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Mainstream Christian theology's position held that Judaism had been supplanted, the Jewish covenant with the divine no longer valid, because of the incarnation of God as Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross.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. peace247

    The Holy Qur'an: Surah Baqarah

    The Jews say: "The Christians have naught (to stand) upon"; and the Christians say: "The Jews have naught (to stand) upon." Yet they (profess to) study the (same) Book. Like unto their word is what those say who know not, but Allah will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment. (113)

    April 6, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  2. nofear

    Jesus condemned the money changers, the parasites on wall street, who are mostly jews.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • nvwl

      Jesus cast out the moneychangers in the TEMPLE - i.e., people making money in and a mockery of a religious place. Sounds more like some evangelists. Wall Street never pretends to be anything more than what it is.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • kevin

      Jesus did not condemn the money changers, he threw them out of the House of God. As he did the others who were using the Lord's house for reasons other than intended, like selling doves as the Bible tells us. Don't try to make us Christians sound like Jewish hating idiots please. There are enough people out there who pervert Christianity to give the atheists and other Christian hating people in this world more fodder. The Jewish people did not kill Jesus. It was the leadership who was afriad of him and his popularity that conspired against him.And convinced the masses to turn on him.(Always remember a person is smart, people are stupid).

      April 6, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  3. zulux

    Jesus Christ! Not this subject again!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • William

      yeah...incredible how this subject grabs you like a hook in the corner of a fishes mouth and reels you in. Might want to figure out why that is you cannot stay away. 🙂

      April 6, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  4. KEKC

    I don't care whether or not Jesus was a Jew or not. As a matter of fact, I don't care about Jesus at all – I have way more important things in live than some archaic overrated folklore characters.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Vermonter

      Why are you reading this you fool. You make yourself look awful stupid!

      April 6, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Carrier

      You see, when you say that you don't care, and that you have more important things to do, it makes you look pretty foolish. Please explain why you read the article and then commented on it if you don't care and you have more important things to do?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  5. bill constantine

    To all out there. as a human eing we are killing our mother mother earth. Let us use our religions to save our selfs.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • ttwp

      Sounds like the Tower of Babel...."let us make a name for ourselves...."

      April 6, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  6. reason

    To all the FOOLS who are saying the Easter Bunny one day pooped out Santa Claus like any other egg, I say this: Santa Claus created the Easter Bunny as a present but shipment was delayed until April. That is the origin of your false Easter Bunny religion. And do not even get me started on the Tooth Fairy!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • William

      Ahhh...the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. I love them. Symbols both of the world about us. You believe in symbols too like the words you type have special meaning when all they really do is report the anger with which you carry about you and live. Hey...pop and chocolate bunny egg in your mouth and let it melt and disolve in you mouth and forget the stuff having you search for places to go in order to give yourself the freedom to be angry. Give it a rest. You are not going to change anyone here...why did you come here??? Really??? Have a good day. 🙂

      April 6, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  7. Michael

    Come on, everyone knows Jesus was a blue-eyed blonde!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  8. salmonrusty

    Now if they were to depict this guy and his Mom as native Palestinian, middle easten, rather than Scandinavian looking, I bet that would be the end of christianity, or maybe they'd stop killing the Palestinans.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Carrier

      C'mon man, don't you know Jesus was white, skinny, and had long hair, even though if he truly did even exist, that would certainly not have been the case?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Mennoknight

      I do not need an image or a picture of Jesus to worship him.
      I know He was a Jew, that he looked like a Jew, and that he was not blond haired and blue eyed as do my children, as does my church.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  9. Tepent

    You can't claim Jesus unless you confess Him as Lord. To deny Christ as Lord is to crucify Him again, and I don't think you want to do that... I can't believe that after two thousand years people are still debating something so infantile and ignorant. We should have moved on to a much more deep understanding of the Spirit of God than this. I guess it goes to show that the pride of man will never be silenced. I think Christ spoke a lot about that topic if you have ears to hear...

    April 6, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Chewbacca

      I can't believe after 200 years people believe Yahweh impregnated Mary so he could be born in the form of Jesus, so he could sacrifice hinself for our sins (but not really because he was ressurected and flew to heaven).

      You are an idiot for believing in this garbage.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • jimtanker

      Until you can come up with evidence that your god is even real then you are the childish one believing in fairy tales.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • sam stone

      no, to deny him is to put a knife in an old tradition

      April 6, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • sam stone

      I find it amusing that there are people who claim to speak for god. To know it's mind, and what it likes or does not like.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Larry

      the only ignorance i see is what you have to say. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus did not think of himself as G-D. Jesus lived and died a Jew. If you want Jesus to be G-D that is OK. There is only one G-D. There will never be any G-D but G-D.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • sam stone

      "I can't believe that after two thousand years people are still debating something so infantile and ignorant."

