Christianity was founded by an observant Jew

Pope John Paul II greets Rabbi Elio Toaff at Rome’s main synagogue April 13, 1986. The meeting marked the beginning of a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. It was the first time a pope had entered the Rome synagogue.
CNS photo/Arturo Mari, L’Osservatore Romano

I imagine we older Catholics could be forgiven if we presumed Jesus was a Catholic like us. After all, he started us off by giving Peter a new identity as “Rock,” or Cephas in Aramaic, when he said, “You are ‘Rock,’ and on this rock I will build my church. …” (Mt 16: 18). The fact is, he was a good observant Jew, practiced in reading the Hebrew Scriptures and attending shabat synagogue. Nazareth’s was where he preached such a fiery sermon early in his career that his own neighbors were infuriated enough to seize him and take him to the brow of a hill to throw him to his death. Today, bishops assign newly ordained priests away from their home parishes, especially if they have the courage to preach social justice homilies.

Mary and Joseph had taught him well, aware that parents are the first and best teachers in the ways of the faith who don’t wait for later educators. Their Jewish loyalty saw to his being initiated into Judaism eight days after birth. It continued well past his visit to the Jerusalem temple at 12, when he discussed the Law with the amazed rabbis there, doing his Father’s business, even if his mother scolded him for getting lost for three days.

At one point his disciples, or students, asked him how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer was his answer, and it reveals his Jewishness on a couple of counts. Take the familiar Jewish dependence on God as provider of everything: “Give me neither poverty nor riches. Provide me only with the food I need, lest being full, I deny you saying, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or being in want, I steal, and profane the name of my God” (Prv 30f).

Jesus called on his Jewish disciples’ familiarity with Sirach’s “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” (28: 2). Sirach and he made their own forgiveness of others to be the kind they could expect of the all-merciful God, who is not impressed with mere words when the deeds are absent. With the terrible burning of the Temple and Jerusalem with it by the Romans in July of 70 A.D. and the flight of the people from the city, the canon — or official list — of Old Testament books excluded Sirach because it originated outside Israel, in Egypt. Thus Jews and therefore Protestants do not consider Sirach, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Baruch and 1 and 2 Maccabees to be canonical, but they revere these as noteworthy. This makes the Catholic Bible seven books longer than those of our Jewish and Protestant friends. We formed our canon at the 1545-63 Council of Trent.

All of which should cause us Catholics and other Christians to respect our Jewish ancestors in the faith. As Pope John said, “We all are spiritual Semites,” he who did so much to rescue thousands of Jews from the Holocaust while serving in Turkey. We need reminders like this. As Swiss theologian Hans Kung said, anti-Semitism is the church’s longest-standing sin. By the end of the first century, the tail was wagging the dog. Gentile converts to Christianity were multiplying despite the emperors’ persecutions while Jewish membership fell off. Someone got the idea that it would be good religion to harass both Jewish Christians and Jewish non-Christians. How God was supposed to be pleased with this attack on God’s Chosen People, a designation never retracted, still mystifies.

The Holocaust — it means wholly burnt sacrificial offering — did not just start in 20th century Nazism. Economic explanations have been offered. A people uninterested in evangelizing because blood lines established membership, thus uninterested in getting new Gentile members, pulled together and made themselves stronger against the pogroms, becoming a formidable force in banking, the only field some countries left to them because money handling was considered beneath Christian dignity. Yet Christians did not hesitate to borrow from Jewish bankers.

In Venice, Jews were consigned to an island of their own after centuries of living well with Christians there. The Yiddish word for divorce then was “ghet,” Italianized to “ghetto.” Jews were divorced from mainstream society, required to live in Jewish compounds. Into the 20th century the city of Rome’s law forbade the entrance of a synagogue being placed on a main street. A 20th century pope was the first successor of Jewish Peter to visit a synagogue.

Hard to imagine Jewish Jesus approving much of this.