When I was a guest on Dr. Michael Brown’s nationally syndicated radio show “Line of Fire,” our conversation focused on a chapter in my book Jesus Uncensored, entitled “The Ethnic Cleansing of Judaism in Medieval and Renaissance Art.” Here I show that classical artworks washed out all traces of Judaism in the personae of Jesus, his family, and followers–despite the fact that they were all dedicated practicing Jews throughout their lives. The process of totally Christianizing the Jesus circle placed an artificial wedge between Judaism and Christianity that remained in place for centuries.
As late as the nineteenth century a painting of Jesus and his family by British artist John Everett Millais and another of the twelve-year-old Jesus by German painter Max Liebermann met with public uproar because they were deemed too Jewish . Liebermann repainted his young Jesus, rendering him blond with no indication of his Middle Eastern Jewish ethnicity. He took the Jew out of Jesus, which soothed and pleased the critics.
Surprisingly, that legacy of bristling at Jewish Jesus representations continues to the present day. Here’s what a listener to Michael Brown’s radio show said in response to my interview:
“While I was in high school–a Catholic high school–we had a project to draw in class. I drew a picture of Jesus, but removed his golden locks and blue eyes and replaced them with a more Middle Eastern looking man with thick hair. The teacher lost her mind. All this resulted in a trip to the Dean’s office, as if I offended her. All I heard was ‘why does it matter.’ So I said, ‘You tell me why it matters. I don’t recall too many blond-haired, blue-eyed people from that region of the world.'”
In commentaries and descriptions of exhibits of artworks depicting Jesus, we never hear that these paintings, as magnificent as they are artistically, distort and falsify biblical history. Renaissance artists revolutionized art with the introduction of realism and naturalism over the earlier artificialism and primitivism. Unfortunately, naturalism and realism did not extend to who the figures were naturally and realistically in their actual lives. Art historians with whom I’ve spoken dismiss these criticisms as ignorance about the Renaissance style of contemporizing figures in painting–dressing people in contemporary Renaissance attire and picturing them in Renaissance settings as Northern Europeans in skin tone and physical appearance.
While it is true that this kind of historical distortion was commonplace in Renaissance painting, it does not explain the obliteration of Jesus’ and his family’s true identities or the pictorial conversion of orthodox Jews into latter-day Christians.
Nowhere in these artworks is there a hint of the subjects’ Jewish identities or origins. For example, Bartolome Esteban Murillo‘s sixteenth century painting The Baptism of Christ pictures John the Baptist baptizing Jesus–an act reported in the Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23). Curiously, Jesus and John are not dressed in Renaissance attire, but John is holding a crucifix staff, thus telling the viewer that this is a Christian event and a Christian conversion.
Baptism of Christ by wikimedia
The fact is that there was no Christianity at the time of this baptism, nor did John or Jesus have any intention or desire to launch a new religion. Neither Jesus nor John ever heard the word “Christian”; it does not appear in the Gospels, although the term “Jew” appears eighty two-times. Moreover, John only baptized Jews–purifying them with the ancient Jewish practice of baptism for the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
Murillo’s powerful image supports the false conclusion that Christianity was already present. Consider too that the cross was a hated symbol in the time of Jesus and John the Baptist–a reminder of the countless times Jews were brutally crucified by the Romans. Jesus and John would very likely cringe at the image of the cross in this depiction. The cross didn’t become a Christian symbol until the fourth century CE, when it was introduced by the Emperor Constantine on his military banner and shields . No wonder that it didn’t catch on promptly as an endearing Christian symbol.
What has been overlooked by art historians and other apologists is that the pervasive distortions of biblical history in misrepresenting Jesus, his family, and followers established a powerful foundation for anti-Semitism–anti-Semitism by omission. In stripping away Jesus’ Jewish identity these paintings implanted the firm conviction that Jesus was of different ethnicity and religion than the others–the Jews. This conclusion was made even more explicit in paintings like The Tribute Money , by Peter Paul Rubens (1612), and Albrecht Durer’s sixteenth-century Christ Among the Doctors (Pharisees), both of which depict a blond ethereal Jesus in contrast to the dark, menacing and ugly Jews–the others.
If we were to restore the authentic ethnicity of Jesus and others, these painting would be strikingly different, even while preserving the “Renaissance style.” Consider, for example, Michael Pacher’s fifteenth century painting The Marriage of the Virgin, which depicts the marriage ceremony (some say betrothal) of Mary and Joseph. In reality, Mary was a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl from a rural village in Nazareth. Her betrothal and marriage was to Joseph, a working-class Jew originally from Bethlehem. After their marriage they showed their dedication to Judaism by taking the arduous seven-day trip to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Jewish holidays, particularly the Passover festival (Luke 2:41).
In Pacher’s painting, Mary and Joseph are Christians, with the marriage ceremony performed by a latter-day Christian high church official in a Christian setting. Mary and Joseph’s Jewish identities are erased. Several other Medieval and Renaissance paintings of the marriage also Christianized this Jewish marriage ceremony. Similar misrepresentations of other scenes and events are typical and routine for classical artworks.
Marriage of the Virgin by WIkimedia
In writing about this “ethnic cleansing of Judaism in Medieval and Renaissance art” in Jesus Uncensored I presented a “what if?” that punctuates why artists would not dare to paint a Jewish Jesus:
“Imagine, let’s say, if the painter Raphael presented his patron with a scene of Jesus in a synagogue with a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), wearing tassels (tstsit), donning phylacteries (tefillin) for morning prayer, and surrounded by other Jewish worshipers in similar attire–with Jesus pictured affectionately kissing his beloved Torah. “Raphael, what have you given me?” the startled patron would surely ask. “Sir,” Raphael would respond, “this is a painting of the authentic Jesus. That’s what Jesus did every morning. Don’t you want to experience the real Jesus?” The patron is unlikely to be impressed and Raphael might then be swiftly turned over to the Inquisition.” (This “what if” image is based on a description in Luke 4:16 of Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath.)
It’s widely acknowledged that Jesus was a thoroughly practicing Jew throughout his life. Anglican Priest Bruce Chilton expressed that conclusion explicitly and concisely in his book “Rabbi Jesus”: “It became clear to me that everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews.”
But what about Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles? It’s generally accepted that Paul was the true founder of a new religion called Christianity. Biblical scholar Gerd Ludemann, author of several books about Jesus and Paul including “Paul: Founder of Christianity,” affirms that “Without Paul there would be no church and no Christianity.” Ludemann adds, “He’s the most decisive person that shaped Christianity as it developed. Without Paul we would have had reformed Judaism … but no Christianity.”
Paul converted Jews and then Gentiles to Jewish Christianity, basing these conversions on his belief in the teachings, resurrection and divinity of Jesus. But powerful evidence within “Acts of the Apostles,” the book of the New Testament that chronicles Paul’s mission, reveals that Paul, like Jesus, remained a dedicated Jew until his execution. In fact, if Paul had simply stated that he was no longer a Jew but the leader of a new religion, he would not have been imprisoned or executed.
During Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, his appearance and teachings in the Temple in Jerusalem set off a disturbance in which some Jews rioted against him (Acts 21:26-28). He was then charged with blasphemy by the Sanhedrin and would have to stand trial before the Jewish authorities — and face a possible death sentence. The Sanhedrin was able to indict Paul and put him on trial by the special privilege that the Romans gave the Jews. Judaism was a protected religion under the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and Paul. Jews had their own King (Herod the Great, Herod Antipas and Herod Agrippa). But more important, the Jewish leadership was invested with the right to rule over Jewish affairs. They could bring charges against Jews who violated Jewish laws or who were deemed blasphemous or heretical. That power is why the Sanhedrin was able to indict Jesus. It also explains why the Sanhedrin was able to authorize Paul’s persecutory frenzy to chain and drag back to Jerusalem Jewish followers of Jesus in synagogues as distant as Damascus (Acts 8:3; Acts 9: 1, 2). Although the Sanhedrin could bring charges against Jews and even set the punishment, only the Romans could execute (although that’s not entirely clear since some violators of Jewish law were stoned to death by Jews).
The special status of Jews was first stated in an edict by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus in 1 B.C.E. and reaffirmed by Emperor Claudius Augustus in 41 C.E.:
Edict of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus on Jewish Rights, 1 BCE
Caesar Augustus, pontifex maximus, holding the tribunician power, proclaims: Since the nation of the Jews and Hyrcanus, their high priest, have been found grateful to the people of the Romans, not only in the present but also in the past, and particularly in the time of my father, Caesar, imperator, it seems good to me and to my advisory council, according to the oaths, by the will of the people of the Romans, that the Jews shall use their own customs in accordance with their ancestral law, just as they used to use them in the time of Hyrcanus, the high priest of their highest god; and that their sacred offerings shall be inviolable and shall be sent to Jerusalem and shall be paid to the financial officials of Jerusalem; and that they shall not give sureties for appearance in court on the Sabbath or on the day of preparation before it after the ninth hour. But if anyone is detected stealing their sacred books or their sacred monies, either from a synagogue or from a mens’ apartment, he shall be considered sacrilegious and his property shall be brought into the public treasury of the Romans.
Later, during the ministry of Paul, the Emperor Claudius reconfirmed the special status of Jews:
Edict of Roman Emperor Claudius Augustus on Jewish Rights, 41 CE
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, pontifex maximus, holding the tribunician power, proclaims: …Therefore it is right that also the Jews, who are in all the world under us, shall maintain their ancestral customs without hindrance and to them I now also command to use this my kindness rather reasonably and not to despise the religious rites of the other nations, but to observe their own laws.
The Romans were tolerant of all religions under their rule as long as adherents obeyed Roman law and paid taxes. While Jews could rule over Jewish matters, they had no jurisdiction over people of other religions. In principle, Roman paganism was an affront to Judaism. But they could do nothing about that other than negotiate with the Romans to mitigate pagan practices in the Temple area and in some public Roman ceremonies.
After his arrest, Paul faced charges of blasphemy: “And after five days Ananias, the high priest, descended with the elders, and with a certain orator named Tertullus, who informed the Governor against Paul” (Acts 24:1).
Paul could only be charged if he were a Jew. After being detained for two years he was brought before the new Roman governor Porcius Festus. The Sanhedrin repeated the charge of blasphemy: “Then the high priest and the chief of the Jews informed him [Festus] against Paul, and besought him” (Acts 25:2). Fearing a trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome. Festus granted Paul his choice: “Hast thou appealed unto CÃ¦sar? Unto CÃ¦sar shalt thou go” (Acts 25:12).
At no time during Paul’s lengthy ordeal did he repudiate Judaism or declare that he represented a new religion. Had he done so, he would have been immediately released — especially since he was a privileged Roman citizen. The Sanhedrin wouldn’t have had any authority over Paul.
After a long treacherous trip that included a shipwreck that almost killed him, Paul arrived in Rome and was put under house arrest. He promptly invited the Jewish leadership of Rome to his residence to explain why he was imprisoned:
“Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me. But when the Jews spake against it, I was constrained to appeal unto CÃ¦sar; not that I had ought to accuse my nation of. For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.” (Acts 28: 17-20)
Still, Paul said nothing about a new religion. On the contrary, he presented himself to the Roman Jewish community as a loyal Jew who was being persecuted for his revisionist views. Since the Romans had no quarrel with him, as a Roman citizen, and with the Sanhedrin a continent away, there would be no viable case against Paul — if he had denounced his affiliation to Judaism and declared a new religion. At this point in his life, facing trial and execution for blasphemy against Judaism, didn’t Paul have every reason to sever his tie to Judaism? The Sanhedrin, representing traditional Judaism, sent a clear message by their action against Paul: “We will not accept your beliefs and teachings about Jesus.” Despite this definitive rejection, Paul didn’t choose the obvious way out of the clutches of the Sanhedrin: declaration of a new religion. This strategy never even showed up for discussion. Paul chose to go to his death as a Jew. Why?
Paul’s vision was to make his brand of Judaism — with the recognition of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah — a world religion easily accessible to everyone. He never surrendered that passion. But after his death the accelerating conversion of Gentiles to a movement that began as Jewish Christianity became increasingly distanced from Judaism — and a new religion was launched.
Nevertheless, an understanding of the deep connection to Judaism held by the founders of Christianity should highlight the common ground of Judaism and Christianity and pave the way to reconciliation between the two faiths.
John Gallen writes:
I thought this may be of interest considering all the coverage of the fighting in Israel / Palestine over the past couple of weeks.
It is often said that Ireland or the Irish are anti-semitic. Something I have never believed. And now we have some proper research from the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, Tel-Aviv University Their data has been put into a choropleth map by a Evangelos Kapros of TCD. More on him here
Anyway, according to this map there has been 1 incident in Ireland per 2.4m individuals between 2001 and 2010.
The UK – 1 incident per 51,000
The USA – 1 incident per 75,000
So, the likelihood of an antisemitic incident is 32 times more likely in the USA than Ireland and 47 times more likely in the UK.
I think that should put an end to any nonsense of this island being called antisemitic for good. The next time someone speaks out for Palestine, it is more likely a show of solidarity for an oppressed people than any type of antisemitism.