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. Commented Mar 16, 2013 at 22:50
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    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
    Commented Mar 17, 2013 at 0:12
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    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
    Commented Mar 17, 2013 at 4:55
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    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
    Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 11:50
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    In addition to Lang's concerns, there is another issue with this question: It is sloppily written and, thus, invites low-quality answers. The phrasing "I couldn't find any sources discussing this" could be interpreted in widest possible terms, with "this" meaning anything related to the history of Christianity, Judaism, theology, etc. Also the word "sources" could be interpreted as anything from modern sources to sources at the times of Antiquity. Hence, the question should be rewritten to improve clarity and focus. Commented May 29, 2021 at 17:59

5 Answers 5


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?


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 forbade those converts from worshiping the Roman gods. The Romans believed that their piety and the public nature of their religion were 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 forbid entry into the house of God to heretics (Canons 6 and 7, explicitly including Quartodecimans), outlawed resting on the Sabbath (Canon 29, "judaizing the Sabbath"), and encouraged resting on Sunday instead. The Council of Laodicea also forbade several forms of socialization with the Jews (Canons 37 and 38).

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 (Bible Possession Once Banned by the Catholic Church). 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.

The result of this anti-Semitism is apparent in many translations of the Bible today. The New Testament is rife with Jewish names, but they have been translated differently . 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 themselves 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
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 16:48
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    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
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 18:59
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    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
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 19:09
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    No, using Anglicized names isn't anti-Semitic. That the first English translations deliberately used different translations for the same name (e.g., Jacob / James) certainly suggests anti-Semitic feelings at the start. Modern translations abide by the same conventions for comprehension, since most English-speakers are familiar with Jesus Christ, not Joshua the Anointed (or Joshua the Messiah), and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, not Marta, Miriam, and Eleazar.
    – Paul Rowe
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 22:16
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    There is so much to criticize in this answer. The Jews did proselytize in Roman times. It's absurd to say that the Romans tolerated Judaism when they destroyed their temple. The Council of Toulouse is mischaracterized to the point of slander. I could keep going, but the lunch bell just rang . . .
    – pokep
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 19:03

It wasn't thought that Jesus was Jewish until the Renaissance?

Renaissance wasn't the distinction. It's really the Reformation. While anybody who was permitted to read the bible clearly understands Jesus was a jew. The entire theme of the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus is the new Jewish Messiah. Problem was prior to the Reformation Catholics weren't permitted to own or read the bible even if they could afford one and could read it (bibles weren't translated into native European languages until the reformation: to read the bible pre reformation you had to read koine greek). The bible was for Priests and only Catholic Priests were to to interpret it.

Also the relevancy of Jesus's Jewishness changes in the Bible. From Matthew to Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and the Epistles of Saint Paul. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is continuously rejected by the Jews, and the theme of Luke, unlike Matthew is Jesus is the savior of all human kind not just the Jews. Then in Hebrews (commonly believed to have been written by St Paul) The author goes further and proclaims a new Covenant. Hebrews 8:8, 8:13 and 12:24. So much of the new testament (Hebrews, Luke, Acts, Epistles of Paul) are dedicated to Jesus came to save all, and downplay the fact that he lived and taught as a Jew. The Jews (according to Luke) rejected him.

The Gospel of Matthew
Gospel of Matthew is said to have been written later than the Gospel of Mark, with mark being used as a template. The Gospel of Matthew is both the most Jewish and most anti Jewish gospel. Matthew again portrays Jesus as the son of God, but Matthew also goes out of his way to portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish People in fulfillment of the scriptures. Matthew begins with a Genealogy. 16 verses. Traces Jesus's ancestry through his father Joseph to the line of King David, and Abraham (father of the Jews). Emphasis is Jesus came in fulfillment of the Jewish law. Birth narrative is given in order to fulfill what was spoken of by the prophets. Jesus tells his followers that he wasn't sent to abolish the law but to fulfill the law of Abraham. Jesus says anyone who follows him must keep the law. (keep the law even better than the scribes and Pharisees!) Huge contrast with what the Apostle Paul says. Theme, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

