Jews and Christians need to get over their age-old spat about who Jesus really was and, says Ashland Rabbi David Zaslow in his new book, accept the fact that he was a rabbi, probably short, with kinky hair and darker skin, wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and kippa (head cover) and practicing Judaism all his life.
He used the time-honored Golden Rule of the Hebrews, which became "love your neighbor as yourself." Just published by Paraclete Press, a Christian publisher, Zaslow's book "Jesus: First-Century Rabbi" is a narrative that walks Jews and Christians "step-by-step into the Jewishness of Jesus, who was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, died a Jew and never heard of Christianity."
Zaslow dismisses the popular image of Jesus, whose real name was Joshua (his mother was Miriam) and who is ever portrayed as "looking like a Northern Italian, with lighter skin and straight hair, maybe six feet tall."
The average height of a Mediterranean Jew of the times was about 5 feet 2 inches tall, Zaslow says, "and we'd be stunned by his dark, kinky hair and big schnoz."
Zaslow used only the most credible academic research in the field, he says, and realizes his book might kick the hornet's nest among Jews, who balk at Christianity's portrayal of Jesus as God, and Christians, who aren't crazy about a Jew as founder of their faith.
The schism between Judaism and Christianity is the failure to see one is the root and the other the branch in a highly related theology, says Zaslow.
"My goal is to reduce the surface tension between the two," he said. "Jews have an innate rational allergic reaction to the Gospels because of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism from the church. It has not been kind to minorities. Christians have an allergic reaction to the Jewishness of Jesus because of poor theological teachings from their leaders that Jesus had abandoned his Jewish theological practices." There is no indication in all the academic material, Zaslow notes, that Jesus ever started a new religion or left Judaism.
"Paul did it. He took the Gospel and universalized it. He was brilliant," says Zaslow. "Christianity arose out of Paul's Jesus. The Jews are missing their own native son of Judea. We're missing out on one of our great natives. Jesus was not taught in Judea because of our allergic reaction to him." To Jews, everyone, not just Jesus, is a son or daughter of God, notes Zaslow, "so it's time to get off each other's back ... and live in the paradox that their understanding of Jesus will always be different, instead of Jews trying to change Christian theology from the incarnation of God and Christians trying to missionize and convert Jews."
Reading the Old Testament in the original Hebrew gave Zaslow an entirely different sense, he says, "a gospel of inclusion," one that doesn't require faith in Judaism to get to heaven and one that invites "all people to walk in the name of its God," whatever the faith.
The cultural background of Jesus' life was resistance to Roman occupation and oppression of their "temple Judaism," which inspired Jews, including Jesus, to decentralize into a religion practiced in homes and small synagogues, where it couldn't be wiped out, he notes.
"Paul got the big picture, decades after Jesus, and reframed and universalized this local religion, getting rid of its base in Jewish culture, architecture, clothing and food," says Zaslow.
The central idea of Christianity — love thy neighbor as thyself — came straight out of Jewish tradition and theology, where it was known as the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, he notes.
In his years of research, Zaslow got to know Jesus as a person, he says, and "I would definitely come to his workshops. I would put him in the category of a hip, cool man with an absolutely open heart, a universalistic guy who got the big picture."