By Roy B. Blizzard and David Bivin
As surprising as it may seem, many Christians are not aware that Jesus was a Jew. As a matter of fact, when some hear it said that he was, they get indignant and even mad. This has happened to both authors many times.
"How can you say Jesus was a Jew? Everybody knows he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and is therefore God and not a Jew. He just happened to live among the Jews."
This a verbatim response to a statement made by Dr. Roy Blizzard during an appearance on Trinity Broadcasting Network on February 21, 1985. The above was not an isolated response to Dr. Blizzard's statement. A number of other viewers reacted in a similar vein. For instance: "What is all this stuff about Jesus being a Jew? He wasn't a Jew, he was the first Christian and the founder of the Christian Church."
It is most unfortunate that this type of thinking is prevalent in Christian circles today. Actually, it is an expression of a subtle, often subconscious attitude on the part of many Christians that is quite serious and most dangerous. We might even go so far as to define it as "hellish." It is a "hellish," ingrained anti-Semitism that expresses itself in an unwillingness to accept Jesus as a Jew. The perverted logic is, "How could anyone so dear and precious to me, someone I love so much and to whom I have surrendered my life, be a Jew?"
The authors believe that this type of thinking expresses the conviction of many Christians today. It is usually buried deep within the subconscious mind, or repressed, and only manifests itself overtly when one's spiritual guard is down. It is the result of the spiritual-ship of the Word of God being torn loose from the moorings of the historical foundations of biblical faith, moorings that were secured firmly in the foundations of historic Judaism. As a result, the spiritual-ship has for centuries been awash in a sea of pagan theology that has led to the gentilization, i.e., paganization, of the Church. We have forgotten that we were wild olive branches grafted into the natural olive tree. We have forgotten from whence it is that the branch receives the nourishing sap. We have forgotten that we no longer have pagan ancestors, but our ancestors are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, and that we too passed through the sea with Moses. We have lost our affinity to things Jewish and, if you will, to a Jewish Jesus.
The Church has failed to recognize for the last 1800 years that the movement to which Jesus gave birth was a Jewish one, totally within the historic Judaism of his day. Further, Jesus himself was a Jew, a rabbi, spoke Hebrew, used well-known rabbinic methods of teaching, and perhaps most importantly, drew largely on the Scriptures and oral traditions of his day in his teaching. It is often overlooked that much of what Jesus said was not new or original but was based on what the rabbis had said and were saying. Jesus was constantly referring back to the Scriptures and to the oral traditions of rabbis who had preceded him or who were his contemporaries. Unless this fact is clearly understood one will be greatly confused when an attempt is made to understand the magnificent sayings of our Lord. The above television viewers are obviously unacquainted with the real Jesus. It is the purpose of this article to address the question – Was Jesus a Jew?
It is very difficult for us, almost 2,000 years removed from Jesus' day, to project ourselves back across the centuries of time to a culture and language so totally foreign to the western mind of today. And yet, before we can even begin to understand the magnificent and thrilling words of Jesus that is exactly what we must do. And again, the first thing that one must realize is that Jesus was a Jew. This fact should be obvious; however, as we have mentioned, it is, surprising how many Christians are shocked to learn that Jesus was a Jew. And, not just any ordinary Jew. He was a rabbi, a teacher, one learned in the Scriptures and the religious literature of his day, which was considerable.
