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The Jewish Jesus of the NT Gospels

June 19, 2019

Among the comments responding to my posting about the depiction of the infant Jesus in Christian art, a couple of them prompt me to respond in another post.

One comment points to the way that visual representations of Jesus in art (and the movies too) in the West often give a blue-eyed, blond/light-haired, fair-skinned figure.  This compares with the visual depictions that one finds in the East, giving a rather oriental-looking figure, or in Africa, where Jesus may be depicted as black African.  Another comment inquires whether this re-culturalization of Jesus also might have characterized the earliest literary depictions of Jesus, in the four NT Gospels.

These comments prompt me to reiterate an observation laid out briefly in my book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003, esp. pp. 265-70).  One of the major characteristics shared by all four Gospels is

“how fully they site their accounts of Jesus in a specific historical, cultural, and geographical setting.  Each writer locates Jesus in early-first-century Roman Judea (Palestine), and each rendition of Jesus’ activities is rich in ‘local color’.” (265)

The accounts are rife with geographical references to Lake Galilee, Capernaum, Nazareth, Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis area, Samaria, Jericho, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Tyre and Sidon, and Jerusalem, for example.  Incidents set in Jerusalem refer to the temple, precincts of the Roman governor, and nearby villages such as Bethany.

References to the religious and cultural setting abound.  We learn of Jewish groups such as Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, temple priests and hierarchy, and Jewish scribes. The issues dealt with have to do with Jewish law and scruples, such as Sabbath observance, food laws, divorce and remarriage, skin diseases, swearing oaths, tithing, and taxation.  Whatever the differences between Jesus and his interlocutors, the issues are thoroughly Jewish.  There are references to Jewish festivals such as Passover, and issues of religious controversy such as resurrection of the dead.  We hear about governing authorities and structures such as Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, the high priest Caiaphas, and the Roman governor Pilate.

The use of Semitic expressions also features.  The frequency varies, with GMark using them most.[1]  Given that GMark was written for a mainly non-Jewish readership (note, e.g., the necessity to explain Jewish customs in 7:1-8), this deliberate reflection of Jesus’ own linguistic context is all the more interesting.

The Jesus of the Gospels confines his activities to his own people, with only a couple of exceptions, and these marked as such in the texts (the Syrophoenecian woman in Mark 7:24-30/Matt 15:21-28; the gentile demoniac in Mark 5:1-20/Matt 8:28-34/Luke 8:26-39).  He observes temple festivals (especially in GJohn), and goes to synagogues on the Sabbath.  He is depicted as wearing tassles at the corners of his garment (e.g., Mark 6:56).

In short, in apparent contrast to the tactics reflected later in much/most Christian art, the authors of the Gospels firmly place Jesus in his own historical context/setting.  The early retention of a Jewish Jesus is impressive, and was, apparently, religiously meaningful, at least in the sort of beliefs of those who wrote and read these texts.  This is so programmatic that it had to have been intentional.  It also contrasts with the more a-historical depiction of Jesus in texts such as the Gospel of Thomas, which gives scant indication of any specific setting, presenting instead a kind of talking head delivering statements that are often riddling as well.

[1] See, e.g., M. Graves, “Languages of Palestine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (InterVarsity Press, 2013), 489-90.  There are some thirty uses of Semitic loanwords in the Gospels, most of them likely Aramaic.

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  1. The religious, cultural, and geographical settings strongly portray 1st Century Judea. However, it does not follow that Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John are Judean. The theological/philosophical discourses dominated by the metaphysical language of phos, skotia, logos, zoe, etc. are markedly akin to Hellenistic Diaspora Judaism (think Philo–who uses this metaphysical language and similarly reinterprets the Dionysian myth about miraculous wine-making by attributing it to the Logos working through Melchizedek) not Judean writers. So although “the Gospels firmly place Jesus in his own historical context/setting,” the Gospel of John makes him talk like someone outside of Judea in a Hellenistic Jewish context.

    • Paul: To be sure, GJohn represents a distinctive rendition of Jesus, especially his words. But the primary lens or force is the “revelatory” work of the “Parakletos”, not Hellenistic Judaism or Philo. Whatever you make of such experiences, they led to a “fuller” understanding of Jesus’ words (in the view of the Johannine author). But even in GJohn, the setting is thoroughly Judean and Jewish.

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