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The Big Question

Did Jesus intend to start Christianity?

By James Christie

Two decades ago, I was asked by Glenn Watson, who led the Ontario government’s inquiry into teaching religion in public primary schools, for a working definition of religion. I said that religion is best defined as “what people believe and what they do about it.”

It is not an easy thing to start — or perhaps more accurately, invent — a religion. To my knowledge, the only religious tradition of global consequence to have been invented from whole cloth is Scientology. I offer no comment on either Scientology or Scientologists, but simply observe that the late and very talented author of vast amounts of pulp fiction, L. Ron Hubbard, created Scientology almost six decades ago. His success as a writer has been mirrored in his success as a religionist.

But religious traditions tend to grow organically from pre-existing religions based on either a new revelation by God, as in Islam, or a new insight, as in Buddhism.

Christianity grew out of Judaism. This is because Jesus was a Jew. He was born a Jew. He died a Jew. His first followers were Jews.

While this may be common knowledge to many readers of The Observer, it is news for many Christians. Over the millennia (for a variety of reasons, most of them anti-Semitic), many outside the Christian church — and shamefully even within — have gone to great lengths to hide or obscure Jesus’ Jewishness.

It was explicit in Hitler’s sorry polemic that while Paul was a Jew, Jesus was an Aryan. It was implicit in the blue-eyed Jesus of generations of Sunday school portraits of the Good Shepherd.

We meet the risen Christ in Paul’s letters and those of Paul’s imitators in the New Testament.

We meet Jesus of Nazareth in the four Gospels written some 30 to 50 years after Paul died in Rome. All four Gospels are clearly Jewish in tone and content, and place Jesus within the context of the first-century Jewish world of Judea. All four demonstrate that Jesus’ favourite form of repartee was most frequently delivered as apt quotes from the Jewish Scriptures — the only texts available to the New Testament authors.

Matthew, Mark and Luke were almost certainly written as a result of the “crisis of faith” late in the first century when it became apparent that the generation that knew Jesus personally was beginning to drop off the twig. The first Christians wanted to remember him as the itinerant carpenter and rabbi, which he most certainly was.

Mark places Jesus squarely in the Jewish prophetic tradition reinvigorated by John the Baptizer. Matthew is unequivocal in his Jewishness, from the extensive begats of the first chapter to the Jewish teaching style throughout. Luke recounts the infant Jesus’ dedication in the Temple at Jerusalem, and brings him back to Jerusalem for his bar mitzvah. John is so determined to be Jewish that he sets the last supper not as the first Seder of Passover but on the evening before, so that Jesus himself is understood to be the sacrificial lamb.

Jesus was Jewish, and there is no evidence either direct or deduced from Scripture that suggests he intended to be other than Jewish. He venerated the Torah, performed his temple duties, loved the synagogue; and his God was clearly the One God of the Jews. He was also an apocalyptic Jew, convinced that God was about to ring down the curtain on the human drama and establish a new divine reign in creation. He says so.

And in the poignant story in Mark 7, the Canaanite woman with the critically ill daughter demonstrates to Jesus that the God of Israel really does love all people. He got that. We thank God for it.

But did he intend to start a new religion named after him? No. There is no evidence that St. Paul intended that, either.

Politics led to the religious structure we call Christianity. In the first instance, it was the struggle for survival between Pharisaic Judaism and the Jesus movement, which emerged from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70. In the second, it was the calamitous co-option of the church for imperial ends by Constantine in AD 325, from which we have yet to recover.

In the 21st century, a Christian is a gentile who, through the grace of God in Jesus Christ, has been introduced to the God of Israel.

Pray that someday we’ll be gracious enough to admit it.

Rev. James Christie is a professor of dialogue theology at the University of Winnipeg.

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