About a decade ago at a friend’s party I began chatting with another guest who, in the course of our conversation, informed me that he was an Orthodox Jew.
This information gave me an opening to ask my favorite question, “Why was Jesus born Jewish?”
His answer was memorable, “Jesus wasn’t Jewish,” he replied.
My jaw dropped and I was almost speechless. Initially I thought he was kidding until realizing he was not.
Then, after a short conversation volley he said, “Well, that’s your opinion.”
Years later I have never forgotten that incident because the fact (not opinion) that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew is one of the few universally accepted Biblical “facts.”
As one who was born and raised a Jew — but since 1975 has believed that Jesus was and is the Messiah — I have made a hobby out of asking traditional Jews, “Why was Jesus born Jewish?” The reason I continue asking this question is because the answers or I should say non-answers are always so intriguing.
Here are three examples (but you will have to read to the end for the most recent and intriguing example of all.)
A fews months ago, I posed “the question” to an old friend who is a secular Jew, not religious, but very proud of his heritage. His replied, “I don’t know. I guess Jesus had to be born of some religion so it just happened to be Judaism.”
My husband loves to tell this true story he calls, “How Myra Accosted a Rabbi at a Bar Mitzvah.” A few years back we attended a Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s son. Afterwards at the reception, using my sweet, inquisitive voice I asked the Rabbi, “Why was Jesus born Jewish?” My husband describes the Rabbi’s face as looking like he had just encountered Satan. After gaining his composure the Rabbi answered, “No one has ever asked me that question,” as he quickly excused himself and dashed to the opposite side of the room.
Then there was the time I was having a heated argument with my non-religious Jewish father (now deceased) about Jesus and my conversion to Christianity. My father had great disdain for ALL religion because he strongly believed that religion was the root cause of every war in human history. During the course of our discussion I asked him, “What was the religion of Jesus?” He replied confidently, “Jesus was Catholic.”
After many years of asking my fellow Jews, “Why Was Jesus Born Jewish” I have discovered that just asking can be problematic. From a Jewish perspective, the question could be construed as a riddle or a trap. Honestly, it is not meant to be either — but rather a question I believe my people should be pondering due to my own personal experience.
As an eight-year-old, I remember asking my Jewish mother around Christmas time, “Why don’t we believe in Jesus?” Her answer was, “We are Jewish and Jews do not believe in Jesus.” Over the years I discovered that my mother’s answer was fairly typical.
During my pre-teen years I subsequently learned that Jews do not believe Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that we were still waiting for our Messiah to appear.
Thus, asking Jews why Jesus was born Jewish when approximately 3.2 billion Christians believe that this Jewish rabbi was and is the Messiah, becomes a perplexing question that I have found Jewish people usually negate, deny or ignore.
However, asking Christians this same question is an entirely different story. Just last week I asked three Christian friends, “Why was Jesus born Jewish? What came back were three brief and quick email responses:
1. Jesus was Jewish because HE is the fulfillment of the Prophets that the Messiah would come from the house of David. HE also was born to a Jewish woman.
2. Because his mother was Jewish. Also, because God promised David there would be a ruler who would descend from his lineage who would be the Messiah.
3. Had to come from the line of David.
It was interesting that all of their answers mentioned that Jesus was born Jewish because the Messiah had to come from the line of King David.
Now I felt compelled to address this reason even though my initial plans for this piece did not include a discussion of Jesus’ lineage from the House of David. Rather, I had intended on answering the question, “Why was Jesus born Jewish” with a few of my favorite Old Testament Messianic prophecies and why Jesus HAD to be born Jewish in order to fulfill them. Since I am known for asking, “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” My friends’ answers definitely changed my plans which had me wondering if God had inspired them to influence me.
Shortly after receiving my friends’ answers, I stumbled upon a web site called About.com — Judaism. The headline question asked, “Who Was Jesus? — The Jewish View of Jesus.” The question was answered by Ariela Pelaia who is “a professional Jewish Educator with Masters Degrees in Jewish Studies and Jewish Education.”
Halfway down the web page these Messianic “requirements” caught my eye:
According to Jewish scripture and belief, the true Messiah (pronounced “moshiach” in Hebrew) must meet the following requirements. He must:
- Be an observant Jewish man descended from the house of King David.
- Be an ordinary human being (as opposed to the Son of God)
These were the top two “requirements” out of the six mentioned.
After seeing the first requirement coupled with the answers from my three friends (who are not Bible scholars) the question of Jesus’ lineage from David took on even greater meaning and called for some Biblical research.
Here is a brief and fascinating synopsis of what I discovered:
In the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) found within the Book of 2 Samuel Chapter 7, was Nathan’s prophecy from God to David that is called, “God’s Covenant with David.” Here God reveals to David the future of David’s (and God’s kingdom) through a particular descendent.
Verse 7:14 reads in part: “I will be his father and he will be my son.”
Then verse 7:16 says: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
Moving ahead at least 250 years to the Book of 1 Chronicles 17:13, God’s exact words are REPEATED (which means He wants your undivided attention) as He promises a special relationship between Himself and a descendant of David saying:
“I will be his Father, and he shall be My son; and I will not take My mercy away from him, as I took it from him who was before you.”
Now skip ahead hundreds of years to the first sentence of the first book of the New Testament named and written by Matthew, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles.
