On Sunday morning, just in time for church, Pope Francis came to Bethlehem. The sun was bright, the sky was blue when the pope stepped off “Shepherd One” at the heliport in King David’s hometown.
In these Judean hills, David began composing timeless prayers, Psalms, worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. David’s ancestral mother, Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, is buried here. Here too a great-grandmother named Ruth converted to Judaism. “Your God shall be my God,” she said, and then married David’s great-grandfather, Boaz, a wheat farmer. Because of its wellknown ancient wheat crop, the city’s Hebrew name means “house of bread.” No surprise then that King David’s best-known descendant, also born here, framed his teaching of Judaism in terms of life-giving bread.
Except for Jerusalem, it is hard to imagine a city more closely linked to historic Judaism and its revelation of the one-and-only God.
But the Bethlehem that greeted Francis last Sunday presented itself as profoundly Judenfrei. There are no Jews in town nor is there any hint of Jewish thought. Instead the city’s culture is a colorful blend of ancient Canaanite, Hellenized Greek, Arabic Palestinian and Christianized Islamic cultures. In Judaism’s absence, it often seems these ideologies have redefined everything. The city’s very name takes on a darker focus. In Hebrew, as mentioned above, Beit Lechem means “house of bread,” but in Arabic, Bet Lahm means “house of meat.”
King David’s best-known descendant, honored in Bethlehem’s 4th century CE Church of the Nativity, is depicted there as a halo-adorned Hellenized child held in the arms of a likewise illuminated, though much larger, mother. There is no hint that this is a thoroughly Jewish son of David born into a Torah-observant home.
Identity theft in Bethlehem began a long time ago. In short, Christianity rose to power on the coattails of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, who, for political reasons, redefined Jesus in order to appease newly recruited constituents “saved” from execution by forced conversion. Pagan and Christian beliefs were thrown into a blender that were able to unite only by ejecting the pulp of Judaism. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, commissioned by Constantine’s mother, presents the immediate result of Jew-free “Christian juice,” a concoction imbibed from the chalices of Christianity ever since, including, if not especially, Roman Catholicism.
No wonder, then, that in his visit to Bethlehem last weekend Pope Francis never flinched in the face of the latest updates to Jesus’ identity and message. The Jewish Jesus of history, long since abandoned by Catholicism, is malleable. Redefined depictions of his life all but surrounded Manger Square, the place where Francis conducted a mass, a service in which Catholics are convinced that wine and bread are transformed into Jesus’ literal body and blood, granting salvation to all who worthily consume them.
Behind the transubstantiation altar hung a massive mural portraying baby Jesus in his manger. In the mural, wise men from the east have become popes from the west. Joseph wears a Palestinian keffiyeh-patterned headdress, a ubiquitous symbol of Palestinian nationalism. A similarly-styled blanket covers the infant. And voila! The entire nativity becomes a Romanized Palestinian event.
Not that Jews were absent from the pope’s mass in Nativity Square. Huge photoshopped works of art were combined with scenes of Palestinian injustices suffered under “occupation.” In short, Jesus himself has been nationalized. No longer an individual, let alone a Hebrew one, he has been merged with Palestinian culture, suffering at the hands of cruel, oppressive... Jews.
These messages resonated. One Christian who lives in Bethlehem said to me, “The photoshopped pictures are very well done. They show that Jesus was a Palestinian.”
When in response I asserted he was Jewish, the reaction was swift and emphatic.
“No, he wasn’t. Jews killed him.”
There was no point in arguing. In this man’s heart and mind, identity theft was complete; Bethlehem itself along with Jesus’ Jewishness and message were robbed of their historic meaning.
How can such thefts, such profound misappropriations, be redressed? Victims of identity theft often respond with apoplectic outrage combined with a sense of helpless futility. As an initial response, this indicates healthy recognition of loss. But it cannot, it will not, restore ownership. Instead of giving up, rightful owners must get up. Their journey of recovery is a lengthy path that requires endurance and calm deliberation. It begins by affirming that theft has occurred and then staking a rightful claim.
In this case, the claims that must be made are these: Bethlehem’s soul is Jewish, as are Jesus and his message. Although Gentiles can and should say these things, rightful claims must come from Jews. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did this when he bantered with Pope Francis about the language Jesus spoke. Affirmation that he was fully conversant in Hebrew asserted Jesus’ Jewishness. This little spark ignited a global dialogue.
Other claims to Jesus’ Jewishness are being made by Orthodox Jews studying Apostolic writings – i.e., the New Testament – in their intended Torah context. People like Vanderbilt University’s A.J. Levine, Jerusalem’s Moshe Kempinski, Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and David Nekrutman. As a Christian who has listened to and read from all of these, I am challenged by their insights, compelled to reexamine everything in the light of the Jewishness of Jesus and his teaching.
Yes, there has been identity theft. And yes, it is systemic and profound. But the truth remains: Bethlehem, Jesus and his teaching are Jewish, properly known and understood only in the context of Torah. It is time for Israel to stake its rightful claim and say so – to the pope, Palestinians and the world.
The author is on the staff of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianSchrauger