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Jews reclaim Jesus as one of their own
Some Jewish leaders are encouraging Jews to see Jesus as one of their own.
April 5th, 2012
02:36 PM ET

Jews reclaim Jesus as one of their own

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

(CNN) - The relationship between Jews and Jesus has traditionally been a complicated one, to say the least.

As his followers' message swept the ancient world, Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah found themselves in the uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous, position of being blamed for his death.

Mainstream Christian theology's position held that Judaism had been supplanted, the Jewish covenant with the divine no longer valid, because of the incarnation of God as Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross.

Jews, for their part, tended largely to ignore Jesus.

That's changing now.

In the past year, a spate of Jewish authors, from the popular to the rabbinic to the scholarly, have wrestled with what Jews should think about Jesus.

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And overwhelmingly, they are coming up with positive answers, urging their fellow Jews to learn about Jesus, understand him and claim him as one of their own.

"Jesus is a Jew. He spent his life talking to other Jews," said Amy-Jill Levine, co-editor of the recently released "Jewish Annotated New Testament."

"In reading the New Testament, I am often inspired, I am intrigued. I actually find myself becoming a better Jew because I become better informed about my own history," she said.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a media personality who recently launched a bid for a U.S. House seat, argues in his own new book, "Kosher Jesus," that "Jews have much to learn from Jesus - and from Christianity as a whole - without accepting Jesus' divinity. There are many reasons for accepting Jesus as a man of great wisdom, beautiful ethical teachings, and profound Jewish patriotism."

And Benyamin Cohen, an Orthodox Jew who spent a recent year going to church, admitted that he's jealous that Christians have Jesus.

"He's a tangible icon that everybody can latch on to. Judaism doesn't have a superhero like that," said Cohen, the author of the 2009 book "My Jesus Year."

 

"I'm not advocating for Moses dolls," he said, but he argued that "it's hard to believe in a God you can't see. I'm jealous of Christians in that regard, that they have this physical manifestation of the divine that they can pray to.

"There could be more devout Jews than me who don't need that, but to a young Jew living in the 21st century, I wish we had something more tangible," he said.

The flurry of recent Jewish books on Jesus - including this month's publication of "The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ" by Daniel Boyarin - is part of a trend of Jews taking pride in Jesus, interfaith expert Edward Kessler said.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, Christian New Testament scholars rediscovered the Jewish Jesus. They reminded all New Testament students that Jesus was Jewish," said Kessler, the director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, which focuses on relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

A generation later, that scholarship has percolated into Jewish thought, he said, welcoming the trend: "It's not a threat to Jews and it's not a threat to Christians."

For Jews in particular, he said, "It's not so threatening as it was even 30 years ago. There is almost a pride that Jesus was a Jew rather than an embarrassment about it."

Boteach agrees, writing in "Kosher Jesus" that "Jews will gain much from re-embracing him as a hero."

"The truth is important," Boteach writes. "A patriot of our people has been lost. Worse still, he's been painted as the father of a long and murderous tradition of anti-Semitism."

Boteach aims to claim, or reclaim, Jesus as a political rebel against Rome and to exonerate the Jews of his death. But Boteach's book has attracted plenty of criticism, for instance for blaming the Apostle Paul for everything he doesn't like about Christianity, such as hailing Jesus as divine and cutting his ties to Judaism.

"Paul never met Jesus, and Jesus certainly never would have sanctioned Paul's actions and embellishments," Boteach argues about the apostle who wrote much of the New Testament. "Jesus ... would have been appalled at how his followers would later define him."

"Jews will never accept his divinity. Nor should they," Boteach writes, in one of many instances of presuming to know what Jesus really thought and meant. "The belief that any man is God is an abomination to Judaism, a position that Jesus himself would maintain."

He cherry-picks the Gospels to to suit his arguments, writes in casual modern idioms (calling Pontius Pilate a "sadistic mass murderer" and comparing him to Hitler), and gets wrong the most basic details of the Passion story, such as the amount of money Judas took to betray Jesus.

