How Jewish Was Jesus?

By Campolo, Tony | Tikkun, November/December 2007 | Go to article overview

How Jewish Was Jesus?


Campolo, Tony, Tikkun


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.

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