A charitable approach

Was Jesus a good Jew? A Christian and a Jew weigh in on Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s latest book, which is bound to stir up controversy.

Jesus portrait 521 (photo credit: Fresno Bee/MCT)
Jesus portrait 521
(photo credit: Fresno Bee/MCT)
During the week of December 25, one of those ubiquitous Facebook aphorisms circled the globe: “As we celebrate Jesus’ birth,” it read, “remember that Jesus would have celebrated Chanukah.” The following week, Gefen Publishing released Rabbi Shmuely Boteach’s newest book, Kosher Jesus. Clearly, the time for consideration of Jesus as Jew has arrived.
It wasn’t always so. Boteach recalls how, in many Jewish communities, any discussion of Jesus was taboo. His name was not even pronounced in Orthodox homes or synagogues. “We understood Jesus as a foreign deity... the Jew who had rebelled against his people… instigating countless cruelties” against them.Jesus was though to have “abrogated the law and said the Torah was now mostly abolished.”
Boteach doesn’t reveal what sparked his 20-year study of the New Testament, only that it resulted in a radical change of mind. He concludes that, far from a pariah, Jesus was a genuine Jewish patriot, an observant Jew who gave his life defending his people.
The little-known, authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth, Boteach writes, is that “Jesus lived, taught and died as a Jew. He defined himself and his Jewishness in much the same way as today’s Torahobservant Jews,” keeping kashrut, Shabbat and the festivals, wearing a Jewish head-covering and studying Torah regularly.Jesus was not “holier than any other human being and certainly not divine,” but “Jews should claim him as one of our own... [and] celebrate the family bond we share.” And, he says, recognizing Jesus’s essential Jewishness could enrich the faith of Christians, resolve many scriptural riddles and strengthen the bond between the two religions.
Kosher Jesus is a finely argued, intensely readable account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the pages of the Christian scriptures, supplemented by learned commentary from a variety of other sources. By providing historical context combined with Jesus’s own words and stories, Boteach turns Christian scriptures upside-down, offering a very different perspective than that usually gleaned from the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
In some 250 heavily footnoted pages, Boteach suggests that Jesus was never the enemy of the Jewish people, never the angry, frustrated prophet who railed against his own people, castigating them for their recalcitrance and refusal to change their ways. In fact, Jesus’s sole enemy was the brutal and oppressive Roman Empire. His crucifixion, Boteach writes, “was a Roman affair from beginning to end.”
What about the three different versions of Jesus’s trial by Jews as recorded in the Christian scriptures? They were “wholly invented by the writer of the Gospel of Mark and then copied in Matthew and Luke to implicate the Jews.” Why? To indict the Jews, to direct antipathy toward them, thereby exonerating the Romans. The result was an “alteration of history that has plagued the Jews for millennia.”
THE HEART of the book lies in Boteach’s exegesis of the Gospel text, isolating the true story, weeding out elements that were added later for political reasons. To separate truth from fiction, Boteach employs several systems of examination.Sometimes it is as simple as referring to known history, other times by referencing Jewish law, showing what Jews would – and would not – have done. On occasion he reveals mistranslations in the text, where overzealous Christian authors relied on a poorly translated Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures.
Among dozens of examples of such fictional additions, the story of Barabbas stands out. The author of the Gospel of Mark describes in chapter 15 a “Roman custom” of releasing one prisoner during a festival, and how the Jews, by acclamation, overwhelmingly chose Barabbas, a Jewish convict, to be freed instead of Jesus.
It never happened, Boteach says. First, Rome had no such practice of releasing murderers or rebels on festivals, much less on the people’s whim. To do so would have made a mockery of Roman law and order. Beyond that, Pontius Pilate, a Roman official who was later recalled for excessive brutality, frequently ordered mass executions with no excuse at all. He had no interest, desire or need to appease the troublesome Jews. But even if he had, he wouldn’t have released a murderer like Barabbas. Secondly, Boteach argues, if Barabbas was such an adored character, why didn’t he receive a triumphant entry into Jerusalem like Jesus did? Instead, the “editors” of the Gospels probably inserted this story to place culpability for Jesus’s crucifixion on the Jews rather than on the Romans.
Given Boteach’s heavy reliance on the falsity of the “additions” to the original story of Jesus’s life, Kosher Jesus would have benefited from a short discussion on just who these ”editors” were, and when and where they operated. Biblical scholars place the writing of the four Gospel texts somewhere between 65 and 110 years after Jesus’s death. Some explanation within the book itself would have been helpful.
Toward the end of the book, Boteach offers reasons why both Jews and Christians would benefit from coming to understand “Jesus as Jew.” Jews, he says, should have the opportunity to know the “kosher” Jesus and to celebrate his life as the authentic Jewish hero he is. Christians who come to know the authentic Jewish Jesus will “find a leader whose ideas agree with theirs more frequently than not.”
That said, “Christianity’s moral authority has diminished in recent years.” To explain why, Boteach veers off into a mini-rant over Evangelical Christians’ “near obsession” with gay marriage and abortion.
It’s a grating switch, moving suddenly from a deep and moving examination of the life and times of the historical Jesus that suddenly turns into a scathing polemic on the subject of gay marriage. Even more curious is that having devoted most of the book to painting the picture of Jesus as a fully observant Jew, one who scrupulously kept all the mitzvot and Torah commandments, Boteach is suggesting that today’s Christians who follow the “What would Jesus do?” standard should emulate the “compassionate and forgiving” Jesus, and end their opposition to gay marriage, or at least turn a blind eye to it.
Kosher Jesus will no doubt set off a firestorm of controversy from Christians and Jews alike. For Jews, debate over textual meaning is the norm. As Boteach reminds us, the word “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” For Christians, Jesus himself invited the discussion. In Mark 8, the author tells how one day Jesus fed the 4,000 and then healed a blind man. Walking off with his companions, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?” They reply, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah. Still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” Jesus asks. “Who do you say I am?” Jesus’s question still echoes some 2,000 years later. Boteach’s answer in Kosher Jesus seems likely to educate and inspire anyone who reads it.
Before converting to Judaism, the writer was a lay minister in a Roman Catholic diocese in California.