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SIDIC Periodical XII - 1979/3
Jesus the Jew (Pages 05 - 07)

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

"...What! You, a Jew..." (John 4:9) - Questions concerning the Jewishness of Jesus
Michel De Goedt, O.C.D.


Two years after the Night of the Broken Glass 1 while another night was falling that was to last over five years, a Biblical scholar of some standing, W. Grundmann, published a study with the title: Jesus the Galilean and Judaism. By the end of this study the author considered himself justified in concluding that Jesus had not been a Jew at all but had belonged to a family of "the Jewish confession" (sic), a confession which he had "continually pierced through". Grundmann's work appeared in a publication well known as having a definite slant "Publications of the Institute for Research into Jewish Influence in German Church Life". Grundmann made it possible for German Christians to breathe again there had been no Jewish influence at all at the origin of their faith; Jesus had not been a Jew and he had never ceased opposing Judaism. This theologian with his sophisticated arguments did no more that bear out a hypothesis already put forward by E. Hirsch (1939), R. Seeberg (1918) and other, still earlier authors. I remember personally hearing a psychoanalyst at a conference, a man who had played an important part in introducing psychoanalysis to France, affect a jocular tone in order to pronounce a sort of logical sequence formed of assonances instead of concepts: Jesus the Galilean the Galatian the Gaul. Behind the absurdity of this remark there was the desperate attempt on the lecturer's part to repudiate the Jews, his intellectual forebears. In this anecdote we can detect perhaps what lies behind the need to deny the Jewish background of Jesus: the refusal to admit his origins. For it was the Jews who were the first to recognize in Jesus of Nazareth one of themselves, the Man sent by God, and it was a Jew who accorded other Christians, in spite of powerful scruples, the right to become part of the people of Israel. (Eph. 2:12, 19)


There is at the present time a renewed interest in the Jewish origins of Jesus, which comes from a need to rediscover what are known as the roots of Christianity. This interest has very little to do with the question of the link between the "pre-paschal" Jesus and the Christ acknowledged by baptized Christians, although this question would seem to be its natural context. In the lines which follow I do not propose either to contribute to this research nor to sum it up. I should like instead to go into certain questions regarding the motives for it and the implications that flow from it.

Beyond the simple, indubitable fact that Jesus was a Jew, what can be expected from research? It is necessary here to lay one's finger on a certain over-confident conception of the access we have to "the historical Jesus". Reconstruction of the figure of Jesus, however critical it may seem to be, is based on the historical method of the pre-critical period. The present-day historian knows rather better than his predecessors that he can neither provide the past with a voice nor make present what is absent. We can ask the past only those questions which the present allows us to ask. These are questions which are raised for the present by the very fact that the past is no longer there, and are often so engrossing that we forget to make clear to ourselves all that this absence really implies. The past is not a corpse which the historian can bring to life or even embalm. All we have are the traces of something which was there. On the basis of these traces we try to establish a certain detachment in order to permit the present to get rid of the false presence of the dead past. Armed with procedures which he borrows from all sorts of fields, the historian constructs models and pays special attention to the discrepancies revealed by the application of them. In the guise of a demographer he asks "revealing" questions about matters which never occurred to people in the past questions of which they were not even conscious. Like an economist he aims his spotlight on the play of forces to which he will be tempted to reduce all the cultural "production" of an epoch. Or, greatly daring, he will take his inspiration from psychoanalysis and will speak in terms of "rejection" or "repression" or "preclusion". No "transference", however, can develop between himself and his patient because, in spite of what the proverb says, the dead no longer speak. Thus the past is not there to be interrogated. Nowadays the historian tries not so much to fill in the gaps as to expose himself to the questions they raise. He works towards freeing the present both from a denial of its heritage and from a narcissistic fascination with its rediscovered origins.


