Was Jesus American?

Written for The Jerusalem Post, April 9, 2004.

"Jesus may be an American, but he is increasingly a Jewish American. "

One of the staples of American humor is the "three proofs that Jesus was" joke, whose completion is always an ethnic identifier. Thus, "three proofs that Jesus was Puerto Rican":

    1. His first name was Jesus.

    2. He was always in trouble with the law.

    3. His mother did not know who his father was.

Or, "three proofs that Jesus was Jewish":

    1. He went into his father’s business.

    2. He lived at home until the age of 33.

    3. He was sure his mother was a virgin, and his mother was sure he was God.

Interestingly enough, this ongoing joke series includes no entry headed "three proofs that Jesus was American." Only in a country like Israel, where "American" names an ethnic group within the nation, could such a joke be told. If such has been told, I hope somebody will be kind enough to send me the three proofs.

Israelis often forget from one day to the next that an American Christian, especially one who speaks a little Hebrew, is Christian but never forget for a minute that he is American. (It’s vice versa, of course, for an American Christian among American Jews, no matter how much Hebrew he knows.) Accordingly, Israeli interest in a pair of recent books on Jesus and America will most likely focus on America rather than on Jesus. For a serious exploration of how Jesus has become American while American culture, regardless of religion, has become elusively "Jesusian," Richard Wightman Fox and Stephen Prothero each offer a warehouse of options. Both books are rewarding. The differences between the two are interesting in themselves.

Prothero is a professor of religious studies at Boston University; and though the the first half of his work is a historical overview of American attitudes toward Jesus from the colonial era to the present, the livelier second half of the book is a topically rather than chronologically organized look at what might be called four "off-brand" conceptualizations: Jesus as "Mormon Elder Brother," as "Black Moses," as "Rabbi," and as "Oriental Christ." Service in a department of religious studies in the pluralistic USA tends to foster extreme alertness in religious diplomacy and often as well the tactical concealment of deeper religious affections when these exist at all. Prothero writes out of just this alert but hyper-careful sensibility.

Fox is a professor of history at the University of Southern California; and his is a full-dress history, ending, to be sure, in Anglo-American, Protestant America but beginning in a broader and even majestic way with the still unsettled continent of North America and the arrival of European Christians on both coasts. If by "America" we understand both continents, then Spanish, not English, is statistically the first language of the Americas. For Fox, the story of Jesus in America makes generous room for the Spanish-American story, which is to say, then, for the Roman Catholic as well as the Protestant story. Fox does not forget that in the same year, 1775, when the New England patriots fired "the shot heard round the world" at Concord Bridge, Father Junipero Serra was founding Misión de San Juan Capistrano on the California coast, the mission to which, famously, the swallows return every March 19th—the day, as it happens, on which I am writing this review.

Besides reflecting the difference between religious studies and history, Prothero and Fox reflect, to a point, the difference that might be expected from writers living, respectively, on the East and the West Coast of this continent-spanning nation. And if, when it comes to religion, Prothero writes rather in the manner of a bartender who never touches the stuff, Fox writes as one who definitely likes to take a nip now and then. Of the two, I would call Prothero livelier, but Fox warmer. Prothero’s is the pub you go to for laughs and good stories. Fox’s joint is made for heart-to-heart talk.

Living as I do in a place where Spanish is now the universal second language and formed as I have been—I am an ex-Jesuit—by the Catholic tradition, I expect to turn more often to Fox’s than to Prothero’s book in the years to come, though both books will have a permanent place in my library. Both remind me, in a funny way, of my musical brother Michael’s one-man show "The Magic Banjo." That revue is a brisk trot through US history in a coach drawn by period music and recurring repeatedly to the refrain "And the Banjo Was There!" Change the refrain to "And Jesus Was There!" and you get another kind of brief trot through American history. There are worse ways to do it.

In Jerusalem, though, it is Prothero’s book that readers will want to buy if they’re only buying one, for Prothero’s chapter on changing Jewish attitudes toward Jesus is worth the price of the book. Here readers can re-live the sensation caused when the famous Rabbi Stephen S. Wise delivered a speech to three thousand in Carnegie Hall on Christmas Day, 1925, entitled "A Jew’s View of Jesus," repudiating the then widespread Jewish opinion that Jesus never existed. The Free Synagogue, which Wise founded, held its services on Sunday morning rather than Saturday (partly because Carnegie Hall, always dark in those days on Sunday mornings, was available). In 1925, Christmas fell on a Sunday, so "A Jew’s View of Jesus" was nothing less than the Sabbath sermon for that week.