Let us analyze the logic of the argument that Jesus was not a Jew. The fact that multitudes of Christians believe this is astonishing. Even the skeptics and the agnostics throughout the ages never advanced this argument. To begin with, Jesus' genealogy is Jewish. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke his lineage is traced back to David and the patriarchs in typical Jewish fashion. The angel Gabriel announced to Mary that the child, Jesus, that would be conceived by the Holy Spirit within her womb, would be given "the throne of his ancestor, David" (Luke 32). His family was Jewish: his earthly father's name, Joseph, was the second most common Jewish name of the period, exceeded only by the name Simeon. His mother's name, Mary, was the most common Jewish feminine name of the period. Jesus himself had a common Jewish name. We learn from inscriptions dating from the first century that the name Jesus was the third most common man's name, tied with the names Judah and Zechariah. He had Jewish relatives: Elizabeth, Zechariah the priest, and their son, John the Baptist; as well as his own brothers, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judah, and his sisters, who are unnamed (Matthew 13:55,66; Mark 6:3). Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), and since his parents were not from the tribe of Levi, after Mary's purification, "according to the Law of Moses" (Luke 2,21), when Jesus was one month old, he was taken by his parents to Jerusalem for the ceremony known as pidyon ha-ben, or Redemption of the First Born (See Numbers 8:14,16,18; 18:15-16). Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem every year to observe the Feast of Passover (Luke 2:41). Jesus too was an observant Jew. It was his custom to attend the synagogue services on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16). According to the Gospels, on at least one occasion (Luke 4:17-20), he was called upon to publicly read from the Scriptures in the synagogue, something a non-Jew would never have been asked to do.
Like all observant Jews of the first century, Jesus wore tzitziyot, ("tassels" or "fringes") on the four corners of his robe as commanded in Numbers 15:37-41 (compare Deuteronomy 22:12). We see this dramatically illustrated in the story of the woman who, for twelve years, had suffered from a flow of blood. She was healed when she came up behind him and touched the "fringe of his garment" (Matthew 9:20, parallel to Luke 8:44). References to the fringed garment which Jesus wore can also be found in Mark 6:56 (parallel to Matthew 14:36).
It is very likely that Jesus also wore tefillin, ("phylacteries"), the two leather boxes each containing four small parchments inscribed each with a different passage of Scripture (Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21) which were bound by leather straps, one on the forehead and one usually on the left arm. From Jewish sources it is not certain whether the tefillin were worn all-day or just at times of prayer. It appears that more observant Jews in Jesus' day wore them all day. Actual phylacteries, or tefillin, dating from the first century, have been found in the Qumran caves along the shore of the Dead Sea. These ancient phylacteries are almost identical to those worn by Jews today.
How can we be nearly certain that Jesus wore phylacteries, especially since the wearing of phylacteries is not specifically commanded in the Bible, but represents a rabbinic interpretation of the above four Scriptures? The answer is found in Matthew 23:5: "…they make their phylacteries [tefillin] broad and their fringes [tzitziyot] long…" Jesus is here criticizing certain of the Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy, enlarging their tefillin and lengthening their tzitziyot to demonstrate how "spiritual" they were. He was not criticizing the wearing of tefillin and tzitziyot. As we have already shown, Jesus himself wore tzitziyot! Furthermore, notice that in the beginning of this passage in Matthew 23, Jesus, tells his followers to "practice and observe whatever they [the Pharisees] tell you, but not what they do, because they do not practice what they preach" (Matthew 23:2-3). Jesus never condemns the custom of wearing, phylacteries. Further, had not Jesus worn phylacteries along with fringes, he would surely have been criticized for this by the Pharisees. We can only conclude that in his manner of dress Jesus was just like the other observant Jews of his day.
Those outside the mainstream of Judaism, as well as non-Jews, also testify to his Jewish-ness. For example, when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and asks her for a drink of water, she questions, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (John 4:9). During Jesus' interrogation by Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea (A.D. 26-36), Pilate explodes in frustration, "Am I a Jew?", and then states, "Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me" (John 18:35).
The skeptics who have tried to discredit Jesus have frequently claimed that Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah, nor claim to be the Messiah, but none have ever accused Jesus of not being a Jew. And, it is no wonder. In view of the evidence, if Jesus was not a Jew, who is, or who was?
(The above is a brief excerpt from the book Jesus the Rabbi and His Rabbinic Method of Teaching by Dr. Roy B. Blizzard.)