In a study which is remarkable both for its unorthodox erudition and its deep, unfailing respect for the personality of Jesus, the scholar G. Vermes declares his wish "to discover the authentic, original, historical meaning of the words and events reported in the Gospels" and "to do research into their facts and reality".2 If after making his way through this book the reader recognizes that this man, misrepresented as much by Christian as by Jewish myth, was in fact neither the Christ of the Church nor the apostate bogeyman of popular Jewish tradition, this will be a small step towards the justice which should have been done to him long ago. 3 In a postscript the author reproaches "orthodox Christianity" with not having been able "to establish and to acknowledge the historical meaning of the words preserved by the Evangelists". He presents his study as a "first step in what seems to be the direction of the real man".4 Authentic, original, historical meaning ... real man . . . One could wonder whether G. Vermes is not adding to the two myths which he calls Christian and Jewish a third myth: the positivist myth of "Jesus as he really was". This myth would correspond well with what is known as the "Heimholung" of Jesus: bringing him home again, re-integrating him in his native setting. This concept is clearly defined by Z. Werblowsky: " ... the activity of Jesus himself and of his disciples is regarded today by most Jewish researchers as being a part, not of the history of Christianity but that of Judaism. It is quite simply an aspect of the 'sectarian' movements of first century Judaism".5 Since the Gospels give us a "religious documentation" and not a "historical documentation" 6 it will be necessary to "dechristianize" them to find the true Jesus. The idea that Jesus brought about a "crisis" in the Johannine sense of the term is excluded "a priori". The death of Jesus was simply a death among other deaths; the ruptures and dramatic events which followed it were the effects of a radical misunderstanding by the disciples in their efforts to interpret and justify it. A Jesus like this, freed from cumbersome disciples, brought back to his home, restored to his true personality (which might even be termed exceptional) is only a reconstruction which has nothing to do with modern historical methods. The use of an "a priori" is permissible, certainly, above all where it is a case of re-establishing facts which are already considered common knowledge, but it is still "a priori".


Among Christians the hope of rediscovering the Jewish Jesus "as he was" exerts an attraction which needs guarding against from another point of view: it would be an illusion to try to find one's security in simply going back to origins. The believer, however, "comes" to use a Johannine term to Jesus as Lord, not in order to satisfy his curiosity about the "facts" which mark the life of his Saviour, but to receive the words of eternal life. And these words can only unfold the full scope of their life-giving truth when the Spirit recalls the past not "as it was" but as it should be understood in the unpredictible reality of everyday life.

He leads us towards the whole truth, a truth which is therefore more a thing to be anticipated than a thing to be remembered. It unveils that which is to come: Christ's return to his Father and our part in this return.

It is worth noticing that the question of Jesus' origins is treated with scorn in the fourth Gospel: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Nathanael asks (John 1:46; cf. 7:40-44). "How is it that this untrained man has such learning?" (John 7:15). Jesus himself enjoins us not to let ourselves be limited by the fascination of his historical origin when our attention should be centered on his words and the living testimony they offer us: "No doubt you know me, no doubt you know where I come from. Yet I have not come of my own accord. I was sent by the One who truly is, and Him you do not know." (John 7:28). When Pilate asks Jesus, "Where do you come from?" he receives no answer. When in the present we try to cover up for the lack of historical background, we become distracted from the very thing which has the power free us to be open to the voice of the Spirit. The "ipsissima vox Jesu" (the authentic voice of Jesus) even supposing it to be humanly possible to identify it, cannot speak to the believer except when the Spirit makes it vibrate for him within a living tradition. Otherwise it is simply an archaeological datum: fascinating perhaps, but sterile in itself.


The question of the Jewish origin of Jesus cannot be reduced to the discussions of historical or psychological questions. Even if it is not formally laid down in the Creed, we acknowledge as Christians that Jesus was a Jew. It is not enough to say that he was a son of Israel and that he came to fulfil the Scriptures. Jesus was a Jew who had received the Scriptures from his people, the Jewish people, who listened to the readings and commentaries in the synagogue and whose fundamental prayer was the same as that of every Jew, the "Shema Israel". Let us take care not to misapply certain abstract formulae such as "Jesus, the man sent by God to his people, fulfilling the divine prophecies" or even "the divine oracles" . . . Jesus did not appear in the setting of an unreal Biblical Israel but was born into the midst of the Jewish people and into the Judaism formed and developed in the centuries following the Exile. Saint Paul says that " ... from them the Jews in natural descent sprang the Messiah" (Rom. 9:5). When the Samaritan woman alludes to the opposition between Samaritan worship on Mount Garizim and Jewish worship in Jerusalem, the fourth Gospel puts this answer on the lips of Jesus: "You Samaritans worship without knowing what you worship, while we worship what we know. It is from the Jews that salvation comes." (John 4:22). Literally, salvation comes from the Jews, that is to say it is of Jewish origin. The preposition ek which is also used by Paul in the passage quoted above, indicates origin. There is a historical truth in the Incarnation which is only fully respected by remembering and emphasizing that Jesus was a Jew. Where this element is lacking, a sort of docetism begins to contaminate Christian faith. The Jewish origin of Jesus is not in the first place a historical datum but an essential element of our profession of faith.


It is true that this element stands in opposition to another affirmation. Saint Paul, after recalling that Jesus sprang from the Jews by natural descent, adds " ... who is supreme over all", as though to demonstrate the transition from individual man to universal Lord. The same opposition stands at the beginning of the Epistle: " ... This Gospel is about his son: on the human level he was born of David's stock, but on the level of the Spirit the Holy Spirit he was declared Son of God by a mighty act, in that he rose from the dead: it is about Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rm. 1:3-4). The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman which we have already recalled to the reader is perhaps the richest source of evidence on this subject. Let us first of all note that the only passage in the whole of the New Testament where Jesus is formally declared a Jew is in this chapter of John: "What! You, a Jew ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?" (4:9). "Jew" appears here in opposition to "Samaritan". This opposition is presented as it were as a theological discourse (you worship what you do not know; we worship what we know; 4:22) but it only becomes so in the light of a further development announced by the words preceding the above: "Believe me, the time will come when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" (4:21). Salvation comes from the Jews but it goes forth to the world: " ... we have heard him ourselves and we know that this is in truth the Saviour of the world" (4:22). "Even if worldly standards once counted in our estimate of Christ, they do so no longer", Saint Paul writes (2 Cor. 5:16). In Christ we believers are a new creation. It remains for us to continue proclaiming that the Word was made flesh and that it was made flesh among the Jews. This is the reminder: not in the sense of a return to things past but in the sense of the remembrance which we must keep and which the Spirit gives the Church to keep, of a truth which was manifested in a period of time a manifestation which comes down to our day.


Even if our faith cannot return by means of history to Jesus "as he was" and there can be no historical transition from Jesus rediscovered as a Jew to the Christ of our faith,7 we must still maintain that everything that helps us to remember that Jesus was a Jew must be emphasized strongly and frankly. What is at stake is the truthfulness of our thanksgiving to God for the ways he has chosen in order to come to us. The charism of Francis of Assisi will always teach us more about the beatitude of poverty than all the commentaries put together, but we shall not truly listen to the beatitude if we cannot accept the Jewish context in which it was first pronounced. Jesus appeared in the course of the history of this Jewish tradition, demonstrating "under the law" a sovereign liberty. When we remember this manifestation and evoke it as vividly as we can, we are not stepping regardless over centuries of faith in order to discover the historical Jesus but are celebrating the Christian faith itself on its journey through time. This is an undertaking which is not without risk. One can "subordinate" the Gospel to Jewish tradition by the method of surreptitiously cutting out all that will not be reduced to tradition. On the other hand though, one cam limit oneself to regarding the matter so to speak from the outside, using Strack-Billerbeck as a guide to the most relevant texts. Now as always, discernment is a matter not of abstract definition but of practice, of faith and of prayer. "What! You, a Jew . . . Saviour of the world." The transition from one to the other has taken place once and for all. It dominates our thought and we shall never cease to meditate on it . . . until He comes.

1. Kristallnacht Nov. 9-10, 1938 the night when concerted attacks were made by the Nazis throughout Germany and Austria on Jews and Jewish property. It received its name as a result of the countless windows that were broken in the course of the destruction. (Ed.)
la. "Jesus der Galilaer and das Judentum". VerOffentlichungen des Instituts zur Erforschung des Jiidischen Einflusses auf des Deutsche Kirchliche Leben, Leipzig, 1940, p. 175.
2. Jesus the Jew. A Historian's Reading of the Gospels. Glasgow, 1973 pp. 18, 19.
3. Ibid, p. 19.
4. Ibid, p. 295.
5. Jesus devant la Pensee Juive Contemporaine (Les Grands Religions, 36). Interviews of 10 and 13 May, 1978, published by the transcription service of Maison Radio Canada, Montreal s.d., p. 4.
6. Ibid, p. 3.
7. We mean that historical method cannot give formal and conclusive proof of the truths of faith and that faith cannot find its object formally verified by historical methods.
8. On Jesus in Judaism one may read: P. Lapide: Fils de Joseph? Jesus dans le Judaisme d'aujourd'hui et d'hier (Jesus et Jesus-Christ, 2) translated from the German by R. Kremer and M.-J. Pierre (1st das nicht Josephs Sohn? Jesus im heutigen Judentum, Stuttgart, Munich, 1976), Paris 1978. We recall to mind the classic study by G. Lindeskoog, Die Jesusfrage im neuzeitlichen Judentum, Uppsala, 1938. We were unable to consult the recent new edition of this work. On the subject of overcoming the opposition between early Christian tradition and the historical Jesus by regarding Jesus not only as the subject of this tradition but as its very originator, one may read B. Gerhardsson, Prehistoire des Evangiles (Lire la Bible, 48.), translated from the German by A. Liefooghe (Die Anfiinge der Evangelientradition), Wuppertal, 1977, Paris 1978, and by the same author, Du Judeo-Christianisme a Jesus par le Shema, in Recherches de Science Religieuse, 60 (1972), pp. 23-36.
N.B. Biblical quotations are taken from The New English Bible, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, 1970.


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