Was Jesus a religious bigot?
Yes, most probably. But before you dismiss this, please read a bit further.
Jesus is almost universally seen as a great moral teacher who loved everyone especially the downtrodden, poor and needy. This is partly true. Jesus seemed to have no patience for the religious leaders who would not accept his divine authority. Nor did his ministry extend to non Jews.
Whenever we read of Jesus through the four gospels, it is always in the context of Judea or Galilee. His words were couched in the language of the law and Judaism. He related to those to whom he ministered with this assumption and understanding.
As has been robustly discussed in previous blog posts, Jesus focus was on the imminent arrival of the kingdom which had already begun to appear. In fact, his presence as an eschatological prophet through whom God exercised his power with exorcisms was proof the kingdom was “near.”
Jesus promoted religious exclusivity. It is easy to forget his ministry was entirely to fellow Israelites. He had no interest in Gentiles unless they had converted to Judaism (proselytized). Even half Jews (Samaritans) were unworthy of his attention.
21”Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.” (Matthew 15:21-28)
The story of the “Canaanite woman” (above) is intended to challenge the lack of receptivity to his message Jesus encountered among Israelites. Note Jesus here refers to Israelites as “children” (of God) but to those like this Canaanite woman as “dogs.” Imagine if someone today made the same comparison. They would immediately fall under the weight of social media being branded as intolerant and insensitive.
Because Christians assume Jesus was right in everything he did, everybody therefore who opposed him is wrong. Undoubtedly Jesus encountered massive resistance to his role as eschatological prophet among the religious elite and leaders. His followers necessarily attacked them for failing to believe even though in reality, they were correct!
21“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)
Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel (above) is a much later Christian invention designed to intimate the future universality of the gospel. Though not an authentic story, it contains an interesting bit of insight. Jesus is telling her during this time “salvation is from the Jews” meaning through the law but “a time is coming” when Jerusalem (the Temple) will no longer be God’s dwelling place. Worshippers will have a new road to God through the spirit which will be granted after Jesus’ death (see John chapters 14 & 16).
1When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6So Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
9When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.”(Luke 7:1-10)
10”When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.”And his servant was healed at that moment.”(Matthew 8:10-13, see also Lk. 13:28,29)
The healing of the centurion’s servant is another poignant lesson intended to provoke Israelites to listen to Jesus. Matthew offers additional vital information.
If we try to put ourselves in the mind of Jesus during his ministry, his infuriation with many of his fellow “Jews” (Israelites) at failing to heed his words must have angered him tremendously. He truly believed in his message, yet it fell mostly on deaf ears. Occasionally, a non Jew heard, or in the above case a Gentile god fearer or half convert to Judaism (Lk. 7:5), of his healing power and sought him out for help. The examples above illustrate how frustrated this must have made Jesus to have Gentiles and Samaritans show him more respect than his fellow countrymen.
Matthew’s passage describes how when the messianic kingdom does arrive, it will be too late for those Israelites who rejected Jesus’ warnings. Instead, it will be populated by those “from the east and west” and “north and south” (Lk. 13:29) signifying not Gentile nations but Israelites scattered throughout the Roman world.
Jesus often stressed the dichotomy between Israelites who rejected him and those who accepted him. Typically it was a class divide with the religious leaders and elites opposing him while the common Jew was more likely to heed his call. Christians have incorrectly read “Gentile” inclusion into passages such as these, quoting Hebrew texts in support.
NOTE: Many of the following texts are cited in a larger context to allow the reader to examine the author’s intent. “Plucking” a verse out of its strict textual confines is irresponsible hermeneutics if one is concerned with the original meaning. On the other hand, verses can provide multiple illustrations by way of “loose” application.
6“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6,7)
5”I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
6so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:5,6)
5”And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am a honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
7This is what the Lord says—
the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—
to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation,
to the servant of rulers:
“Kings will see you and stand up,
princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Isaiah 49:5-7)
7”How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
8Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
9Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:7-10)
19From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
that the breath of the Lord drives along. a
20“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 59:19,20)
2”See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:2,3, also 62:2)
19”Lord, my strength and my fortress,
my refuge in time of distress,
to you the nations will come
from the ends of the earth and say,
“Our ancestors possessed nothing but false gods,
worthless idols that did them no good.
