A Misunderstood Jew
A recent book about the Jewish roots of Jesus is entitled “A Misunderstood Jew.” This title can be problematic. Is Jesus King of Kings and Lord of Lords and the Christ? No, he is just “misunderstood.” Another book with the same theme is “Kosher Jesus.” In this book the author argues that Jesus wasn’t the Redeemer and the Savior of Mankind-he was a Jewish patriot. So some people obviously have some concerns about this new approach to Jesus and Judaism. (The book “Kosher Jesus” was debunked by Dr. Michael Brown.)
On the other hand, a popular misconception of Jesus was that he rejected Judaism and fought against it. This idea is that Jesus came to abolish Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Another book series has the title “A Marginal Jew.” What does this mean-that Jesus wasn’t truly Jewish-but that his Jewishness and practice of Judaism was marginal? What the author means is that Jesus was a Jew who was marginalized by his society-mostly through Roman oppression.
But, how was Jesus Jewish? What does it mean when we say that Jesus was a Jew? What are the ramifications of this for Christians? These are questions that Christians need to ask themselves.
What does it mean when we say “Jesus was Jewish”?
In “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” John Dominic Crossan argues that Jesus was heavily influenced by Greek culture and that he belonged to the Greek philosophical school of the Cynics. However, let us look at the Jesus of the Gospels. In several places Jesus is quoted speaking in Aramaic. The only reason that Jesus was quoted speaking in this language must be because it was the language he spoke-and not Greek. So, Jesus is someone who speaks and thinks in a Semitic language.
We know the names of Jesus’ brothers-Jacob, Simon, Joseph and Judah. These are good Jewish names. In Matthew and Luke we have family trees of Jesus, showing that he was of Jewish descent-and that he was a descendent of King David.
Examining Christ’s teachings, it is obvious that his thinking was shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures-and not by Greek thought. On the other hand, I don’t think we should demonize or unfairly disparage Greek thought. Anyone who reads the Greek classics will learn to expand their thinking. I do find many of the teachings of Plato disturbing but he was a great thinker that has had a huge impact on history. Plato isn’t the end all and be all of Greek thinking. Aristotle challenged many of the ideas of Plato and many other Greeks had powerful ideas.
Jesus grew up in the traditional Jewish homeland and surrounded by the Jewish way of life. Jesus grew up in the synagogue and would go on pilgrimages to the Temple.
What does it mean to be a Jew-in the first century?
Judaism in the first century was different from Judaism of today. But there is one similarity-Judaism was very diverse. There wasn’t one institution that said what was Jewish and what wasn’t. The different sects strongly opposed each other.
Pharisees: Probably the largest and strongest sect. They believed in angels and demons, heaven and hell.
Sadducees: This sect was the priestly elite. They believed that this life was the only life and the Temple ritual must be the focus of this earthly life since it was commanded by God on Mount Sinai.
Essenes: These were monks who lived in the wilderness practicing baptismal rituals. They were said to be vegetarian.
The Yahad: The community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. A unique and independent Jewish sect.
Zealots: Jews that believed that they had to sacred duty to fight the Romans.
There may have been many other groups that we don’t know about.
An example is the Mandaeans-The Mandaeans are a Gnostic sect centered in Iraq and Iran-who venerate John the Baptist. They do not practice circumcision-but this group is obviously an offshoot of Judaism.
The Temple played an important role in Judaism. Today, Judaism is focused on the study of the Law-to an extent that was also true at the time of Jesus. However, the Temple played a huge role in Judaism in the first century. There is no Temple and hasn’t been for 2,000 years so it is hard for us to grasp what a Temple centered Judaism was like. Probably the closest thing would be the Hajj to Mecca that Muslims have to take. Jews were required to go to Jerusalem three times a year. Now, this really was no longer practical or possible when you have an international Jewish diaspora. At the time of Jesus, as is true today, more Jews lived outside of the Holy Land than lived within the Holy Land. These Greek Jews would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem during their lifetimes-but obviously not three times a year every year as the Torah dictates.
However, some Jews did not participate in Temple worship. The Yahad thought that the rituals in the temple were not valid because they were being incorrectly observed. According to the Bible, John the Baptist stayed in the wilderness his whole life. This means that John did not leave the wilderness to go into the city of Jerusalem. Also, a vegetarian Jew isn’t going to partake of animals slaughtered in the Temple. John did eat bugs and honey. The Bible says that is all he ate. So, John didn’t eat meat.
