Jesus was a Jew

Knowledge of Judaism is needed in order to understand and teach about Jesus, writes Alfredo Delgado Gómez.

More than hundred years have passed since Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) uttered his provocative statement that has proved to be prophetic: ‘Jesus was not a Christian but a Jew.’ Wellhausen wanted to highlight Jesus’s Jewish roots which had been forgotten in his time. Although it is widely accepted by scholars of the historical Jesus in recent years that Jesus was a Jew, this has failed to filter through to many ordinary Christians, or indeed to many priests and teachers of religion. Christians have sometimes displayed a negative image of Judaism, which they caricature as a legalistic religion that involves following archaic commandments and rules. Furthermore, many erroneously equate Jewish practice throughout all periods of history with that of the ultra-Orthodox Judaism of today.

Jesus was a Jew who lived in Galilee, who lived out his Jewish spirituality in a new way within the framework and practices of the Jewish religion of his time. It may come as a surprise to some that Matthew records Jesus wearing tzitzit: ‘They begged him to let the sick just touch the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed’ (Mt 14.36). The ‘fringe of his cloak’ refers to tzitzit, which are the tassels sewn onto the four corners of a garment that is worn by Jews to this day, fulfilling the commandment in Numbers 15.37–41 and Deuteronomy 22.12. In other words, Matthew’s Jesus followed the Law. Similarly, Matthew 23.5 gives an insight into Jesus’s Jewish practice: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses ... they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments.’ Jesus was instructing his disciples in the correct size of their tefillim (the phylacteries that Jews use in prayer), which should not be as wide as those of the Pharisees. Although Jesus criticises the exaggerated practice of some of the Pharisees, he does not suggest that the commandment of the Torah should not be followed.

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