Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

When Jesus is made into a stranger in his own homeland

Amid weaving a tapestry of human rights heroes, a university president referred to Jesus as “a Jew in Roman occupied Palestine.” The comment was quick, dishonest, and politically intentional, but most disturbingly, it violated Jesus’ own human rights. It is becoming popular to re-frame Jesus’s identity to serve present-day positions about Israel. The problem is that there was no such place as “Palestine” to Jesus. Jesus called his home “Judah.” That is not just semantics, it is a difference that brings with it a very important distinction — one the president knew and intentionally ignored.

In classical times, there were four distinct Jewish states that arose and fell in the region that is modern-day Israel. From 1070-930 B.C.E., there was the kingdom of Israel; the northern and southern parts then split into Israel/Samaria and Judah. Assyria destroyed Israel in 722. Judah remained until the expulsion of its elite in 586 to Babylon, but was later revitalized by the Maccabean defeat of the Seleucid dynasty, establishing the fourth independent Jewish State in 166 B.C.E. In 63, the Romans invaded. Jesus was a boy when Rome fully took over Judah in 6 C.E. The president should have said that “Jesus lived as a Jew in Roman occupied Judah, or Judea, as the Romans called it.”

Like many occupied Judeans, Jesus was a political activist who opposed the occupation. The Jewish struggle against Rome was strong and Jesus was part of it. That is why Rome crucified him along with so many others. The Jesus Seminar, a collective of Christian scholars and editors of “The Five Gospels,” argue that Jesus’s resistance is contained in the Christian Scriptures, but misunderstood because of our lack of historical understanding. Consider, for example, Matthew 5:39b, wherein Jesus says, “…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” We take this as a sort of pacifistic sentiment to not return violence with violence. But that is not what was meant at all.

Early Christianity scholar Dr. Marcus Borg explains this is actually a call to resistance. “That people in that world used their right hand to strike somebody provides the key for understanding the saying.” To be struck on the right cheek with a right hand requires a back-handed slap, a gesture of superiority. Think of our saying, “a back-handed compliment,” to be hit with the back of the hand is to be insulted. The saying thus presupposes a situation of domination: a peasant being slapped by a steward or official, for example, or a prisoner being backhanded by a jailer.

To turn the other cheek is to invite another hit with the front of the hand, “a gesture reserved for those of equal status. The beating could continue only if the superior used an overhand blow – which is the way an equal would strike another equal. Of course, he might do so. But he would be momentarily discombobulated, and the subordinate would be asserting his equality even if the beating did continue.” Turning the other cheek is an act of explicit political resistance against the Roman occupiers, denying their superiority to their faces.

Such resistance was a family affair. Jesus’s brother James was executed for anti-Roman activity soon before Rome destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. In 136, the Romans defeated the last Jewish led uprising and only then renamed Judah as “Syria-Palestinia.”

In erasing this history, the President’s comment robbed Jesus of his identity, erasing the very real fact that Jesus was Jewishly resisting Rome for his homeland, Judah. What we today make of those first and early second century Jews is our response, not theirs. We must take great care not to misidentify their struggle against Rome. They fought and suffered for it. They earned it. It should remain theirs. Millions died and lost their lives and homes because of resistance to Rome. And just as first and second century Jewish losses do not justify Israel’s colonial enterprise today, standing against Israeli Jewish colonialism in no way justifies robbing first century Judeans of their identity as the President explicitly and intentionally did.

I wanted to say something about this matter during the question-answer period, but was afraid of the accusation that “Jews always make it about themselves.” The lecture had nothing to do with Jews until the President mentioned Jesus, and it stopped having anything to do with Jews after. But it didn’t for me. The President’s comment was another example of erasing Jewish history, a common move in Western cultures. In trying to be an avowed de-colonialist, the President acted as a Western colonizer.

I’m guessing the President’s dishonest comment went over the heads of the students, but perhaps not all the scholars. No one said a word. I think I was the only Jewish scholar there. In saying nothing, I allowed this lie to bury the truth. Students — especially the only two Jewish students there — were not given the needed example I would have provided by noting the error.

But had I spoken up, the scholarly and student audience would have most likely found my concern picayune. Indeed, my personal experience informs me that exposing this sort of dishonesty rarely goes well. To expose hypocrisy in the President’s stand against Israeli colonization of Palestine would not have been well-received. Palestinian Jews only began to exist a century after Jesus’ execution when Rome changed the name of Judea to Syria-Palestina in order to erase Judah’s existence. The President ended up engaging in and supporting exactly the sort of colonialism and cultural genocide that he claimed to be opposing. It would not have been successful to point out how strange a day it is when a contemporary human rights leader joins with Rome against first and early second century occupied Judeans in order to make a 21st century point about Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians.

My enforced silence made clear that Jewish history, my own history, is not my story to speak. I could not have effectively spoken then, but it is imperative that I survive the moment to later talk about it. This is not the first time I have found myself in this sort of predicament on the left. It is why I am here to write. The President’s dishonest comment was no small slight. I could not have addressed it then, but I can here. Jewish Jesus deserves more than my silence when the President made Jesus a stranger in his own land.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College