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Christians sometimes forget that Jesus was Jewish. Understanding Jesus' Jewish roots, we understand more deeply the Gospels and our own Catholic tradition.
Catholic Update

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Jesus the Jew

by Father J. Patrick Mullen

At Mass on Christmas morning we hear the litany of names in Jesus’ ancestry. “Ram was the father of Amminadab. Amminadab was the father of Nahshon” and so on. Sound familiar? It’s clear that the intent of both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies was to root Jesus as a descendant, through Joseph’s house, of the tribe of Judah all the way through David’s ancestors and beyond. Among their points was that Jesus was Jewish, with a long and wonderful history. It’s an aspect of Jesus that hasn’t always been appreciated by Catholics as it should.

In this Update we’ll take a look at how the Bible points to the importance of Jesus’ Jewish heritage with two ends in mind: First, the more we know about the Judaism in which Jesus was steeped, the greater our appreciation of contemporary Judaism. Second, we also gain a deeper insight into the very Jewish symbols and metaphors that will help us understand Jesus’ sacrificial gift of his own life.

The Jews of John’s Gospel

If we have, at times, underappreciated Jesus’ Jewishness, it may well be a result of the portrayal of “the Jews” in John’s Gospel. Exactly 67 verses in John refer to “the Jews,” often implying, curiously, that Jesus and his disciples were not themselves Jewish. Also, “the Jews” seems to apply to the Jews, as if all were opposed to Jesus. At least that’s one way it has been read. One thing is certain, though. “The Jews,” in particular those who opposed Jesus, could not have meant “all Jews.” In the first place, first-century Judaism was neither united nor monolithic. There were many factions and divisions. Two groups—often misunderstood—are well-known to Catholics.

At the top were the Sadducees, a powerful and wealthy priestly class who administered the Temple.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, had little or no political power at the time of Jesus. They didn’t live at the Temple, didn’t govern any of the worship and largely were not priests. They were laypeople trying to find a way for laypeople to live holy lives at home. At times, they sound a lot like Jesus.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees did not get along, having different teachings. The Sadducees accepted only the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, as Scripture. The Pharisees accepted more books as Scripture and had very strong opinions about what the Sadducees should do differently when leading worship. The Pharisees seem to have played a large role in shaping modern Judaism.

Another group, the Essenes, were extremists who thought that their Jewish contemporaries were apostates. There were also zealots whose focus was military and political. They wanted to drive out the Romans and reestablish an independent kingdom.

There were yet other groups that we don’t even know about! In short, Judaism was diverse. So when John says the Jews were trying to put Jesus to death, the first question we would have to ask is, “Which ones?”

Pharisees debated with Jesus in his daily life because they were operating in the same places—away from the Temple, in villages, in people’s homes, where people were living. The Pharisees had little or nothing to do with Jesus’ death, though this is not commonly understood. Go through any one of the Gospels and note when Pharisees disappear from the narrative: prior to the arrest of Jesus and long before the trial and crucifixion that follow.

The Sadducees, though, had a bone to pick with Jesus, who went into their Temple and took control, cleaning it out during the Passover celebration, a time when Jews celebrated their freedom from Egyptian oppression. This was a very loaded political act that couldn’t help but lead to trouble with the Romans, with whom the Sadducees had a very cozy relationship. The Sadducees had a vested interest in stopping Jesus from making such political statements, and, in earthly terms, they did just that. Notice that they were the ones who managed the trials, the crowds and Pontius Pilate.

Even if the texts suggest that the crowd concurred with the priests, this crowd was not representative of all Jews. In the first century, scholars estimate there were four or five million Jews. Many, perhaps most, were dispersed (the Diaspora). Egypt alone held about one million Jews. These statistics indicate that most Jews had no idea that Jesus even existed.

Among those who knew him, thousands thought his teachings were very interesting and followed him at least for parts of his life. Only a very small group of the four or five million Jews were involved in persecuting him. John’s Gospel, though, is not clear on this point (see Jn 7:1). Thus, the crowd in Matthew’s Gospel who cried, “His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Mt 27:25), did not speak for all Jews; only for themselves.

