What Religion was Jesus? The Answer Might Surprise You

Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

Author |  Professor | BE Contributor

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Date written: February 22nd, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

Jesus is generally viewed as the founder and basis of Christianity, but does that mean he was a Christian?  If not, what religion was Jesus?  The answer may surprise you.

Everything we know about Jesus’ life indicates that at least at the beginning of his life and ministry, he was deeply Jewish. He was born in Palestine, his parents took him to the Temple to be circumcised on the 8th day after his birth, he went regularly to the synagogue and quoted constantly from the Jewish Scriptures.

But in founding Christianity, did he believe that he was starting a new religion separate from the Judaism of his time?  And by the end of his life, would you say that Jesus was a “Christian?”  Most scholars don’t believe so. In this article, I want to address why I believe that it would be incorrect to say that Jesus was a Christian. 

What Religion was Jesus - The Answer Might Surprise You

What Was Jesus’ Historical Context?

As Anthony Salderini points out, part of the problem of answering questions about Jesus is that we don’t have any words written by Jesus. Nor do we have any accounts written about him during his lifetime. Our earliest biographies, then, are the four canonical Gospels, all of which were written decades after Jesus’ death.

So what facts do the Gospels give us about Jesus? They say that he was born to a Jewish mother in Galilee, a province in the Jewish land of Palestine. This also means that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the first language of Jews in 1st-century Palestine. They say that the vast majority of his preaching was done in this Jewish province and that his disciples and most of his listeners were Jewish.

In addition, scholar Paula Fredriksen notes “how completely embedded [Jesus] is in this first century... Jewish world of religious practice and piety.” It’s common to read the Gospels as the foundation of what would eventually become a separate religion, but the Gospel authors themselves don’t say this at all.

Fredriksen points out, for example, that in the Gospels, Jesus frequently goes to synagogue on the Sabbath and goes to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. In Luke 4:16, it says that “When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” Anyone who regularly went to the synagogue on the Sabbath was a religious Jew.

It also seems clear, though, says Fredriksen, that Jesus wasn’t a member of any of the Jewish groups we know about at the time. He doesn’t seem to have been a Pharisee, a Sadducee, or an Essene.

This does not mean, however, that he was not fully steeped in Judaism. Not every Jewish person was a member of one of those groups and we know that there were many more Jewish groups in Jesus’ time than are mentioned in the Gospels.

Harold Attridge says this about Jesus’ involvement in the Jewish religious world:

He certainly would have known of the Temple in Jerusalem, and probably, as traditions report..., would have gone up to Jerusalem for the major pilgrimage festivals. He would have known of the rituals of the Temple, their atoning significance. He would have celebrated Passover, I suspect, with his family, and would have known of the hopes embedded in Passover for divine deliverance. He probably was aware of the growing Pharisaic movement which preached a notion of purity that was available to all Jews, not simply those who were officiating at the Temple cult. He certainly would have known Jewish scripture....

Remember also that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist who was part of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. What religion was Jesus at his baptism? The only possible answer is that he was baptized as a Jew, not a Christian.

In all these ways, Jesus’ entire life was lived in the context of 1st-century Judaism. This is evident from reading the Gospels. But what about his teachings? Were they distinct from the Judaism of his time? In other words, did he believe himself to be a Christian teaching other to be Chrisians?

What Forms of Teaching Did Jesus Use?

To begin with, in several verses in the Gospels (Matthew 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; John 1:38, 49, 2:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8), Jesus is called “Rabbi” by his disciples and others. That term, obviously, is a Hebrew term and simply means teacher. If the Gospel writers, writing in Greek, had not known of Jesus as a Jewish teacher, why would they have used that term? In other words, they did not consider him a Christian but a Jew.

But what about Jesus’ teachings? Were they thoroughly Jewish as well? Some have argued that his teachings diverged from Judaism and were entirely unique.

Jaroslav Pelikan first notes that the form Jesus’ teachings take is particularly Jewish in nature. For example, the question and answer form in this story from Mark 10:17-22 will be seen extensively in later rabbinic writings:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

As Pelikan puts it, “The one who puts the question acts as a straight man, setting up the opportunity for Rabbi Jesus to drive home the point, often by standing the question on its head.”

