From ma,shach; anointed; a consecrated person (a king, priest, or saint).
To his followers: the Son of God, Saviour of the world. To others, a myth. To the Jewish authorities of his time, a blasphemer, an offence. To the gentiles, a self-deluded insurrectionist, foolishness.
Even now, He asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”
We know surprisingly little about the historical Jesus. Discounting the more fringe, ‘ahistoricity’ theories denying that Jesus even existed, of one thing we may be certain: he was a Jew.
The circumcised prophet
In “Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World’s Religions” By Charles Panati, the author makes an intriguing suggestion that the depiction of the crucified Christ wearing an undergarment was less about modesty than it was about disguising Jesus’ Jewishness. I followed this line of thought down through the shameful history of the gentile persecutions of the Jews, through nearly two millenia of Christianity. A third strand of thought became entwined with the first two: Saint Paul’s attack on “those dogs, the Judaisers”, and his disputes with the original Apostles who had known Jesus in his earthly ministry – especially James the brother of Jesus.
The Judaizers: a widening gap between the new religion and Judaism
Phillip J. Long at the website readingacts.com examines the contrasting positions of first century Jewish- and gentile-Christian beliefs. Saint Paul writes (it appears heatedly) in his letter to the Philippians, “Watch out for those dogs, those workers of evil, those mutilators of the flesh!”. Who were these “dogs”? Were they Jewish Christians who have retained Jewish food and circumcision laws? Surely Paul didn’t view Peter the brother of Jesus this way? Or are these words of caution about Jewish zealots?
In a radical, iconoclastic gesture in which the flegling church begins to define itself apart from Judaism, Paul effectively appropriates the word circumcision, imbuing it with a new, spiritual significance. At the same time he redefines as an obsolete and barbaric rite the mutilation and concision (he refuses to call it circumcision) the Jewish practise commanded by Moses in the Torah. (I am reminded here of the anulment of the strict and defining Jewish food laws – the ban on squid, crab, the flesh of pigs etc – laws which were rendered obsolete after the Apostle Peter’s vision in Acts, and whose anulment facilitated unhindered access to salvation for non-Jews).
“Paul returned to Jerusalem three times over a 25-year period in an effort to convince the disciples of Jesus, led by Jesus’ brother James, to accept uncircumcised Gentiles into the Jewish fold. He was not warmly received, but he did, according to Acts of the Apostles, gain limited (if arguable) concessions. However, it was clear to Paul that Judaism as a whole would not accept the uncircumcised, since circumcision, as stated in the Torah, is non-negotiable (Genesis 17:14). By the end of the first century, pagans were the chief converts to Christianity. Thus circumcision was abandoned and Christianity was on its separate path, a path that increasingly distanced the new religion from Judaism.”¹
The Spectacle of crucifixion
When it came to executions, Pagan Rome cared nothing for modesty: at a crucifixion, humiliation and spectacle were precisely the point. While there are some who argue that Christ wore an undergarment during his torture on the cross, the manner in which artists have depicted Jesus suggests rather the scruples of the artists themselves and their regard for public scruples. Panati proposes it was to hide the fact that Jesus, as a Jew, was circumcised.
The rise of hatred
As the years following the crucifixion passed and an increasingly anti-semitic christendom began to manifest itself, there was a parallel disavowal of the jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish origins of Christianity. Is Panati correct then? Given the visceral hatred the gentiles had for the Jews and that the church was soon filled with uncircumcised converts from amongst the pagans, it would have been difficult to be continually confronted with a circumcised saviour.
Christianity against the Jews
How did the followers of The Son of Man – who taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, unceasingly forgive, never return wrong for wrong, for whom the despised of the world were the most beloved, who extended forgiveness and acceptance to the outcast, the errant, the hated samaritans – so quickly turn to hatred and violence toward the very people from whom the prophets and Messiah had come? All the theological retro-fitting, scapegoating and sinister casuistry cannot explain let alone justify this miasma of evil which reached its denouement in the Holocaust.
Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade of 1095–1099, wrote,
“… go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name ‘Jew,’ thus assuaging his own burning wrath.”
Martin Luther, the ‘father of the Protestant Reformation’, wrote of the Jews,
“… set fire to their synagogues or schools and … bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of (the Jews). This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians…
“… I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.
“… I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them…
“… I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam… For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.
“Accordingly, it must and dare not be considered a trifling matter but a most serious one to seek counsel against this and to save our souls from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death. My advice, as I said earlier, is: that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. That would demonstrate to God our serious resolve and be evidence to all the world that it was in ignorance that we tolerated such houses, in which the Jews have reviled God, our dear Creator and Father, and his Son most shamefully up till now but that we have now given them their due reward.