Why would John, and perhaps Matthew also, write that way? We think that their communities—probably themselves deeply rooted in Judaism—had been excluded from their home synagogues by Jews who did not approve of their mixing Jewish and Christian perspectives.

It was an intensely painful process in which these Christians lost their business connections, their neighbors, their friends and even their family ties. When writing their Gospel, the Johannine community couldn’t help but write that experience—even though this was years later—back into Jesus’ life.

Move the clock up 2,000 years and we can see that many—Catholics included—have used these kinds of passages to justify violence against Jews of later ages. The culmination of this in the last century was the murder of six million Jews, ironically by people who claimed to be followers of Jesus the Jew.

By way of contrast, Catholics are taught by Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate in a key passage: “In her rejection of every persecution against any person, the Church, mindful of the inheritance she shares with the Jews and moved by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by any one” (NA, #4). It could not be clearer.

Jesus, an observant Jew

In one way or another, all the Gospels seek to portray Jesus as a Jew. His parents were observant Jews who had him circumcised and then went to the Temple themselves for purification rites, making the offering of the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:21-24).

Jesus clearly knew the Law and the Scriptures sacred to the Jews. In Matthew, within the first four statements of his public ministry, Jesus, countering Satan’s effort to tempt him, quoted Deuteronomy three times (Mt 4:1-11). In Luke, in the only passage in which Jesus reads, he unrolled a scroll and proclaimed a passage from the Book of Isaiah, which he interpreted as applying directly to himself (Lk 4:16-21).

When asked, “What is the most important commandment of the law?” he quoted the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

In the Sermon on the Mount he taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you...” (Mt 5:38-39). In this passage and many others like it, Jesus rooted his teachings in the scriptural laws of the Jews, all the while commenting on, interpreting, strengthening and, ultimately, affirming them. As a theme statement of sorts he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

The Pharisees, who strictly maintained the Sabbath rest, disagreed with Jesus’ practice of healing on the Sabbath, which they understood as contradicting Ex 31:14-15. Jesus did not renounce the Sabbath, but challenged any interpretation that valued it above human welfare. He taught that the Sabbath was made for people, not vice versa, claiming the authority to decide this issue since “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28). Later rabbinic writings arrive at compassionate positions, at times parallel to Jesus’, on Sabbath observance.

In effect, Jesus was an observant Jew, but one who has gone back into the roots of Scripture for its deepest and truest meaning. Jesus was not a “Christmas and Easter Catholic,” or perhaps more accurately, not a “Passover and Pentecost Jew.” As the Scriptures attest, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath “according to his custom” (Lk 4:16).

Some of Jesus’ Jewishness becomes obvious in small details. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus wore tassels on his cloak, the ones the hemorrhaging woman touched to be healed (Mt 9:20). The Jewish law required men to wear tassels, or fringes, on the corner of garments (Nm 15:38-39). It’s similar to what we Catholics do today with scapulars, medals, crucifixes and other religious articles, reminding us to love as the Lord loves us. Jesus’ fidelity to the Law in the wearing of tassels provided a place for the hemorrhaging woman to cling, a source of healing for her and others as well.

Jesus not only observed the Law himself, he called for others to do so as well, requiring the lepers he cured to show themselves to the priests, in observance of the law’s dictates (Lv 13; Mt 8:2-4; Lk 17:12-14). Until they did so, the law required them to rend their garments, cry out their uncleanness and live apart, alienated from family and friends (Lv 13:45). Fearing contagion, the Jewish community isolated people until, healed, they could come back into the community safely.

We see that Jesus, then, was clearly Jewish. Judaism was the context into which he was born; it was the way he used Scripture; it was the way he lived his life and ministered; it was the way he asked his fellow Jews to live; it was the way he died.


God’s covenant with his people

The Jewishness of Jesus is profoundly evident in Catholic worship through our use of the concept of “covenant” in the heart of the eucharistic prayer, in fact, in the very words of institution.

