Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2007

How Jewish was Jesus?

By Tony Campolo

THERE IS A CONSENSUS AMONG BIBLICAL SCHOLARS that Jesus and the New Testament can only be understood in the context of the ancient Jewish sociocultural system. However, Christian theologies over the centuries have largely developed in synthesis with Greek philosophy. This synthesis has led to many distortions of the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the Church.

One of the most important consequences of adopting Greek categories of thought has been the influence Greek thinking has had on the ways Christians have developed their understanding of human nature. The Greeks thought of human beings as consisting of two distinct parts: body and soul. For instance, the neo-Platonists of the Hellenistic culture taught that prior to birth each of us was a pure essence, existing in a transcendent spirit world. Then, according to those ancient philosophers, something tragic happened. We were born! Each of us at birth was thrust into human flesh. Each and every one of us took on a physical body. The tragedy of this incarnation was that, to the ancient Greeks, "the flesh" was the source of all evil. The parts of us that were physical were considered the enemy of our spiritual essences, which, they sadly said, were temporarily imprisoned in our bodies. In simple language, that which was spiritual was good and that which was "of the flesh" was evil.

Sexual Implications

THE CONSEQUENCES OF GREEK THINKING WERE FAR REACHING. Especially following the teachings of St. Augustine in the fourth century, this spirit/body dichotomy led Christians to view sex in very negative ways. Sex, being a physical act, was, by its very nature, considered to be something evil. It wasn't long before Christians came to think that the "original" sin of Adam and Eve, which brought decay and death into the world, was somehow related to the sexual act. Sexual intercourse came to be viewed as a necessary evil solely for the purpose of procreation, and certainly not as something to be enjoyed.

While in seminary, we theology students whispered a common joke among ourselves that we were brought up to believe that sex was a dirty filthy thing--and that you should save it for the person that you married!

If we Christians had stayed with Hebraic anthropology, we would have developed a far healthier attitude towards sex. The ancient Jews differed from the Greeks who taught the mind/body dichotomy, and offered instead a holistic view of human nature. The ancient Jews certainly believed that there was a spiritual dimension to human nature in that they believed that something of God was "breathed" into every person from the first day of creation on—giving to each human being an infinitely precious sacredness (see Genesis 2:7). For Jews, God so permeated our bodies that the two could not be separated. The bodies of every human being were always to be viewed as saturated with the presence of God.

Hebraic anthropology freed sexuality from the denigration so common in Christian theologies, and established the sexual act as something that could create intimacy between persons rather than just as an unholy biological function promoted primarily for reproductive purposes. A careful reading of the New Testament will show that Jesus was Hebraic in his thinking and, therefore, it can be assumed that he would have viewed sexuality in this very positive way. A lot of feelings of guilt could have been avoided, and much help could have been provided for those struggling with sexual adjustments in marriage, if Christians were into the mind of the Jewish Jesus instead of the Greek St. Augustine.

The salvation Jesus offered us was not simply something to free the spirit from "the lusts of the flesh," but a salvation that was for the whole person. He came to make people whole (see Acts 9:34; Mark 5:34). Jesus, as a true Jew, accepted the creation story and therefore believed that all that his heavenly Father had created was good, and that goodness certainly included the body with all of its functions. Christians today would have much healthier sex lives and a more life-affirming philosophy if they shared Christ Jesus' mindset.

Concerning the Resurrection

PRIOR TO THE SYNTHESIS OF GREEK NEO-PLATONISM with Christian theologies, the writers of the New Testament clearly taught that in the life after death, those whose lives had been yielded to the lordship of Jesus would have resurrected bodies. Their new bodies, they believed, would be transformed and different from their natural bodies, but, nevertheless, still be physical bodies. Not only did they believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, they also believed that all who have surrendered their lives to Jesus will have resurrected bodies.

This doctrine is a far cry from what you are likely to hear at most Christian funerals where preachers say, "The body is in the grave, but the spirit has gone up to Heaven." The early Christians, like Jesus, affirmed that doctrine of the physical resurrection of the whole person, rather than the Greek doctrine of spiritual immortality (see I Corinthians 15:20, 35-44). As a Christian, I have no idea how God will reconstruct our bodies after they have turned to dust, but from what we are learning about the possibilities of reconstructing bodies from DNA, such a thing does not seem unthinkable.

Whether or not you accept what the early Christians thought about the afterlife, I want you to know that I believe it.

Christian Existentialism

A VERY IMPORTANT BENEFIT THAT COULD COME FROM REJECTING THE NEO-PLATONIST anthropology and embracing the Hebraic view of human nature embraced by Jesus is that it could lead to Christians embracing a positive religious form of existentialism. If there is no "essential self" that existed prior to birth, then we Christians are freed from that pop psychology, so neo-Platonist in its implications, which tells us that each of us is called to find himself or herself.

The oracle of Delphi told Socrates to find himself because there was a presupposition that there was such a thing as a pre-existing essential self, waiting to be discovered through introspection. Hebraic anthropology would never lead to such a conclusion. Furthermore, I think it would save a lot of people a lot of trouble. When I consider the time wasted by innumerable young people who go off to "find themselves—usually in Boulder, Colorado—I feel like weeping. If they realized that there is no pre-existing essential self waiting to be discovered through introspection, they would be released to see that it remains for each person to create his or her life's essential meaning. That can be done only one way, according to scripture: through commitments. We are what we commit ourselves to, and the uncommitted have no essential meaning to their lives. The Hebrew prophets called people to commit themselves to living out the will of God (Joshua 24:15). Jesus called all who would be Christians to become committed to the work that he wants to do through them in this world. Jesus taught his disciples to live out love and justice so that God's Kingdom could be established here on earth (see Matt. 6:10).

Being Christian is not simply a ticket to eternal life. It is much more than that. It is a call to establish meaning for our lives through the commitments we make to change the world that is into the world that ought to be. In such a call, Jews and Christians can come together in a common cause. Together we can make existential commitments to seek to actualize something of the Kingdom envisioned by the prophet Isaiah, who wrote:

    For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former
shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice
forever in what I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem as a
rejoicing, And her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, And joy
in My people; The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her,
Nor the voice of crying. No more shall an infant from there live but a
few days, Nor an old man who has not fulfilled his days; For the child
shall die one hundred years old, But the sinner being one hundred
years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build
and another inhabit; They shall not plant and another eat; For as the
days of a tree, so shall be the days of My people, And My elect shall
long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, Nor
bring forth children for trouble; For they shall be the descendants of
the blessed of the Lord, And their offspring with them. It shall come
to pass That before they call, I will answer; And while they are still
speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, The
lion shall eat straw like the ox, And dust shall be the serpent's
food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, Says
the Lord.
  —Isaiah 65:17-25
Jesus, being Jewish, embraced Isaiah's vision of a new world. So did the early Christians. 
Such a commitment can be shared with our Jewish brothers and sisters, and together 
we can make the commitment to struggle to actualize that vision in the here and now.

Anthony Campolo, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Eastern University, is the founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that develops schools and social programs in various third world countries and in cities across North America. He is the author of thirty-four books, including his most recent two, Letters to a Young Evangelical and The God of Intimacy and Action.

Source Citation

Campolo, Anthony. 2007. How Jewish was Jesus? Tikkun 22(6): 26.

tags: Christianity, Judaism  
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