People of the Book
People tend to think that things have pretty much always been the way they are now. Today, it is an assumption that everyone can read. We cannot imagine the high illiteracy rates that existed in the ancient world. We are a wealthy people and can afford to teach all of our children how to read. But in ancient times people didn’t have the leisure or the wealth to teach all their children how to read. Literacy rates were probably 10%. If the literacy rates of the Jewish people were twice as high as non-Jews that would mean that only 20% of Jewish men could read. This is most likely the case. Over 50% of Jewish men were illiterate. We see this confirmed in the teachings of Jesus. He said, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” The reason the crowds had “heard it said” was that they could not read and they heard people recite things to them-or listened while things were read to them.
At the time of Jesus-they pretty much had the Old Testament we have today. The canon wasn’t totally settled-so apocryphal books such as Enoch and Tobit may have been considered part of Scripture at least by some Jewish communities at that time.
Jews at the time of Jesus had two “problems” in dealing with the Old Testament. Most of the common Jewish people spoke only Aramaic. And although Hebrew and Aramaic are very similar-they couldn’t understand it. (For example, the King James Bible and Shakespeare are considered to be in Modern English-but many people cannot understand them.) So, there are two barriers between them and the Hebrew Bible-first it is in a language, that although they consider it a “holy” language, they cannot understand it. Secondly, they couldn’t read the language. So, the Bible had to be translated into Aramaic-and it was. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Aramaic Bible translations, called Targums (literally Targumim) were discovered. But for most Jews the Targums were an oral form of the Bible. And it should be remembered that the Bible itself started off as an oral document. The Bible is made up of stories that were told and prophecies that were spoken.
The reciting of the Aramaic Targums became an important part of Synagogue services.
The Jewish people did highly value reading, education and study. This is evidenced by their treasures that they hid in the caves during the Jewish War. Their treasures were their books.
But, most of the Jews were poor people who lived in an agricultural society. Even though many of them couldn’t read, they could listen to the Bible being read or recited in the Aramaic targum form. So, many of the Jews did know the stories of the Bible, although most of them were unable to read it for themselves. Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as a man who could read and write and who was well read in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.
Jesus and the Land
Part of someone’s national temperament is connected to the land in which they lived. For example, if Mozart had been born or raised in Italy as opposed to Germany, he still would have been a musical genius but his music would have had a different temperament to it.
Having been to Israel and lived in the Galilee, I got a feel of Jesus in the land. The land of Israel, and of Galilee, were part of who Jesus was. The area around the Sea of Galilee is a beautiful, tranquil and spiritual place. Jesus often refers to his environment, and the daily life of people within that environment. Jesus says, “See how the wild flowers grow…” He says to watch the birds how they don’t toil or spin-but God provides for them. He talks about shepherds, farmers and fishermen in his parables.
Did Jesus Bring Change?
Did Jesus bring change or not? Some Messianics/Hebrew Roots people think that Jesus did not. But if Jesus did bring change-what change did he bring? How did he change things? Now, most people seem to agree that Jesus “fulfilled” the animal sacrifice system by dying upon the cross. Now that Jesus died on the cross we no longer kill animals so that we may receive forgiveness of sins. But, is that the only reason Jesus came?
Why Did Jesus Come?
What was Christ’s mission? Was it to affirm the law of Moses? Or was it to redeem mankind? Or could Jesus have done both? After all, Moses appeared with Jesus upon the mountain of transfiguration. Did Jesus come to teach people about how to grow their hair, what diet to keep, how to observe holidays or what type a clothing to wear-or was Jesus more interested in what was in the heart of a man?
What should be our focus? Paul said, “I am determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified.”
Stephen Andrew Missick
About the Author
Reverend Stephen Andrew Missick is the author of The Assyrian Church in the Mongol Empire, Mar Thoma: The Apostolic Foundation of the Assyrian Church in India, and Socotra: The Mysterious Island of the Church of the East which were published in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies (Volume XIII, No. 2, 1999, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2000 and Volume XVI No. 1, 2002). He is the author of The Words of Jesus in the Original Aramaic: Discovering the Semitic Roots of Christianity, Mary of Magdala: Magdalene, the Forgotten Aramaic Prophetess of Christianity, Treasures of the Language of Jesus: The Aramaic Source of Christ’s Teaching, Aramaic: The Language of Jesus of Nazareth and Christ the Man. He is an ordained minister of the gospel. He graduated from Sam Houston State University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rev. Missick has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and has lived among the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Aramaic Christians in Syria. He also served as a soldier in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004. While serving as a soldier in Iraq he learned Aramaic from native Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Assyrian Christians. Rev. Missick is the writer and illustrator of the comic book “The Assyrians: The Oldest Christian People,” the comic strip Chronicles: Facts from the Bible and the comic book series The Hammer of God which are available from www.comixpress.com. The Hammer of God comic book series dramatizes the stories of Judah Maccabee and Charles Martel. He has also served as a chaplain in the Army National Guard in Iraq during his second deployment in 2009 and 2010.
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