Other experts in the field label Boteach's book "sensationalistic," and call him a "popularizer," but Kessler sees "Kosher Jesus" as part of the trend of Judaizing Jesus. Cohen, the "My Jesus Year" author, offered some support for Boteach even as he expressed doubts about the book.

"I understand what Shmuley is trying to get at there," he said, but added: "I don't think anyone has the right to say 'This is the definition of Jesus,' especially a rabbi. He's not ours to claim."

Levine, who teaches New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, also framed Jewish efforts to study Jesus in terms of mutual respect.

"Speaking personally as a Jew, if I want my neighbors to respect Judaism, which means knowing something about Jewish history, scripture and tradition, I owe my Christian neighbors the same courtesy. It's a matter of respect," she said.

She urged Jews to "become familiar with the material and make up their own mind as to how they understand Jesus."

Ironically, she added, Jews can understand their own history more thoroughly through studying the life of Jesus.

"The best source on the period for Jewish history other than (the first-century historian) Josephus is the New Testament," she said.

"It's one of those ironies of history that the only Pharisee writing in the Second Temple period from whom we have records is Paul of Tarsus," she said. " 'The Jewish Annotated New Testament' is designed in part to help Jews recover their own history."

But she also wants Christians to use it to understand Judaism more deeply, she said. While many Christian leaders acknowledge that Jesus was a Jew, she said, not many know much about what that means.

"Many Christian ministers and educators have no training in what early Judaism was like," she said. "Not to take seriously first-century Judaism seems to dismiss part of the message of the New Testament."

Cohen, the "My Jesus Year" author, found that Christians were very interested in Judaism during the 52 weeks he spent going from church to church.

"Many Christians look on Judaism as version 1.0 of their own religion. Because of that historical relationship, they're interested in a lot of the theology of Judaism," he said.

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For his part, Cohen learned much that surprised him. "I was shocked when I went to church and heard them give sermons about the Old Testament," he said. "I had no idea Christians read the Old Testament."

"One week, I went to church and the pastor gave exactly the same sermon my rabbi did the night before about Moses and the burning bush, and the pastor did it much better," he continued.

Cohen came away from his Jesus year with a clear understanding of what he believes.

"People ask me all the time if I believe in Jesus. Do I believe he exists? Sure. Do I believe he's your God? Sure, I have no problem with that," he said he tells Christians who ask.

"I understand Christians' love for Jesus and I respect that," he said. "If anything, I learned a lot from them and did become a more engaged Jew, a better Jew, and I appreciate my Judaism more because I hung out with Jesus."

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Jesus • Judaism

soundoff (2,641 Responses)
  1. Apotropoxy

    grist declared: Jesus was not a Jew because he never existed. There is no evidence that Jesus ever existed.
    __________________________________________

    There is abundant evidence that a passionate Jesus movement arose in the Galilee and Judea in the 40s and 50s CE. Do you suppose that some conspiracy existed among these devotees that was initiated by self-serving con artists? If so, then explain what these grifters had to gain?

    April 6, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Chris

      A following, power over people. Maybe it's just people pushing their own morals on everybody else.

      Not much has changed over the years has it

      April 6, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Gabe

      People do it every day. The only difference is that two thousand years ago, when the crazy guy ranted about his friend who rose from the dead, people paid attention to him.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • grist

      What did they have to gain?
      POWER! Men like power! And money. And women.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  2. Atheism is healthy for humans and all living things

    Religious indoctrination from birth is child abuse.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  3. Pierre Alexes - Westmount, Qc

    You should, instead, ask why christianity, and catholicism especially, are in denial regarding Appolinius of Tyana whose works were plagiarized by the apostle Paul.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Tee

      Apolonias, wasn't she one of Prince's proteges?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  4. Chris

    Can you say cult?

    There is no god and the earth is MUCH older than 6,000 years. how can people completely reject science in order to give their 'soul' to the magic man in the clouds.

    We now know the only thing in the clouds is moisture.

