Was Jesus a Jew and Why Does it Matter?
The question of who the man Jesus Christ was is one that has dominated discussions for two-thousand years. Many have tried to describe him, and many artists tried to capture His likeness. These depictions seem to make the topic more confusing, as historians like Josephus did not find much to comment on Jesus’ looks, and artistic renderings are inconsistent, including the way his racial identity is portrayed.
European art makes Jesus look European; African art going back centuries makes Him look African; Asian art makes Him look Asian. Despite these contradictory images, the Bible is clear about His genealogy and religious identity - He was Jewish.
There is Biblical and cultural evidence to support the stance that He was an ethnic and religious Hebrew, who reached across these barriers to bring all people to the Father.
Was Jesus a Jew?
The Bible provides two genealogies for Jesus in the Bible, tracing His earthly heritage back in time, one of them all the way to Adam. Coupled with the genealogical records in the Old Testament, it is easy to trace Jesus’ heritage back through the history of the Hebrew people who became the Jewish nation. The two genealogies traced in the Gospels are generally accepted to trace Jesus’ heritage through both His earthly parents, and are targeted at two different audiences.
Matthew, the apostle, was Jewish, and the primary audience of his letter was targeted at a Jewish audience. He begins his record with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, and ends with Joseph, the man who raised Jesus and acted as his earthly father. The line-up of men in the genealogy run from the father of the nation, to David, to Joseph, which would have been culturally important for establishing Jesus’ Jewish heritage to that audience.
The emphasis on Abraham would have set up Jesus’ credentials as the Messiah, and showing the connection to David through his son Solomon would have shown how He fulfilled some of the prophecies about the Messiah. It also makes sure to hit all the important moments in Israel’s history. “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17). Matthew’s records hold cultural and historical information supporting Jesus’ heritage.
Luke’s gospel follows the genealogy of Mary. She is not mentioned by name, but that would have been common during the first century. The connection to David is reinforced, this time through his son Nathan. It is important to trace Jesus’ lineage through Mary because beginning at least around the first century, Jewish heritage was passed matrilineally, through the mother. While certain aspects of the Jewish culture and religion are passed through the father, such as priesthood, the birthright to be considered Jewish comes from the mother because of a general consensus of interpretations of the Torah and the Talmud - Jewish religious texts which include the Bible.
This genealogy is the biological connection to David. Unlike Matthew, Luke was a gentile, writing to another gentile - a friend of his named Theophilus. Luke traces Jesus’ heritage all the way back to Adam. The reason that was important for Luke, and for the gentile audience, is because it is a good reminder that Jesus was not just the Messiah for the Hebrew people, but for all people.
Jesus was also a Jew in the religious sense, though He had a perfect understanding of a right relationship with the Father, where mankind had misunderstood it. He was called Rabbi, or Teacher, and preached in temples throughout Israel during His three-year ministry. He followed the Holy Days of the Jewish calendar, and had an observable relationship with God. Though the religious practices of the day do not align exactly with contemporary Judaism, at that time, He would have been considered a religious Jew by the Roman authorities. Other Jewish leaders, including the Pharisees would have considered some of His teachings heretical.
To be religiously Jewish at that time did not require Hebrew ethnicity. In the Old Testament there are several examples of individuals who were not from the twelve tribes of Israel who worshipped the one God, and would be considered Jewish religiously, though that term would not have existed for them. These individuals included Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, Rahab from Jericho, and Ruth the Moabitess who married Boaz and became a part of the line that led to Jesus. Today, if someone converts to Judaism, that person can be considered Jewish.
What Do Jews Believe?
In contemporary Judaism, the faithful still wait for their Messiah to come. They believe the prophecies about Him have yet to be fulfilled, where Christians believe they were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. One of the great Jewish thinkers after Jesus’ ascension was Maimonides, who lived from 1138-1204. He put forth an image of the Messiah who would come and usher in the Messianic age, governing the world with wisdom, perfect justice, and perfect righteousness. It will be an age of global peace and prosperity. While there are many variations on this idea, there is a general agreement of a time when the world will live in accordance with God’s law. Jesus is ruled out entirely as the Christ - another word for Messiah - from this perspective.
In Jesus’ time, there was a strong desire for the Messiah to come because of the oppression of Rome. The Messiah was perceived in a similar way as He is today, but many also believed He would overthrow Rome, leading to an independent Israel.
