Jesus was not a Christian and why it matters

By Amanda Witmer
Conrad Grebel University College
University of Waterlo
July 2013

Within scholarship on Jesus, a fundamental distinction is made between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. This allows scholars to differentiate between what we can know about Jesus’ life as a historical figure and how the early Christian community came to view him through the lens of faith. Obviously there is overlap between the two; the earliest followers of Jesus drew on both their encounter with the man, Jesus and theological reflections on his life, death and resurrection. How clearly the line should be drawn between the two is debated among scholars. Those who are more conservative theologically will tend to see more continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the faith of the early church, while those who are theologically further to the left may argue for a clearer discontinuity between who Jesus was and how the early church came to see him. Nevertheless it is important to make this distinction for several reasons.

First, the founder of what later became Christianity was not a Christian but a Palestinian Jew, an itinerant prophet, teacher and healer living in Galilee (what is today northern Israel) during the first third of the first century. While the media and the church have tended to downplay Jesus’ Jewishness, it remains firmly rooted in history. Although Christianity and Judaism eventually became distinct religions, the so-called “parting of the ways” happened gradually, over many decades (some would say centuries), and communities of Torah-observant Jewish Christians continued to be active into the third or fourth century.

The New Testament Gospels indicate that Jesus lived a fully Jewish life and debated with other Jews about how to best live out that life, and the writers of both Matthew and Luke have Jesus insist on the continuing importance and centrality of the Jewish law (Matt 5:17//Luke 16:16-17). Many of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere reflect larger debates within the Jewish community about how the law should be understood and lived out (Matt 5:17-48; Mark 12:28-34; par Matt 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28). While some of these debates were heated, particularly with the Pharisees, Luke’s gospel tells us that when Herod Antipas sought to kill Jesus (13:31-33), it was a group of Pharisees who warned Jesus.

There has been a tendency within the Christian tradition to create a false dichotomy between Jesus on the one hand, and Jewish legalism on the other. This is a caricature. A form of Jesus’ well-known “Golden Rule” teaching (Matt 7:12//Luke 6:31), was attributed to the Jewish sage Hillel, known in the rabbinic tradition, and born about one hundred years earlier than Jesus. Hillel is reputed to have said the following when asked to recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."1

It also seems unlikely that Jesus was even particularly interested in non-Jews during his lifetime. There are only four possible meetings between Jesus and Gentiles described in the Gospels. These include the exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20 and its parallels in Matt 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-29), his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30 and par., Matthew 15:21-28), and the healing of the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10 and par. Matt 8:1-13). In the case of the Syro-Phoenician woman who comes to Jesus seeking healing for her daughter, Jesus initially refuses her request, based on her non-Jewish status (See Mark 7:27 and par. Matt 15:23-26).

The questions and debates about food laws and circumcision that we find in Acts and Galatians and the revelation to Peter in Acts 10 that foods previously considered unclean for Jews were now acceptable, imply that Jesus made no clear pronouncements during his lifetime about the inclusion of Gentiles, about acceptable foods or about how much of the law Gentiles were required to keep, despite Mark’s suggestion that Jesus declared all foods clean (7:19). Both Paul and Luke make a clear distinction between the Jewish Christian community centred in Jerusalem, and the emerging Gentile church in the Greco-Roman world and both writers acknowledge that Paul takes his orders from the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, Peter and John (Acts 15; Gal 2).

The second reason it is important to distinguish between the historical figure of Jesus and later Christian views of him is that Jesus was executed as a political criminal in a context of Roman oppression. Rome controlled the population with an iron fist through Herod Antipas, the client ruler of Galilee, and through Pontius Pilate, the Roman appointed prefect of Judea. While Pilate is depicted in the gospels in a favorable light, historical evidence suggests that he was a ruthless and unprincipled bureaucrat who continually provoked the Jewish population, and was eventually removed from his post because his violations against the Jewish populace raised such an outcry.2 As a result, we should be somewhat suspicious of the presentation we find in the gospels, which portrays Pilate as friendly toward Jesus, ordering his execution only reluctantly, and “the Jews” calling unanimously for his execution. This stance is extremely unlikely given Jesus’ status as a Jewish political prisoner, Pilate’s reputation and Rome’s general impatience with religious and political dissidents.

The media and popular culture have generally failed to distinguish between the Jewish populace who viewed their Roman overlords as oppressors, and some of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem who benefited from their close connections with the foreign ruling elite and collected taxes for Rome. While much of the populace would likely have supported itinerant prophets such as Jesus, these same figures would have been viewed by many bureaucrats as a threat to their comfortable arrangement with Rome.

In fact, Roman Palestine (both Judea and Galilee) during the first half of the first century was a hotbed of messianic and prophetic activity, much of it rooted in the popular belief that God would intervene in history and deliver the Jewish people from their foreign rulers. This belief was sometimes symbolized by acting out events that had been central to Jewish identity and the defeat of their political enemies in the past, such as the Exodus from Egypt, or the conquest of the land of Canaan. The symbolism was not lost on Rome, who perceived these movements as highly charged and politically threatening. They stamped them out quickly, typically executing their leaders, and often beheading them and placing their heads on display in a prominent place.3 John the Baptist was executed for precisely this reason. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian observes that Antipas became alarmed by the crowds John drew and the excitement he evoked and, fearing it would lead to an uprising, decided it would be prudent to have John executed rather than risk rebellion.4 Jesus’ close connection to John would have been well known by those in power.

Why does any of this matter, one might ask? It matters first because we owe it to ourselves as Christians to understand who it is that we are following. Being a Christian has become in some circles, too much about reciting particular beliefs that affirm the divine status of Jesus, and not enough about following the path that the man Jesus took during his life as he attempted to fully live out Jewish teachings. Keeping the Jewishness of Jesus at the forefront also reminds us of the intricate way in which Christianity and Judaism were bound together from the beginning and helps us to avoid racism and supersessionalism, the belief that Christianity is superior to Judaism and now supersedes it. It behooves us to remember that Christianity grew out of and is deeply dependent on Judaism, and not the other way around.

Failing to understand that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who lived under Roman imperial rule and died as a political dissident, has led to devastating consequences throughout history. The friendly portrayal of Pilate in the Gospels (particularly the gospel of John) has contributed to a tendency to blame the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. As a result of this and other misinformed interpretations of the Christian and Jewish scriptures, anti-Semitism has been allowed to fester and has permeated the church and society for centuries. Christian supersessionalism combined with anti-Semitism led to the marginalization of Jews under Christian rulers from as early as the 4th century and has continued to crop up throughout the history of the church. Martin Luther’s treatise entitled “The Jews and their Lies,” (written in 1543) is but one example of the way in which mainstream Christian society viewed Jews during the Reformation period. It reads, in part: “Therefore be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously and veheming his eyes.”5

Lest we think these attitudes exist only in the past, one need only look to the recent resurgence of neo-Natzi and anti-Semitic ideology throughout the world, particularly in Europe. Modern film portrayals of Jesus’ execution continue to emphasize the guilt of the Jewish people and the innocence of Pilate. “The Passion of the Christ” is but one recent example. Jesus did not die because he was a Christian or because he insisted on grace within a legalistic religious tradition. He died because his actions and teachings created excitement and drew large crowds and this was perceived as a threat to those in power, both the client rulers who represented Rome and the Jewish elites who stood to benefit. What emerges after Jesus’ death begins another chapter of the story.


1 b. Shabb. 31a.

2 Josephus, War 2.169-177; Ant. 18.261-74; Philo Legat. 249, 276-329.

3 Josephus, War 2.258-63; Ant. 20.20.97-98; 167-9; Acts 21:38; Acts 5:36.

4 Josephus, Ant. 18.118.


Comments (2)

This analysis implies conclusions that you don't draw but should, I think, be noticed.
Christianity, you say, means following Jesus. Yet Jesus' only concern was that Jewish people should be more dedicated to their religion; he had but little interest in non-Jews. It is impossible to follow anyone to a place (s)he never went and never had the slightest intention of going. So the idea of following Jesus without being fully dedicated to the Jewish religion which Jesus knew is meaningless: therefore Christianity, which is a religion distinct from that religion yet is defined by the attempt to follow Jesus, is paradoxical, indeed absurd.
Moreover, it's hard to say that Christian paradox is morally beneficial, since there is no indication that it adds anything of value to monotheism in other forms and plenty of indication that Christianity is seriously and rather pervasively influenced by ugly ideas about race and rival religions.
I find this analysis very uncomfortable but that's no reason for not thinking it true. I admit to discomfort because it may be a source of prejudice. That said, I think your historical remarks are open to some question. You're more confident about the elusive historical Jesus than many would be. You offer no explanation for the remarkably rapid development of a particularly dedicated and rather exclusive form of Jewish religion into something all but its opposite, a religion quite conspicuously critical of its Jewish counterpart and fully open to non-Jews. Moreover, I think we should be at least as sceptical about the historical Hillel as about the historical Jesus. There seems to be no satisfactory biography or chronology and no satisfactory explanation of the lack of clear reference to someone supposed to be so important in Josephus.

#1 - Martin - 07/14/2013 - 13:18

It is wonderful that a young person is actually tackling this issue. So much is written about misleading doctrinal issues that originate much later with and after Constantine.

One thought is your use of the word "Palestine" in an "anachronism" which is often used for nefarious ends. There was no "Palestine" in Jesus lifetime. The region was named "Palestine" by the Romans after 135. Many so called scholars call the region Palestine before 135. Many maps are so labeled by scholars who should know better. It is convenient but casts an unnecessary "political" tone. Thanks for your writing.

#2 - Susan Warner - 12/20/2017 - 16:15

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