Some time ago I attended a class which examined the first ten chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament book which picks up where the Gospels leave off and describes the very earliest history of what we now know as Christianity. Chapter 7 of this book relates the martyrdom of Stephen, the first in a long line of Christian martyrs extending even to the present day. What struck me the most about Stephen’s story was the fact that it — along with about a half dozen other key passages in the New Testament — has been used to justify a tradition of anti-Semitism which has run through Christianity, not just for centuries, but for millennia. And that’s strange. Because Jesus was a Jew.
We hear this fact stated all the time: Jesus was a Jew. But we rarely stop to think about what this really means. All too often it seems to imply that, since he was the source of Christianity, he’s wasn’t *really* a Jew, or that he was the last of the real Jews, or that he was “one of the good ones.” Or, just maybe, “the only good one.”
Let’s set aside the fact that anytime a Christian’s faith encompasses the phrase “I hate…” directed at any person or group of people, that’s not really Christianity at all. And let’s set aside the fact that hatred is the antithesis of what Christ himself taught. Let’s get down to basics and look at Christ. Let’s try to picture who this Jesus Christ actually was.
For example, we tend to think of Jesus as a tall, strapping, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, European-looking lad with rugged good looks. A kind of Aryan Adonis. Something like this:
In all likelihood, however, Jesus was probably short, dark-complexioned, dark-haired, dark-eyed. He may very well have had quite a schnoz as well. Picture your personal stereotype of a young Jewish man. Now imagine that he is Jesus. You’ll probably end up with an image which is closer to the truth than that which most common iconography embraces.
Despite an ongoing debate over the matter, Jesus is often identified as a carpenter. Yet only very rarely is he identified as a rabbi. Unless, of course, you count the Gospels. The New Testament clearly identifies Jesus as a rabbi. Granted, the term itself meant something different at that time than it does now. But here’s a few things Jesus certainly wasn’t: a pastor, a minister, a priest, a reverend, a parson, or a rector. He wasn’t Pope.
The Last Supper was a Passover seder. Pentecost? That was actually the Feast of Weeks, now more commonly known as Shavuot, one of the major festivals mandated in Exodus, and a commemoration of the receiving of the Mosaic Laws. And the twelve disciples, not to mention every single member of the very earliest church? Every last one of them a Jew.
At what point did Jesus cease being a Jew? Never. At what point did his Jewish followers cease being Jews? Never. There is no language in the New Testament which states: “They ceased being Jews.” Granted, Christ did supplant the Laws of Moses, but this was in direct accordance with the prophecies found in the Old Testament, which were, after all, Jewish prophecies.
It is argued that Stephen takes “the Jews” to task in Acts: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you have now become the betrayers and murderers.” But it is vitally important that we understand that Stephen is not condemning all Jews, but the subset of the Jewish community in Jerusalem which rose up against Christ. Which, it must be added, was accomplished hand in hand with the ruling Romans. In which case, if we are to justify anti-Semitism on the basis of Scripture, we should also extend our hatred to the Italians which, as a matter of course, would necessarily include Roman Catholics.
Why does this matter? Because even in the most inclusive church, even in the most moderate, even-keeled, rational, and humanitarian church, we catch wind, every once in a while, of a distinct whiff of anti-Semitism. And like a toxic nerve gas, one whiff may be all it takes to kill both love and faith.