The proximity of Hanukkah (Dec 12-20) and Christmas (Dec 25) this year; plus, reading Bishop John Shelby Spong’s “Liberating the Gospels” made me reflect on just how interrelated Christianity and Judaism are.

A PORTRAIT OF JESUS THE CHRIST

I am astounded by the number Protestant church-goers who believe Jesus was a Christian, and Catholics who believe Peter was the first pope. I suppose that it has everything to do with the way we were indoctrinated from early childhood in our Sunday schools. We heard the word “Christian” so often, it was easy to simply assume that Jesus and the disciples were Christians.

They were not! Jesus and his early followers were Jews. Quite frankly, it is virtually impossible to determine precisely when Christianity became a separate faith-system from Judaism. We might accurately date the separation from the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the subsequent dispersion of the Jews with the invasion the Roman General Titus in 70 A.D.

After the destruction of their temple, the Jews began to worship in local synagogues. Because of the missionary efforts of Paul and the apostles, autonomous Christian churches established by followers of Jesus were functioning throughout Asia Minor.

A SCENE FROM ANTIOCH

According to Acts 11:26, the early followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” in the town of Antioch, but they were still Jews by birth and many of them continued to observe the customs of their ancestors.

The Council of Jerusalem (c.50 A.D.), where a delegation led by Paul met with the apostle James and other church leaders, ruled that Gentile Christians no longer had to keep the Mosaic Law of the Jews. This decision signaled a major change in the practices of the early Jewish-Christians. Previously, converts had to become Jews before they could become Christians.

In any case, for the first hundred years or so of the Christian era, the two faith-systems were closely intertwined and, still today, the Bible Christians revere is a collection of Jewish books!

Except for Luke, possibly, we need to keep in mind that the books of the New Testament were Jewish books written by Jewish authors. Most theologians have assumed that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, was likely a Gentile, although some scholars believe he was a Hellenized Jew.

I share this bit of church history because I believe it is important to an accurate interpretation of the New Testament. Christians must acknowledge the fundamental role of the Jews during the birthing years of their religion. We have a much better understanding of the writings of Paul and the Gospels when we study them through Jewish-tinted lenses.

The most disgraceful and lamentable periods of human history, in my opinion, have been those stained with the blood of the Jewish people at the hands of so-called Christians, for example, during the Crusades and the Inquisition. And, of course, we must never forget the some six million Jews who were ruthlessly murdered during World War II by Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany.