Jesus and Judaism

Delivered at Channing Memorial Church in Newport, RI, April 4, 2004.

In the Christian tradition, today is known by two names: Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday.  Palm Sunday marks the ceremonial entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  As our reading from Mark suggests, the entrance of Jesus marks a time of celebration as his followers shout “Hosanna!” and palms are laid on the road before him.  In many churches today, worshippers receive palms to take with them.  I remember seeing palms, sometimes made into crosses in the cars and homes of my maternal relatives who are Catholic.  These palms are treasured as tokens of good luck and protection.

After the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the passion story follows.  For any of you who have seen the movie “The Passion of the Christ”, you have vivid images in your mind’s eye of the arrest, trial, torture, and execution of Jesus.  Even before the film was released, there were allegations of anti-Semitism.  Whether or not Mel Gibson as director, producer and screenwriter intended it, anti-Semitism is inherent in the recreation of the Gospel stories.  Although I am not a fan of violence, the positive result of this movie is that it has created a forum for interfaith dialogue.  Jews and Christians have been watching the film together and using it as a springboard for deeper conversations about Jewish and Christian relations.  I believe that the conversation between people of different faith traditions in and of itself has a powerful potential for healing and transformation.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are in a unique position for such thoughtful inquiry.  Indeed our religious movement is deeply connected to the Radical Reformation and Enlightenment periods in which people chose to no longer blindly accept the doctrines of the church but to use reason as a key to faith development and as a way to return to a more immediate experience of Christian life with the Bible as a primary source.  Today as Unitarian Universalists, we draw from many sources including the world’s religions, the teachings of science, and the inspiration of literature and the arts.  However, as religious liberals we must not lose our connection to our Judeo-Christian heritage, which is the true foundation of our faith.  We have an important role to play in the expansion of interfaith dialogue.  Personally, I know that Jews and Christians can not only tolerate one another but enter into deeply transformative relationships because my own parents were Jewish and Catholic.  Where they could not be married in their own faith traditions, they found a spiritual home among Unitarian Universalists.

On this Palm or Passion Sunday, my sermon will address two themes.  First, I am going to examine the anti-Semitism inherent in the Passion narrative.  Second, I am going to explore the fact that Jesus was a Jew and as such what it means to follow his living example.

Starr King School for the Ministry where I studied to become a Unitarian Universalist minister is part of a consortium called the Graduate Theological Union.  My studies were enriched through taking a wide variety of courses at the different seminaries and discussing theological issues with people of faith from many traditions.  As a part of my studies, I was fortunate enough to take a course entitled “The Jesus Seminar and Its Jesus”, which discussed the current trends in Biblical scholarship.  Some Christian scholars are closely examining the Gospels in an effort to uncover the historical Jesus behind the text.  As you know, the Bible was not handed down as one neat volume.  There is evidence that even the various books of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have been written, rewritten, edited and selected over the years by different people wanting to emphasize or leave behind certain events or ideas.  It is no small task to sift through the layers of interpretation to determine historical fact.  So, the fellows of the Jesus Seminar present treatises, discuss, and then vote upon the degree of historical likelihood within the Christian scriptures.  The weighted average of the fellows’ opinions offers a measure of probability based upon the critical thinking of scholars.

The moral imperative for such a quest includes an awareness of the destructive effects of anti-Semitism.  Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, outlines his conviction clearly in a book entitled Honest to Jesus.  He writes, “In the ‘new age’, all theology is post-Auschwitz, as a German theologian recently remarked.  Theology conducted in the aftermath of Auschwitz means, among other things, that we can no longer trust the authority structure of an ecclesiastical tradition that learned, at several crucial junctures in its history, it was unable to resist the ultimate compromise. . . . From now on we must always ask whether the Christian tradition has something to teach us and, if it does, what that something is.  We can no longer give Christianity prior consent without determining what we are embracing as a part of the bargain.[i]”

The passion narratives found in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (names denote the books not the authorship) are central to the Christian faith.  The emotional and theological significance of these texts make critical examination highly charged for many Christians however, inquiry has been undertaken by many eminent scholars.  The findings of these investigations in regard to the role of the Jews in the passion narratives are an attempt to surmise the historical truth.

First of all, to speak of “Jews” and “Christians” during the time of Jesus is anachronistic.  It was only after the destruction of the Temple that Judaism and Christianity became distinct.  The title of “rabbi” likewise did not exist prior to 70 CE although it is given to Jesus in Matthew and John.  The critical issue becomes to what extent the passion stories recount actual historical events or are reflections of the periods in which they were composed.

John Dominic Crossan who’s also a member of the Jesus Seminar has written a book entitled Who Killed Jesus?.  Crossan asserts that the Gospels are not “history remembered” but “prophesy historicized”.  For Crossan, “it is not just a question of how the passion narratives were misused or misread but of what they were in the first place.  What is actual history and what is creative polemics in those stories?”[ii]  For example, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a new colt or a donkey fulfills the prophecy from Zechariah describing the triumphal entrance of the King of David thereby linking Jesus to the expected messiah.

Most contemporary scholars believe that Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels.  Luke and Matthew follow Mark adding their own narrative instruction.  John is the latest Gospel with a highly theological style.  The four renditions of the passion story hold some common and disparate elements.  The circumstances that scholars generally agree upon include the crucifixion, the involvement of Pontius Pilate, the setting in Jerusalem, and the occurrence around the time of Passover.

How is it that Jesus came to be executed in Jerusalem?  Many scholars point to the Temple as the answer.  It was customary to travel to the Temple of Jerusalem for the Passover observance.  Passover was a volatile time because of the volume of people in the Temple complex and the message of Passover itself.  The holiday commemorates the liberation of the Jews from the bonds of Egypt.  At this time, Jews were experiencing similar oppression under the imperial regime.  Josephus, the Jewish historian, provides two accounts of political unrest during the Passover festivities.  Crossan points to these factors as descriptive of the environment that led to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  “With Jewish police within the Temple courts and Roman auxiliary troops overlooking them from the Antonia fortress to the north, force was poised to stop any trouble before it could even begin.  But what did Jesus do to get himself crucified?  It is clear that his words and deeds involved social even if not military revolution, but it was not Antipas in Galilee but Pilate in Jerusalem that crucified him.  So what happened there, at that time and in that place?”[iii]

Arrests and crucifixions were common at that time.  If authorities felt that Jesus had too great a following that would constitute sufficient reason for his execution.  However, a link between a Temple incident and his death exists in all four Gospels (Mark 11:15-19, Matt. 21:12-13, Luke 19:39-47, John 2:14-21).  The fellows of the Jesus seminar strongly supported the following statement, “Jesus performed some anti-temple act and spoke some anti-temple word”.  This means that the narrative about Jesus’ action and verbal statement in the Temple probably goes back to the historical figure.  Within the combustible atmosphere of the Passover festivities and under strict rule, any disruption of the peace led to arrest.

The Gospel narratives all describe Pilate as acting against his better judgment.  Although the governor felt that Jesus should be acquitted, the Jewish authorities and crowd demanded crucifixion.  Through non-canonical sources, it has been uncovered that the Roman governor was known for brutal methods of crowd control.  Pontius Pilate appealing to a crowd for counsel about criminal justice as he is depicted in Mark (Mark 15:6-15) contradicts both his character and local custom.

All accounts, even non-canonical ones, describe some involvement by Jewish authorities.  There is historical evidence of close collaboration between Pilate and Caiaphas, the high priest of the Temple.  Marcus Borg outlines the political structure and how it may have impacted the events:  “The most likely scenario of Jesus’ arrest, condemnation, and execution is that it involved cooperation between the Roman governor and the inner circle of the Jerusalem elite, namely, the high priest and what has been called his ‘privy counsel’. . .The elites were not only accountable to Rome but also had their own self-interested reasons for preserving the existing order of a peasant society that benefited them so greatly.  Thus it was not ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Jewish people’ who rejected Jesus.  Rather, it was a narrow circle of the Jewish ruling elite who, rather than representing ‘the Jews,’ are more accurately seen as oppressors of the vast majority of the Jewish population of Palestine at the time of Jesus.”[iv]  The fellows of the Jesus Seminar strongly agree with this conclusion.  By vote, the majority agreed that

“There was no Jewish trial, no Jewish crowd involved.”

Each passion story offers a different version of the judicial proceedings.  In Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus is set first before a Jewish tribunal and then Pontius Pilate.  Matthew depicts three trials: one led by the Jewish authorities, then Herod, and finally, Pilate.  Funk, Borg, and Crossan call into question not only the negative Jewish portrayals but the historical likelihood of any trials.  In Jerusalem’s dominant political regime, formal investigation was unnecessary in the case of a Jewish peasant like Jesus.

Why then do these accounts exist in all four Gospels?  Funk offers the following hypothesis: “The assertion that the Romans were innocent of, and the Jews responsible for, Jesus’ death is Christian propaganda pure and simple.  Such a claim was inspired by the conflict between synagogue and church late in the first century, long after the events themselves.  The new Jesus movement was anxious to curry favor with the Romans and to blame opponents for what happened to Jesus.”  Using Crossan’s model, the trials are not “history remembered” but “prophesy historicized”.  The anti-Semitism is the creation of the Gospel writers emanating the hostility of their times.

Unfortunately, the passion narratives hold such power that as a result many Christians hate the Jewish people.  The narrative is not left in another time and place but the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion extends into our times.  However, scholars who undertake the critical examination of the passion stories are heralding a new era of biblical scholarship and interfaith understanding.  I admire the courage of these Christian scholars in critically examining Holy Scripture and publicly challenging Christian propaganda.

As Woody Allen says in one of his films, “If Jesus could see all that has been done in his name, he would never stop throwing up!”  So who is this man hidden behind layers of interpretation and theology?  In simple terms, Jesus of Nazareth was a born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew.  Christianity as a separate movement arose long after his death.  Although he challenged some Jewish laws and practices, his message was always in the context of his Jewish faith.

After his entry into Jerusalem, most scholars agree that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples, what is known today as the Last Supper.  A Passover seder, which will be celebrated tomorrow and Tuesday at sundown, is a ritual meal that commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt.  There are symbolic foods, prayers, rituals and songs that accompany the meal.  In reenacting the journey to freedom, each participant recognizes that they are characters in this story of liberation whose conclusion is yet to unfold.  A Passover seder involves the drinking of four cups of wine each time pausing to bless the source of life that ripens the fruit upon the vine.  However, people spill drops of wine for each plague as a symbol that our joy is not complete.  As it is told, when the Pharoah refused to free the Jewish slaves, God brought about ten plagues.  The final one was the death of first-born sons.  The Hebrew people were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doorways so that the Angel of Death would pass over their homes.

This is why Jesus is often referred to as the Lamb of God in that he too was sacrificed.  The ritual of communion also has Jewish roots as the wine and bread shared at this final Passover meal became signs of a new covenant with God.  Many of his followers hoped that like Moses, Jesus would set them free from the Romans who then occupied their Promised Land.

Jesus was very much in the Jewish tradition of the long journey toward freedom.  Many of his parables are based on the teachings of the Torah like loving God, honoring your neighbor, feeding the hungry, and not seeking vengeance.  However, he sought some new ways that challenged the purity laws and sought to create an open community.  The Promised Land of which he spoke was accessible to all people, “the Kingdom of God”.  This message, the one unadulterated by the struggle for power and theological interpretation speaks loudly across the ages.  This spiritual message is needed in our world today for all people whether Christian or Jewish, Unitarian Universalist or Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu, Wicca or scientist, for those without religion and for those of another religious tradition that I have not named.

Once again, hear the interpretation of Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

Jesus said to the Jews of his time:

Listen to me!  You are splitting your world into warring camps: holy and unholy, tax payer and tax collector, scholar and sinner, men and women, Jew and Samaritan.  All of this division only perpetuates fear and your sense of separation from God.  I have realized the I AM that each of us is, and I no longer live in a world of competing camps.  I am not bound by the divisions of custom that narrow our concerns into petty purity rather than transcendent holiness.  My way is the way of unity, the way God intended the world to be.  Look to me only to see the reflected nature of your True Self.  Do not mistake the mirror for the image it reflects.  I am not what you see.  What you see in me is I AM.  Look deeply into yourselves and see the I AM that you are.  Realize this as your True Self and the Light you will see will illumine the unity of all in God.

There is a level of Reality beyond self and ego.  It is the kingdom of heaven and it is within you.  To reach it you need not go anywhere or follow anyone.  Do not follow me, follow my example.  And in this way you shall manifest the kingdom of God within and without.[v]


-Bruteau, Beatrice. (ed.) Jesus Through Jewish Eyes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

-Borg, Marcus.  Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship.  Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press    International, 1994.

-Crossan, John Dominic.  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.  San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

-Crossan, John Dominic.  Who Killed Jesus?.  San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers,1995.

-Davies, Alan T. (ed.) Anti-Semitism and the Foundations of Christianity. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.

-Funk, Robert W.  Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium.  San Francisco:  Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

[i] Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), p.299.

[ii] John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?  (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 1

[iii] Ibid., p. 36

[iv] Marcus J. Borg.  Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press Int., 1994) p.105

[v] Rami M. Shapiro, “Listening to Jesus with An Ear For God”, Jesus Through Jewish Eyes, ed. by Beatrice Bruteau, (New York, Orbis Books, 2001), p. 180

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