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Anthony Grafton claims that "the Christian discovery of a Jewish Jesus began not in the 19th century but in the Renaissance"; elsewhere, "Sixteenth and seventeenth-century scholars came to see, as clearly as contemporary specialists on the New Testament, that Christianity began as a Jewish sect". 2

I didn't watch the entire lecture, but I wasn't even aware that there was any point in history where it was believed that he wasn't Jewish. He's referred to as "King of the Jews" in the New Testament, after all. I couldn't find any sources discussing this; does anyone know of any?

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It might be more a matter of emphasis - in some times and places the church authorities did not bother to tell people that Jesus was Jewish. The film "In darkness" shows this poignantly. –  Felix Goldberg Mar 16 '13 at 22:50
Many, if not most, Russians didn't and still don't have a clue that Jesus was Jewish. The typical opinion of an average Russian about Jewish people is "they crucified our Christ" ("они распяли нашего христа") –  DVK Mar 17 '13 at 0:12
Yes, but that's not what's being referred to. "Sixteenth and seventeenth-century scholars came to see... that Christianity began as a Jewish sect" suggests that this was not only missing from popular knowledge, but from the entire intellectual community. –  Hypercube Mar 17 '13 at 4:55
maybe should be rephrased as "didn't care that Jesus was Jewish". The emphasis on his status as a Jew was afaik largely influenced by anti-semites wanting an argument for condemning Jews for condemning him to death, which required him to be a Jew because in Roman Palestine Jews were only allowed jurisdiction over their own people. –  jwenting Mar 18 '13 at 11:50
This sounds like it might possibly be a better fit on Skeptics. Have you considered that the format for this question is less one of history and more one of a notable claim being forwarded that needs (in)validating? –  Caleb Mar 18 '13 at 14:19

3 Answers 3

There may be a couple of issues involved here. While the intellectual association of Jesus with the Jews and the Jewish religion has never been lost, there has long been a dissociation between Christians and the Jews and the Jewish religion.

It should be understood that Judea was a Roman province in Jesus' time. The Romans were interested in seeing how their gods appeared in the religions of other lands, but they obviously found no syncretism in Judaism, a religion that proclaimed One True God and also declared all others false gods. Nonetheless, the Romans tolerated it in part because Judaism was limited to the Jews and the Jews weren't too diligent about making proselytes.

Enter Christianity. At first, Christians were incredibly similar to Jews. The religion was practically identical. The first leaders of Christianity were all Jews: Jesus, his brothers, the Twelve, Paul, even Timothy. The Christians made themselves unwelcome in a couple of ways: they actively sought converts and they forbid those converts from worshiping the Roman gods. The Romans believed that their piety and the public nature of their religion was responsible for the strength of their Empire and this new, private religion was destroying that.

The Christians suffered persecution as a result. They suffered further persecution when the Jews rebelled against the Romans (A.D. 66-135) because they were still fairly closely tied to the Jews. Eventually, the Christians began dissociating themselves from the Jews, possibly because that association was detrimental, possibly because they had started incorporating elements from the religions surrounding them, possibly because God was Two or Three Persons while the Jews continued to emphasize that God is One.

By the fourth century, Christians were eager to break their ties to the Jewish faith. At the First Council of Nicea, they separated calculation of Easter from the Jewish month of Nisan (though the revised calculation has almost identical results). Shortly afterward, the Council of Laodicea outlawed resting on the Sabbath (like the Jews) and encouraged resting on Sunday instead. The Council of Laodicea also forbid several forms of socialization with the Jews.

The Renaissance comes another millennium after all this. Most Christians do not have a copy of the Bible for themselves and few could read one even if they saw it. Christianity has completely separated itself from Judaism to the point that the Jews are now enemies to the Christians. The Jews were the scapegoats for many of the woes that befell the Christian nations. They accused the Jews when the Black Death killed millions of Christians but apparently left the Jews alone. They accused the Jews of killing Jesus.

This anti-Semitism is apparent in many translations of the Bible today. The New Testament is rife with Jewish names, but you might have trouble seeing that from the English translations of them. Of the six Maccabees, five (Mattityahu, Judah, Yochanan, Eleazar, and Simeon) show up in the gospels (Matthew, Judas, John, Lazarus, and Simon). Several other Jewish names appear, too, such as Jacob (James), Miriam (Mary), Elisheva (Elizabeth), and Joshua (Jesus).

After going to such lengths to dissociate from the Jews for over 1,000 years, it is understandable that the typical Christian was not consciously aware that Jesus was a Jew. They called Him Christ, as though it were Jesus' last name, unaware that it was the Greek translation of Mashiach. Mashiach, "anointed one", was originally used for priests, but was only used for kings after Saul's day, so it became synonymous with "king" for the Jews.

Why didn't they "discover" that Jesus was a Jew until the sixteenth century?

