Jesus the Jew

Seeing the Word: Part 5

The image of Jesus to the left is the first I remember seeing as a child. His soft features and wavy locks graced the wall of our Sunday school room. I stared at him – he stared off into the great unknown…probably a flock of white, fluffy sheep.

How should we see Jesus? How is Jesus portrayed in the New Testament, really?

In the final chapter, “Seeing the Son of David,” Bockmuehl explores the historical and theological implications of Jesus’ Jewishness. For many, it is nothing new to emphasize the Jewish character of the New Testament – exploring the background of the New Testament in the context of Second Temple Judaism, Qumran, Jewish apocalyptic literature, and later Rabbinic writings. Publications in this vein have grown exponentially since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 20th century, and good work has been done especially over the last several decades under the banner of the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus.

Although “Jesus the Jew” is something of a platitude these days, positive identifications of Jesus’ Jewishness are fairly rare and recent in the history of interpretation. Within a generation after Jesus’ death Ignatius (the first Gentile bishop of Antioch) declares “it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism” (To the Magnesians 10.3). Indeed, it was a common assertion among the ancient that though Jesus may have appeared Jewish, he definitively put an end to Jewish ways of living based on the Torah. The tendency since that time (until recently) has been to emphasize the universalizing aspects of Jesus’ person and teaching over the Jewish particularities. Thus the wedge was driven by both Jews and Christians alike. Not only have such affirmations been unfortunate for New Testament interpretation, the denial of Jesus’ Jewishness gave birth to anti-Semitic interpretations which produced unfathomable atrocities.

Interestingly, some recent and popular portraits of Jesus are uncircumcised – if you will – despite the wealth of scholarship on 2nd Temple Judaism, etc. Jesus is painted more as a “liberal-minded, egalitarian social reformer conversant with populist philosophical aphorisms rather than religious dogma or observance” (195). Most of us have seen, by this point, a TV special around Easter, an article in TIME, or a new book displayed front-and-center at the local BooksaNoble in the spirituality section which essentially gives a more “digestible” Jesus: “a less judgmental, more inclusive peasant philosopher of timeless universal wisdom and countercultural charisma”. This is a “Jesus largely neutered and declawed as to Jewish religious specifics” (196).

As Bockmuehl points out, what is surprising when we read the Gospels is the remarkable lack of Gentile glossing. The Gospels do not adapt to meet the needs of a post 70AD Gentile community in theological or descriptive details. Bockmuehl writes that the Gospels present a “Jesus who manifests a great deal more Jewish particularity than was often found congenial by Gentile Christians” (211).

I would encourage further reflection not only on the assertions of the previous paragraph, but also on the extent to which, in our own ways, we make Jesus something other than who is affirmed to be in his resurrection – “both Lord and Messiah.” I would suggest this is not just a doctrinal issue – a matter of right belief, but also a volitional one – a matter of right practice. In all the ways we fail to submit our desires, in all the ways we privilege our own aspirations, and in all the ways we attempt to manage brokenness and sin ourselves, we fail to recognize Jesus as Lord and Messiah.In other words, properly “seeing the Word” implies proper practice of the Word. True recognition of Jesus identity implies obedience and trust.

In our recognition that others have mishandled the text, may we not paint Jesus in our own image but instead, in our recognition of him as both Lord and Messiah, faithfully participate in the Kingdom of God through love and obedience by the power the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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