(RNS) — At Christmas, Christians herald a leader who will rule with truth and grace; this is good news, as the world has precious little of either. Belief that Jesus is this leader gives hope to all those who see in him the love of God, the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life.
As Jews, we honor such beliefs, though they are not ours. Moreover, we recognize that Jesus, a first-century Jew, is part of Jewish history.
As Bible scholars, we also know that Christmas sermons often bring out toxic errors concerning Jesus’ Judaism, making anti-Jewish misinterpretations of Scripture as common as Santa and his elves.
Many priests and pastors, even those committed to better Jewish-Christian relations, would be appalled to hear that their sermons reinforce anti-Jewish stereotypes. Yet when they proclaim that Jesus invented concern for the poor, love of neighbor and messages of peace, they not only yank Jesus out of Jewish history, they distort Jewish teaching and open the door to antisemitism.
The mischief starts even before Jesus is born: Along with the old canard of evil Jewish innkeepers turning away Joseph and Mary because they cannot pay a hefty room charge, we’ve read sermons that insist Mary is shuttled off to the stable because, by giving birth, she would make the inn impure under Jewish law. Nonsense. As the Gospel of Luke makes clear, there is simply no room in the inn for her to have a baby.
Other ill-informed sermons propose that the shepherds who welcome Mary’s baby represent the “outcast” or the “unclean.” Nonsense again. Rachel, Moses and David are shepherds, and the famous Psalm 23 begins: “The LORD is my shepherd.” Shepherds were no more or less ritually impure than most Jews of the day.
Here are some other stereotypes that accompany the good news of Christmas:
Had they known Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, legalistic Jews would have stoned her, whereas Jesus stands for compassion.
The ancient rabbis taught, “Just as God is compassionate, so you must be compassionate.” The divine attributes Jews were called to follow included clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting mourners and burying the dead.
Nor were Jews stoning women for adultery; indeed, rabbinic literature makes it practically impossible to execute people. The famous “woman taken in adultery” who appears in the Gospel of John is not about to be stoned. The Pharisees had already concluded that stoning was not the right response to adultery, so to test Jesus’ interpretation of Torah, they ask him “What do you say?” about the ancient commandment.
Jesus elsewhere makes the Torah more rigorous: While the Torah forbids murder, the Sermon on the Mount forbids anger; the commandments ban adultery, but the Sermon on the Mount forbids even thinking about it. Jesus did not abolish Torah. To the contrary, he teaches his disciples how to follow it.
In Luke’s portrait of the Virgin Mary, the Christmas story invents feminism.
Jews celebrated numerous wise, pious and courageous women, from the matriarchs to Rahab to Deborah to Hannah, from Ruth to Esther, and from the Greek texts, Judith and Susannah and the mother of the Maccabean martyrs. The Gospels themselves, a good source for reconstructing first-century Judaism, report that Jewish women had their own funds, owned their own homes, served as patrons and worshipped in synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple.
Women followed Jesus not because they were oppressed by Judaism; they followed Jesus because they saw in him the ideal rabbi, healer and exorcist.
In Matthew’s Nativity scene, the Magi overturn the xenophobia of the Jews.
The Prophet Isaiah announces that Jerusalem’s Temple “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” and at the time of Jesus, it was. Its Court of the Gentiles welcomed all people. Local synagogues welcomed gentiles, known as “God-fearers.” Luke’s Gospel even reports that Jewish elders asked Jesus to perform a healing on behalf of a Roman centurion, “for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
Jesus does not invent concern for gentiles; he is a member of a people commissioned to be a light to the nations.
Jesus, the newborn “prince of peace,” inverts the warlike Old Testament God.
Peace is a fundamental value of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. The Isaiah wall at the U.N. highlights the prophecy of Isaiah and Micah, who imagined a time when all peoples “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Jews at the time of Jesus did their best to avoid military encounters with Rome. When the Roman Emperor Caligula demanded that they place his statue in the Jerusalem Temple, the Jews responded not with swords, but with one of the first recorded sit-down strikes. Jesus’ concern for peace is part of his Jewish tradition, not an innovation.
In baby Jesus, welcomed by lowly shepherds, concern for the poor is born.
The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy teaches: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Ecclesiastes wisely states: “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain.”
The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, which states “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” quotes the Book of Leviticus in reference to Israel’s tradition of the Jubilee year, when debts were canceled. Jesus did not invent concern for the poor; it was embedded in his tradition.
Jesus was a Jew, and precisely because he was a Jew, he spoke of peace, of compassion, of care for the poor, of the centrality of Torah and of the value of all people.
To bring the world a bit more grace and truth, it would be good if Jesus’ followers would recognize and affirm the Jewish tradition that Jesus embraced rather than seek to make Jesus look good by making Judaism look bad.
(Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University. Amy-Jill Levine is Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. They are the co-authors of “The Bible With and Without Jesus” and the editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament.)