      I agree, but some people are very beholdin' to Bronze Age mythology.

      "We should have moved on to a much more deep understanding of the Spirit of God than this"

      I agree with that also.

      That will come when people realize that god is personal, and that top down faith is toxic

      April 6, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • William

      Jimtanker: LOL...based on your logic we- you and I and the earth- do not exist until we can prove to another somewhere else in the universe that we do. Oh...I know that is silly- just as silly as what you wrote. If what you say is true, then what are scientists looking for? Oh yeah, that whch they cannot yet prove. I guess yuo believe we will get to where we will prove all things. Hmmmm....not in our lifetimes 100 times over. Have a good day and look for something to be happy about. My best to you. 🙂

      April 6, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  10. adamthefirst

    Christians and Jews must stick together, its the same reiligion after all.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Ha

      Jesus wasn't Jewish. He was the son of God according to the Bible. He had Jewish surrogate parents

      April 6, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • jimtanker

      That's kind of funny that you think that way. Was he a Christian? You do know that there were not Christians around the time when he supposedly lived right?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Laura

      Then Christians, Jews and Muslims must stick together. All three are the Abrahamic religions ….or this statement is not fit with current right-wing propaganda of exclusivity for Judeo-Christianity ties?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • alan

      No, it isn't the same religion at all. Only someone ignorant of one if not both would think otherwise.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • ttwp

      Jesus wasn't Jewish. He was the son of God according to the Bible. He had Jewish surrogate parents.

      He was Jewish...from the tribe of Judah. "For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah..." Hebrews 7:14

      April 6, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  11. jerry

    Jesus may have existed but in my mind he was a modern day magician. Walking on water and turning water in to wine sound like illusions to me and I went to catholic school!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  12. Aardie

    I wondered as a kid in church, if Jesus was Jewish, why aren't we if we are following him?

    April 6, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Apotropoxy

      An excellent question, Aardie. The early Christian movement went to great lengths to try to square that circle.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • adamthefirst

      then you didn't learn anything in church

      April 6, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Seriously

      If you follow Buddah, does that make you Indian?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Double R


      Because the Jews of the time rejected Jesus as the true Messiah and the Son of God, and had him killed. After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the word of God was proven, those who chose to believe in the divinity of Jesus were considered to be Christians. Jews do believe in Jesus, however not his divinity. They still await the coming Messiah.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  13. Chut Pata

    There is no proof that Jesus existed. Most of the stories are recyled from ancient myths, including his resurrection. The stories narrated by Christians say he was son of God, and the stories narrated by Muslims says he was a holy prophet and only human being, not God, not God's soin. Until now, Jews believed what the science said i.e. Jesus did not exist. Now if they believe the Christian stories, it goes against their basic belief that God is one and only. So if they are to embrace Jesus and not compromise their fundamental beliefs, are they going to believe the Muslim stories, or they are going to come up with their own stories?

    April 6, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  14. Frank

    Commentators seem to be confusing the racial concept of a Jew (which only came into existence over the past couple centuries) and the religious concept of a Jew. Most Jews are closely genetically related today because of their isolation and intermarriage during 2000 years of diaspora however they are not a race and the racial and ethnic traits/character of Jews today is not the same as it was 2000 years ago. Jesus was almost certainly a Semite however there is no compelling reason to accept the idea that, if His genes could be tested, he would be racially related to modern Jews. As far as His religious status is concerned (as the term Jew has historically been a religious label), he was not a Jew. He may have been once, but when the Jews rejected his divinity and status as a prophet, he ceased to be one and became the first Christian.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Chut Pata

      You are confusing the Muslim vs Christian concept of Jesus. The status of prophet for Jesus is a Muslim concept. Christians believe he was son of God and a god himself. Per Muslim belief, followers of the last prophet have the status of being Muslims (in peace with God), So Jews were technically "Muslims" as they followed the last prophet Moses. But when Jesus came, Moses ceased to be the last prophet and Jesus became the last prophet. Those who followed him remained "Muslims" and the rest became "Jews".

