Believe It or Not, Jesus Was a Good Jew
A new book seeks to challenge this misunderstanding and argues that Jesus wasn’t just ethnically Jewish, he was an active supporter of Jewish religious laws.
Jesus of Nazareth is history’s most famous carpenter, but he is also, according to one poll history’s most famous Jew. He was born to Jewish parents, was circumcised, went to (the) Temple, attended synagogue, and read the Torah. See, he’s a first century middle eastern Jew. Nearly 2,000 years of Christianity, however, have presented Jesus as something else: as a religious innovator who was not just in conflict with Jewish authorities, but was actively trying to overturn and replace Judaism. A new book seeks to challenge this misunderstanding and argues that Jesus wasn’t just ethnically Jewish, he was an active supporter of Jewish religious laws.
In his recently published book Jesus And the Forces of Death, Dr. Matthew Thiessen, an associate professor of religious studies at McMaster University, looks at Jesus afresh. “It’s so easy for most Christians to think of Jesus as the first Christian. Which for many Christians today means not Jewish,” Thiessen told The Daily Beast, “but when Jesus is understood as Christian, the gospel narratives read as though Jesus rejects Judaism and condemns Jews. Jesus becomes anti-Jewish.” The legacy of an anti-Jewish Jesus has been felt throughout history and continues even today, but that could change. “When we realize that Jesus was Jewish,” Thiessen told me “and the gospel writers wanted to stress Jesus’ Jewishness, then we read stories of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees or Sadducees as inner-Jewish conversations, not some sort of Christian rejection or condemnation of Judaism and the Jewish law.”
Thiessen isn’t the first to make this point. He builds here on the important work of scholars like Géza Vermes, Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, and Joel Marcus—all of whom picture Jesus as thoroughly embedded in ancient Judaism. What’s distinctive about Thiessen’s argument is the way that he reconsiders debates and interactions between Jesus and other Jewish religious leaders in the Gospels. In particular, Thiessen is focused on ritual purity regulations or what he calls the “forces of death.” In Jewish law ritual purity regulations govern certain bodily processes (childbirth, menstruation, abnormal genital discharge, skin abnormalities, and death) that both make you impure and are also contagious. To modern Christians, he writes, these seem alien and arcane, but if you want to understand Jesus you have to saddle up because we cannot understand Jesus unless we understand how “first-century Jews constructed their world.”
This is of particular importance because—whatever else Jesus says about his religious rivals or Jewish laws—he encounters and interacts with people who were ritually impure in the Gospels. One of the first miracles in the Gospel of Mark, for example, involves a person who has a skin condition (it’s called lepra in Greek but it’s not leprosy). The condition makes the man ritually impure. Jesus touches him and the lepra is gone. Some scholars argue that the very fact that Jesus touched the man and risked becoming impure himself is a sign that he doesn’t care about impurity. Thiessen disagrees. The whole story, he said, is about ritual cleaning: “the man begs Jesus to purify him and Jesus tells him ‘Be pure.’ He then even tells the man to follow the laws required in Leviticus 13–14 to remove the residual ritual impurity.”
We see exactly the same dynamic at work in other stories, for example in Mark 5 when Jesus raises the tween daughter of a man called Jairus. Once again Jesus touches a ritually impure body—in this case a corpse—and, of course, the girl comes back to life. Thiessen argues that by raising the girl back to life Jesus is “removing the source of her ritual impurity.” In fact, in all cases when Jesus encounters someone who is ritually impure that person walks away purified. Christians usually read these stories as being about the forgiveness of sins, but Thiessen argues that Jesus’ ministry is actually a “purification mission: removing moral impurities or sins, ritual impurities, and impure spirits—an apocalyptic battle between the forces of holiness and the forces of impurity, in which holiness destroys impurity and death.” The problem is squarely located in the enemy camp rather than the conscience of the individual: impurity and holiness are fighting for supremacy.
Given that impurity is linked to death, Thiessen told me, Jesus’ constant battle with the forces of death anticipates his own resurrection at the end of the Gospels. These “early skirmishes with death forces foretell his later encounter with death itself in the cross.” It’s like an action movie or video game in which the hero picks off the henchmen early on, only to face the villain for a final showdown at the end. And just like any modern action movie, there must be a moment when it seems like the hero isn’t going to make it.
Thiessen’s reading is compelling and does a lot to position Jesus as an authentically Jewish interpreter of ritual purity regulations. That Jesus comes into conflict and disagreements with scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees does not make him not Jewish. Disagreement was incredibly common among ancient Jewish ritual experts and almost seems to be the hallmark of rabbinic literature. It is later Christians, rather than first century Jews, who seek to exclude others based on interpretive disagreements.
His interpretation does raise some questions for modern Christians about the role of Jewish purity laws in their lives. If Jesus is reinforcing the idea that impurity existed and needs to be avoided, you might wonder, then do Christians need to take those practices more seriously? This would have troubling consequences for women, whose bodies are habitually associated with impurity (though, spoiler, Christianity does the same thing and associates women’s bodies with sin). Thiessen told me that he doesn’t pretend to be a theologian or ethicist but that it’s clear in the Gospel of Luke that these laws aren’t supposed to apply to non-Jews anyway. “Since almost all Christians today are non-Jews, it’s become a moot point, but it’s not because Jesus rejected these laws himself!”
Reading a book about contagious religious dirt during a pandemic is eye-opening. Perhaps the real takeaway here is that Jesus, like any ancient Jew, took purity laws regulating contagion seriously and treated them with respect. Perhaps Christians should too.