    It's about time we come in from the stone ages people. Religion has been the excuse to kill millions of people. I find it hard to beleive that in the 21st century we are still dragging our knuckles on this subject.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  5. Apotropoxy

    Frank wrote: Rabbis didn't exist until after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the term Rabbi as used in the bible simply means "teacher". Jesus was not a Jew, he was the Son of God.
    __________________________________________________

    'Rabbi' just means 'teacher.' They were all over the place during Jesus' time, son.
    They took on a leadership role by default after the Temple's destruction. The chaos within the Hebrew community after Jerusalem's annihilation and the Temple's rubblization gave rise to what the Jews have today- Rabbinic Judaism.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  6. AZ

    The author quotes
    "I'm not advocating for Moses dolls," he said, but he argued that "it's hard to believe in a God you can't see. I'm jealous of Christians in that regard, that they have this physical manifestation of the divine that they can pray to.

    Hindus have more than 3000 manifestations of thhier gods.. means they are even more authentic than christians ??
    we have to understand one thing....... If we cant see God, thats the beauty of his being the supreme , other wise between him and us, whats the difference ?

    April 6, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Sean

      You have been misled and you are worshipping a god just NOT the one TRUE GOD.Seek the truth and come to know GOD.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  7. reason

    Watch what our anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians have to say about where god came from:

    April 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  8. palintwit

    An Afternoon With Sarah Palin...
    Step 1: Put Palins in a large sack. Burlap or canvas. Your choice.
    Step 2: Hang the aforementioned sack from a large, sturdy tree.
    Step 3: Hit the sack with a ball bat or 2×4. Your choice.
    Step 4: Take a break and have a cold soda or beer. Your choice.
    Step 5: Repeat steps 3 and 4.
    For extra fun try adding a Kardashian or Snooki to the sack. Your choice.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  9. X

    Wait, wait, is this article suggesting that different people who believe different things might actually be able to learn something from each other? Wow, what a revelation, I'm going to pull my head out of the sand right now!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  10. asdfasdfasdf

    Anyone who pretends that they have some divine knowledge about how God and Jesus and spirituality works is nothing more than a fool.

    Humans are not capable of comprehending God, or why we are here or what happens when we die.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • AGuest9

      When we die is easy – decomposition like every other living thing (when not incinerated or filled with embalming chemicals.)

      April 6, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • LinCA

      @asdfasdfasdf

      You said, "Anyone who pretends that they have some divine knowledge about how God and Jesus and spirituality works is nothing more than a fool.
      Humans are not capable of comprehending God, or why we are here or what happens when we die.
      "
      Arguing over gods of any stripe, and their attributes, is like arguing over favorite colors. There isn't one that is any better than any of the others, nor does anyone's preference affect anyone else's.

      Gods exist only in the minds of the individual believer. The believer is therefor the only one who "knows" his or her god's attributes, wants and needs. Claiming that these individual gods affect anyone else's life, or afterlife, in any way is patently nonsense.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  11. grist

    Jesus was not a Jew because he never existed. There is no evidence that Jesus ever existed. The Jesus stories had been around for centuries. Merely copied from other older religions. Not a single contemporary historian ever mentioned him. All just a fairytale. It is 2012. We need to stop believing in fairytales. We must accept that there is no magic or supernatural. We live in a real physical world. We must accept reality. Kids these days see it. Most kids in my children's school are already atheists. There will be an awakening in about 15 years when our kids grow up and start running things. It will be good. We will make decisions based on reality rather than a book written by bronze-aged men.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • X

      I'm not a Christian, but I think you're going to be very disappointed 15 yrs from now.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  12. well

    It's kind of refreshing to see Jews claiming the right to judge who is a Jew and who is not. I see Christians do it all the time and think how foolish it is when a Baptist call the Pope the anti-Christ or a Catholic says without Confession the Baptist is going to the pit.
    Nice to know that Jews can be as judgmentally foolish as Christians.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Seriously

      Refreshing how? don't they judge and label people all the time? Like who can be racist and who can't? who is legally allowed to commit warcrimes against women and children and who can't?