“I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people, as suggested above, to see whether this might not help (though it is doubtful). They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the whole people perish.”
Intolerance of the Jews in the midst of Christian Europe had started much earlier: St. Ambrose, Bishop of Mediolanum (Milan), considered one of the greatest Fathers of the Church, wrote in 397AD,
“Whom do [the Jews] have to avenge the synagogue? Christ whom they have killed, whom they have denied? Or will God the Father avenge them, whom they do not acknowledge as Father since they do not acknowledge the Son?”
“In many places, secular and religious states forced Jews into segregated districts later called ghettos. England, France, Spain, Portugal, and many German states expelled masses of Jews…”
“It was said Jews poisoned the wells of Europe, causing the Black Plague. Illustrations depicted Jews as the devil, with horns and cloven feet, and showed them using the blood of Christian children in ritual sacrifices. These lies came to be taken as truth.”(3)
Am I wrong to assert that the words of Saint Paul, a hellenized Jew from Asia Minor, a citizen of Rome, “The Apostle to the Gentiles”, an international man, appeared increasingly to be held in higher regard than those of the Galilean? (Certainly there was, if not a schism, then a heated disagreement between the followers of the Apostle Paul who knew only the risen Christ and the Apostles who had lived with and followed the Incarnate, earthly, Jewish Jesus of Nazareth.)
It may be argued that in this context, the depiction of the circumcised penis of a Jew – and to augment the scandal that this Jew as none other than the Christ – would be an unwelcome visual reminder of the anathema jewishness the gentile nations wished to disavow. To the eternal shame of Christendom, the very word Jew soon became a byword, a pejorative, and through a wicked casuistry, the People of God were cast as Christ-killers. As demonization of European Jewery reached fever pitch in medieval forced conversions, persecutions, massacres and pogroms, how were artists to acceptably depict their Jewish Lord? The Crucified’s penis was hidden even as his visage morphed miraculously from semitic to caucasian.
nudus nudum Christum sequi
In writing this post, looking at Panati’s contention of the narrative of a complicit disavowal of the jewishness of Christ in European art, I found Leo Steinberg’s insights contrast with Panati’s about the display of Jesus’ Penis. According to Leo Steinberg, medieval artists seemed less inclined to hide Jesus’ genitalia:
“A credo of the Franciscan order was nudus nudum Christum sequi (“follow naked the naked Christ”). It was a radical call to cast aside worldly wealth and belongings and acknowledge the fragile, fallen nature of all men and women. But in casting aside Christ’s garments, the Franciscans made Christ’s nude body a focal point. As a result, according to Steinberg, from about the middle of the thirteenth century until the sixteenth century artists lavished particular care on Christ’s penis, the part of Christ’s body that made him most mortal, and which proved his union with humankind. “One must recognize,” wrote Steinberg, “an ostentatio genitalium comparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum, the showing forth of the wounds.”²
Is it true to contend Christ’s jewishness was being somehow denied if indeed there was an affirmation of his humanity as Steinberg proposes? And even if Steinberg is right about a sort of innate acknowledgement of the sexuality and humaneness of Christ (he draws a parallel between the exposure of the penis and the wounding of Christ), is there still not a denial of his jewishness?
It was not only the physiognomy and circumcised penis of Jesus that were discreetly hidden: his name too was displaced in the process of transliteration. His mother, a jewess named Miryam (another far too semitic sounding name!) would have whispered softly to the infant suckling at her breast, his aramaic name: Eashoa.
Western Christians had rescued their saviour from the supposed ignomy of his jewishness: the pale christ of Zeffirelli, the blonde, blue-eyed Jesus of the Mormons, the white Jesus of 1950’s childrens book illustrations, are a result of this artistic sanitising of Jesus’ ethnicity.
Contemporary scholars have in many ways managed to ‘recover’ Jesus the Jew: it has been possible to prise away two thousand years of gentile accretions from the mysterious 1st century Rabbi. Of course, the Quest – the search by theologians for the historical Jesus – could only yield so much and its achievements and limitations are well documented. But it is interesting that contemporary scholars are able to better contextualize Jesus culturally, historically and theologically in 1st century Palestine. This is exciting: two thousand years after a Roman official had a sign with the words “Jesus, King of the Jews” nailed above a cross in a spectacle of humiliation, Jesus the Jew continues to ask, “who do you say that I am?”
