07/18/2014 11:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Response to Bill O'Reilly: Jesus Didn't Start a New Religion


Jesus Preaching in the Synagogue in Capernum by Maurycy Gottlieb --

Bill O'Reilly disputed the two main points of my recent HuffPost blog on his July 16 The O'Reilly Factor broadcast: My affirmation of Jesus' lifelong dedication to Judaism (meaning he did not start a new religion) and the assertion that Renaissance art representations of Jesus omit his Jewish identity and thus falsify biblical history.

Art historians do not deny the absence of a Semitic Jewish Jesus in Renaissance artworks. However, they attribute the omissions to technical developments in art, such as the introduction of realism, naturalism, the Renaissance style of contemporizing figures in appearance, dress and setting, and the revival of Greek idealism -- but not to a theological justification that the omissions were acceptable because Jesus started or converted to Christianity. Furthermore, the content of art was determined by the buyers -- rich patrons who commissioned strictly Christianized art, as confirmed by Renaissance art expert Michael Baxandall.

Is Bill O'Reilly saying, in his rejection of my critique of Renaissance art, that the denial of Jesus' Jewish heritage in artworks is justified because Jesus was a Christian? If so, that's even more baffling since in O'Reilly's book, Killing Jesus, the disciples and followers address Jesus as "rabbi" right up to the crucifixion.


Jesus in a Landscape by Jan Swart Van Groningen -- Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal

I'm also puzzled by O'Reilly's dismissal of my commentary on the image of Jesus holding a crucifix staff. The depiction of Jesus by Renaissance artist Jan Swart Van Groningen is a blatant anachronism. Christianity did not exist in Jesus' lifetime and the cross was hated and feared in the first century; the cross did not become a Christian symbol until the fourth century -- and even then as a battle symbol, not a devotional object. As I stated in the article, the only cross that Jesus ever held was the one he was nailed to in his brutal crucifixion. Yet the visual statement of the painting that Jesus was a Christian is simply false. Furthermore, the term Christian does not appear in the Gospels, which chronicles Jesus' life and mission. But the word Jew has 82 mentions. And nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say he has rejected Judaism and is starting a new religion.

The ideal time for Jesus to have announced a new religion -- if he believed he had -- was at his trial for blasphemy against Judaism before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Judaism, only had jurisdiction over Jews and Jewish affairs. If the Sanhedrin could indict anyone for blasphemy against Judaism, all Roman Pagans would have been charged. If Jesus had proclaimed, "I'm not a Jew any longer, I'm a Christian," at the very least that would have initiated an interesting legal debate. But the issue of a new religion is never even hinted at in the Gospels. And if Jesus started a new religion, as O'Reilly maintains, why didn't Jesus' disciples know that? After the crucifixion, the disciples led by Peter and Jesus' brother James, continued to identify themselves as Jews and they worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem. Also, they gave Paul, who many claim was the actual founder of Christianity, a hard time for his defections from Orthodox Judaism.

So many biblical scholars have noted that Jesus was a dedicated practicing Jew throughout his life that it's surprising that Bill O'Reilly would insist otherwise. In my book, Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, I wrote about a discussion of Jesus, Judaism, and Christianity by a panel of three eminent biblical scholars at the Center for Jewish History in New York City. Father Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, Anglican priest Dr. Bruce Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus, and Rabbi Jacob Neusner, author of numerous books on religion, including several about early Christianity, all agreed that Jesus was born and died a practicing Jew. Former Catholic priest James Carroll, in his book Constantine's Sword, goes a step further in fast forwarding Jesus to the present with this question: "If Jesus were alive today, would he be one of those fervent black-hatted figures dovening [praying] at the Western Wall [the remnant of Herrod's Jerusalem Temple]?"

All that said, fact is that Jesus life, teachings, and death did inspire a new religion. But Jesus did not launch it. Also, if Jesus had explicitly defected from Judaism and had explicitly said he was starting a new religion it's doubtful that he would have had any followers--and then we probably never would have heard of him or Christianity.

Wouldn't it would be better and more useful to celebrate the common ground of Judaism and Christianity rather than manufacturing divisive spins? Perhaps that's what Pope Francis was suggesting in his statement: "Inside every Christian is a Jew."

Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist, journalist and professor emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College). He is the author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic and organizer of the art exhibit, "Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide."