The Jewishness of Jesus


A tireless advocate of interfaith dialogue responds to concerns about a reported rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Scotland with a challenge to learn and to listen. 

In the September edition of Open House Stephen McKinney set out some of the concerns of the Jewish community about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Scotland.  Two reports published by the Scottish Council of Jewish communities speak of ‘alarming high levels of stereotyping of Jews, ignorance about the complexity of Jewish identities and in some cases, criminally offensive statements and behaviour’.  It is an attitude that appals right minded people but perhaps one that we Christians and Catholics have unconsciously absorbed through our reading of scriptures, sermons, religious education, to say nothing of secular literature, and is lurking somewhere in our subconscious .

Christianity has a long history of anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviour.  It was the recognition of this in a book by the Jewish historian Jules Isaac that led Pope John XXIII to call for a statement on the Church’s relationship with the Jews at the Second Vatican Council.  This statement eventually developed into the Vatican Document on the Church’s Relations with Non-Christian Religions, known by the first two words of the Latin translation, Nostra Aetate.  It covers other faiths such as Islam and mentions Hinduism and Buddhism but the longest section is given over to Judaism.  It expels some of the myths and misrepresentations about Jews that had been part of our tradition, such as Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus, that they are perfidious, as the Good Friday liturgy used to suggest, that they have been rejected or accursed by God.  It decries anti-Semitism and all displays of hatred or persecution against Jews.  It recognises that Christians and Jews are spiritually bound together through the call of Abraham and that Jews are our elder brothers and sisters in the faith.

Nostra Aetate started the Church on a journey of reconciliation and friendship with the Jewish people.  It changed the relationship between our two faiths to the extent that Rabbi David Rosen, now a Papal Knight, says he knows of nothing in history that has so transformed a relationship between people as Nostra Aetate has done.  Its very existence should give us hope that no situation is hopeless if we can listen to and dialogue with one another.

There have been many developments since those early days and though there might have been blips along the way the relationships are still strong.  Over the years the Vatican Committee which deals with Religious Relations with the Jews (interestingly part of the Pontifical Council for Ecumenism and not Interreligious Dialogue) has produced many documents – Guidelines for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate; ‘Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church’; ‘We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah’; ‘The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scripture in the Christian Bible’ and the most recent one ‘The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable’ published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate.

Perhaps more exciting than these documents, important as they are, especially as they come from a Church now intent on reconciliation with a community that has suffered at its hands, are two recent statements from the Jewish community.

In September 2000, just before the start of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year and the anniversary of the completion of creation, a group of rabbis, part of the National Jewish Scholars Project, issued a statement on Christians and Christianity.  It was signed by over 150 rabbis and Jewish scholars from the U.S., Canada, the UK and Israel.  It was entitled Dabru Emet, a phrase taken from Zechariah 8:16 which means ’speak the truth’.  Recognising what it called the ‘unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations’ the signatories declared their belief that it was time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honour Judaism and for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.  The statement offers points of connection[1]  – we worship the same God; we seek authority from the same book – the Bible (called the Tanakh by Jews and the Old Testament by Christians); we accept the moral principles of the Torah.  It recognises that Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish People upon the land of Israel, that Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon, that a new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice, that humanly irreconcilable differences between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.

Fifteen years later, in December 2015, a group of orthodox rabbis issued a similar statement, published on the internet and signed by many orthodox rabbis including Rabbi David Rose of the Hebrew Congregation in Edinburgh. It states:

‘Nostra Aetate and the later official Church documents it inspired unequivocally reject any form of anti-Semitism, affirm the eternal Covenant between G-d and the Jewish people, reject deicide and stress the unique relationship between Christians and Jews who were called ‘our elder brothers’ by Pope John Paul II and ‘our fathers in the faith’ by Pope Benedict XVI’.

