Faydra L. Shapiro
In Our Time: Jews & Christians

The Un-Jewing of Jesus

Efforts to erase the Jewishness of Jesus have a long history, one that dates back almost to Jesus himself. As early as the second century, Marcion sought to consciously disconnect Christianity from the God and scripture of Israel. That tendency to un-Jew Jesus was strong enough that it took decades of intentional work on the part of scholars and theologians in the late 20th century to give Jesus back his own Jewishness. In the wake of the Shoah it had become clear how much was at stake.

A quick look at medieval and Renaissance Christian art gives us a powerful visual example. Here we see the active effort to decouple Jesus from his Jewish context, through an act of reading Christianity back into the original scenes of his life. Whether that was through representing the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus holding a rosary, the injection of a cross and Latin into the scene of Christ’s baptism, or the transformation of the Passover meal into a Christian Eucharist complete with kneeling and distribution of communion, historical anachronisms have never stood in the way of turning Jesus into a good Christian. This served to emphasize that Jesus was “just like us Christian folk” and not in any way connected with those wretched Jews down the street. Which of course, made it easier to demonize those Jewish folk down the street.

The German Christian movement similarly sought out a Jesus torn from his Jewishness. In developing a Christianity that was not at odds with Nazi ideology, the “Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life” understood the impossibility presented by Jesus the Jew. By asserting that the population of Galilee was comprised of ethnically mixed forced converts to Judaism, German Christian theologians could invent Jesus the Aryan, who was hated and persecuted by the Jews. This served to emphasize that Jesus was “just like us Aryan folk” and not in any way connected with those wretched Jews down the street. Which of course – again – made it easier to demonize those Jewish folk down the street.

So it’s difficult not to worry about the proliferation of Palestinian Jesus images and claims following October 7. It used to be an odd but emotionally resonant idea that I used for teaching students about Christian imagery and the Israel-Palestine conflict. But post-October 7 it is more insidious than that. According to this way of thinking, Jesus stands as an oppressed Palestinian while the Jews – in the form of the Jewish state – are cast as Rome. Which brings us right back to the deicide charge, where the Jews are responsible for killing Christ, and continue to present a threat to good Christians everywhere.

The undeniable fact is that Jesus would have had far more in common with my 23-year old Jewish son living in the Galilee than with an evangelical Christian from America, reading from the same Scriptures, praying many of the same prayers, honoring the sabbath, understanding himself as part of a people in covenant with God, celebrating the Passover, and loving Jerusalem. It’s not a theory – it’s right there through the New Testament. And while Jesus might indeed have had much to critique about the state of Israel today, he would certainly not have recognized himself holding a rosary or being saluted by German soldiers wearing swastikas. Nor wearing a kaffiyeh and draped in a Palestinian flag.

We are approaching the Christian Holy Week, marking the events of Jesus’ Passion and crucifixion. In a year when mobs shout “death to the Jews” in the streets, when Jewish students are afraid to go to school, when Jews are hiding any visible signs of Jewishness, we must be especially wary of those who present a de-judaized Jesus under threat from dangerous Jews. 

About the Author
Faydra Shapiro is the founding director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. She is also a senior fellow at The Philos Project and a member of the Center for the Study of Religion at Tel Hai College in Israel. Dr. Shapiro teaches visiting Christian groups as well as local Israelis and also writes regular academic and popular articles on Jewish-Christian relations. She is passionate about her mission of creating greater understanding between Jews and Christians both in Israel and in the diaspora. Her latest book is "Catholic Approaches to the People, Land and State of Israel", published in 2022.
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