The Gospel of Luke
Gospel of Luke is written around the time the Gospel of Matthew was written and is also believed to have used Mark as a template. It is also continued by the Book of Acts.. It like Matthew shows Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Then Luke goes farther. Luke says Jesus came for the salvation of not just the Jews but the whole world. Luke too contains a Genealogy. To demonstrate Luke's theme, unlike Matthew which traces Jesus's lineage back to King David and Abraham, Luke's Genealogy traces Jesus back to Adam and Eve. Back to the common root of all humans. Jesus is portrayed as a Jewish prophet who is rejected by the Jewish people. Jesus goes home to Nazareth and proclaims his teachings, and the town people drag him off into the desert and try to throw him off a cliff. This occurs over and over again in this gospel. Jesus proclaims speaks out publicly and is rejected. In Acts, the continuation of the Book of Luke, not only is Jesus rejected but Christianity (Jesus's followers) are rejected. Because they were rejected, they take their message to the gentiles. Luke and Acts taken together tell how Jesus's message was taken and given to the gentiles (non Jews). Jesus as a prophet knows exactly what is going to happen to him in the end and unlike in Mark, is not portrayed as anxious or nervous in the face of death. Luke's theme is Jesus was a Jewish Prophet who was sent and rejected by the Jews and was then tasked with spreading his message to the entire world.

Related Question:
When did Harod the Great Die


The question "Was Jesus thought to be Jewish before the Renaissance?" and its attached question as to which sources might prove this might be timeless and not depending on scientific sources, but the Bible itself. The Bible text has not changed and was known, be it in Latin or not.

Where might this topic be embedded? Taken from this discussion "Jesus for Jews".

Acts of the Apostles 1:8 NLT

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts of the Apostles 2:14 NLT

Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, "Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this."

Acts of the Apostles 3:26 NLT

When God raised up his servant, Jesus, he sent him first to you people of Israel, to bless you by turning each of you back from your sinful ways.

Acts of the Apostles 4:1-4 NLT

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees. These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning. But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000.

If Jewish priests have arrested the first Christians, it indirectly shows why the later Christians did not identify Jesus as a Jew, but as "Christ". Perhaps, the stressing of the words "Jesus Christ" hints at Jesus to be something out of category, not INRI as the Romans put to ridicule him. Jesus has tried to reform the Jewish religion, and then it is a question on the border to formalism whether a reformer is part of the thing to be reformed or not.

There is also a story in the bible where Jesus changes his mind from being there just for the Jews to being there for anyone. I could not find this quickly, though. It is just clear that Jesus has evolved over time, coming from a Jewish background, discussing in temples, knowing the Jewish religion very well, and by this, he was able to reform it later in a historical way.

Logically speaking, one could compare it to Luther who paved the way to Protestantism, still being Christian, still not saying that Catholics are not Christian, but with an important reform. That is why there might not have been a contradiction in Jesus being a Jew, but just being "Christ" for the Christians for most of the time, or at any point in time.

There is a different reasoning in direct opposition to the first paragraph (which takes the Bible as the source), and that is not to need any specific source at all to support the statement that Jesus was not thought to be Jewish before Renaissance.

The reason why Jesus was not regarded as Jewish before Renaissance could have been a reaction to the antisemitism in Europe from 1100 in the Middle Ages on. Most notably, there was the Edict of Expulsion which forced all of the Jews on the British islands to leave for the continent. The link also offers an overview of the years 1100-1600:

enter image description here

As the Renaissance was from 15th to 16th century, and as antisemitism decreased after this time so that Jews reportedly almost forgot that they were Jewish until new antisemitism arose, the answer to this question might have its foundation in the historical waves of antisemism, which were higher before Renaissance.

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    You are not answering the posed question which was not about what bible said or about the history of antisemitism in Europe. The posed question is asking for the earliest possible references to works of Christian thinkers acknowledging the fact that Christianity started as a Jewish sect. Commented May 29, 2021 at 14:56
  • @MoisheKohan That is right. I have missed the core. I have tried to improve it slightly, thank you for the hint.
    – ETathome
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 15:11

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. Commented Jul 7, 2013 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
    Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 13:19
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    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. Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 13:54
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    jesus was a jew man. end of story
    – Bak1139
    Commented Jan 29, 2015 at 6:49

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