Jesus Was a Jew — Get Over It

A Q&A with award-winning writer James Carroll on how Christians misunderstand Jesus.

Is the New Testament anti-Semitic? (Well, kind of.) Should we read the Gospels as historical documents? (Very clearly, no.) What happened to Jesus’ Jewishness? (Christians forgot it.)

christactuallyJames Carroll, the Catholic reformer and Boston Globe columnist, takes on these and other heated questions in his latest book, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. I caught up with Carroll to talk about the Jewishness, divinity, and spark of Jesus — here are the highlights from our conversation.

You talk a lot about God in your books. What do you mean by God?

Well, the most important thing about God is that I do not know God. I cannot talk to you about God as an object out there somewhere who exists. All the language we use about God is inadequate.

Having said that, I believe that this creation points beyond itself to something/someone else. Creation, human experience, and human consciousness all suggest there is a horizon toward which we are moving, to which we are being invited, and God is a good name for that horizon. For me, belief in God means I believe in the purposefulness of human life, that we are put here for a purpose.

Your definition does not really sound like a personal God, but when most people talk about God’s will, it sounds like there is this person up there making decisions and sort of saying things like, “Jim, I want you to write this book.”

That “person up there” is a poetic image for this more abstract intuition I am describing. When Jesus is asked what God is like, Jesus answers that God is like a loving father. Jesus invites us to relate to this principle as if it were a person, as if it were a Father.

All of religion is poetic language trying to get us something that cannot be described in any language. When religious people forget that and begin to treat the language as if it’s scientific — as if there is an old man with a beard up there on a throne watching us, making interventions for the favored ones — that is idolatry. The biblical warning against idolatry is basically: don’t take this language we use about God literally, because then you turn the word into an idol.

Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?

Yes, I do.

What does that mean?

It means that in him we have the human capacity for transcendence realized. I believe that he is the Son of God in the way that every human being has the spark of the divine, our capacity to imagine and invent.

I do not know exactly what the divinity of Jesus means, but I cling to it as an element of faith. If Jesus wasn’t understood as divine almost from the start, then we would have never heard about him. If we lose hold of his somehow being divine, he will be gone. Because as a figure, a historical figure, he wasn’t that great. He wasn’t a great philosopher. He didn’t have a great new idea. He was perhaps a hero and resister to Roman oppression. But there were countless Jews who were heroic resisters to Roman oppression.

No, what makes Jesus important to us is how in this man billions of human beings down through the centuries have recognized, somehow, the spark of divinity.

But what was that spark? What was special about Jesus?

There was something about him that generated response from the people around him that led them to recognize in him the Son of God. His readiness to invite people in from the margins. The way he defined his “ministry” by eating and drinking with people. He was not a zealot, but there was something resolute and courageous about him. The stories are clear about that.

One of the best-selling religion books lately is Reza Aslan’s book about Jesus called Zealot.

Yeah, well my book could be called Jesus Was Not a Zealot. What marked him was his rejection of zealotry in favor of ordinary life.

Zealots would have nothing to do with the Roman occupiers. The gospels make a point to say Jesus was friendly to Romans. He cured the Roman centurion’s daughter. He invited a tax collector into his inner circle. Jesus was not like John the Baptist out in the desert wearing sackcloth and ashes and eating grasshoppers. No, Jesus was having bread and wine and feasts and going to parties and interacting with women of the street.

There was something astonishing about Jesus. And in that astonishment, his followers recognized, somehow, the presence of God. And they used symbolic language to describe it that came out of Jewish expectation, the most important of which was the resurrection.

I thought of a better title for your book: Jesus Is a Jew, Get Over It.

That is it in a nutshell. That is, of course, what Christians really have not reckoned with.

Why is anti-Semitism so persistent?

There is a bug in the software of western civilization. The Christian church, for accidental reasons of history, defined itself positively over the negative of the synagogue. We are good; they are bad. We are the New Testament; they are the Old Testament. We are grace; they are law. We are generosity; they are greed.

Why do think that Christians don’t want Jesus to be Jewish? How did Jesus end up being blond and blue-eyed?

The Jesus movement, which began as a Jewish movement, took place during what I call in Christ Actually the “first holocaust.” And just as the “second holocaust” of [World War II] traumatized not only the Jewish people but also the conscience of the west, so the first holocaust did something similar.

The first holocaust was the Roman war against the Jewish people, which unfolded in three phases between 69 and 135, and, in which, according to ancient historians, perhaps as many as two million Jews were killed by the Romans — a percentage of the population that is analogous to what the Nazis did.

You argue that the Gospels were written during this conflict, and that’s why they pit Jesus against the Jews.

The Gospels are not history and they were not written by eyewitnesses. Gentiles a generation later don’t know that. And to this day, Christians read the Gospels as if they are journalistic accounts.

The Jesus movement could have unfolded within Israel, but the Roman war so destroyed the Jewish world that Gentiles began to dominate the Jesus movement. And they did not know the Jewish roots of the movement. So by the year 135, when the Jewish-Christian center in Jerusalem is destroyed, Gentiles read the texts [about Jesus] without realizing that they are not historical.

That is why I have written this book. It is addressed to Christians. And I lay all of this chronology out. We have to read our texts critically, which Christians don’t know how to do.

So, Jesus was a Jew. That is the bottom line.

To really recover the Jewishness of Jesus — that is the point of doing this work. If we had not forgotten his Jewishness, the history of the last two thousand years would be very different.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Sally Quinn
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  • jeff

    a true orthodox christian/catholic? I do not think so. A Vatican 11 Masonic catholic? no doubt………Heretic.

    • bakabomb

      This comment turns the old adage, “Don’t shoot the messenger”, topsy-turvy. Implicit in the comment is the notion that, because the author is a “heretic”, the message is worthless. With what specific parts of the message do you disagree, and specifically why? If you don’t care to elucidate that, your comment lacks substance and value.

  • HildyJJ

    Not having read the book (I’m third on my library’s wait list), he may have already spoken to this but when the gospels were being written down it was in the nascent christian movement’s best interest to divorce themselves from their jewish roots so as not to be destroyed in the “first holocaust”. Maybe a follow-on to “Jesus Was a Jew, Get Over It” could be “The Gospel Writers Had Agendas, Get Over That Too.”

    • bakabomb

      Yes, in fact he does discuss those agendas, and asserts that because the Gospels were written down during or shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in ~70 CE, they do bear the imprints of those agendas. In addition to the problems created by the “first holocaust”, another of those agendas was to address the issue of why Jesus had not returned, when the first couple of generations of Jesus people expected the end of days to occur imminently. His conclusion about how the gospelers’ answer to that issue has affected Christians ever since is an interesting one which I won’t spoil for you.

  • Walter Ray

    Blah, blah, blah; Jesus’ Jewishness has been recognized in NT studies for a long time.

    • bakabomb

      ReplyNo doubt, but Carroll makes the additional point that not just “Jesus” — but “Christ” — must also be viewed in the light of Jewish theology and history. That’s why his book’s entitled “Christ Actually” rather than “Jesus Actually”. Jesus as an ethnic Jew is hardly controversial, but the Jewishness of the Christ is much more so. That’s largely because it’s a counterargument to today’s widely prevalent “two-covenant theology”.

      • Martin Hughes

        It seems to me that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, (if there is such a one) must, absolutely must, have equal affinity with all humanity and must call on all, without privilege or impediment as to race or ancestry, to have the same faith. Therefore he can be no more Jewish than ‘Gentile’, to use that ugly word. The New Testament writers recognised this and tried to embody it in the portrait of Jesus the human being as related to the Jewish world with obvious ambivalence and to the Gentile world with the same ambivalence, only rather less obvious, as in ‘giving Caesar his due’.
        Apart from all considerations of faith and trying to operate with pure-ish reason – one of the many paradoxes about Carroll’s argument is the claim that the Gospels are not history combined with many historical claims which can surely have no basis but the Gospels. It may be true that the Gospels are theology presupposing a background of history – a background rather imperfectly defined! – then every statement represents the very theology that had been proclaimed in Rome (Mark and Luke) and maybe in Antioch and Ephesus (Matthew and John). There is no reason to think that these first readers, probably known personally to the authors, completely misunderstood the books that had been written among them and for them.

