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The Jewish Jesus

Posted by Pat McCloskey, OFM on 7/28/16 7:55 AM

Jewish JesusMake no mistake: Jesus was born Jewish. By the time that he was executed by the Romans, many Jewish people would have considered Jesus as guilty of blasphemy because of certain actions and his teachings about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Many Christians are reluctant to admit that Christ was born, lived, and taught as a pious Jew of his time. They may feel that such an admission shows disloyalty to Our Lord. Some even believe that Christianity has replaced Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Concerning Jews, St. Paul wrote: “. . . they are beloved because of the patriarchs. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:28b-29). St. Paul would probably agree with Pope Francis, who said in an interview with La Vanguardia newspaper (published June 13, 2014), “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” Following Christ cannot be built on a caricature of Judaism—in his day or in ours.

Judaism, of course, has evolved over time. Moses, the leader of the Exodus and the great conduit of God’s law, certainly would not have recognized several elements of Christ's Jewish world. Some scholars reserve the term Judaism for the religion that developed during the Babylonian Exile (587–539 BCE, “before the common era”) and after its conclusion.

This blog will present seven crucial developments that took place within Second Temple Judaism (515 BCE–0 CE, “common era”), each of which profoundly affected his life and ministry. These developments also influence how we follow the Lord.

The Temple

Solomon’s Temple, dedicated around 950 BCE, was completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 and rebuilt on a much more modest scale 60 years later. King Herod the Great (reigned from 37–4 BCE) began a massive project, doubling the temple area. This rebuilding was completed only six years before the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE.

Without a temple, there could be no Jewish sacrifices. People kept track of descent within the priestly family, but its members had lost their main function. Rabbinic Judaism, which evolved from Pharisaic Judaism (a lay reform movement), replaced the temple sacrifices with the study of the Bible, prayer, and good deeds, much as Jews had done during the Exile.

In Christ's time, the chief priest was appointed by the Roman procurator and thus was considered a Roman collaborator. The Pharisees would have rejoiced in the Lord’s cleansing of the Temple because they, too, considered it corrupt.

Scribes, Synagogues, and Rabbis

When there was no Temple, God’s self-revelation in Scripture became even more important to help Jews maintain their religious identity. Communities needed to teach the next generation, a service that scribes helped carry out. When synagogues began, they were first places of instruction; worship was added later. 

Sacrifices were never offered there. Synagogues coexisted with the rebuilt Second Temple. In a world where Jews were ruled by pagans for almost five of the six centuries before Our Lord was born, Jews were pressured to conform. Synagogues helped them preserve their religious identity. 

When Jesus was born, there were no rabbis as we know them. This term was used generically for teachers. By the year 100 CE, however, rabbis had become a key part of preserving Jewish identity—always teachers and sometimes leaders of worship in synagogues. Although men were born into the Jewish priesthood, rabbis could come from any level of Jewish society. Christ is addressed as rabbi in the Gospels (Mt, 3 times; Mk, 3; Jn, 8).

Geographic Dispersal

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE, most Hebrews lived within a couple days’ travel to Jerusalem. If we think of Hebrew society then as a pyramid, people at the very top (political, religious, and business leaders) were forced into exile in Babylon, where they could cause no serious trouble for their new masters. 

The vast majority of the Hebrews in the middle of this social pyramid began new lives in nearby countries. Only people at the very bottom (the very poor, sick, or aged) remained in Judea, because the Babylonians considered them no threat.

The Hebrews, who had been concentrated geographically for over six centuries, suddenly became Jews of the Diaspora (Greek for “scattered”). Not all of the descendants of the Hebrews exiled to Babylon returned to Jerusalem when that was permitted. According to the 1971 Encyclopedia Judaica, the world’s Jewish population was approximately 8 million in 100 CE: 2.5 million living in Roman-occupied Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, with 1 million each in Egypt, Syria, modern-day Turkey, and Babylonia.

The other 1.5 million lived in several countries bordering or near the Mediterranean Sea. According to Professor Isaiah Gafni of Hebrew University, in his audio series “The Beginnings of Judaism,” a considerable number of gentiles had converted to Judaism by that date.

Pagan Rulers

Before Our Lord was born, Jews had been ruled by pagans for more than 500 years. The Maccabees and their successors provided self-government from 135 to 63 BCE, when the Romans backed one faction during a Jewish civil war and never left. They ruled through client kings, who could easily be discarded if they challenged Roman control. King Herod the Great had a long reign precisely because he was very good at keeping his Roman patrons happy.

