from jesus to christ - the first christians

He was born, lived, and died as a Jew

Jesus' identity cannot be understood apart from his Jewishness.

Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School

What was the dominant religious influence on [Jesus]?

Jesus was certainly subject to the influence of the traditions of Israel, there's no doubt about that. But in what form those traditions came to him in Galilee at the beginning of the first century is somewhat unclear. He certainly would have known of the Temple in Jerusalem, and probably, as traditions report..., would have gone up to Jerusalem for the major pilgrimage festivals. He would have known of the rituals of the Temple, their atoning ignificance. He would have celebrated Passover, I suspect, with his family, and would have known of the hopes embedded in Passover for divine deliverance. He probably was aware of the growing Pharisaic movement which preached a notion of purity that was available to all Jews, not simply those who were officiating at the Temple cult. He certainly would have known Jewish scripture.... And we can see in some of his parables how he plays on images from scripture. For instance, the great Cedar of Lebanon from Ezekial probably plays a role in his description of the mustard seed, which becomes a tree, and there's probably an element of parody there. So his relationship with the scriptural heritage is a complex one, but it certainly is an important one in his formation....

Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

Was Jesus Jewish and, if he was, how would that have influenced his experiences as a young man growing up in Galilee?

Was Jesus a Jew? Of course, Jesus was a Jew. He was born of a Jewish mother, in Galilee, a Jewish part of the world. All of his friends, associates, colleagues, disciples, all of them were Jews. He regularly worshipped in Jewish communal worship, what we call synagogues. He preached from Jewish text, from the Bible. He celebrated the Jewish festivals. He went on pilgrimage to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem where he was under the authority of priests.... He lived, was born, lived, died, taught as a Jew. This is obvious to any casual reader of the gospel text. What's striking is not so much that he was a Jew but that the gospels make no pretense that he wasn't. The gospels have no sense yet that Jesus was anything other than a Jew. The gospels don't even have a sense that he came to found a new religion, an idea completely foreign to all the gospel text, and completely foreign to Paul. That is an idea which comes about only later. So, to say that he was a Jew is saying a truism, is simply stating an idea that is so obvious on the face of it, one wonders it even needs to be said. But, of course, it does need to be said because we all know what happens later in the story, where it turns out that Christianity becomes something other than Judaism and as a result, Jesus in retrospect is seen not as a Jew, but as something else, as a founder of Christianity. But, of course, he was a Jew.

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

Was Jesus Jewish? Why is it so important to us and why would it have colored his perceptions?

What astonishes me when I read the stories about Jesus in the New Testament, is how completely embedded he is in this first century... Jewish world of religious practice and piety. We tend to get distracted by the major plot line of the gospels, because we're waiting for the story to develop up to the crucifixion. But, within that story, and the stories that are told by the evangelists that fills in the gap between the Galilee and Jerusalem, Jesus presented continuously as going into the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is presented as going up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage holidays, specifically in John, for any number of pilgrimage holidays, and in the synoptic gospels, most importantly, for Passover. Jerusalem at Passover is not the sort of place you'd want to be in unless you were really committed to doing an awful lot of ritual activity with tremendous historical resonance....

[W]hat we've learned from the gospel stories is not that Jesus was not Jewish. Quite the opposite. He's completely embedded in the Judaism of his time. What we learn from the gospels is that he's not a member of one of the groups whose identifying characteristics Josephus gave to us. He's not a Sadducee. He's not a Pharisee. He's always arguing with the Pharisees. He's not an Essene. He's not an insurrectionist. And the fact that he's arguing with other people who may be members of these other groups just simply signifies that he's a Jew, because that's what these Jews all did with each other -- argue with each other all the time...

For more on Jesus' Judaism, see Jaroslav Pelikan's The Rabbi..

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS