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SIDIC Periodical XII - 1979/3
Jesus the Jew (Pages 14 - 16)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

That Jesus Should have been born a Jew
Kurt Hruby



Why, in God's plan for humanity, was the privileged instrument Israel and not another people belonging to another culture? It will forever remain impossible to answer this question, which is one of the unfathomable mysteries of God, and was already being asked when the book of Deuteronomy was written:

Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched-out arm and by great terrors, according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? (Deut. 4:34)

And in a related passage:

The Lord did not set his love upon you nor choose you because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all peoples; but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn with your fathers. (ibid 7:7,8).

The history of the Bible reveals to us in fact the ways of God with men. It is therefore in the first place "history" in the sense of concrete evolution and development and all that is connected with this. Secondly it is history which unfolds in a given human milieu. And even if it is obvious that Israel with its history is really simply the prototype of all humanity involved in the divine plan (the Jewish people itself being the first to be conscious of this throughout its traditions), nonetheless the choice of Israel as the principal agent and instrument of this plan cannot and should not be considered a mere accident.

Rabbinical tradition reminds us constantly that the Torah "speaks the language of men", which means that in order to communicate with men in his Revelation and to be understood by them, God uses the means of communication adapted to the human milieu which he addresses. These means necessarily include a certain language, cultural background and civilization which then become elements inextricably bound up with the divine message. Now it is a fact that this communication took place in the context of the Jewish people who understood it, meditated upon it and finally put it into practice in accordance with its own genius, thought categories and cultural heritage. Conversely, these elements were influenced, even formed, by the divine Word, so that in the course of the centuries there developed a symbiosis and mutual exchange of an absolutely unique nature between the people of Israel and the Torah of the Lord. The latter was not only the founding charter of the nation but its sole reason for existing. This is expressed most tellingly by rabbinical tradition when it applies verse 18 of the third chapter of Proverbs to the relationship between Israel and the Torah: "She is a tree of life to all who lay hold on her: and happy is every one that retaineth her".

From the Christian point of view, the stage in the history of salvation when the people of Israel was in the foreground as the only witness to God among all nations is certainly very important, but this function of the Jews is not usually considered as more than the preparation for the central event of the divine plan, that of experiencing the Incarnation.


The Incarnation, the concrete manifestation of God in the person of Jesus is a "theophany" which is infinitely more far-reaching and more intense in effect than all those of the foregoing phase. This Incarnation is directed entirely towards the work of redemption brought to completion by Jesus, the greatest deed of the love of God for sinful humanity which, through this sacrifice, is reconciled with God: "God so loved the world" the fourth Gospel reminds us "that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). With Jesus who "died unto sin", (Rom. 6:10) who is now risen and glorified, the new phase of God's plan appears. This phase is directed towards the whole of mankind, called to enter into that convenant which Jesus, "who gave himself for our sins that he might deliver us from this present evil world" (Gal. 1:4) has sealed with his blood in order to constitute as his the people God has redeemed as his own, "unto the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:14). Christ is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature" (Col. 1:15) and all those without exception who have been baptised in him become "Abraham's seed, heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). He is "the new Adam" (Rom. 5:12 by implication) and after him all men are enjoined to "put on the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:24). Christ it is who has brought about the great reconciliation of humanity. In him there is from now on "neither Jew nor Greek" (Rom. 10:2; cf. Col. 3:11; Gal. 3:28) "for he is our peace, who bath made both one and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us . . . for to make himself of the two one new man, so making peace .....(Eph. 2:14,15).

The person of Christ is absolutely central in the divine scheme of things and in the cosmic order, for "by him were all things created . . . all things were created by him and for him. And he is before all things and in him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; for it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell . . . having made peace through the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:16-20).


In order, however, for Christ to accomplish the great work of universal reconciliation as the focal point of God's plan, he had not only to be the "image of the invisible God among men" but also "truly man" as the Church professes in the Creed. And if "by one man sin entered the world . . . much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many" (Rom. 5:12-15). Now, in his human form Jesus, although he was the "new man" and thus the great unifier of mankind restored through him to its pristine dignity, still belongs to and is anintegral part of a certain people, the Jewish people. "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham": this is how the Gospel of Matthew places him from the very start (1:1). And Paul reminds us that "God sent his own Son, made of a woman, made under the law" (Gal. 4:4). At the Annunciation the angel Gabriel tells Mary of the child whom she is to conceive that "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever" (Luk. 1:32,33) and the old man Simeon greets Jesus at his Presentation in the temple as "a light unto the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel" (ib. 2:32). When the Samaritan woman meets Jesus she immediately places him: "How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?" (John 4:9); and in the course of their dialogue Jesus states precisely, "You (the Samaritans) worship you know not what: we know what we worship; for salvation is of the Jews" (ib. 22).

Jesus, who came "not to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfil them" (Mt. 5:17), strongly defends the dignity of the Torah when he declares (ib. 18) "till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled". This is a clear, unequivocal statement which he makes even more forcefully in his diatribe against the wrong application of the words of the Torah by certain Pharisees. "The scribes and pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do" (ibid. 23:1,2). Returning at the end of his speech to the same subject, he states, "These (the less important acts enjoined by the law) you have done, and ought not to leave the other (the more important acts of justice and mercy) undone" (ib. 23).

When Pilate at the trial of Jesus asks him, "Art thou the king of the Jews?" Jesus confines himself to saying, "Thou sayest" (Ib. 27:11). In John's Gospel Pilate, faced with the exasperating incomprehensible series of accusations against Jesus, exclaims: "Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?" (John 18:35). And finally the words inscribed upon the cross were these: "This is Jesus King of the Jews.' (Matt. 27:37). It was as king of the Jews that Jesus was put to death.


The fact that the earthly life of Jesus was lived exclusively among the Jews is part of the very concept, the basic unity of the plan of God, and the Gospels tell us that he considered his personal mission as being limited to the Jewish field only. ("Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:5,6). There is, however, some justification for pointing out that this was still a necessary element in the divine plan prepared long ago in and with Israel, and that the decisive phase of the plan had also to unfold within this providential framework. The first stage of it was enacted in the midst of a people susceptible by reason of its long preparation to all the implications of Jesus' message which was later, in the second stage, announced to the whole world. For the same reason Paul also, although he is by special vocation the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8), begins his mission among his own countrymen, preaching the Gospel in a different synagogue every Sabbath (Acts 13, 14).

But there is more to the matter than this: the fact that Jesus in his humanity belonged to the Jewish people and was steeped in its traditions means that the whole body of his teaching is coloured by its spirit. The contents of his preaching in the Gospels, the ideas which it contains, the very imagery which it uses all this derives from this tradition, the tradition which had developed in the course of the centuries after the return from the Exile and had been formed in the schools where it had been handed down and evolved from generation to generation. It is this living tradition, with all the elements that it contains, which forms the link between the two periods of Revelation. Without this tradition a great part of the New Testament would be incomprehensible, and without knowledge of it the very message of the Gospel is in danger of being interpreted according to criteria and categories which are totally alien to it.

For Jesus the fact of being a Jew does not only mean belonging materially to the Jewish people, but also being imbued with its culture which is deeply biblical in the sense that it is a continuation in life of a biblical world permanently illumined by a living tradition. In this way the person of Jesus also constitutes the vital link between the two stages of the divine plan. With him humanity enters upon the decisive phase of the fulfilment of the divine plan and therefore upon the "eschatological" era in the true sense of the word. By the coming of Jesus "the times are fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand" (Mk. 1:14; Matt. 3:2).

For all these reasons, the preaching of the Gospel too must always remain a divine communication within a providential cultural milieu. The message of the Gospel must now be carried to all the nations of the world (Matt. 28:19) but it must nevertheless be preached according to its essential spirit, that is to say, in fullcontinuity with the body of biblical tradition which is also its own and remains, whether we will it or no, Hebrew in spirit.

No idea can be transmitted without an instrument for its transmission. Such instruments were created by the Christian communities while the Gospel continued to spread. Later, in the course of the centuries, the Church borrowed from sources other than biblical in order to formulate a Christian theology or theologies. It is not possible within the framework of this study to analyse how far these borrowings have really helped to safeguard the Christian message or how far they have, on the contrary, harmed it and adulterated it. Let us limit ourselves to examining as objectively as we can how difficult it is at the present moment to "put across" the true message of the Gospel over the ruins of a number of theological systems. And let us not be ashamed to face the fact that so many of our Christian missions failed because they thought it necessary to impose a "supporting culture", that of the West, on those whom they addressed, and then preached a Gospel which was strongly flavoured with this culture.

At a time when so much research on the transmission of the Gospel was begun and then dropped again, it is urgent for us to remember that the message of the Bible and with it the message of the Gospel are inseparable from the cultural milieu which is proper to them and a part of the divine plan, and that only by starting from an intimate knowledge of the spirit which nourishes this message will it be possible to find adaptations of it which do not betray its spirit but transmit it without a filter which could change its very nature.

Naturally the Church, in order to fulfil her mission, has had to attain her own stature and her own physiognomy and therefore inevitably differentiate herself from the Jewish milieu of her origins. But it is still disquieting to realize how far she has gone in the past and even up to the present time to stress her complete detachment from Judaism instead of appearing in the eyes of the world as representing a Judaism truly "fulfilled and not destroyed" by Jesus and in him.

In emphasizing this state of affairs there is no intention of belittling the immense debt which we owe to Christian thinkers, nor of bringing back Christianity to the level of Judaism, but rather of attempting at last to confront the Church with its own authentic root, the root, as Paul has it, that bears it (Rom. 11:18). This return to the sources which is indispensible must begin by our becoming conscious at a deeper level that he of whose Body all Christians are members (1 Cor. 12:27) is "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" (John 19:19), the Crucified, whom God has made "both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).


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