Matthew 1:1 reads:
“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:”
Is it a coincidence that the first words of the New Testament links Jesus’ ancestry to David?
Then consider Luke, the third book of the New Testament, where the genealogy of Jesus and David is mentioned three times in what we now call the “Christmas” story:
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.” (Luke: 1:27)
In Luke 1:31, Gabriel imparts some startling news to Mary that sounds eerily like the fulfillment of God’s Covenant with David from 2 Samuel Chapter 7:
“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
In Luke 2:4, Joseph’s lineage was mentioned for the last time when Emperor Caesar Augustus decreed that the entire Roman world must register for a census in their hometowns.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea because he belonged to the house of David and the line of David.
Here is where the lineage question between Jesus, Joseph and David becomes a little tricky.
There is no indication anywhere in the Bible that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus and lines of ancient Jewish ancestry were passed through the “seed” of the male. Remember the top two requirements that must be met by the Jewish, “true Messiah?” The first requirement was the Messiah had to be an observant Jewish man descended from the house of King David and the second, that he be an ordinary human being (as opposed to the son of God.)
Therefore, it looks like we have some “Catch 22” Jewish theological logic to deal with based on those requirements.
Joseph does indeed have the proper “family seed” but he is not the father of his “son” and his “son” is not an “ordinary human being.” But then, isn’t it unrealistic to expect the Jewish Messiah, or ANY Messiah to be an “ordinary human being?” Will the Messiah announce his arrival on Facebook? Will he have 3.2 billion followers on Twitter?
Not unexpected, the Jewish “professional educator” Ariela Pelaia wrote the following summary at the end of her About.com — Judaism web page:
While Christianity has had and continues to have a major impact on Jews and Judaism, Jesus is not seen as a major figure in Jewish history.
Perhaps that last statement explains why the Bar Mitzvah Rabbi told me he had NEVER been asked the question, “Why was Jesus born Jewish?”
But are American Jews beginning to have a slightly warmer attitude towards Jesus?
The answer is “yes” if you believe a 2012 CNN report with the headline, “Jews reclaim Jesus as one of their own.”
Here are a few highlights from this revealing CNN report:
In the past year, a spate of Jewish authors, from the popular to the rabbinic to the scholarly, have wrestled with what Jews should think about Jesus. And overwhelmingly, they are coming up with positive answers, urging their fellow Jews to learn about Jesus, understand him and claim him as one of their own.”Jesus is a Jew. He spent his life talking to other Jews,” said Amy-Jill Levine, co-editor of the recently released “Jewish Annotated New Testament.” “In reading the New Testament, I am often inspired, I am intrigued. I actually find myself becoming a better Jew because I become better informed about my own history,” she said.
There are several other Jewish authors with similar attitudes mentioned in the report. Among these are Rabbi Shmuley Boteach who wrote a book called Kosher Jesus. Boteach is quoted as saying, “Jews have much to learn about Jesus – and from Christianity as a whole—without accepting Jesus’ divinity. There are many reasons for accepting Jesus as a man of great wisdom, beautiful ethical teachings, and profound Jewish patriotism.”
Another Jewish author, Benyamin Cohen was highlighted in the CNN report. Cohen, an Orthodox Jew wrote a book called My Jesus Year that I remember hearing about when it was first published in 2008. Cohen spent an entire year going to various churches and the book describes his experiences.
Cohen “admits that he is jealous that Christians have Jesus.” In the CNN piece Cohen is quoted as saying, “I was shocked when I went to church and heard them give sermons about the Old Testament,” he said. “I had no idea Christians read the Old Testament.”
Cohen goes on to say, “I understand Christians’ love for Jesus and I respect that.”
“If anything, I learned a lot from them and did become a more engaged Jew, a better Jew, and I appreciate my Judaism more because I hung out with Jesus.”
After reading about Benyamin Cohen my curiosity was piqued. Since he had spent a year going to church, I decided to contact Cohen fully expecting that he could provide me with a thoughtful answer to my question, “Why was Jesus born Jewish?”
After finding his email I sent him the following message:
Can you do me a huge favor?
I am writing a piece that I will submit to www.pjmedia.com and it is called, “Why Was Jesus Born Jewish?”
Can you give me a brief answer to that question? I will include your name and link to your book.
To my surprise, Cohen responded quickly with this message:
I’m not sure I understand your question of “Why” Jesus was born Jewish … He was born Jewish. Not sure I understand the “why” question.
And then I wrote back to Cohen:
Thanks for the quick response. Let me phrase the question another way. Do you think it was a coincidence that Jesus was Jewish? Forget the “born” word. Why was he not Hindu or Gentile (pagan) or any other religion that existed at the time? Why was he Jewish? Just a quirk of fate? An accident of history? You being a learned man must have SOME good answer to this question.
Do you believe God made Jesus a Jew just for the heck of it?
Like do you believe God made you a Jew just for the heck of it?
I certainly do not believe God made me a Jew just for the heck of it.
I think this is such an interesting question that Jewish people have trouble answering but Christians can tell you the answer almost immediately.
Then Benyamin Cohen after spending a year going to church responded:
Sorry, Myra. But I don’t think I really have an opinion on this.
Now, will someone who practices Judaism PLEASE “have an opinion on this” and answer my question?
Updated: See one response: “Is God a Noun or a Verb? 6 Great Books Introducing Jewish Mysticism“