- all totally alien to his ethnicity, religion and identity as a practicing Jew who resided in a rural Galilean village. Yet, wherever the Renaissance Christian populace turned -- in churches, public spaces and homes -- they would only see images of a totally Christian Jesus.
Anti-Semitism was so deeply embedded in Medieval and Renaissance society that it was unthinkable for an artist to paint a Jewish Jesus -- that is, if the artist valued keeping his head attached to his neck or not getting burned at the stake.
Also, artists had little say about the content of their paintings, which was determined by the patrons who commissioned the artworks. And patrons demanded totally Christian depictions to impress church officials and the public with their pious devotion to Christianity.
But why should we care about this pervasive falsification of biblical history?Because in denying Jesus’ Jewish identify through omission, these powerful images falsely established Jesus as a Christian and Jews as "the others," who Christian society claimed killed Jesus -- a lingering and bizarre accusation, when one considers that all of Jesus’ followers were Jews -- and that without those followers, there would be no Christianity.
Had Jesus been pictured authentically as a Jew, might some forms of anti-Semitism not have occurred, or might they have been mitigated and challenged?
The power of images has convinced me that film, rather than words alone, would be the most effective medium to establish Jesus’s true identity -- and to lead to a deeper understanding of historical anti-Semitism. I knew that several compelling films, including The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of Christ, and The Da Vinci Code, despite public condemnations for blasphemy and anti -Semitism, generated vigorous public debate about Jesus.
That’s why I have written a screenplay featuring ‘Jesus the Jew From Nazareth.’ It’s a dramatic historical thriller about the complexities, prejudices, historical misdeeds, fatal misunderstandings, and important implications of obscuring the fact that Jesus was Jewish all his life and never intended to start a new religion.
Screenplay sketch: The Jew from Nazareth
Rome, the year 1511. A young monk, Cristobal, steps outside his church early one morning and discovers a dead body. Officials identify the dead man as a Jew and a rabbi. A crucifix is cut deeply into the torso. Was this a hate crime? Does it forecast a new campaign of violence against Jews? Is the murder connected to a secret document establishing that Jesus lived and died a dedicated Jew? Could the monk Cristobal be involved? Or will he become a victim of the corrupt Pope Julius II, who demands a confession from a possible perpetrator, whether guilty or not. Is Julius appeasing the Jewish community in order to extract money for his wars to expand the power of the Vatican? Is it shockingly possible that another rabbi was behind the murder? If so, why? What is the connection of famed artist Michelangelo and his frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the crime and the secret document? What shocking information does Michelangelo and a fellow artist reveal to the rabbi who was later killed about Renaissance art and the persecution of Jews? Why does monk Cristobal offer to participate in the scheme to promote a document that confirms Jesus’ lifelong commitment to Judaism? A startling revelation about Cristobal's past provides the answer. How does the cruel expulsion of Jews from Spain nineteen years earlier fit into the story? When monk Cristobal bonds with a young woman about to enter a convent, does this further endanger their lives and Cristobal's mission? Will Cristobal survive on the run from the Inquisition and other Christian and Jewish assassins who want to kill him and destroy the secret document?
I hope my screenplay, and others like it, will get produced, so that the world finally understands that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish.
Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if this story makes it to the big screen.
Bernard Starr, PhD, is professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”