Jesus' life and teachings as a Jew of his day

Much of Jesus' teaching can be seen as part and parcel of the same weave, the same textured textile or give-and-take that characterized the discourse of the first-century Jewish context in which he developed and undertook to announce that God’s reign, the Age to Come, was beginning to appear.

Many scholars today understand that the primary features of Jesus’ activity all relate to first-century Jewish expectations about the coming rule of the God of Israel:

•    The choice of an inner circle of twelve, symbolically restoring the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
•    Frequent table fellowship to give a foretaste of the celebratory banquet of the Reign of God.
•    Healings demonstrating the healing power of God's in-breaking Reign
•    Preaching about the arriving Reign of God in parables and metaphors that related to people’s everyday lives.

Although the historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew was downplayed or even denied in the tensions between Jews and Christians of later centuries, current research leaves no doubt about this.

Regarding the “table fellowship,” in Deuteronomy 11:13-14, we read:

13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today--to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul-- 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil.

From grain, we bake bread. On the ritual table of a traditional Jewish celebration of Shabbat or any of the major festivals, there are three major symbols: candles, wine and challot (special Shabbat loaves, often braided.) Candles, wine and wafers also form a major part of Christian ritual. They symbolize the oil, wine and grain (in reverse order) of the passage from Deuteronomy. These three, in turn, symbolize a plentiful harvest in the Land of Israel as a sign of the Covenant with God.

… in the teaching of Jesus himself, as we know it from the early texts of the gospels, the genuine Jewish principle is manifest. When later on Christians desired to return to the pure teaching of Jesus there often sprang up, in this as in other points also, an as it were unconscious colloquy with genuine Judaism.

~ Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith, p. 12

Jesus and most of the other characters in the Gospel are Jews, and they participate fully in the Jewish world of early first-century Palestine.

~ Adele Reinhartz, "The Gospel of John: How the 'Jews' Became Part of the Plot" in Jesus, Judaism & Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust edited by Paula Fredriksen & Adele Reinhartz, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002)

The most important Christian prayer, the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father,” appears in two different forms in the New Testament. Some scholars have sought to reconstruct its original form as spoken by Jesus, as in the example below. What aspects of the prayer indicate its Jewish origins, especially among Jews longing for God’s Reign to arrive?

Father (Abba),
Sanctified be Your Name,
Your Kingdom come.
Give us today the bread of tomorrow.
And forgive us our debts as forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us to the test.

(This reconstructed form of the prayer is taken from John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume Two: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (Doubleday, 1994): 291-302.)

See here for another example of Jesus' teaching as compared to contemporary Judaism:

Jesus, Judaism, and the "Golden Rule"

By taking part in the synagogue celebrations where the [Hebrew scrip- tures] were read and commented on, Jesus also came humanly to know these texts; he nourished his mind and heart with them, using them in prayer and as an inspiration for his actions. Thus he became an authentic son of Israel, deeply rooted in his own people's long history. When he began to preach and teach, he drew abundantly from the treasure of Scripture, enriching this treasure with new inspi- rations and unexpected initiatives.

~ Pope John Paul II, April 11, 1997.

However, the Roman authorities had long experience in dealing with popular figures who got people excited about changing the world. With the aid of some co-opted Temple priests, Jesus was clandestinely taken into custody and quickly executed by the Roman public torture of crucifixion as a would-be “king of the Jews.”

The name of Jesus of Nazareth would have been lost to history, along with the tens of thousands of other Jews crucified by Rome, except for subsequent events. His Jewish followers became convinced that the in-breaking of God’s Reign had been catalyzed by Jesus’ self-sacrifice in faithfulness to God. This was demonstrated, they proclaimed, by their conviction that God had raised the Crucified One to transcendent life. They began to announce God’s imminent judgment of the world to Jews in the diaspora and then to Gentiles, especially those Gentiles who already admired Judaism, its ethics and its monotheism. One Pharisee, Paul of Tarsus, considered himself to be the “Apostle (or messenger) to the Gentiles.”  He established several church communities in which Gentiles did not have to take up Torah observance to be equal members of the assembly.

In earlier periods, it was first thought the break between Judaism and early Christianity occurred already in the first century. Contemporary scholarship tends to portray a more prolonged process known as “the parting of the ways” that took several hundred years.

Thus, the first of The Twelve Points of Berlin challenges Christians (and perhaps Jews as well) to try and explore Jesus' profound identity as a Jew of his day, and to interpret his writings within the contextual framework of first-century Judaism.

For further reading, see:

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
by Amy-Jill Levine (HarperOne, 2007)

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.
by John Meier (5 volumes, projected; Doubleday, 1994-present).

The Historical Figure of Jesus
by E. P. Sanders, (Penguin, 1993)

The Ways That Never Parted: Jews & Christians in Late Antiquity & the Early Middle Ages
edited by Adam Becker & Annette Yoshiko Reed (Fortress Press, 2007)

Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity by Daniel Boyarin (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)