        If Christianity was Jewish until 70 (Paul’s congregations seem to be almost entirely, except in Rome, non-Jewish) why is there no record of its position among Jewish parties and factions in Josephus, who was so interested in the differences between these parties? There is the apparent reference to James of Jerusalem, murdered on the Temple site, but this episode (probably forged) supports the later Christian theory that the Temple fell because Jesus had been rejected and his followers ill-treated at Jewish hands. But if any considerable group had taken this alarming view within the Jewish world Josephus would surely have told us explicitly because he was interested in Jewish self-betrayal. If any considerable group in the Jewish world had considered itself to be the Jesus Movement and had taken some other position why would not Josephus had mentioned it? The real testimony of Josephus is that there was no significant Jesus Movement within Judaism. He may be wrong, perhaps because of anti-Christian sentiment of his own – but no argument to this effect has come forward.
        If Jesus was Jewish in the sense of later Judaism why is the portrait of him in the Talmud so seriously hostile? In any event, later Judaism should not be taken as definitive of Judaism in Jesus’ time: which means that ‘Jesus was Jewish’ is a fairly ambiguous statement. The overriding claims of the Temple were quite recent. Resentment against the oppressive policies of King John, that great leader who had died around 100 BCE, and against the demands of the Temple priesthood, which sometimes seems in the NT to be rather grasping, may have been quite substantial in Galilee where many people may have considered their families ‘forcibly converted’ to Judaism.
        I question whether there was a holocaust, or whether Bar Kochba was more than a terrorist with a limited following who was perhaps none too respectful of Christian rights. But I’ve gone on too long. I just think Carroll is grossly overconfident.

  • Jeremy

    Jesus is the fulfillment of judaism.

    • bakabomb

      Ah! Supersessionism (“replacement theology”) in a nutshell.

      • http://gathman.org/vitae CustomDesigned

        Not quite. Replacement theology is where Christians replace the Jews, rather than being “grafted in” [Romans 11:24] as the Scripture proclaims. Jesus *is* the fulfillment of Judaism. He is the “Desire of Women” – every Jewish mother wanted to be the mother of Messiah. From Genesis 3 on, the Old Testament look forward to the coming Messiah. Modern Orthodox Jews still look forward to the coming of Messiah – and He will come! “They will look on Him whom they have pierced.” Zechariah 12:10

  • Carlos

    I’m not a Catholic but I don’t understand how Mr. Carroll could be a “Catholic Reformer” since his view are antithetical to Catholic teaching. If he thinks that Christians don’t know that Jesus was Jewish then he really needs to reform his course of education. Perhaps the next book should be called I Don’t Have a Clue What I’m Talking About, Get Over It.

    • Lori Toupal

      Exactly.

  • nwcolorist

    Since the beginning of Christianity there have been people coming forward with alternate ideas concerning the life of Christ and the theology associated with Him. They can be found in just about any century. Most flame up quickly and then burn out. Others burn brighter and last longer.

    It will be interesting to see if Mr. Carroll’s ideas gain any adherents.

  • allyn211

    Carroll refers to Jesus “healing the Roman centurion’s daughter”.

    I think he has confused two stories from the Gospels: the healing of a Roman centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13 and the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead in Mark 5:21-43. Jairus was a Jewish synagogue leader.

  • Sam

    I like the mysticalness with which Jesus and God are approached here, but I find what Christianity has done to Jesus is the same idolatry that was spoken of in the article.

  • lighthorse16

    Why do the Jews hate Christ so much? An example of contempt for Christians long before they launched the Bolshevik revolution in 1917

    OATHS OF JEWISH MEMBERS—BARON DE ROTHSCHILD.

    HC Deb 05 August 1850 vol 113 cc769-815Entry in Votes of 30th July, read, as follows:— The Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild having come to the Table, Mr. Speaker acquainted him that the House had yesterday made the following Order:— ‘Ordered—That Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, one of the Members for the City of London, having presented himself at the table of the House, and having previously to taking the Oaths requested to be sworn on the Old Testament (being the form which, he has declared at the Table to be most binding on his conscience), the Clerk be di- rected to swear him on the Old Testament accordingly.’ Whereupon the Clerk handed to him the Old Testament, and tendered him the Oaths; and he accordingly took the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy, repeating the same after the Clerk; the Clerk then proceeded to administer the Oath of Abjuration, which the Baron de Rothschild repeated after the Clerk as far as the words,’ upon the true faith of a Christian,’ but, upon the Clerk reading those words, the Baron de Rothschild said, ‘I omit those words as not binding on my conscience;’ he then concluded with the words, ‘So help me God,’ (the Clerk not having read those words to him), and kissed the said Testament:—Whereupon he was directed to withdraw.