20Do people make their own gods?
Yes, but they are not gods!”
21“Therefore I will teach them—
this time I will teach them
my power and might.
Then they will know
that my name is the Lord.” (Jeremiah 16:19-21)
20”This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, 21and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’ 22And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.”
23This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’ “ (Zechariah 8:20-23)
11”My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 1:11)
21“I will display my glory among the nations, and all the nations will see the punishment I inflict and the hand I lay on them. 22From that day forward the people of Israel will know that I am the Lord their God. 23And the nations will know that the people of Israel went into exile for their sin, because they were unfaithful to me. So I hid my face from them and handed them over to their enemies, and they all fell by the sword. 24I dealt with them according to their uncleanness and their offenses, and I hid my face from them.
25“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will now restore the fortunes of Jacob d and will have compassion on all the people of Israel, and I will be zealous for my holy name. 26They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward me when they lived in safety in their land with no one to make them afraid. 27When I have brought them back from the nations and have gathered them from the countries of their enemies, I will be proved holy through them in the sight of many nations. 28Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind. 29I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the people of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 39:21-29)
Christians see what they want to see in the Hebrew writings. They are mentally conditioned to read Christian theology into every book of the Hebrew Bible. Teachers unabashedly declare, “Jesus can be found on every page of the Old Testament if you look hard enough.” They are right.
From its beginnings, Christians have been scouring the pages of the divinely inspired Hebrew writings in search of clues concerning every aspect of Jesus life from birth to death to resurrection. Genesis 3:16 is considered the “original gospel.” Abraham’s covenant with God is thought to contain the seeds of Gentile inclusion. The Exodus from Egypt is a picture of a sinners departure from sins captivity and entrance to the Promised Land a new beginning in Christ. The Law given to Moses is a “school teacher” leading us to the grace provided under Jesus and freedom from the law. Throughout the Hebrew Bible verses are thought to abound with nuances of Jesus and the Christian life.
The many passages cited above must be understood in historical and religious context. The Hebrew prophets were in no way “hinting” at Christianity. They were proclaiming times when God’s glory would be manifested throughout the earth specifically to those “nations” who had mistreated and abused Israel for centuries. A day was coming when justice would come upon the earth under the mighty hand of Israel’s God, Yahweh. Many “kings” would realize the frailty or falsity of their own gods and turn to Yahweh in humble adoration. The picture is of submission and humility before God.
Words like these from the prophets must have evoked great pride among the people. They were saying in effect, one day the world would get its comeuppance and Israel would finally be vindicated. These words would resonate especially during times of great suffering under foreign enemies. Its kinda like the small kid in the playground being bullied until one day he grows up bigger than everyone else and gets his revenge.
The final passage in Ezekiel perfectly captures this idea. The return fromBabylonian captivity under order from the Persian king Cyrus, seemed undeniable proof Israel’s God was ultimately in control. It was thought, incorrectly, the return would be followed by the inevitable restoration of the land which never materialized. Hope was deferred and Israel yet awaits this day.
Jesus and later Jewish Christians continued to hold out hope this day of Israel’s restoration would take place before the close of the first century (see The Magi’s visit to Herod, Matt. 2:1-6, The angel’s words to Mary, Lk. 1:32,33, Mary’s song, Lk. 2:46-55, Zechariah’s prophesy, Lk. 1:67-79, The words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Lk. 24:21 and the disciples query concerning Israel’s restoration before Jesus’ ascension, Acts 1:6).
Christians particularly Paul invented a new Jesus, the heavenly Christ. Initially, Jesus’ disciples remained within the strict boundaries of Judaism advocating total adherence to the Mosaic Law. The early chapters of Acts clearly testify to their focus on Israel’s salvation (rf. Acts 2:14,22,29,36,39; 3:17,20). Later Paul would challenge Jewish exclusivity and introduce a monumental shift in the direction the gospel. He would appeal to the Hebrew Bible to justify Gentile inclusion outside the law offering salvation by grace through faith apart from the law.