(Essential, original Judaism)
“Rehearing Buber’s Jesus Deepens Jewish-Christian Dialogue”
“For Martin Buber (1878-1965), Jesus was “a Jew to the core, in whom the Jewish desire for realization was concentrated and in whom it came to a breakthrough.” Buber took his stand in relation to Jesus “at that point in the midst of the events reported in the New Testament where the ‘Christian’ branches off from the ‘Jewish’.” Drawing a boundary line between the faith of Israel and Hellenistic Christianity, between the Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s Letters, Buber distinguished the actual, historical Jesus, raised in the genuine Jewish tradition of Urjudentum-an unquenchable quest for a spontaneous, intimate, passionate relationship with God-from the later Christian theological image of the Christ, the Logos, who becomes the “way” to God. Buber held that Christian teaching “has turned the meaning and the ground of Jesus upside down,” asserting that “[t]herefore I mean to and will fight for Jesus and against Christianity.” As part of this project, Buber located manifestations of Jesus’ inborn nobility in “the plain, concrete and situation-bound dialogicism [Dialogik] of the original man of the Bible [urbiblischen Menschen], who found eternity, not in the supertemporal spirit, but in the depth of the actual moment.”
Attempts are made to argue that there was a piece of cloth across Christ’s genitalia during the crucifixion; this contention which has no basis in scripture or in historical fact says more about the puritanism and prudery of the those who make the assertion than anything else. “Even among the Jewish rabbis there was allowance for nakedness during execution. The Mishnah (Jewish tradition from earlier centuries compiled around 200 AD) records three opinions held among the Jews, saying, A [When] he was four cubits from the place of stoning, they remove his clothes. B “In the case of a man, they cover him up in front, and in the case of a woman, they cover her up in front and behind,” the words of R. Judah.” (Steve Ray, Was Jesus crucified naked?) C And sages say, “A man is stoned naked, but a woman is not stoned naked.”¹
The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion by Leo Steinberg (1920-2011), Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
On the nakedness of victims of Roman crucifixion:
+ Bernard Starr, Jesus’ Circumcision: The Cut That Divided Jews and Christians, /2014/03/06/jesus-circumcision-the-cut
POPE FRANCIS AND THE NAKED CHRIST By
- 387: St John Chrysostom writes a series of anti-Semitic homilies, accusing Jews of godlessness, likening them to pagans, claiming that they sacrifice children and informing pious Christians that it is their duty to hate the Jews.
- 388: A mob in the Italian city of Milan riot and burn the synagogue there, with the support and encouragement of the local bishop.
- 415: St Cyril, the Christian bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, banishes Jews from the city and distributes their property to other townsfolk.
- 1012: Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor, expels Jews from Mainz.
- 1076: A Catholic synod held in the Spanish city of Girona ruled that Jews must be made to pay taxes to support Christian churches.
- 1096: Christian warriors en route to the First Crusade begin their journey by massacring more than 10,000 Jews in western Europe, mainly in Germany and France.
- 1179: Pope Alexander III oversees the Third Lateran Council, which rules that Jews are subordinate to Christians and must not hold any position of authority over them, nor engage in sexual relationships with them.
- 1182: King Philip of France confiscates all land, money and property owned by Jews and expels them from his lands. He allows them to return 16 years later, though they are required to pay additional dues and taxes.
- 1190: The Jewish community of York in northern England is massacred.
- 1215: A papal bull authorised by Innocent II orders all Jews living in Christian countries to wear an embroidered badge or motif, a measure intended to prevent sexual intercourse between Jews and Christians.
- 1239: Pope Gregory IX orders that all Jewish religious texts be surrendered or confiscated, then publicly burned.
- 1243: The entire Jewish population of Berlitz, a town near Berlin, is accused of defiling the Host. They are burned alive.
- 1290: King Edward I of England issues the Edict of Expulsion, which orders that all Jews must leave the country immediately.
- 1306: The French king also banishes Jews from his country, however they return within a few years. More royal decrees banning Jews from France are passed in 1322 and 1396.
- 1349: Persecution and massacres of Jews in Switzerland. In Basel, all Jews are rounded up and shipped to a small island, where they are set alight and burned to death.
- 1478: The formation of the Spanish Inquisition, which begins as a campaign to identify, interrogate and punish ‘secret’ Jews. All Spanish Jews are eventually expelled from the kingdom.
- 1506: In Portugal, more than 4,000 Jews who had converted to Christianity are murdered, as a result of anti-Semitic preaching by local clergymen.
- 1543: Religious reformer Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, pens On the Jews and Their Lies, an anti-Semitic tract accusing the Jews of behaving like “vermin” and encouraging violence against them.
See also http://www.eretzyisroel.org/~jkatz/expulsions.html