      It would be refershing if they shut the hell up and stopped making every christian holiday about them.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  13. obama 2012

    obama 2012

    April 6, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Agreed

      Obama 2012!
      Please Jesus, please!

      April 6, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • WJS3310

      Like sheep they are lead astray. obama said Jesus was a racist by His sermon on the mount.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Seriously

      Obamacus 20:12

      Let he who make elections promises cast them asunder and pretend that being black is enough to be "the bestest president eva! fo shizzle"

      April 6, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  14. Confused

    I'm confused by Scott's comment. God can die? It's hard to comprehend God suffering? It seems that by making God a man we reduce him, strip away the glorious intangibles that as human beings we can never understand.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  15. #around

    @AGuest:
    It may come as a surprise to you, but I like the answers that science provides. Here is the problem. You are here arguing the point against people you obviously feel are inferior, to an ignoble end. This is not finding the hard answers. This is stroking your ego.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • AGuest9

      No, this is fighting against misguided people (also, those who simply lack intelligence) who are trying to take over science classes in our schools.

      If I was doing this to stroke my ego, I would list my degrees and tell you where I worked.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • #around

      @AGuest9:
      Are they still trying to push that ID thing? Unfortunate. On this I agree, it does not belong in public school classrooms.
      However, there is always a better way to do things, and the way some atheists are going about this only increases derission. You're not winning anyone over. You just seem disgruntled. I understand that the tyranny of the majority can be frustrating, but this is an article about an opinion of a specific ethnic group, and not about the ID agenda. I wouldn't jump into a discussion about evolution with my qualms about walmart greeters not saying merry christmas. Good luck in your fight.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  16. The Jackdaw

    Yay, easter! The holiday that is supposed to be about the christian messiah but is really about the pagan spring festival but is really about making american kids sick on chocolate!

    April 6, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Almighty Zebra-Zeus

      If you're going to get sick on something, might as well make it chocolate.

      Praise be to Cadbury!

      April 6, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  17. Schlomo Heisel

    Why does CNN always need to have a daily article extolling the Jewish faith?

    April 6, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  18. jake

    Since when did this guy "hang out with Jesus"? And he has it wrong- Christian/Catholics don't think that Jesus is "our God"- we think he is the "son of God" – Get your facts straight.

    #2 – Of course Jesus was Jewish- everyone knows that- they just don't have an answer to that question when the kids say " if Jesus was Jewish- then why are we catholic"-

    I still can't get a straight answer to that question.

    #3. Religion is about faith- you can't explain it or prove it- it's just something you have. Being a person who has almost passed away- many -many times- I can assure you atheists that there is indeed a God, and for people who believe- if you think you're going to heaven just being good – you're not doing enough. You have to put yourself out there and really help people and animals- especially the animals- so start doing some good and start today.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • salmonrusty

      I have met people all over the world, who have no religion, do good and be decent human beings.

      April 6, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      I'm a CPS caseworker. I put myself on the line every day to help kids and I love animals but I do not beleive in God. I suppose I'll be the first good person in Hell and maybe thats okay. I'll do good things there too.

      April 6, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  19. salmonrusty

    He was a native middle eastern Palestinian/Israeli man as was his mother. His kin are now killed everyday by these Jewish converts from Iceland and Russia and Latvia and Poland and Ukraine. These white caucasians are not semitic or middle eastern ancestry and their trying to link themselves with Abraham of Iraq is a fraud being perpetrated by them to steal land.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  20. CommonSense

    Why not just reclaim Jesus as the poorly created myth that IT is. There are too many simple humans still easily fooled
    by the mythical bible. Christians! Go to Saudi Arabia and stop holding America back.

    April 6, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • ThisIsWhy

      Forgive them father, they know not what they do.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Theism is not healthy for your sanity and other reasonable things

      We know exactly what we do – call your imaginary friend the myth that it is.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Lilith

      @ ThisIsWhy ... unless your Dad is on here, no "Father" is listening.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • DoubleDouble

      It's funny that atheists seem to attack Christians, but not Judaism or other religions...

      April 6, 2012 at 10:46 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.