    SIR R. H. INGLIS
    Sir, I protest to this House that I heard distinctly the words pronounced, “I desire to be sworn on the Old Testament.” [“Oh, oh!” and “Order!”] I was not mistaken in that phrase. Sir, from the time that this nation has been a Christian nation, and from the time that this Legislature has been a Christian Legislature, no man has ever—if I may use the word without offence—no man has ever presumed before to claim his seat here, unless he was prepared to take it under the solemn sanction of an oath in the name of our common Redeemer; if not upon that book which contains His revealed will and word, at least upon some outward symbol of our common redemption. Sir, I do not undervalue—God forbid that I should!—I do not undervalue the Old Testament, If the hon. individual who came to the table had asked to be sworn upon the Bible, although with my knowledge of what his mind would be, I should, even; then, refuse his request. Now I feel doubly bound to do so, when by the terms of his proposition he asks me and the House to abrogate that second part of the book on which the Christian faith is fixed.

    That was the beginning of the end of Christian Britain. Obviously, the Old Testament is not our book. It begs the question, WHO is the OT God? Some say Lucifer. John8: 44-47 might be a clue.

  • a viet nam era vet

    jesus was of the tribe of judah….therefore he could be considered a jew by that definition…however many who call themselves jews are not jews, …from the tribe of judah, but are cainites and edomites.who call themselves jews..not to be confused with israelites….all israelites are not jews…but many jews-especially of the tribe of judah- are israelites….
    christ bloodline was from the holy spirit.and the physical.. seed of eve who is not defined by a tribe bloodline…..all so called jews are not jews but of the seed of the serpent…read genesis they are of the synagog of satan…of their father the devil….christ’s own words… in scripture

    • Lori Toupal

      Oh good heavens. You’re delusional.

  • Charlie Robinson

    Ms. Quinn. I appreciated the article and interview with James Carroll, but am surprised that on this Easter weekend of 2015, you would not have done an article/interview with someone who is more “orthodox” Christian. I would think that, in connection with this the highest of Holy Days in the Christian Church worldwide, you would have presented the views of or asked probing questions regarding why these days (Maundy Thursday – Easter Sunday) are so important for Christians and how a thoughtful believer comes to accept the story of Jesus as truth. What Jesus tells us about God. How a believe comes to know God – even as Mr. Carroll admits he “I do not know God.” How and why a Christian can talk about Jesus as the Son of God and what that means to him/her. I sort of felt a disconnect with all this weekend means to the vast majority of Christians. (Frankly, most Christians would not define Mr. Carroll beliefs as Christian.) It is like doing an article about the Jewish Yom Kippur by interviewing a Southern Baptist. Their connection is tentative at best. There is so very much of Christianity that is misunderstood by the general public and misrepresented by our more “radical right wing brothers and sisters. Jesus and the Christian faith have much of a positive nature to offer, it would have been valuable to present that today. Thank you.

  • TheMule61

    Lets falsely claim that Christians have a problem with Jesus being a Jew and then proceed to smear them for it.

    Progressives are the most disgusting pathological liars and smear merchants on the planet. Only Satan himself could exceed them.

    Jesus being a Jew is an integral part of the story of Jesus. If you believe he is the Savior, then you believe he was a Jew.

    • Lori Toupal

      Well said.

  • grpetty

    I just assumed that Democrats were the true Jew haters especially since the top Democrat currently leading the Democrat Party open’s his mouth a little recklessly and frequently.

  • Barbi

    I’ve never thought –or been taught –that Jesus was anything other than Jewish –and all the disciples and early church fathers as well –the whole Bible is Jewish. I am in the mainstream of Christian education, reading, church life –so who is it that thinks Christians are Anti-Semitic except the LEFT-wing of the political and religious spectrum –always looking for ways to foment bigotry toward Bible-believers.

  • Paulnbama

    Jesus was a Jew? Does the author think himself a genius, or did he just find this out?

  • Paulnbama

    Jesus was a Jew? Does the author think himself a genius, or did he just find this out?

    • Lori Toupal

      Strange, I’m a Christian and I am neither antisemitic nor am I confused about where Jesus (Yeshua) came from. The author has no clue.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    No one who is truly a committed Christian denies Jesus’ Jewishness. Those who do and call themselves “Christians” are simply not committed. They have not truly studied the Bible nor history and they do not accept fact as fact. But, how typical of both Sally Quinn and now, on this past Holy Saturday, WaPo, that they would accept what those sham “Christians” say and believe instead of what the rest of us know and accept. After all, Leftist writers and media types have lied, twisted facts, covered up for and excused Obama for 6+ long nightmare years now. Such people would not know a true fact about anything if it bit them.. Once again, they have listened to those they want to listen to rather than real Christians. Typical.

  • http://donstephens.org ASeeker

    I can’t think of a single Christian who has a problem with Jesus being a Jew. Sally Quinn has made a great contribution to irrelevancy.