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No Kosher Jesus

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A recent book written by Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Shmuley Boteach called "Kosher Jesus" has been described by The Los Angeles Times as having a "deeply unorthodox streak." The book focuses on the Christian savior's Jewishness, portraying him as a hero who stood up to Roman rule of Palestine and paid with his life. In keeping with Jewish theology, it does not accept his resurrection or his divinity. And it emphasizes Boteach's belief that the New Testament intentionally deflected blame for the crucifixion from the ruling Romans and redirected it -- unfairly, Boteach believes -- on the shoulders of the Jews.

Boteach says the book is designed to win over both Jews and Christians to a message that he believes has been lost to the mists of history and misunderstanding: Rather than being a divisive figure, Jesus can be a bridge between the faiths.

"We in the Jewish community have a choice," he said in an interview. "We can either, as has happened for 2,000 years, allow the Christian community to teach us about the Christian Christ, or we can take the initiative and the responsibility of teaching the Christian community about the Jewish Jesus... He was a Jew, after all." From this book what does that reveal about our understanding of Jesus humanity and divinity?

Most recently as found in "The Da Vinci Code" there still remain conflicting understandings about Jesus. When Mormonism emerged in the United States in the mid-19th century, with its views of Jesus as a kind of divine being subordinate to God -- a lesser God, if you will -- it wasn't as though the other Christian traditions saw it as an alternative to be equally considered. Instead, Joseph Smith's construct of Jesus was rejected as a heretical anomaly by comparison (though the violence against Mormons, like that of the ancient councils against their contemporary heretics, is still a bit of a black mark on Christian history).

Alternative versions of Christianity seem to emerge in every generation, but every variation eventually bumps up against the traditional view of Jesus' nature and is assigned an unorthodox alternative not so much by the decisions of councils but by the depth and strength of the traditional biblical view itself.

So what's the big deal?

There's a reason, however, why Jesus' nature is such a big deal for Christians. There's a reason that lately the threat of the divinity of Jesus' nature has been watered-down by the rise of Islam, the fastest growing religion, and books like Boteach's. What's at stake in the question of Jesus' humanity and divinity isn't only our understanding of the nature of God and the person of Christ but also the nature and vocation of ourselves as human beings made in God's image. The opening lines of John's gospel point us toward an understanding of the relationship between humanity and divinity that's a basis not only for orthodoxy but for our own identity, as well.

Remember, though, that John starts his gospel with the words, "In the beginning," which call the reader back to the very beginning of creation and, especially, to the creation of humanity. John seems to want us to view Jesus' humanity and divinity and our own humanity and relationship with God through the lens of what God created humans to be in the beginning. Examining John chapter 1 is the bridge in understanding Jesus' humanity and divinity.

God's first commandment was for these humans, God's own image, to reflect his care for the creation by exercising dominion and stewardship over the whole project. God doesn't see these people as being "only human" but, rather, "fully human" -- the full representation of God's own image, character and vocation. They aren't equals with God, as Genesis 3 will clearly reveal, but they're invested with a status of divine favor. John is perhaps thinking of the "breath of life" in Genesis when he says, "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people" (John 1:4). From the very beginning, humans have been given the capacity to relate to God and to receive his "abundant" life (John 10:10). Humans aren't God, but they're made to be indwelt by his presence -- their full humanity enabled to be filled by the Holy Spirit (John 14:17). Although many see our humanity as a curse, we forget that God created us for his own "very good" purpose and for relationship with him.

Jesus didn't do that, of course. In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus revealed what it meant to be fully human and, at the same time, fully indwelt and one with the Divine. He isn't merely a perfect icon to admire but an example to follow in how to fully engage one's capacity for relationship with God. In John's gospel, Jesus is constantly trying to teach his disciples how to be one with him and one with the God he reveals in his own person.

Jesus does more than model full divinity and humanity, however. By becoming human and by dying a human death on a cross, the naked and bleeding Jesus experienced the ultimate dehumanizing act on our behalf. In Jesus, God would go through the very death that ends human life, but then he would rise from the dead, defeating death and offering the amazing and wonderful hope that the curse of death, which now ends our humanity, will someday no longer be in the way of an eternal, resurrected, embodied, fully human life with God -- the way it was meant from the beginning. "In him was life," says John, "and the life was [and is] the light of all people" (vv. 4-5). We are given the light of God's Spirit to be lived out in our fully human lives -- lives that are meant to reflect both the human and the divine.

Wrangling over the nature of orthodoxy has never been unimportant, but ultimately our understanding of Jesus has to be as much embodied as believed. As the great missionary E. Stanley Jones once said, "The Christian faith is not a set of propositions to be accepted -- it is a Person to be followed."

In this Easter season, let us to continue to search for interfaith dialogue by recognizing and not negating the Jewishness of Jesus but refuting Boteach's book that we don't serve a kosher Jesus as defined by him. Instead let us educate other faiths that following Jesus, is in the "way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), toward our full humanity and the life God wants to live in us and through us.