‘And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised,” we read in the Gospel of Luke, “he was called Jesus.” For centuries, Jan. 1 was celebrated in the Christian church’s liturgical calendar as the Feast of the Circumcision. That defining ritual of initiation into Judaism, the event where Jesus received his name, might have sealed for good the question of his ethnicity. But an ancient religious amnesia, combined with a modern construction of categories by race, has confused things. Recently, in the run-up to Christmas, there was a media kerfuffle over Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s insistence that Jesus, like Santa Claus, was “white.” In the heated back-and-forth that followed, the impoverishment of contemporary thinking on racial matters was once more on display. Leaving aside Santa, the flap over the “whiteness” of Jesus was absurd and insignificant.
Well, not quite. The contretemps showed how readily one’s unexamined assumptions can distort not only facts about history’s great figures, but also the actual meaning they had in the first place.
I remember the Bible picture books of my childhood that showed Jesus with light brown hair, blue eyes, pale skin, an uncovered head — features characteristic of northern Europeans. No dark skin for Jesus, no heavy brow, no yarmulke. I did not know it, but a fully Aryan Jesus had taken hold in the Germanic imagination. On both sides of the North Atlantic, a broad Christian scholarship downplayed any notion that Jesus was a Jew. Emphasis was put on the fact that he was not “Judean,” but “Galilean.” He was “the Nazarene.” Jesus was a Christian, period.
This was taken to be a matter not of bigotry, but of theology. Jesus came to be understood as breaking from, and contrasting with, the milieu of religious practice and belief in which he actually lived. The Jewish God, supposedly, was judging; Jesus’ God was merciful. Jewish religion was hierarchical; Jesus was an egalitarian. Because Jesus was divine, he had no need of Jewish rituals or prayers as ways to bridge the gap with God; for him, there was no gap.
Therefore, the Gospels were read as a mortal contest between Jews (“the Pharisees”) who defended laws like Sabbath observance and Jesus, who proclaimed freedom from such strictures in the name of grace and love. Any impulse to imagine Jesus as essentially Jewish would destroy what made him special. “If Jesus had simply preached the ordinary Judaism of his day,” as the Jewish scholar Susannah Heschel writes of this view, “the foundations of Christianity as a distinctive and unparalleled religion were shattered.”
But by deleting the Jewishness of Jesus, Christianity prepared the soil for the demonizing of Jews, a religious anti-Judaism that morphed eventually into an anti-Semitism defined by “blood impurity.” From that bigotry based in biology sprouted the European racism that would undergird imperial exploitation of native peoples everywhere. That ultimately led, in turn, to the invention of the ethnic category “white,” whose relevance grew ever greater in America. If Christians, that is, had not forgotten that Jesus was a loyal son of Israel from birth to death, the history of the last 2,000 years would be very different — and not just for Jews.
More recently, Christian theology has begun to reimagine Jesus as the fully committed Jew he was. If there were disputes in his time over questions of Jewish belief and practice — and there were — they unfolded within the religion of Jews, not against it. It is dead wrong to think that Jesus preached a New Testament God of love against an Old Testament God of law. Jesus, the evidence suggests, preached the one God of Israel, pure and simple.
Religious scholars, Christian and Jewish both, have finally begun to deal with the implications of the fact that the historical Jesus may have preached the “ordinary Judaism of his day.” To many believers this scholarship is disconcerting, because it blurs the set boundaries within which Western civilization unfolded — for better and worse. But this quest points, also, toward a more humane understanding of identities both human and divine. The circumcised Jesus was not “white.” But, then, neither is God.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.