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Mainstream Christian theology's position held that Judaism had been supplanted, the Jewish covenant with the divine no longer valid, because of the incarnation of God as Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross.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

    why not the Christian call it Christian Jesus and Jew call him Jew Jesus and i call the guy who work a floor below me Jesus in accounting. See an Atheism just solve your problem without violent.

    April 6, 2012 at 4:50 am |
  2. Spangler

    "The Lord is a man of war" says Exodus 15:3 and proceeded to obliterate entire armies, cities and groups of people on behalf of Israel. This vision became harder to sell after the conquest by Rome and was changed into a loving diety of all the world who would not hurt a fly.

    April 6, 2012 at 4:47 am |
    • Mortimer Sanderson

      "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34

      Not to mention the burning of the New Testament God's enemies in hell.

      Sounds pretty much the same if you ask me.

      April 6, 2012 at 5:15 am |
  3. It's a SCAM__

    Religion...worst scam human kind ever faced. After all with the advances in sciences, quality education and a brain to think logically, people still Believe that there is a man in the sky. What was the whole point of paying high tuition and getting a degree when you can't even ask WHY no one has ever seen a god. Oh wait..coz you fear that the man in the sky will be angry at you and you will be in lake of fire..give me a break now !!!!

    April 6, 2012 at 4:40 am |
  4. ando doblatyan

    this is one of the most important times of the CHURCH, tonight was (khavaruum) when the Bible( Astvacashunch) is preached 7 times, and all seven candles are put out, as the darkest hour, the night of the Betrayal , and Peter's denial, there is no partial acceptance, THE WAY THE NEW TESTMENT READS, YOU CAN ONLY CALL JESUS CHRIST YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR, OR NOT! THERE IS NO HALF WAY OR KINDOF SORTE, ( HE CAME TO HIS OWN FIRST, HIS OWN ACCAPTED HIM NOT, ITS NOT TOO LATE ... BLESS HIS NAME ABOVE ALL NAMES ... HISUS CHRISTOS, MY ONLY TRUE LOVE, I PRAY THAT IN THE BIGGEST VICTORIUS MOMENTS AND HOURS OF MY LIFE ON THIS EARTH, REMIND ME MY LORD THAT MY ONLY PRIDE IS THE CROSS OF CHRISTOS , AMEN ...

    April 6, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • rtbrno65

      Up all night again?

      April 6, 2012 at 5:17 am |
  5. coffeebean02

    Mr. Boteach,
    Jesus wasn't just any man.

    April 6, 2012 at 3:52 am |
    • Don't believe everything you read

      He was an imaginary one!

      April 6, 2012 at 3:54 am |
  6. /sigh

    gotta love nutbags, sorry but no rational person would care what a fictional characters religion is.

    April 6, 2012 at 3:39 am |
  7. Bootyfunk

    is the easter bunny christian or jewish?

    April 6, 2012 at 3:31 am |
    • Or

      "Hare" Krishna!

      April 6, 2012 at 3:36 am |
  8. Peikovianyi

    The central message of Christianity is that god was estranged from us after our disobedience in Eden, but has become reconciled to us because we tortured and killed him. Does that make sense? Tertullian said it made so little sense it must be true. Self-sacrifice of the good and virtuous on behalf of the bad and wicked is our code of morality, in both religion and politics. How long can any society stay sane believing in that?

    April 6, 2012 at 3:28 am |
  9. LWJR

    Boteach is as anti-christian as you can get. Why is that CNN is not running Easter stories? They always look to create controversy around Christian holidays. Why not find something good about the sacrifice of Jesus regardless of whether the Pharisees and Saducees accept his Messiahship and Incarnation?

    April 6, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Mike

      Great idea. And for an encore CNN can discuss the consequences of humpty dumpty sitting on the wall.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:26 am |
  10. Peikovianyi

    We are now in the Presidential primary season, and candidates must appear in state after state and win delegates. It is a ritual that confirms them as their party's nominee. I would suggest the requirements for messiah were equally specific, and Jesus (or any applicant) would have appeared at the proper times and places. These were staged events. It's been debated how long his ministry lasted. The typical estimate is 3-4 years. I would estimate 40 months, to symbolize the 40-year wandering of Exodus, and all of it timed for deliberate effect.

    April 6, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Still no proof of the Exodus or other claims made. Also I know you are not American so stop pretending you are.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:24 am |
    • Peikovianyi

      I am communicating with you from beyond deep space. Woooooooo....

      April 6, 2012 at 3:29 am |
  11. joe delara

    Yes its prophesied in the Old testament regarding his birth and up coming return to earth as a man God walking among us. This point s to other so called faith who dont have this in their beliefs system nor will not never happened. \i know Jesus is real and yes H e and God are one! Jews should be proud of their history and thus our world changed 2000 years ago when he died and rose from the grave. amen

    April 6, 2012 at 3:19 am |
  12. Good Christian Infallible Bible

    It's GOOD FRIDAY!!!!

    What's good about it? They killed Jesus! Crucified on Friday, laid three days and nights in the tomb, and emerged on Sunday, which is only two days and two nights. Jesus' crucifixion was between the third hour and the ninth hour, but he was still before Pilate at the sixth hour. There was or wasn't lots of supernatural stuff that went with it, depending on the Gospel, which did not rate a mention in any Roman or Jewish records. Oh that kooky infallible Bible! He may have been on a cross, or it may have been on a stake, which would mean the Christian imagery would be wrong.

    Zombie Day is just around the corner! This is so exciting!

    April 6, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • Um ... yeah


      April 6, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • /sigh

      is it not amazing how gullible and dumb people are?

      April 6, 2012 at 3:43 am |
    • B(iraq) Hussein Osama

      Assuming Jesus actually died on the cross!!
      There is very strong evidence in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus may actually NOT HAVE DIED on the cross.
      – no eyewitnesses testify seeing Jesus dead on the cross
      – legs not broken
      – short stay on the cross, very short
      – whisked away by secret disciple to a nearby roomy chamber
      – body secure and hidden from public view for 3 days thereafter
      – no big burial ceremony, no big crowd of people seeing the dead body on display, nothing

      April 6, 2012 at 4:20 am |
  13. Godoflunaticscreation

    Christians and Jews both worship stolen myths. End of story. Have a good night.

    April 6, 2012 at 3:14 am |
  14. Peikovianyi

    If there was an actual person (or several persons, whose stories where combined into one), his role as a mortal sired by a god is so typically pagan (and foreign to the Jewish tradition) that centuries of Near Eastern, Greek and Roman myths would have to be removed before we could locate what he actually said and did and what he intended his listeners to understand. He was probably a member of a mystic sect whose rituals both confused his countrymen and threatened the foreign occupation. Now American politicians would like us to understand him literally. His followers never did that.

    April 6, 2012 at 3:11 am |
  15. Mike

    I appreciate the effort but I'd rather the Martians claim Jesus. Take him off Earth's hands so that logic could finally take it's rightful place at the head of the table.

    April 6, 2012 at 2:52 am |
    • /sigh

      unfortunately these nutbags would rather kill you,themselves, or in most cases both, before allowing you to 'cloud' their minds with logic.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:45 am |
  16. Nick

    The Talmud, which was written around the time that Christianity was becoming the state religion of the Roman empire, raises some unambiguous objections to Jesus and what he stood for.

    April 6, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • Ilse

      Hi Nick, you've studied Talmud? Can you tell us some of what it says about Jesus? Thanks!

      April 6, 2012 at 3:56 am |
  17. howlyn

    This article makes me want to puke. As a Jew, I am disgusted that my fellow "tribesman" would have anything to so with Jesus, the icon of Christianity. Christ has no place in our religion, not even as a footnote. He has nothing to do with our teachings nor our philosophies nor our culture. His place is in the Christian realm, not ours. Any Jew that tries to incorporate Christ, or his teachings, into Judaism has has the blatant ulterior motive of trying to assimilate Jews into Christianity, and this infuriates me to the core.

    April 6, 2012 at 2:49 am |
    • Howard of Alexandria

      Wow! No one can accuse you of being a Jewish intellectual (person who entertains unconventional ideas).

