Was Jesus Jewish? A Summary of the Jewishness of Jesus’ Life and Ministry
Was Jesus Jewish? There are four ways in which Jesus’ life and ministry were thoroughly influenced by his Jewishness. He grew up and lived in a thoroughly Jewish world. His ministry was very Jewish. His mission to bring the kingdom of God summed up the entire Jewish hope. And his mission for us, making disciples, is very Jewish in its rabbi-disciple framework.
Both my daughter and daughter-in-law decided to start the year reading the Gospels, and what that means is that every week I get text messages or phone calls with good questions like, “Why did Jesus say…?” “What’s going on in…?” Typically, my answers involve explaining details of culture or history, so much so that it’s now become anticipated: “It probably has to do with culture, but what does ___ mean?”
Reading the Gospels means stepping into a foreign world, the world of first-century Judaism. And reading the Gospels reminds us that Jesus wasn’t a Greek or a Roman and certainly not an American; he wasn’t even a Christian! He was a Jew.
Was Jesus Jewish? Let’s look at his world.
He dressed like a Jew, spoke Aramaic like the other Jews of his era, thought like a Jew, and lived like a Jew—because he was, after all, a Jew.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a small, somewhat isolated, conservative Jewish town in Galilee. His parents were deeply devout Jews who presented him in the temple as a baby according to the Law of Moses and traveled to Jerusalem every year for Passover (Luke 2:41). He grew up in a home steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, synagogue services, annual feasts, and the customs of the Jews.
“He grew up in a home steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, synagogue services, annual feasts, and the customs of the Jews.”
Because of this, Jesus would’ve experienced a typical Jewish education. From roughly five to ten years old, Jewish children went to Bet Sepher (the “house of the scroll”) learning the Torah and memorizing large portions of it. From ages ten to thirteen, many Jewish boys graduated to Bet Talmud (the “house of learning”). At this age, Jewish girls typically worked at home with mom, learning to manage a household, and some boys went to work with dad, learning the family trade. But some continued in school and at this stage learned how to ask good questions as they wrestled with the Scriptures.
Think of Jesus in the temple at age 12 “sitting among the teachers, asking questions” with everyone amazed at his understanding. Learning to ask good questions and even debate with others was a core objective of Jewish study of Torah, and a skill which later permeated Jesus’ ministry.
“Jesus could look down from the hill on which Nazareth sat and see the very locations where great stories from his Scriptures took place.”
Jesus was raised in a “land soaked with memories of [his] Israelite past” as Bible-land expert Cyndi Parker puts it. Jesus could look down from the hill on which Nazareth sat and see the very locations where great stories from his Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) took place. He ate only clean foods (never tasted ham or shrimp!), and every week he paused on Friday at around 6:00 p.m. until Saturday around 6:00 p.m. to attend synagogue service (as was his habit, Luke 4:16) and keep the Sabbath.
His yearly rhythm revolved around the harvest seasons and the feasts that went with them, shaping him and his fellow Jews in their faith and identity as God’s people: Passover and Pentecost in the spring and early summer, Succoth (the Feast of Booths) in the fall. And he participated in the sacrifices that were central to these celebrations.
The world that Jesus lived in and the worldview he grew up with was steeped in the story of Israel and the promises God had made to her. It was shaped by the Law of Moses and the covenant made at Mount Sinai. It was a culture tested by exile, weary of foreign oppression, hoping in God, and longing for the final chapter in their story to be written.
Was Jesus Jewish? Let’s look at his ministry.
And all of this Jewishness marked Jesus’ ministry. Here are some obvious ways: teaching in the synagogues, traveling to Jerusalem for feasts and festivals, and debating about the proper approach to the Sabbath.
His Jewishness is also seen in how saturated in the Hebrew Scriptures his life and ministry were. For example, quoting Scripture to deal with temptation or to settle a debate. Or replying to a theological question with a question as he was taught to do in school. It involved asking the resident Scripture experts, “Haven’t you read…” and then proceeding to refer to a story from Scripture to challenge their misunderstanding. It meant walking through a thoroughgoing study of the entire Old Testament on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) with two disciples, showing them how the entire thing pointed to himself. (Just think: what would’ve it been like to hear him open up the Scriptures in this way?)
Was Jesus Jewish? “Jesus alluded to or hinted at Scripture, assuming his original audience would catch it.”
Sometimes in a very Jewish way, Jesus alluded to or hinted at Scripture, assuming his original audience would catch it, since most of them were steeped in the Scriptures. For example, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…” alludes to Exodus 24:1-8 and Jeremiah 31:31 and places communion into the context of the exodus and the renewal of the covenant promised in the prophets.
