What religion is Jesus?

by K.W. Leslie, 26 August 2020

Most of the time we Christians simply take it for granted Christ Jesus is the same religion we are. After all he founded the religion. He taught us who the Father is, taught us his interpretation—the proper interpretation—of the Law of Moses, voluntarily died for our sins so we can have new life, and he’s the king of God’s kingdom. He’s vital and central to Christianity.

But whenever somebody says out loud, “Jesus is a Christian”… well it just sounds weird.

’Cause Christian (which literally means “a little Christ”) means a Christ-follower. And Christ doesn’t follow himself. He does his thing, and expects us disciples to follow him. So technically no, Jesus is not a Christian: He’s Christ.

Where people start to go screwy is when they say, “Well… I guess no, he’s not a Christian. What religion does that make him? Um… well… I guess that’d be Judaism.”

Incorrect. The religion Jesus practices is the one he preached: Christianity.

The “Judaism” people assume Jesus interacted with and was involved in, is not at all the Judaism of today. Largely it was Pharisaism, which over the centuries, with heavy influence from the second-century Mishna and the medieval Talmud, evolved into what we nowadays call “Judaism.” It’s not the same “Judaism” Jesus encountered in synagogue and temple.

Sorta like today’s churches don’t look a lot like the first apostles’ churches. The cultural Evangelical Christianity I grew up in, looks way different than first-century Jewish in-home gatherings. Sunday morning worship services, one-year bibles, Christian radio, crosses and fish as decorations, preachers with big hair and suits and ties, bible quotes from Paul and John posted on Facebook. Yeah, doesn’t much sound like the Didache.

Well, describing Pharisaism as “Judaism” is like describing the early Christians’ activities as “Fundamentalist.” Wrong culture. Wrong era. Doesn’t fit.

Though Jesus clearly interacted with Pharisees most, and taught Pharisee children in Pharisee synagogues, he’s his own thing. “You heard it said,” he preached, quoting the Pharisee elders at first… and then he’d set aside their ideas and proclaim, “And now I tell you.” Which astounded Pharisees: He wasn’t teaching what their scribes did. He had his own religion.

Many people get this wrong. They insist Jesus was so a Jew. And when they mean Jesus is an ethnic Jew—a descendant of Abraham, Jacob, and Judah—they’re entirely right. Though sometimes they wrongly assume Jesus was white, kinda like white Jews in the United States, and imagine all sorts of white culture in his experience which wasn’t there. Jesus is brown. It’s the Europeans—the Romans and Greeks who once occupied his homeland—who were white.

Likewise when people mean Jesus is a cultural Jew—that he stuck to the Law instead of adopting Greco-Roman culture and traditions—they’re also right. But when they mean Jesus followed the Jewish religion, they’re imagining today’s Judaism, and that’s quite wrong. Jesus didn’t do Judaism. Not just because it hadn’t been invented yet; really Jesus really didn’t do Pharisaism either.

Why must Jesus’s religion be Judaism?

People like to be contrarian. Sometimes for fun; they love to shock people. Sometimes to sell books and videos.

Sometimes they wanna shake us up so we’ll take a fresh look at Jesus. They want Christians to realize Jesus is not as western gentiles like to depict him; that he’s more middle eastern and foreign. Not too foreign; not so foreign we can’t relate to him, love him, and follow him. But he’s certainly not White Jesus in a toga. Never has been.

I suspect that was the point of Philip Yancey’s book with the provocative title, The Jesus I Never Knew. I read it, wondering what I’d discover about Jesus that I didn’t already know. I read it after I went to seminary though: Turns out I did already know. Still a good book though.

Other times people wanna weasel out of following the real Jesus, so they’ve written a book about “Historical Jesus” which ain’t really all that historical. Sometimes to criticize and mock and rebuke their fictional Jesuses; sometimes to embrace their new ’n improved Jesus who—no surprise—looks a lot more like them than they care to confess.

Messianic Jews are notorious for this. They love to depict Jesus as very, very Jewish. Problem is, they get him just as wrong as western gentiles: They turn him into a Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jew. (Sometimes a Yiddish-speaking New York Jew!) They imagine the synagogues he went to are exactly like the synagogues they went to; that he wore a prayer shawl like today’s rabbis (no he didn’t; not invented yet); that synagogue services were the same then as today (no they weren’t); that the Pharisee interpretations of the bible were exactly like today’s interpretations of the bible (and they aren’t exactly). It’s no more historically accurate than White Jesus in a toga. It does the very same thing though: Now, to the Messianic Jews, he looks a little like them.

Kinda supposed to be the other way around: We’re to be like him.

And again: Jesus’s religion isn’t Judaism, nor Pharisaism. He taught the original Hebrew religion, the Law he himself handed down to Moses. Now properly filtered through the appropriate lens of grace and truth—filtered through himself. Pharisee lenses filtered it wrong, and introduced way too many loopholes. (Same as Jews and Christians still do.) Or they went to the other extreme and preached legalism: Obey the commands, appease God, and earn eternal life. But Jesus’s lens is grace: Obey the commands—and when you sin, you have Jesus.

That’s Christianity. That’s Jesus’s religion. Make it yours.