In 2013, I published a book entitled Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew. In it, I argued that Jesus’ Jewish identity had been obliterated in early Church teachings, as well as in Medieval and Renaissance art. At the time, several friends commented, “But everyone knows that Jesus was Jewish.”
Was that true, I wondered? Did most people know that Jesus was born and died a devoted Jew?
In fact, when I probed deeper, I found that most people believed that Jesus either “used to be Jewish,” or that he was born Jewish but soon or later became a Christian. The absurdity of these claims becomes clear when we consider that Christianity did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime.
Then I discovered that in the vast archives of Medieval and Renaissance paintings of Jesus, there is no visual evidence that Jesus was Jewish — or had any connection to Judaism. In these artworks, Jesus, his family and his followers are often represented as Renaissance-era Christians, and placed in settings alien to their Jewish roots.
In most of these paintings, Jesus and his followers are depicted as blond, fair-skinned Northern Europeans, and they are surrounded by anachronisms of Renaissance Christianity — such as crucifixes, saints and church settings.
And although there are depictions of Jesus as being black, Asian, or of other ethnicities, they too show no evidence of Jesus’ connection to Judaism.
In viewing these artworks, I kept asking myself: where is Jesus the Jew? I continued to search, but could not find him.
This purge of Jesus’ Jewish identity is no small matter. As I studied these artworks, I became increasingly aware that they contributed to historical anti-Semitism by converting Jesus into a Medieval or Renaissance Christian, thus separating him from Judaism and enhancing the perception of Jews as “the others.”
This made it easier for already anti-Semitic societies to demonize and persecute Jews, especially when the “Christ killer” moniker was added.
So should these pieces of art be condemned? Absolutely not.
Renaissance artworks are major cultural and artistic contributions, and they should be celebrated as such. At the same time, though, art historians, curators and critics should acknowledge the distortions of biblical history in these creations — something they have still failed to do.
Were art scholars and historians to restore Jesus’ Jewish identity — through both their teaching and writing — they would enrich our understanding of the true historical context of Medieval and Renaissance religious art, and also contribute to the reconciliation of Christianity and Judaism — a process that has been underway since Vatican II in 1962.
That reconciliation is one goal of my documentary film, Identity Purge: The Search for the Jew in Jesus in Renaissance Art. The film also provides a rich new view of Jesus and his followers, through a grand tour of art history that will forever change your understanding and appreciation of Renaissance art.
Click below to view the film.
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.