The genesis of my new book is a simple question: Who was Jesus of Nazareth?
We all think we know who he was — the inspiration for the world's most successful religion. The deliverer of faith, love, spiritual inspiration and religious commitment to billions of people the world over for two millennia. Christians see him as the son of God, both wholly human and wholly divine, whose example, compassion and self-sacrifice are a bulwark for the faithful worldwide.
But is that the whole story?
For all the undeniable good Christianity has done, even its most passionate adherents would admit it has also been directly and indirectly responsible for a great deal of suffering. Until the modern era, Christian history is rife with physical violence and discrimination. Awful acts of hatred and intolerance were committed in Jesus' name. And for far too long, the received picture of Jesus has obscured a simple and powerful truth: Jesus would never stand as an enemy against his own people, nor would he tolerate his followers doing so.
From the very beginning, as Christianity branched away from Judaism to develop its own identity, Jesus was intentionally shorn of his Jewishness like Samson deprived of his strength. Christians obfuscated the idea of Jesus the Jew — preferring to see him as an innovator, who at once transcended Judaism and brought it to a conclusion. This deception deeply alienated Jesus from the Jewish people and led to considerable torment and distress.
This is not to suggest that the chilly relationship between Christians and Jews was one-sided. Jews have long avoided any connection to Jesus. Over the centuries, as he was slowly turned into a deity and violence perpetrated in his name against the Jews increased, they came to see him as a source of unrelenting persecution, the supreme example of heresy. They wanted no association with the patron saint of zealots who demeaned, attacked and murdered them, and taught sacrilege in his name.
But times are changing. Christianity has opened its heart to the Jews.
The Catholic Church is today a great friend to the Jewish people. In May 2010, as a guest of the Vatican, I met Pope Benedict; his warmth and regard for me as a rabbi were immediately in evidence. Evangelical Christians are among the most stalwart supporters of the State of Israel. Not only that, of the 3.45 million tourists who visited the Jewish homeland in 2010, 69 percent were Christians. Christians are beginning to take a long-overdue look back to the common origins of our religious outlook with modern eyes and see how we got to where we are.
Now, perhaps it's time and equally imperative that Jews recognize a long-obscured and essential truth: Rabbi Jesus was a Jew and should be counted among our nation. This heroic Jewish patriot should not be severed from the people he loved and the people he died defending.
The stage has been set for us to see Jesus for who he truly was: a wise and learned rabbi who defined himself and his Jewishness in much the same way as today's Torah-observant Jews. He wore a Jewish head covering, ate only kosher food, prayed in the Hebrew language and honored the Sabbath. He was also a political leader who despised the Romans for their cruelty to his Israelite brethren. He fought the Romans courageously and was ultimately murdered for trying to throw off the Roman yoke of oppression. So greatly did Jesus love his people, so deeply did he believe in his messianic mission to grant the Jews independence from Rome, that he was willing to suffer and die to end Roman dominion and renew Jewish sovereignty in ancient Israel.
Even as I highlight the overlooked Jewish character of Jesus, the fact remains that Jews will never accept his divinity. Neither should they. The belief that any man is God is an abomination to Judaism, a position that Jesus himself would maintain. But this is decidedly not the same as seeing Jesus for the Jewish hero he undoubtedly was.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a best-selling author whose book, "Kosher Jesus," from which this piece was adapted, will be published in January.