Wise was denounced far and wide, particularly by the Orthodox but even by many of his fellow Reform rabbis. Between the lines, however, what some of his critics were denouncing was secular Zionism, which they opposed and which they suspected him of supporting. Meanwhile, liberal Protestants welcomed his speech to the point that he later wrote, plaintively, "I know not which was more hurtful—the acceptance of me as brother and welcoming me into the Christian fold or the violent diatribe of a fellow rabbi." In the end, the Zionists rode to Wise’s rescue. He had been heroic in fund-raising for eretz yisra’el; and when philanthropist Nathan Straus donated $650,000 and publicly urged him to stay on as chairman of what was then called the United Palestine Appeal, the tide of Jewish public opinion turned in his favor.

The Jewish-American silence about Jesus that Wise broke has staked broken. In the years before that sermon, Jewish Jesus-scholarship by the likes of Joseph Klausner (Jerusalem) and Joseph Salvador (Paris) had already made its way to America and provoked works, much noticed in their day (the 1890s), by Emil Hirsch and Kaufman Kohler. After those came works by a small but steady stream of other Jewish scholars, including Isaac Wise, Harry Weinstock, Abraham Geiger, and several others. Prothero is particularly illuminating on Jewish writing about Jesus during the 1930s when quite self-conscious efforts were made to locate Judaism and Christianity on one side of a chasm whose other side was home to nihilistic Fascism and atheistic Communism. It was then that Jewish writers—notably John Cournos and Sholem Asch—went furthest in their embrace of Jesus as a Jewish brother. It was then as well that the adjective Judaeo-Christian, typically in the phrase Judaeo-Christian tradition, first won wide currency. For anti-Fascist and anti-Communist Christians as well as Jews in the United States, Judaeo-Christian was, one might say, an adjective of choice, an adjective to rally ‘round for those who wanted to shake America out of its "splendid isolation." Needless to say, the usefulness of the adjective did not diminish as World War II was succeeded by the Cold War.

The end of World War II, however, marked another epochal change: the great explosion of Jewish talent into all areas of American intellectual, cultural, artistic, and political life. Barriers fell everywhere, not least in American academic life. The result, for Jewish talk of Jesus, was a change of venue from the synagogue to the campus. Samuel Sandmel, who taught at Hebrew Union College but received his doctorate from Yale, was a transitional figure. His successors today may receive their doctorates from Hebrew Union College and go on to teach at Yale. A secondary, interesting change, which Prothero does not see fit to highlight but I will, is the emergence of Jewish women as scholars of the New Testament as well as of the Tanakh.

I am reliably informed that a three-hour ABC-TV special focusing on Paul will pay considerable attention to the work of Pamela Eisenbaum, a Jewish Paul-scholar on the faculty of Iliff, a Christian divinity school in Denver. A few years ago, when ABC did a similar program on Jesus, Paula Frederiksen, a Jewish convert on the faculty of Boston University, played the comparable role. Frederiksen’s stress on the Jewishness of Jesus continues a theme that has been dominant in New Testament scholarship for decades now, thanks in part to the work of earlier Jewish scholars. Eisenbaum’s contrarian claim—but she defends it ably—is that Paul, obnoxious Paul, was just as Jewish as Jesus if not, in fact, a bit more so.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was a Christian student at the Hebrew University living at the Pontifical Biblical Institute on Rehov Émile Botta, just across the street from the King David Hotel, I had the honor of sleeping under the same roof with a woman who was, at least at that time, Israel’s only mummy. You can imagine the jokes we heard about the one woman judged suitable for residence in this group of celibate priests and seminarians. The lady of our house was much visited back then by Israeli school children on group outings, and one day I overheard a little boy confide to his pal under his breath: Zo’t hi’ miryam habetulah.

Let me close there. Jesus may be an American, but he is increasingly a Jewish American; and by the way, his mother is embalmed and well and living in Jerusalem.