God’s greatest revelation of Himself is Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-18; Galatians 4:4; and Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus was not a religious idea, a man for all generations. He did not belong to the Old Testament world of ancient Israel and Judah, nor was He a student of the Reformation. Jesus belonged to the world and faith of ancient Judaism, in the land of Israel, in the first century A.D. (Galatians 4:4). Failure to encounter the historical Jesus of Nazareth means we follow a Jesus we have made in our own image. The Jesus of faith is only the Jesus of history.
This has often been ignored within much of Christian history and interpretation concerning Jesus. Faith in Jesus has often superseded the faith of Jesus.
Jesus did not belong to the world of the Old Testament. His words, parables, faith, view of God all grew from the soil of ancient Judaism. To understand His words, we must understand the world that bore him. So too, Jesus did not belong to the world of Medieval or modern Judaism; He never wore a kippa.
Our encounter, then, of the Incarnation—God entering a specific time, within a definite space, in a particular culture—must place Jesus within His world, the world of ancient Judaism. This does not mean dressing a Gentile Jesus as a modern Jew, nor does it mean turning the historical Jesus into a modern Gentile Christian.
The Incarnation calls us to encounter Jesus as a historical person whose words meant something within their historical and cultural context. He is not a religious ideal, a superman to be worshiped. Rather, He is our Lord, and as His disciples, we must study His words, do them, and teach others (Ezra 7:10; Matthew 28:18-20). To understand His words, however, we must enter His world, the world of ancient Judaism.
Jesus’ most frequently used story parables to teach. Outside of the Gospels, the only other place we encounter story parables are on the lips of the Sages of the land of Israel. To understand His words, we must understand His world. The most common phrase Jesus used was the kingdom of Heaven. So too, this phrase only appears on the lips of His Jewish contemporaries, the Sages of Israel. To ignore His world means we will misunderstand and misinterpret His words.
That Jesus was a Jew of the first century does not mean His non-Jewish followers should become Jewish (see Acts 15). But we should not deny Him His historical identity because we are not Jews; moreover, we should not seek to cast Him as a modern or Messianic Jew. Encountering the Jesus of history brings us face-to-face with the Jesus of faith.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.