Like today, devout practitioners of the religion now called Judaism would have observed high Holy Days, many of which involved a trip to Jerusalem if possible. They followed Levitical law, giving tithes and sacrifices as required. Historians categorize this period as the Second Temple period. Solomon’s temple was gone, and Herod constructed a second. The influence of the Pharisees and Sadducees increased, and they added to the rules and regulations of the laws and Hebrew traditions.
Jesus commented on this issue, “But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, ‘Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God) — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do’” (Mark 7:11-13). Even though there was religious corruption, there were many honorable and sincere Jewish believers waiting for the Messiah.
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Did Jesus Teach His Disciples Judaism?
When evaluating Jesus’ religious statements, it must be viewed from His statement, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus’ teachings were the ultimate of the law, rather than new and contradictory. He took the rules and prophecies from the Old Testament and explained them in full, rather than from the limited and flawed view of man. He highlighted the limitations of the law to redeem a soul, and that following the rules does not fix the inner man’s sins, something only God can do.
He laid this premise out clearly in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22a).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
These are two of several examples of Jesus highlighting that the point of Jewish law was not only to prevent wicked actions, but to also turn a mirror inward, and require the individual to repent of their inner sins, which prevent someone from being truly righteous before God. Because no man can live in perfect righteousness on his own, Jesus paid the price for the sins of the world in order that His righteousness can be attributed to the sinner, saving that person from judgment.
While there is overlap between modern Judaism, Jewish religious practices during the first century, and Jesus’ teachings, they are not the same. For example, during Jesus’ lifetime, there were mandatory journeys to the Temple, as seen in the Book of Acts when thousands of Jews from all over the world went to Jerusalem for Holy Days, a practice not done today. Animal sacrifice is also generally frowned upon in today’s culture.
Contemporary Judaism has found other ways to fulfill the law without a Temple or a sacrificial system. Many modern Jews would separate what they believe from Jesus’ teachings. Some believe He was a good person, but incorrect in His understanding of Scripture. Some argue He was a radical figure that some clung to and deified. Just like Christians have different takes on different Biblical concepts like the millennial reign, ideas about Jesus and the Messiah vary among Jewish scholars.
What Did Jesus Teach about Jews and Gentiles?
The primary focus of Jesus’ ministry were His people, the Israelites, but He still reached out to the Gentiles. He shared the Gospel with the Samaritan woman. When the Centurion in Capernaum reached out to Him to heal a gravely ill servant, He said that if Jesus commanded it, the servant would be well, even if Jesus did not take the physical journey to the home. In response, Jesus declared, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 8:10b-11). Here, Jesus declares the future salvation of the Gentiles.
The Messiah came to save both the Hebrew people and the whole of the world. He reached out to both people groups. He discipled twelve Jewish apostles, who became the formidable force behind the beginnings of the church, bringing the Gentiles into the family of God. Through His death, Jesus saved the Gentiles and, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob … and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (Romans 11:26b-27). Though Jesus was Hebrew, His salvation was for everyone.
Is It Important That Jesus Was Jewish?
When considering the importance of Jesus’ ethnic and religious identity, it is important to put it in the context of God’s promises and fulfillment of prophecy. God chose the descendants of Abraham to be the people through which He would bring about salvation for all mankind. To Abraham, God promised, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3b). To David, God promised a descendant who would reign forever. “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13). Both of these promises were Messianic made to Hebrews, and in order for God to keep His promise, it was important the Savior come from that line, and that people group.
Further prophecies about the one who would redeem mankind from their sins and reconcile the human race back to God made it clear the birthplace, the lineage, and even specific details about the life of this promise of hope. One example of these prophecies is in the Book of Micah which prophesied the Savior would be born in Bethlehem in Israel; “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). By being born in Israel to a Hebrew mother, and cared for by a Hebrew step-father, Jesus’ heritage fulfilled the prophecy. In this sense, it is important that Jesus was Jewish.
However, His ethnicity is not important where salvation is concerned. No one is barred from going to Him to repent of sin and ask for forgiveness just because of their ethnicity, or His. The Messiah did not just come for Israel, but for the whole world.
Cohen-Sherbok, Dan. Judaism History, Belief, and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Copan, Paul & Craig Evans. Who was Jesus? A Jewish-Christian Dialogue. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Lucass, Shirley. The Concept of the Messiah in the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. New York: T & T Clark International, 2011.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 1981.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.