  • Christians were enemies of the Jews.
  • The Jews didn't believe in Jesus.
  • Martin Luther didn't encourage people to read the Bible for themselves and ignite the Reformation and Protestant movement until the 16th century.
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"The Jews refused to believe in Jesus"--can we rephrase that to "The Jews didn't believe in Jesus." And can we contextualize "The Jews killed Jesus" by linking it to the preceding sentence? "The Jews were scapegoats . . . because many Christians blamed the Jews for killing Jesus"? –  two sheds May 12 at 16:48
Thanks, @twosheds. I made a couple of edits to explain my choice of words. There was more than, "The Jews killed Jesus," to cover the Jews as scapegoats. Furthermore, Orthodox Judaism has fueled the antagonism with Christianity and I felt the wording should be stronger than "didn't believe". –  Paul Rowe May 12 at 17:08
What instances w the Orthodox are you thinking of? I haven't heard of Jews cursing Jesus' name. Why would they when (from the Jewish perspective) Jesus was definitely not a bad guy or anything, but just another Jew? –  two sheds May 12 at 17:13
To the Jews, Jesus falsely claimed to be the Messiah because he didn't fulfill all the Messianic prophecies with his coming and became the false god of a false religion. The Jews felt commanded not only to avoid mention of his name, but also to pervert it. They dropped the final letter of Yeshua to make it Yeshu and some turned it into an abbreviation for the strongest curse: "Yimmach shemo v'zikron," "May his name and memory be obliterated." –  Paul Rowe May 12 at 18:59
That really exaggerates Jewish animosity toward Jesus. Jews don't avoid Jesus's name, and they certainly don't feel commanded to pervert it. The curse you mention is mainly associated with Amelek, Haman, and now Hitler. I'm not denying that some Jews have said disparaging things about Jesus from time to time, but there really isn't any ritualistic Jewish cursing of Jesus. –  two sheds May 12 at 19:09

I strongly suspect that Grafton is talking about the theological interpretive recognition that the character Jesus and his acts existed in a thoroughly Jewish context of worship, ritual, social and household life. It isn't that Christians did not recognise that Jesus was technically Jewish, it is that they did not consider this to be of interpretive importance. Sure, INRI, but what's seder?

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Being Jewish is more to do with ethnicity than religion per se , it is interesting to note that although Jesus was born in a Jewish household ,he never claimed or asserted that his religion was Judaism in the entire gospel in spite of the fact that he observed the Torah commandments. The early disciples and subsequent followers of Jesus knew this hence they never used the equivalent terms like "Yahoodi" (Aramaic), "Judaism" etc to refer to themselves.

A similar question was asked on Christianity.SE, here is a brief excerpt of the relevant portion of the answer:

19 Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever [a]the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. (John 5:19)

Jesus's religion was therefore not one of the established theologies of the time, but rather a lifestyle of submitting to the will of the Father. Jesus had such a close and intimate relationship with the Father that Jesus understood the character of the Father well enough that He could operate as the Father would do in the same situations.

Hence Jesus did not belong to any named religion of his time which he was very explicit as above but he did obey the commands of God by submitting his will to God. Thus the earlier "Christianity" itself never viewed him as a Jew by religion. Regarding the NT statement about his claim to be the "King of Jews", then he himself never claimed to be "King of Jews" as he himself never made this assertion ,but rather the Jews around him made such an allegation against him:

New International Version (©2011) "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "You have said so," Jesus replied.( Mark 15:2 )

Moreover Jewish leaders prefer the designation "King of Israel", as in Matthew 27:42, Mark 15:32. Hence Jesus never accepted this allegation of he being "King of Jews" this is the reason why the governor Pilate found no fault with Jesus as Jesus did not acknowledge that he was the "King of Jews":

Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; you will see." (Gospel of Matthew)

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-1 mostly for not answering the question - the question was about perception of Jesus's identity, not about his identity. You gave arguments for the (uncommon) view that he was not a Jew; whether right or not, they are irrelevant to the question. P.S. The forum you linked to contains more answers which argue quite the opposite. –  Felix Goldberg Jul 7 '13 at 13:15
regarding perception I clearly stated "Thus the earlier "Christianity" itself never viewed him as a Jew by religion." that even his disciples did not claim themselves to be following the religion of Judaism as understood by the Pharisees and saducees. –  hist Jul 7 '13 at 13:19
But that's your interpretation, others exits as well and are, afaik, more accepted. I suggest you read the other answers in the thread you linked to. –  Felix Goldberg Jul 7 '13 at 13:54
the other answers are more of Christian interpretation, the accepted answer Just interprets that Jesus was Jew , infact most of the other answers dont answer the question which clearly assumed jesus was Jew by race, but was asking whether Jesus himself claimed to be so? –  hist Jul 7 '13 at 14:34
jesus was a jew man. end of story –  Bak1139 Jan 29 at 6:49

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