The vast majority of covenants were not agreements between equals. In the ancient Near East, covenants governed the relationship between overlords and vassals—between kings and subjects. Overlords would say something like: “I am your king. You are my subject. I will protect you from your enemies. You will pay me taxes, serve in my armies and provide me labor for my constructions.”

Vassals might well have negotiated over the contract terms, hoping to pay fewer taxes and provide less service. The process ended with a formal ritual with animal sacrifices in which the overlords clarified to their vassals that if they did not fulfill their side of the bargain they, too, could be sacrificed.

In Genesis 15:1-18 we read how God negotiated the terms of a covenant with his vassal, Abraham: “[T]his word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezar?’” Abram bickered with God’s offer. In essence, he said, “You want to be my God? What good does it do me? I don’t have a child.” God responded favorably, with blessings, because that’s the way God acts, reaching an agreement with Abram for descendants and land. This covenant was formalized in a sacrificial ritual. Abram, the vassal, cut animals in two, implying that whoever would break this covenant would suffer as the animals had. God’s fire passed between these animals to say, “I accept.”

This typical covenant formula is repeated in Exodus 24, where Moses read the covenant, which he received on Mount Sinai, to the Israelites. The people responded, “‘All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do.’ Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his’” (Ex 24:7-8). The sprinkling of blood, just like the cut-up animals with Abram, meant, “Yes, let it happen to us, Lord God, as has happened to the animals from whom this blood came, if we ever betray this covenant” (Jer 31:33).

This sense of having been covenanted with God governed the ancient Israelites and Judahites. As the days of the free kingdom of Judah were coming to an end, the prophet Jeremiah instructed the people to look forward to a new covenant: “This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Catholics believe that this promise was fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus.

Covenant’s sacrifice

The words of institution in our eucharistic prayers refer to a covenant: “When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said: ‘Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.’” In saying this, Jesus borrowed the themes from that sacrifice where Abram cut up those animals. There at the foot of Mount Sinai, they sacrificed those animals and sprinkled them with blood, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant.” Those words imply, “Let it happen to us as it happened to these animals if we are unfaithful.”

The key to properly understanding our own prayers is to be clear whose blood was supposed to be shed when the covenant was violated: that of vassals. Answer for yourself, then: Who, in our covenantal relationship with God, was supposed to die?

The answer is not “Jesus.” Jesus was not supposed to die; we were.

What God did, in the person of Jesus, was extraordinary. He completely turned the tables on us, carrying faithfully through on his side of the bargain, and then fulfilling ours as well.

Understanding our own Jewish roots helps us to understand and appreciate what God accomplished on the cross and in the Eucharist. What God demonstrates is how committed he is to being in relationship with us: In essence he says, “I won’t give up! I won’t let you go. Not only will I be faithful, but I will also carry you through your side of the bargain in the person of my Son.” 

Creating understanding

It is appalling that Catholics ever participated in the persecution of Jews, and yet it happened. Understanding Jesus’ Jewish heritage ought to impel us Catholics to a greater commitment not only to seek to know and recognize the gifts we have received from the Jews, but also to right past wrongs wherever possible. In recognizing this debt, our relationships with our contemporary “elder brothers and sisters” in Abrahamic faith can only be strengthened.

A second, and no less important, gain from a renewed appreciation for Jesus’ Jewish background is that it helps us understand our own past as well as the language, symbols and metaphors of our own New Testament. It brings us closer to our Lord Jesus who, alone among any humans, actually chose the time, place and people of his birth.

This can only serve to enrich our worship and prayer, giving new depths of enthusiasm to our favored responses, coming straight to us from the beautiful Hebrew language: “Alleluia! Amen!”

Father J. Patrick Mullen, Ph.D., S.T.L., is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who received his doctorate in biblical studies from Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, New Testament, at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. A popular speaker, he is the author of scholarly articles and the 2004 book Dining With the Pharisees (Liturgical Press).

NEXT: Lent, Day by Day
(by Jeanne Hunt)


1) Why is it important to understand Jesus’ Jewishness?

2) How did the Pharisees and Sadducees differ?

3) Name some links between our Eucharist and Jewish tradition.


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