It also acknowledges

‘In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies.  Rabbi Jacob Emden wrote that ‘Jesus brought a double goodness to the world.  On the one hand he strengthened the Torah of Moses majestically ……. on the other hand he removed idols from the nations ….. and instilled them firmly with moral traits’.[2]

This positive assessment of Jesus is becoming increasingly important in Christian – Jewish relations, stemming as it does from the Vatican document’s reminder that Jesus, his mother, the apostles and first disciples were all Jews.  The messianic Jesus movement and the rabbinic movement both emerged from the turmoil of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  They were two movements within Judaism but developed independently of one another, often establishing their separate identities in opposition to one another until they became recognised as two separate world religions and our familial relationship forgotten.  However, as the Rabbi’s statement suggests, maybe this separation was part of God’s plan.  Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar thinks so.  In her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus she suggests,

‘Had the Church remained a Jewish sect, it would not have achieved its universal mission.  Had

Judaism given up its particularistic practices, it would have vanished from history.  That the two movements eventually separated made possible the preservation of each’.[3] (3)

She believes that Jesus can be a bridge that unites our two religions rather than the wedge that has separated them.  She thinks that Jews should see Jesus as a famous Jew and be proud of him and that Christians should to recognise his Jewishness if they are to truly know him.

‘Jesus cannot be understood fully unless understood through first century Jewish eyes and heard through first century Jewish ears’.

Like Gaza Vermes before her she shows how much of what Christians took to be a challenge to first century Judaism was in fact a reflection of it.  Jesus’ actions and stories reflect his own tradition.  His prayer and attitude to God and the Law was not as idiosyncratic and challenging to his faith as the Christian scriptures and their interpreters would suggest.  Jesus was a faithful Jew, probably more associated with the Pharisees than any other sect of the time.  He was a teacher who knew how to challenge his listeners to get to the heart of their faith and live it faithfully.  What appears to be conflict between Jesus and the Jews of the time is more likely to reflect the growing tensions between Church and Synagogue and the slant put on the text by the evangelist who wrote it in the light of these developments.  It is important to remember that all the characters in the stories contained in the gospels are Jews but it is easy to identify the ‘goodies’ in the story with Christians, who are the followers of Jesus, and the ‘baddies’ with Jews who rejected him and live from a legalistic position rather than a position of love of God and neighbour.  Read the story of the disciples picking the heads of grain on the Sabbath, what does it suggests about the Pharisees and as a consequence Judaism and what does it suggest about the followers of Jesus and as a consequence Christianity?

As an academic New Testament scripture scholar, Amy-Jill Levine is able to quote many scripture commentaries that show Judaism in a negative light.  It is the kind of teaching that wants to uphold and extol the uniqueness of Jesus and make him different from the context in which he lived – the kind of teaching that we have imbibed since childhood and which seeps into our subconscious.  It is the kind of teaching that Jules Isaac classified as leading to contempt for the Jews.  It is the kind of teaching that is recognised by the Church as inaccurate and wrong and that is why the Vatican continues to issue guidelines on how to present Jews and Judaism in teaching and preaching.  We are asked to become sensitive to the ways in which Judaism is portrayed or could be interpreted – how does this sound to Jewish ears?  Gal 3:28 might sound inclusive in a Church context but exclusive in an interfaith context where it could be heard as suggesting that Judaism does not deserve to exist.

The Church has come a long way in its relationship to its sibling religion but there remains much to be done.  The need for dialogue, education and cooperative action remains.  We can have blocks and prejudices that are unconscious and unexamined and can lead to discrimination in ways not recognised by us.  To let go of these blocks, to have the scales removed from our eyes we need to meet our Jewish neighbours, listen to their stories and recognise them as brothers and sisters with whom we can work for a truly peaceful society.

Isabel Smyth is a Sister of Notre Dame who is Secretary to the Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, Joint Secretary to the Council of Christians and Jews, and honorary fellow of Interfaith Scotland.

[1] Dabru Emet:

[2] Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity:

[3] Amy –Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.  Harper Collins 2006.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.