      April 6, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • /sigh

      Of course a christian has no idea what the definition of an intellectual is.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:47 am |
  18. viper

    I don't find it very realistic to say try and accept Christ's teachings and choose to leave out the part about being the Son of God. Christ was either the Son of God or a guy walking around trying to convince people that he was from heaven and had a kingdom in the sky that he would take them to if they followed him.

    There isn't any middle ground. Either he was the Son of God, or he was a crazy fool.

    April 6, 2012 at 2:48 am |
    • Or

      OR... he is the product of legend which snowballed.

      April 6, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • Or

      p.s. so, you have "lord, liar, lunatic or legend" to choose from. Me, I choose legend.

      April 6, 2012 at 2:53 am |
    • Um ... yeah

      There's only no middle ground if you have no ability to think outside of the small box you've put yourself in. It's highly possible that Jesus, assuming he actually existed, was a good moral teacher but never claimed to be god – that the authors of the gospel – who never met the man and wrote down what he supposedly said decades after he died – attributed such words to him posthumously in order to make it appear as though he were the messiah.

      April 6, 2012 at 2:59 am |
    • Craig

      Obviously you can believe what you wish...and that's fine with me, however, Jesus need not be one extreme or the other. If you study history...not religion but History, you'll discover that until the Council of Nicaea Jesus wasn't universally considered divine. The Council ultimately decided that he was, but it was an ugly debate, and not everyone agreed with the outcome.

      Nonetheless, it doesn't truly matter in many ways. If he was "divine" or if he wasn't, he still, according to the Bible, provided some great ideas about how to live life...ideas that we could all use, both Christians and Jews. Let's face it, a little more love and a lot less judging would make our society a much better and nicer place to live. A little more tolerance certainly wouldn't hurt either. A focus more centered upon others just might make the whole world a bunch more peaceful, and that can't hurt, can it?

      In short, if a man is ugly, the wrong color, the wrong race, and everything else about him is repugnant, it doesn't mean he can't provide insight to your own life. Of course, you have to be willing to look past those cosmetic situations and be willing to actually listen to what's being said. I think Jesus had that completely right, and I'm not a member of any particular church. We could use a lot more of his thinking, and a lot less of the religion that claims to speak for him!

      April 6, 2012 at 3:20 am |
    • /sigh

      craig, thats not real history, sorry, there is nothing important about a bunch of wakkos arguing over an imaginary person.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:51 am |
    • B(iraq) Hussein Osama

      or he was simply what HE HIMSELF claimed to be on numerous occasions, SON OF MAN!

      April 6, 2012 at 4:21 am |
  19. Josh

    This article is misleading. Jews do not believe in Jesus, they never did and never will. The True Massiah is coming. It is sad but true that Jews want Christians to believe that they believe in Jesus for two reasons: (1) To stop blaming Jews for the killing of Jesus, and (2) To support Israel's policies by aligning both religions together. For instance, Christians's bible is made up of the old testament (Jewish Book), as well as the new testament (Brought by Jesus). Jews's book, on the other hand, is only the old testament (the new testament is not accepted in Judaism).

    April 6, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • rtbrno65

      This article is misleading. Jews do not believe in Jesus, they never did and never will. The True Massiah is coming. It is sad but true that Jews want Christians to believe that they believe in Jesus for two reasons: (1) To stop blaming Jews for the killing of Jesus, and (2) To support Israel's policies by aligning both religions together. For instance, Christians's bible is made up of the old testament (Jewish Book), as well as the new testament (Brought by Jesus). Jews's book, on the other hand, is only the old testament (the new testament is not accepted in Judaism).

      April 6, 2012 at 5:28 am |
  20. Dave

    This article is misleading. Jews do not believe in Jesus, they never did and never will. The True Massiah is coming. It is sad but true that Jews want Christians to believe that they believe in Jesus for two reasons: (1) To stop blaming Jews for the killing of Jesus, and (2) To support Israel's policies by aligning both religions together. For instance, Christians's bible is made up of the old testament (Jewish Book), as well as the new testament (Brought by Jesus). Jews's book, on the other hand, is only the old testament (the new testament is not accepted in Judaism).

    April 6, 2012 at 2:43 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.