I left off in the Jewish bookstore part 1, frustrated because Avi believed the reason Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah was because he was a pagan, therefore they chose fidelity to God, rather than allowing Jesus to lead them into paganism. Oy!
To be clear, I didn’t go to the Jewish bookstore to talk about Jesus. I’m comfortable with who I am (Christian),with who Jesus is (messiah), and I’ve done the searching and studying long ago. I don’t walk up to strangers and just start a conversation, especially about something as personal as religion; in other words, I wasn’t there to impose my beliefs on Avi.
If I could summarize the spiritual focus and intent of my adult life in a single word, it would be congruency: learning to live what I claim to believe. I’m rebellious, so it hasn’t always been the easiest task. The quote commonly attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi comes to mind as my goal:
“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
So, I responded to Avi that “No, Jesus was not pagan”, but I also told him that I understood why he would think he was.
My friend James challenged my remark to Avi in part 1, saying that he couldn’t understand how anyone would think that Jesus was a pagan, since there’s literally nothing in the historical record that would support that conclusion and he is, of course, correct. James pointed out that it’s one thing for Avi to reject Jesus as the messiah, and another thing entirely to claim he was a pagan!
(James and I share some things in common: we’re both non-Jews married to Jewish spouses, we’re fiercely protective of them and the Jewish people, and we love Jesus who we believe is the Jewish messiah. There are inherent conflicts that come with the territory of straddling these two worlds; we don’t fit neatly in to any one group without some friction. Disliked or discounted in some places, merely tolerated in others, and hated elsewhere, it can be uncomfortable at times.)
Back to the bookstore.
Why Would Anyone Think Jesus Is A Pagan?
To explain my answer, let me turn the situation around: If you’re a Christian, can you list the differences between Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Judaism? Most Christians cannot, but the difference is significant.
Turning it around, is it unreasonable to think religious Jews wouldn’t necessarily differentiate between the branches of Christianity, especially regarding Catholics and Protestants?
Then consider something like iconography. Is it not explicitly forbidden to Jews, by God Himself? And, is our world not permeated with representations of Jesus hanging on a cross, statues of saints, and the “holy Mary mother of God” crying in Brazil and Bangladesh, etc. and undereducated Christians practicing witchcraft in some parts of the world? For Evangelicals with short memories (or zero church history) isn’t Catholicism, who has employed icons, not 1500 years older than Protestantism? Of course, this is only part of the problem, there’s also the issue of Jesus’ divinity.
But, newsflash, his divinity is not truly an issue anymore, if looked at through a historic, first century, Second Temple Jewish lens. Yep, you read that right. Constantine did not, I repeat, did not decree divinity upon Jesus at the Council of Nicaea. Let’s put that fabrication to rest.
After my bookstore confession, (that I could never give up Jesus), Avi and I got deeper into discussion. His biggest assumption was that a Jew, my hubby, wouldn’t keep Shabbat, or keep Kosher, if he was married to Gentile me. (We talked about other implications too, but I won’t here.)
One trait common to religious Jews, and something I love, is that they’re not afraid to disagree and “argue” about religious issues; neither am I. Questioning has never been a problem for me and if this were the only criteria, I’d be an honorary Jew, cum laude. :-)
So, I disagreed with Avi and told him my husbands identity is something I cherished and zealously guarded, therefore, I don’t undermine it (anymore) and do everything I can to support him. And, my identity is God-given too. Properly negotiated, our relationship models, generally, what I believe God intended in the first place, which is mutual blessing; for He is the God of all people. (My daughter becoming fluent in Hebrew was a factor, direct interaction with the original language had major implications for our family).
I explained to Avi that some of the most compelling arguments that rehabilitate Jesus from the blond-haired, blue-eyed, anything but a Jew, “pagan” that he’s been depicted as, into the reality of the Torah-keeping pious Jew he truly was[is], are coming from religious Jewish scholars such as: Daniel Boyarin, Mark Nanos, Amy Jill-Levine, Paula Fredrickson, Shaye Cohen, Michael Wyschogrod, and Pamela Eisenbaum, to name a few. This is not to say I agree with all of their conclusions, for I do not, but their contribution to the scholarship on Jesus (and Paul) is nothing short of amazing.
(The Christian world has their scholars too, whose work helps create a clearer picture of Jesus and Judaism in a proper historic context without the thick layers of anti-Semetic muck laid down by Church Fathers: R. Kendall Soulen, Richard Bauckham, Darell Bock, Markus Bockmuehl, Magnus Zetterholm, Oskar Skarsaune, Craig Keener, Craig Blaising and so on, and popular books from Lois Tverberg.[sadly, apparently it takes a long time to filter down to the seminaries and 'masses'] Then there’s the Messianic Jewish scholars who are blazing trails as we speak. Brilliant minds like Dr. Mark Kinzer, David Rudolph and Carl Kinbar, but this is going far afield of my conversation with Avi).
I can see Avi’s perplexed. Like I said, I don’t fit into any box. The phone rings for the third time, and for the third time he leaves to answer it. This time I figure I’ve seen the last of him, and to be honest, I’m relieved. I really don’t want to offend him. I’m also a mamma bear and very protective of my marriage (of over 20 years), and my Lord, who has literally saved my life. I’m feeling conflicted…but perhaps now I can freely peruse the commentaries.
Avi hangs up the phone and the next thing I know, he is standing next to me.
“So, what’s your story? Why would you need to keep believing in Jesus anyway, what’s the big deal?”
Honestly, it’s not everyday someone asks me why I believe in Jesus. In fact, I’ve only been asked that question a handful of times. I’ve been a mom and career woman since my early 20’s so I’ve spent my adult life learning to understand God in life’s trenches, so to speak. Mostly I’ve been ridiculed for being “dumb” enough to believe in him, so I’ve worked out more of a defensive response.
I tried to explain, but my story isn’t a dramatic sound bite. Although I “believed” in God and Jesus as a very little girl, my story has unfolded over time and isn’t easy to articulate. The first thing I could think of was being a youngster and reading John 3:16, which I assumed he wouldn’t know.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” KJV
After almost an hour in the bookstore it was time to leave. I thanked Avi for the great—and, in spite what you may think, friendly—conversation. Then I wrapped two scarves around my neck and ducked out onto the snowy sidewalk. But Avi’s question has stuck with me ever since: why can’t I give up Jesus?
The answer to that will be coming soon…
Up next: My thoughts on the Son Of God Movie