Jesus’ Jewishness is also seen in things less obvious to us (though not to his original audience). For example, his use of parables and metaphor. These are not a uniquely Jesus ways of teaching; they’re very Jewish. Among other things, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi (which means “my great one” and was an honorary title for skilled teachers), and word pictures were how skilled Jewish rabbis commonly communicated theology and wrestled with the great truths of Scripture. We have hundreds of examples of parables from rabbis around Jesus’ day.
Was Jesus Jewish? “Why give a lecture on the corruption of the temple when you can curse a fig tree or overturn tables?”
Or take his dramatic actions. Why give a lecture on the corruption of the temple when you can curse a fig tree or overturn tables? Such symbolic actions have their roots in the Old Testament prophets.
Many of the debates Jesus was invited into were well-known theological debates of the day. For what cause is divorce permitted? The school of Rabbi Hillel said for any cause and the school of Shammai said only for sexual infidelity. Both were wrestling with how to understand the divorce law in Deuteronomy 24. When fellow teachers asked Jesus about this, they were inviting him to weigh in on this debate. Or what about which commandments were the greatest? Rabbis had been debating that for years.
Was Jesus Jewish? Let’s look at his mission.
So, both the manner and content of Jesus’ teaching was shaped by his Jewish culture. So is the way Jesus framed up his mission and ministry. He came preaching the “kingdom of God.” This phrase summed up the entire Jewish hope, and for several centuries since returning from exile, faithful Jews had prayed and watched and longed for God’s kingdom—the kingdom of heaven—to come. What were they waiting for? For God’s reign as king to finally be realized.
In the centuries before Jesus and the decades after, some Jews sought to usher in God’s kingdom via revolt. All to no avail. The foreigners still remained. The temple continued to be empty of God’s shekinah glory. And injustice continued to prevail. This was even the case in the rare event that the revolt actually worked (as with the Maccabee revolt, which was successful, although within decades the Maccabees themselves became tyrannical leaders.) So, the Jews waited and prayed and hoped.
Was Jesus Jewish? “Then came this young rabbi out of Galilee saying that in him ‘the kingdom of God’ had come near.”
Then came this young rabbi out of Galilee saying that in him “the kingdom of God” had come near. When he said that, Jesus was saying that in and through him God’s kingship—his rule and reign—was breaking into the world and the long-awaited hope of the Jews was being fulfilled.
Even the phrase “son of man,” one of Jesus’ favorite ways of referring to himself, will be misunderstood unless it’s heard with Jewish ears. When Jesus applies this to himself, he’s alluding to Daniel 7. There, Daniel sees a vision of God, the “Ancient of Days,” on his throne, and then he sees “one like a son of man” coming to God’s throne “on the clouds.” And this son of man is given “authority, honor, and a kingdom” over all nations. When Jesus refers to himself as the son of man, he’s claiming to be the one who rules alongside the Ancient of Days. It’s a royal title, and Jews of Jesus’ day consistently understood Daniel 7 to be about the Messiah.
Jesus is the Jewish Messiah…and the King of the world!
Was Jesus Jewish? Let’s look at his mission for us.
Thus, Jewish thought forms, values, hopes, practices, and language shaped Jesus’ way of life and teaching.
And in fact, the very mission Jesus carried out and gave to his followers is itself deeply Jewish. When he said, “Go and make disciples,” his first followers knew exactly what this meant. Discipleship was an honored part of their educational system that we began to describe earlier. The ultimate culmination of that system was becoming a disciple (talmid in Hebrew) to a rabbi. Most never got the honor, but everyone knew what it meant. It meant leaving everything behind to attach yourself to a rabbi so you could learn his way of life (his “yoke”; see Mt 11:28-29)—the way he understood and lived out the Scriptures. The goal was not merely to know what the rabbi knew; it was to become like the rabbi (Luke 6:40).
“The goal was not merely to know what the rabbi knew; it was to become like the rabbi.”
The twelve disciples were called by Jesus into this rabbi-disciple kind of relationship. And when Jesus commissioned them (and by extension us) to “make disciples,” they had a concrete picture of what that meant: being with people to help them become like Rabbi Jesus. When Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 For 11:1), he assumed the rabbi-disciple relationship that he and Jesus as Jews thoroughly understood, a deeply relational kind of training that aimed at becoming like the rabbi.
Keeping in mind Jesus’ Jewishness enables us to understand him accurately and know him deeply. It gives us “ears to hear” so we can live more completely as his disciples who can say along with Paul, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.