Monday, February 08, 2021

Anonymous Asks (131)

“Was Jesus really a Jew?”

If you have been a mainstream evangelical Christian most of your life and are even slightly familiar with the scriptures, this may seem like a ridiculous question with an answer so obvious it is unworthy of serious attention. And yet you might be surprised to find how many people who call themselves Christians would answer it in the negative, often quite fiercely.

Sometimes a ridiculous question is not so ridiculous when you understand where it is coming from. At very least it is not ridiculous to the person asking it.

So does the “Jesus was not a Jew” argument have any merit? Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by “a Jew”.

The Meaning of “Jew”

The history of the term is complicated. Properly considering it requires a post of its own. If you have never looked into what makes Jews truly Jewish and what makes them merely poseurs, you can find one such study here. Moreover, in public discourse the word “Jew” is used to mean many different things, some quite extra-biblical, which makes it all too easy for emotional people to argue past one another.

If we are reading our Bibles in modern book order, we do not find the word “Jew” until Esther. If we are reading chronologically as best we may determine, we will come across it first in Jeremiah, where the term refers to any genetic product of the southern kingdom of Judah ruled over for many years by the descendants of David. That kingdom was made up of members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and eventually members of several other Israelite tribes. There are no references to Jews much before the Babylonian captivity. In the earlier Old Testament scriptures, the descendants of Judah are first called Hebrews, then Israelites, then men of Judah (or sometimes Judeans, depending on your translation).

The word “Jew” was probably coined by Gentiles to describe the captive Judeans in their midst, but was quickly adopted by people from the former kingdom of Judah as a self-description, much as the word “Christian” originated outside the church but has been subsequently appropriated by disciples as a way of describing their relationship to Christ.

Ethnicity and Ethno-Religiosity

The kingdom of Judah (the state) ceased with the Babylonian captivity, but the nation of Judah (its people) continued into the first century notwithstanding various degrees of subjugation under the Medo-Persian, Greek and Roman Empires.

Bear in mind that within the pages of the Bible, “Jew” is strictly an ethnic term, not an ethno-religious one as is common today. A Gentile believer in God could not become a Jew, though he could certainly become a proselyte of the religion of the Jews. Luke, for one, refers specifically to the “Jewish nation”, and distinguishes Gentile proselytes and devout Gentiles generally from Jews.

Also, while some Jews today consider anyone Jewish whose mother is a Jew, no such limitation is scriptural. Matthew’s genealogy of Christ includes male children of Gentile mothers, Rahab and Ruth among them, who were very much considered part of the nation.

A Jew by Jewish Standards

So was Jesus a Jew by first century standards of Jewishness? Absolutely.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether his adoption as Joseph’s legal heir made the Lord Jesus officially a Jew in his day, since the status of adopted children in the first century cannot be established with absolute certainty from the words of scripture alone.

Even so, citizenship in the “Jewish nation” to which Luke refers did not require lineage tracing back to the tribe of Judah, but also included members of other tribes. This can be established with absolute certainty from the example of the apostle Paul, who calls himself a Jew but was genetically from the tribe of Benjamin, as also was Mordecai.

So then, the question of whether the Lord’s mother Mary was actually from the tribe of Judah or from the tribe of Levi, as is sometimes argued (her relative Elizabeth is specifically said to be “from the daughters of Aaron”), is irrelevant to any discussion of the Lord’s Jewishness. Even if Mary was indeed genetically from the tribe of Levi (which is by no means the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the available evidence), that would not exclude her from being considered part of the Jewish nation, making the Lord Jesus very much a Jew by Jewish standards.

The difficulty some people have with the Lord Jesus being Jewish, then, has to do with inadvertently imposing an extra-biblical limitation on the word “Jew”, restricting it to only those genetically from the tribe of Judah. This is simply not how the New Testament uses the word. If the Jewish religious leadership had had even the slightest opportunity to disqualify Jesus on the basis of the circumstances of his birth, they would most certainly have done so. They tried everything else. The fact that the nationality issue was never even raised in any of the four gospels stands as conclusive evidence that Jesus was deemed sufficiently “Jewish” for even his most hardened critics.

Another Difficulty

There are also people who assert Jesus was not Jewish, but really mean something else entirely. Benjamin Freedman is one of them. As he puts it, Jesus was not Jewish “in the sense that so-called ‘Jews’ today call themselves ‘Jews’ ”.

So then, Freedman is not arguing that the Lord was not considered Jewish by Jews of the first century. Not at all. Rather, the point he is trying to make is that many or most modern so-called “Jews” are not actually descended from the Jewish nation of the first century, and that therefore the Lord has no genetic relationship to most self-described Jews today. His argument is complicated and entirely based on history rather than scripture, and I have heard a number of others make it as well. It involves a lot of details about Khazars, Edomites and the adulteration of Jewish bloodlines by Italians that I will not attempt to summarize because it is of little interest to most readers.

Such a position need not be explicitly anti-Semitic, and there is little value in simply dismissing it as the propaganda of Jew-haters. However, because it is historically based, it is also completely unverifiable. Moreover, regardless of whether many modern Jews are 100% genetically Jewish, the scriptural definition of “Jew” is sufficiently elastic as to accommodate repeated intermarriage with Gentiles over the years.

For myself, whether we are speaking physically or spiritually, I am happy to leave it to the Lord to decide who he is and is not ashamed to call his brothers.

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