He did, however, execute three of his sons for treason, having earlier murdered his wife! When Herod died, the Romans split his kingdom among three of his remaining sons: Herod Antipas (Galilee), Philip (Trachonitis and Iturea), and Archelaus (Judea). Archelaus was so ineffective that the Romans eventually threw him out and ruled Judea through a procurator. Because Archelaus still ruled Judea, the Holy Family went to Nazareth after their return from Egypt (Mt 2:22-23).&

In 36 CE, Procurator Pontius Pilate was removed by the Romans because of excessive cruelty toward the Jews. In fact, he may not have been as reluctant to execute the Lord as the Gospel of Matthew suggests (27:15-26). Luke 13:1 gingerly refers to the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” 


The oldest parts of the Hebrew Scriptures began to reach their present form during the reign of King David. The Book of Deuteronomy (“second law”) was written in the seventh century BCE. Because Jews were scattered across many countries, eventually many of them read and spoke only Greek. Their need to have the Scriptures in that language led, according to legend, to the creation of the Septuagint in Egypt in the third century BCE. 

Included in the Septuagint were seven books that were not ultimately included in the Hebrew-language Bible: 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Baruch, and parts of Esther and the Book of Daniel. The Book of Wisdom was completed in Greek in the century before the Lord’s birth. 

New Testament authors quoted from the Septuagint version of the Scriptures. After 70 CE, the rabbis regrouped, deciding around the year 100 CE to accept as belonging to God’s word only the books for which they had an original Hebrew text. 

Christians continued to use the longer list of Hebrew Scriptures until Martin Luther decided in the 16th century to use the shorter list. Other Protestants followed suit. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches continue to use the longer list, as did the authors of the New Testament. 

Jewish Expansion

Under the Hasmonean kings (135–63 BCE), the territories of Idumea to the south of Jerusalem and Galilee to the north were reconquered. Because Herod the Great’s ancestors were pagan Idumeans, many Jews in Christ's day never accepted Herod as truly Jewish. This also led them to have very mixed feelings about the Jerusalem Temple and its leadership. In 164 BCE, the Maccabees overthrew Syrian rule and cleansed the Jerusalem Temple, a victory celebrated at the feast of Hanukkah. Although Galilee was also retaken in the second century BCE, many Jews called it “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt 4:15). Some towns there were completely Jewish (for example, Nazareth), while others nearby were predominantly gentile. Some Jews saw Jesus’ Galilean connection as discrediting him completely (Jn 7:41, 52).

Samaria, which lies between Galilee and Judea, was home to Jews descended from those who intermarried with Assyrian soldiers and settlers in the eighth century BCE. The Samaritans had their own Scriptures, worship, and Temple. Because Jews did not recognize Samaritans as genuinely Jewish, Jews usually went far out of their way to avoid trips through Samaritan territory.

This makes the story of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37, helping an injured man in Judea) even more amazing. Likewise, Jesus’ cure of the Samaritan leper (Lk 17:16) and his welcoming of the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:4-42) broke social taboos. 

Groups within Judaism

Moses never met a Sadducee, Essene, Zealot, or Pharisee, but Christ encountered many people from each of those groups. Sadducees tended to be rich, city dwellers, politically connected to the Romans, and members of the priestly family. They controlled the Temple in Jerusalem and were distrusted by most Jews.

The Essenes were a small group, withdrawing from gentile society as much as they could and avoiding the Temple in Jerusalem. Many lived at Qumran near the Dead Sea; John the Baptist may have been close to them. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s, the oldest known Hebrew texts in the Hebrew Bible dated to the 10th century CE. 

Zealots violently resisted Roman control. One or both of the men crucified with the Lord may have been Zealots. They were very sympathetic to the revolt (66–70 CE) that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and, three years later, Masada, a fortress near the Dead Sea. Pharisees tend to have a very bad reputation among Christians, but Jesus was probably very sympathetic to this group. They accounted for many rabbis, leading many synagogues and schools in Palestine and greatly influencing Judaism in the Diaspora. 

Of these four groups, only the Pharisees survived and shaped the emerging Rabbinic Judaism. Not every Jew in Palestine belonged to one of these four groups. In fact, most people sought to survive under Roman control and pass on their faith to the next generation. So would most Diaspora Jews. 

Jesus in Context

Between the death of Christ (probably 30 CE) and the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE), Christianity was regarded by many gentiles as simply a sect within Judaism. By the time the Temple was destroyed, however, most of Christianity’s converts were coming from the gentile world. 

Even so, Christians in the mid-second century firmly rejected Marcion’s teaching that God in the New Testament was not the same as God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Marcion’s stereotype of God there as angry and eager to punish, while God in the New Testament is always kind and merciful, arises from a highly selective—and faulty—reading of both Testaments. The Church affirms that same God inspired the entire Bible and officially rejected the anti-Semitism that Marcion’s position would have legitimated. He mistakenly saw Christianity as a total rejection of Judaism.

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Topics: christ, Jesus, christianity, jewish jesus