I thought about titling this article “Jesus is More Jewish Than You,” because most people don’t understand just how Jewish Jesus and the early church were. I just want to point out some things from history that may strike you.
Along with all the teachers of the Law of God, given to Moses, many of whom had their disciples, Jesus was a wandering rabbi who debated the interpretation of the Law with other rabbis. So, if we think about the debates between schools’ interpretations during First Century Judaism, there is nothing unusual here. Gamaliel is probably the most famous of the other rabbis of that period (Acts 5:34). Paul was a member of Gamaliel’s school.
Jesus never violated the Law of God. He never ate pork or shellfish or anything forbidden. He participated in the Passover and all other feasts in the Hebrew cycle. He tithed to the Temple. All his followers did the same. The disciples continued to worship at the Temple after Jesus’ crucifixion (Acts 2:46 - 5:25). The proof of just how Jewish Jesus was is written in Acts 10, which happens about 9 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, when Peter is given a vision of all kinds of animals, and told to “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter protests, saying:
“No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
It turns out this vision has nothing to do with breaking kosher laws, but it has to do with allowing Gentiles to become part of the Church. You see, up until that time, none of the Jewish believers considered Gentiles to be able to become part of their fellowship because they were NOT Jewish! So for 9 years after the death of Jesus, none of the believers considered themselves anything but Jewish and Kosher. Right after this vision, Peter is asked to come visit a devout Gentile named Cornelius, who gives alms to the Jewish people. Peter’s response is interesting. He says,
And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; and he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me,” Acts 10:27-29
So here too, we see that there is nothing the disciples learned from Jesus that caused them to question the exclusiveness of their Jewish faith. Their Jesus was Jewish through and through. This expectation of this faith being only Jewish was so strong, that when Gentile believers started being admitted into the fellowship, there was a debate among them whether any of these Gentiles could be saved without being circumcised. (Acts 15). In the end, the Jewish leaders decided that what was happening was a fulfillment of Isaiah and the promise to Abraham, that in Abraham all the nations (peoples, tribes, Gentiles) would be blessed (Gen 18:18), and that Isaiah 49:6 says: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” And rather than impose upon them the whole kosher law system that was part of Israel’s special calling, the Gentiles were to follow the covenant of Noah (no murder, theft, etc.), to refrain from eating strangled meat, food offered to idols, blood, and to not engage in sexual immorality (Acts 15:20). In other words, the Gentiles could become part of the fellowship without having to become Jews. But even after that decision there were many disputes over whether Gentiles could be full members of this Jewish faith. Many of Paul’s letters were written in response to this controversy. But the fight was still among people like Peter and Paul (a rabbinical scholar) and other members of the Elders like James, Jesus’ brother.
So what got Jesus into so much trouble? Well look at the record of the prophets from Elijah to Malachai. Where is there a record of the Israelites obeying rather than resisting the prophets, or worse, having them killed? The prophets of Israel always confronted the people with their sins and declared the righteousness of God. Jeremiah said judgment was coming in defeat and exile, and he got thrown into prison. Samuel was ignored by the people who wanted a king instead. Elijah was persecuted by the king and queen, who wanted his head. Jesus was no different. Jesus attacked the hypocrisy of the ruling class, who were being religiously rigorous by tithing even from their herb gardens, but who had no qualms stealing homes from widows and orphans, (Matt 23:23, Mark 12:38-40).
Do you realize that when Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables in the Temple that he threatened the entire economic system of Jerusalem? There were an estimated 70,000 priests who depended upon the Temple as a business for their food and livelihood. When Jesus saw the corruption of this corporate, commercial enterprise taking place in the very precincts of the Temple, he was filled with rage, as any prophet would have been under the anointing of the Spirit of God. Jesus, was a very effective prophet against corporate interests that were using the money system to oppress the common people, turn the Lord’s house of prayer into a “den of theives” and he drove them out:
“So the multitudes said, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.” Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ " –Matthew 21:11-13
Just think if a prophet today could go in and kick out all of Congress, the regulators and their agencies, and the Federal Reserve. Who would be angry then? Politicians? Bankers? Lobbyists? How long do you think he’d be allowed to live? Well, in effect that is just what Jesus did when he kicked over the tables. The money went flying everywhere except into the hands of money traders and the priests.
Although born in Bethlehem in Judea, he lived his whole life in Galilee. Do you know that the word “Jew” actually means Judean or “person of Judea.” The New Testament is full of the words like “the Jews.” But you have to realize that all of Jesus’ first followers were Galileans. This was not a case of outsiders against Jews, or “Christians” against Jews. This was a case of Galilean Hebrews against Judean Hebrews. There was a huge dispute going on about the nature of the religious law. The Judeans considered the Galileans uncouth and uneducated hillbillies, kind of like the East & West Coast people may look on people from West Virginia. Well, Jesus’ Galileans saw a bunch of stuck up hypocrites that had no compassion on the poor or the broken; as legalists and sticklers for the Law but who had no mercy. And the Galileans were challenging the right and authority of the upper class Judeans, or the “Jews.”
So forget about all the anti-Semitism that appears to take place in the New Testament. All the fighting is between one set of Jews and another, and in the beginning, for years, the Judeans had the upper hand. The established political and religious heirarchy, which rejected Jesus’ prophetic call for reform and repentance, crucified him.
They got the Galileans (and Judeans who agreed with them) who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah, kicked out of synagogues, thrown into prison, beaten, stoned, and killed – not just in Jerusalem but in many parts of the Roman Empire. It is one thing to disagree with someone’s interpretation of the Law, but when you start killing them over it, you have much more than infighting, you have a real problem on your hands. But you have to remember, if anyone was hurt by this treatment and upset with the Judeans, it was their fellow Jews. The new synagogue of the Messiah members were upset with their brothers who were treating them so. And the New Testament is a record of that conflict. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the modern translations did not distinguish between Judean and non-Judean Jews with a better word.
Now here is the final prophecy of Jesus. Like Jeremiah, he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and a new exile for the rebellious remnant. And like Jeremiah, he also prophesied a restoration, which has come true 2000 years later!
Jesus, as prophet, accused the leaders of the children of Israel and those who followed them of Covenant Breaking, and he foretold of God’s Covenant Lawsuit against the rebellious house.
“Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. “For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, “and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” Luke 19:41-46
“Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down,” Matthew 23:31-Matthew 24: 2 .
This prophecy came to pass in 70 A.D. when the Romans came and destroyed the city. But before his crucifixion, Jesus also prophesied a time of restoration that would come after the new exile:
“For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” Luke 21:22-24
Now 2000 years later, the Jerusalem is back in Israeli hands and the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled. If you say, we didn’t do anything to deserve this exile, you haven’t read the prophets. Never did the people of God believe that they deserved correction or rebuke by God, yet Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, and many more prophesied the first exile. Was this prophet wrong for exposing the corruption and giving those words? It cost him his life to say so.
Just a note to say, if you want to understand what all the discussion and disagreement was about, the entire New Testament, except for Luke-Acts, was written by Jewish believers, arguing their rabbinical school's case with other Jews, Hellenists (Jews from the Diaspora in the Empire who spoke Greek), and to explain Jewish history to gentile converts. Luke traveled with Paul and writes down Paul's debates and encounters and conflicts with his fellow Jews in the Book of Acts. He also relates what he had not witnessed from the early days of the Jewish fellowship in Jerusalem. His Gospel was for a Gentile readership, but follows Matthew and Mark in style. However, if you want the deepest overview and insight into the debate, the Letter to the Hebrews is probably the best place to start. As nearly as we can figure it, it is possibly written by a Jew from the Alexandrian school, who is named Apollos. Written in high Greek (Attic) which was the language of the highly educated, but whose use in speech had died out about 330 B.C. Paul's letters, by contrast, were written in common Greek (Koiné). Think of it as if, Hebrews was written in King James English, while Paul's letters were written in American English.