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Jesus the Jew

How Jewish was Jesus? 

Picture the scene. It’s two thousand years ago, in a small village called Nazareth, in the Galilee region of what is now the Land of Israel. You see a little boy playing in the backyard among the wood piles and shavings. His father, Yosef, is in the workshop next to the yard and his mother, Miriam, is busy cooking. His name is Yeshua ben Yosef. You know him better as Jesus, son of Joseph.

It is time for lunch and his mother calls him. If Miriam had called him by the name 'Jesus', two things would have happened. Firstly he would have carried on playing, not recognising the command and secondly the neighbours would have been astonished at Miriam's bad attempt at Greek, a feat which was about as likely as your average cockney walking up to a pub landlord and asking for a pint of beer in his best classical Latin. If she'd added the epithet 'Christ', the situation would have been even more dramatic. Because not only would he have continued to ignore her and the neighbours been astonished at her Greek, but she would also have been stoned to death for assigning a forbidden and blasphemous title to her son. That is because 'Christ', is the English translation of 'Christos', the Greek translation for the Hebrew word 'Mashiach', which means Messiah, or 'anointed one’. And no Jew would dare to make a claim to that title. Well, not until this particular boy became a man and embarked on his life’s mission.

Yeshua (Jesus) was a nice Jewish boy, who any mother would be proud of. He was born in Bethlehem, as the Christmas cards show us, in very humble surroundings. After birth he had been circumcised and consecrated at the Temple and, by all accounts, had the typical childhood of one from a poor family in a Galileean village. And how do we know they were poor? “No room at the inn” was certainly a clue but the clincher was the “pair of doves or two young pigeons” that they sacrificed to the Lord after the birth. This was the pidyon ha-Ben, the redemption of a boy. It’s an acknowledgement that every first-born boy belongs to God and all parents must “buy him back” by making a sacrifice. This rule dated right back to the time of Moses, when the first-born boys of the Israelites were spared from the Angel of Death on Passover night. Joseph and Mary were too poor to offer a lamb sacrifice and so were permitted to offer up the birds as a cheaper alternative.

They were poor but must have been devout Jews. Not all families made the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but Luke 2:41 tells us:

“Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.”

For poor people this was exceptional and tells us that God indeed made the correct choice in parents for Yeshua. Another clue is in the song, The Magnificat, sung by Miriam (Mary) when she visited her relative Elizabeth. This song alludes to no less than thirteen Hebrew scriptures, telling us that, even at a relatively young age, the mother of Yeshua was fully conversant with the Judaism of her day.

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