Why the church needs to come to terms with Jesus’ Jewish heritage

In the final presentation of the 2012 Advent Series at Christ Church Cathedral, Professor Arthur Dewey sought to remind the audience that the heart of the Christian tradition is Jewish; that Jesus was Jewish and his life and ministry were embedded in a diverse Judaism of his time. Oftentimes, the church portrays a Jesus fashioned after the Roman empire with empire message.

Good News, for example – Euaggelion – from which we translate Gospel – was a familiar concept in the Roman empire. Similarly with terms like soter, or savior,  or even son of god –used for emperors (we know that for certain, for example, from a coin of Emperor Tiberius which has the inscription, Tiberius, son of god).

To understand Jesus’ teaching, Prof. Dewey emphasized, we need to be familiar with the social setting of Galilean peasantry of his time. For example, it would not have made much sense to teach  loving one’s enemies in a society where communities or groups shaped individuals way of like. In our individualistic society today, we tend to lose the impetus of community dynamics.

He also drew examples from the Sermon on the Mount to underscore how easy it is to miss the message or totally misinterpret it when the Jewish heritage of Jesus is not fully realized. Turning the other cheek, for example, going an extra mile when unfairly ordered to go one mile; or giving the coat in addition to the shirt that a powerful man demands are not actions of resignation as many in our society understand them.

Within the diverse Judaism of his day, Jesus was innovative, creative and artistic. He was a comedian too. The Jesus portrayed by many Christian churches today is quite often far removed from the Jesus of the Gospels.

As co-founder of the Healing Deadly Memories program, Prof. Arthur Dewey is a specialist of the historical Jesus and the Gospels. Through workshops the program seeks to deal with the issues anti-Semitism in the New Testament.

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