At Christmastime we enjoyed the familiar Scriptures prophesizing the birth of Jesus. Among the most well-known is Isaiah 9:6-7 which begins: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given….”
Immortalized in Handel’s Messiah, the words speak of a coming child upon whom the government will rest and who will be called the “Prince of Peace.” As Christians, we receive this verse with rejoicing, and yet we do not often consider what this verse might mean to those of Jewish ancestry.
When Isaiah says, “unto us,” the ‘us’ to whom he is referring does not include Gentiles. Verse 3 says: “You [Lord] have multiplied the nation [singular].” Not “nations” but “nation.” Even Jesus’s title ‘Messiah’ demonstrates this point: He is the Hebraic ‘Anointed One.’
Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, and his function as such was directly and irrevocably related to his own ethnic heritage.
This is not to say that Jesus’s ministry did not functionally impact the lives of Gentiles. Paul’s letters (as well as the book of Acts) go to great lengths to include Gentiles among those impacted by the Messiah’s redemptive work. Yet in doing so, these works also make very clear that Jesus’s work was primarily done among Jews and only secondarily among Gentiles (Rom. 1:16; Acts 2:5). Jesus’s own words point to this reality (esp. Matt. 15:22-24).
The church of today is overwhelmingly made up of Gentiles, but this was not always the case. Of course Jesus and his disciples were all Jews, as were most of his associates. And even after Jesus’s death and resurrection, Christians continued to meet in synagogues and largely drew converts from Judaism.
Three historical events helped to precipitate the divergence of the two faiths. First, the Jews began actively persecuting Christians. Second, the Roman Empire, perceiving that the Jews and Christians were not of the same faith, began to persecute Christians as a religio illicita. Third, the Christians, having been warned in a prophecy to flee the city, did not defend the Jews when Rome sacked Jerusalem in the year 90. Christians interpreted Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s wrath whereas Jews interpreted it as an act of betrayal and abandonment by Jewish Christians. By around AD 160 when Justin Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho (a conversation between himself and a Jew), the two faiths had left their shared path.
Over eighteen centuries later, we often struggle to understand Jesus within his own Jewish context. Yet Paul warns in Romans 11:18, “Consider this: You do not support the root [which is Judaism], but the root supports you.” A denial of the Jewish Messiah is a denial of our own faith.
To see Jesus from the vantage point of a Jewish ethnicity is to recognize him as being ethnically and culturally marked as a Jew. In a literal and visceral sense, Jesus bore the marks of circumcision long before he bore the marks of crucifixion. He was born ‘unto’ a Jewish mother in Palestine. He was a particular ethnicity, a distinct person; he was a Jew.
If he were in Kiev in the 1881, his home would have been destroyed. If in Berlin in 1938, he would be sent to a concentration camp. If in Pittsburgh in 2018, he would have been shot. Jesus is Jewish.
The month of February is Black History Month so our next installment will be on the Black Jesus. I hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am.
Bibliography (in order of ascending complexity)
Edith Schaeffer, Christianity is Jewish (1977).
Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (2007).
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160).