"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John’s Gospel attributes these words to Jesus. Ironically many Christians use these words to claim an exclusive relationship between them and God. But the Jesus in whose mouth John placed these words was not a Christian. He was “The Jew Named Jesus.”
That’s the title of a new book written by Rebekah Simon-Peter. Like Jesus, she was born a Jew. Unlike Jesus, she converted to Christianity. Today Rebekah is, as she says, “both a member of the Jewish people and of the community that follows Jesus.”
Jesus was not a marginal Jew. Simon-Peter notes he was an observant Jew. Jesus honored Jewish holidays, customs, and virtually all of his teachings were rooted in Hebrew Scripture. Remember the Syrophonecian woman who had to literally shame Jesus into healing her daughter after Jesus told her he had come only “for the lost sheep of Israel.” Not a picture of ecumenism.
When Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and one another he wasn’t establishing new Christian doctrine but rather restating long established Jewish doctrine. The Bible from which Jesus taught, the Torah (what Christians call the Old Testament), said it. Jesus was reiterating its teachings. Deuteronomy 6 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Leviticus 19 adds, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Simon-Peter acknowledges that prior to the writing of the first Gospel, all of those who were following the crucified Lord were, like him, Jews. After his resurrection Jesus appeared before the disciples. What was their first concern? “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ brother James, his disciple Peter, and the Apostle Paul never renounced Judaism. Christians refer to “the conversion of Saul” as though it was the moment when Paul became a Christian. He didn’t. Long after his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul said, “I am a Jew.” (Acts 22:3).
This is what some theologians call “the Christian problem.” How are Christians to reconcile traditional teachings with the Jewishness of our Jesus? Simon-Peter’s book can help us think through the dilemma.
The result of Christian efforts to distance themselves from Jews despite Jesus is, Simon-Peter writes, centuries of discrimination, hatred, and violence aimed at Jews because Christians learned and taught that the “Jews killed Christ.” Her book includes an excellent analysis of this question, exploring all of the possible answers to the question “who is responsible for Jesus’ death?” Did Jesus offer himself willingly? Was his death part of God’s plan? Did the Romans do it? And, was it the fault of the Jews or some of the Jews?
Scripture often leads, somewhat schizophrenically, to an affirmative answer to each of those questions. This book offers an analysis that will help you integrate what we know about the Roman efforts to control the Jews and anyone else challenging their power, what we know about the times in which Jesus lived, and what we know about the times in which the Gospel was written. Rebekah allows the reader to reach their own conclusions asking only that you see Jesus as part of Jewish culture, history and theology.
I confess I have been one of those Christian preachers who offered my congregation sermons comparing and contrasting what Simon-Peter calls “an inclusive, loving good Christian Jesus against an exclusive, narrow-minded, legalistic Jewish people.” Assuming Jesus to be the first Christian has allowed us to see ourselves as the beneficiaries of a New Covenant while the Jews hold to an old, decayed covenant. Rebekah says that’s a “false dichotomy.”
Her book persuaded me she is correct and I have reformed my teaching around the hope that I can help my congregation find what she calls, “the overlapping space where Judaism and Christianity intersect.”
“The Jew named Jesus” fills that space.