IN BETHLEHEM OF JUDEAPublished on: 1.1.2010
By: David Parsons, ICEJ Media Director
Most Christians who have answered the call to live and serve in Israel sorely miss our families back home during the Christmas season. But we certainly don’t miss the commercialization of the holidays. There are no incessant jingles about Santa’s soon arrival and the airwaves don’t bombard us with great ideas for stocking stuffers. Today, Christians are less than two percent of the population in the Holy Land, and the Jews and Muslims have their own festivals. So it’s rather a quiet time; but that actually allows us to concentrate more on the “reason for the season” here in this special land where the Nativity story really happened.
Still, it has been interesting to observe over the years how Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors approach the historic figure of Jesus and his lowly birth long ago in Bethlehem. Most Jews here are indifferent to the season, although there are some, drawn by curiosity and love for music, who venture into the handful of public caroling services held on Christmas Eve. Yet for various reasons, as a whole they have trouble claiming Jesus as one of their own. This is slowly changing, however, as some have begun re-capturing his Jewishness. The late Prof. David Flusser of Hebrew University, the leading Orthodox scholar on the second Temple era, even embraced the historic Jesus as “my favorite rabbi.”
The Palestinians are a different story. Many are proud that he was born in their “country” and even Muslim crowds flock to Manger Square in December. But the Jesus they identify with has been deliberately stripped of his Jewish heritage. He is a “Palestinian Jesus” and he serves an important role in building support for their nationalist cause.
Even though the local Arab Christian community is small, it has a highly symbolic value, and certain Arab clergymen have exploited that symbolism to bolster the Palestinian narrative. They claim to be descended from the ‘first Christians,” even though nearly all the earliest believers were Jewish. True, these ancient faith communities have lived in the Holy Land for many generations and they’ve paid a steep price to maintain a Christian presence and witness here over the centuries. But it is a gross distortion of history and the biblical accounts to deny the Hebraic roots of Jesus and the early Church.
Nonetheless, even the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat embraced the historic Jesus, calling him the “first Palestinian revolutionary” who had come to fight Roman oppression. This same Jesus is a role model for fighting the oppressors of today “the Israelis.” Even his disciples get co-opted; Arafat once greeted Pope John Paul II as the “successor of Peter, the first Palestinian pope.”
Perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of this Palestinian Jesus is when its adherents both Muslims and Christians deliberately conjure up classic Christian anti-Semitic motifs by portraying the Palestinian people as the “Body of Christ” which is still being “crucified” by the Jews.
The Time and Season of Light
No, my friends, let there be no mistake! Jesus was a Jew and he cherished that heritage as well as his own people. My Bible says he was born “in Bethlehem in Judea.” (Matthew 2:1). It also says he was “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) We could fill volumes proving the case for a Jewish Jesus, and most of us know this well. But what would surprise many Christians is the way this Jewish identity is preserved when the historic Jesus is transformed into the risen and glorified Lord.
For instance, when the two disciples walked with the resurrected Jesus on the way to Emmaus, they finally recognized him in the way he broke bread. No doubt he had a special way within this ancient Jewish tradition of blessing bread and wine, and he followed it even after his death.
When he restored Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the risen Jesus tested him three times: “Peter, do you love me?” For such is the manner of the Jews, based on the story of Ruth, to test someone three times before allowing them to “convert” and follow.
Even at the end of Revelation, the glorified Jesus is still declaring: “I am the Root and Offspring of David.” (22:16)
Surely, he was born a Jew and a Jew he remains…