      April 6, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Wastrel

      @ Chut Pata: Most of the commenters here seem not to understand this article very well, but you raise misunderstanding to a level of genius.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  15. Johnny America

    He WAS jewish, but once he established his ministry he became the first Christian. You wouldn't say that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were still British after the revolution. Since followers of Jesus Christ were Christians, that makes Jesus the first Christian. Its pretty simple, he was jewish but did things in a different way and became Christian.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  16. Gary Duits

    To say that Jesus never excisted, is like saying yellow is square!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • alan

      or like questioning the existence of zeus, big foot and alien abductions.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  17. Gary Duits

    To say that Jesus never excisted, is like saying yellow is square! Julias Ceaser never lived? how about Plato?
    Your out of your mind.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Frustratedtexan

      Wow are you dumb. There is much historical evidence for Plato and Ceasar, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever besides the mythical bible, that jesus existed. If he was as important as the bible and christianity make him out to be, then why is there not an abundance of non-bibical historical accounts?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • ttwp

      There's plenty of historical evidence...even outside the Gospels and Paul's epistles. Yet you are unwilling to accept it.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  18. stephen

    They can have him. Jesus is a fraud. Born of a virgin, son of god, ascended bodily into heaven. Right!

    April 6, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Johnny America

      You need an education. Your grammar is pretty pathetic. If anyone is a fraud, it is the people who passed you through the school system.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Apotropoxy

      Virtually no serious historian of the period claims Jesus never existed. The trouble you have is the claim of his followers that he was a god.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Lilith

      Agreed Apotropoxy, it's not whether he (or someone we now call Jesus) lived, it's the whole supernatural thing that's the problem. The truth is always best, and the truth is he likely did exist but he was certainly just another human.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • William

      As we progress in our feeble technological advances, I doubt nothing. We prove over and over again anything is possible. As we create life, we prove there is life by intelligent design (unless you consider us unintelligent) and I wonder if that life form would, if it could communicate with each other, call us God? Science and religion are one and the same to me. With that said, trhere are times I look upon Jesus as a simple man and I am awed that he would give his life knowingly for others. What about such actions would one deny is beyond the normal human pale? The stories that surround are meaningless to me and I wonder about their accuracy but that matters little becaasue there is something deeper. I can argue over how man created and passed stories from one generation to another but these, too, are wonderful to share with my children and to pass on and I take pleasure in that. The bottom line is that maybe we are not the children of God any longer. Maybe we have grown to adults with greater knowledge and i am not about to spend my adult life debating enjoyable stories that seek to teach me to be a better person for those around me. That is more important than shaking anyone elses faith or understandings. I celebrate what Jesus, God or man- doesn;t matter, did for me and I use him as inspiration to be a better person myself...some use him to mistreat others, I choose to use him to hopefully treat others better than I would. We get to choose how we treat each other...mistrating people in the name of Jesus you do not need as you would mistreat others without him as well. I hope I would treat people as well without him. I hope I would make that choice and allow others who believe that space .

      April 6, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Double R

      @ Lilith

      It's common for non-believers to claim that although we can agree to believe that Jesus did exist, we Christians cannot prove his divinity. So it's easy for non-believers to say it's not true. But in the same light, is it true to say that non-believers can also NOT prove that he wasn't divine? Were you there? Was I there? Neither one of us can say for certain. So truthfully, faith, or lack there of, is just our opinion. I chose to believe that the word of God is truth, that Jesus was the one and only Son of God, he was divine, that he died and was resurrected on the third day and that he is seated at the right hand of the Father. You chose not to believe that. Agree to disagree but neither one of us can absolutely prove without a shadow of a doubt that either one of those statements are infallible. Or can we?

      April 6, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  19. rtgrtgrtgr

    they seek to appropriate jesus.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Seriously

      Yeah.. why can't there be a Christian holiday without Jews sticking their noses and opinions into it?

      April 6, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • William

      My how we want the world to change and protest so when it does.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  20. Paul

    To the Jews and Gentiles:

    You are very welcome to attend any of the Easter weekend services in Churches as we celebrate the gift of eternal life that is now made possible through Jesus Christ, the risen lord and savior.

    April 6, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Lilith

      Thank you, but I plan to celebrate the reality of life & nature's natural cycle of rebirth (spring) spending time in a park & my backyard with my family. Maybe eating a few jelly beans & grilling burgers!

      April 6, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Jon

      So you think there was no Eternal Life before Jesus Christ? What do you think he did? Jesus was just a poor carpenter from the Middle East. He didn't save the world, or stop any wars, or unite mankind. He annoyed some romans and got killed.

      I'm pretty sure the only reasons people are still following Jesus are that they are scared of no afterlife, and they like the presents on Christian Holidays.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • ttwp

      "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to SAVE the world through him." Jn 3:17

      April 6, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Double R


      He DID save the world, from it's own sin. But it's up to you to choose that salvation.

      April 6, 2012 at 11:47 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.