The other form Jesus’ teachings often took was parables. The word comes from the Greek word parabole meaning “comparison.” Parables were stories which used metaphors and/or analogies to teach. For example, Jesus might start by saying “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” and then use that comparison to illustrate his point.

This form of teaching can be found extensively in the Hebrew Bible. For example, in 2 Samuel 12:1-5, the prophet Nathan is sent by God to King David to condemn David’s de facto murder of a man in order to marry his wife. Nathan does this, indirectly at first, with a parable:

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare and drink from his cup and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.

The parable compares David with the heartless rich man and David is told that he will be punished for his evil deed.

Having established that the forms of Jesus’ teachings were Jewish, what about the content? Would a 1st-century Jew have recognized Jesus’ teachings as Jewish? 

Would the Content of Jesus’ Teachings Been Considered Jewish?

In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus says this about the Jewish Law:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

This is an undeniably Jewish assertion that the Law, the Torah, is forever valid.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to intensify the requirements of the Law, not doing away with them but rather, as Pelikan says, insisting that the spirit as well as the letter of the Law be obeyed. He often does this by saying “You have heard it said… but I say…” Here’s an example:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.

Again, Jesus is not saying that the injunction against murder should now be ignored. Rather, he’s saying that the meaning of the Law is that even a state of mind like anger which can motivate murder should be off-limits. It’s not changing the Law, in his mind, but interpreting it correctly. This kind of Law interpretation was, and still is, very common in Jewish practice.

Jesus also tells his followers that their righteousness, in other words their faithfulness to the Torah, must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). The idea, whether it came directly from Jesus or from the author and community of Matthew, is that Jesus’ conception of Jewishness is more correct than that of other groups.

Of course, all Jewish groups at the time believed this about themselves. Such an argument simply shows Jesus to be as thoroughly Jewish as any Pharisee, Sadducee, or Essene of his time.

Finally, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he teaches them to use what we now call the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Now take a look at the first part of the “Mourner’s Kaddish”, a prayer from the 13th century which is recited during every traditional Jewish prayer service:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.

May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

Note how both prayers affirm the holiness of God’s name and will and look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom. If the Lord’s Prayer had not been viewed through the lens of 2,000 years of Christian history, it would be difficult to separate it from Judaic practice and belief. It was an entirely Jewish prayer, indicating that it came from a Jewish person, not a Christian.

was Jesus Christian

What Religion Was Jesus When He Died?

Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This was a punishment reserved for insurrectionists or enemies of the state. In some way, the Romans saw Jesus as a potential threat, a Jew trying to disrupt their control of the Jewish homeland.

What’s also interesting to note is that in the Gospels, Jesus remains a faithful Jew to the end. For example, in Mark, our earliest written Gospel, Jesus says only one thing as he’s dying on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a direct quotation from Psalm 22 in the Hebrew Bible. 

This reference to the Psalms, which were presumed at the time to have been written by King David, again shows that Jesus felt a deep connection to the Judaism of his time and place. 

In addition, during the crucifixion scene in Matthew 27, we are told that the Romans hung a sign over Jesus’ head which read “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” In other words, at his moment of greatest agony, he sought solace in the Jewish Scripture that had meant so much to him. All of this points to the same conclusion: Jesus died as he lived: a deeply religious Jew.

While it’s undeniable that Christianity, a separate religion about  Jesus, would eventually grow and thrive after Jesus’ death, there is every indication that even at his death, he considered himself a Jew, not a Christian.

Conclusion: Was Jesus a Christian?

When we look closely at the Jesus of the four canonical Gospels, it’s abundantly clear that he was a deeply religious Jew. Despite the fact that those Gospels are integral to the Christian New Testament, there is no ignoring all the indications Jesus’ commitment to Judaism.

Jesus was born to a Jewish mother in Galilee in Palestine. He spoke Aramaic, the language of Palestinian Jews in that region in the 1st century, and preached and interacted with mostly Jewish people. He regularly went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and visited Jerusalem for Passover and other Jewish festivals.

He used particularly Jewish forms of teaching, including parables and short dialogues. He knew the Jewish Scriptures, including the Torah, and interpreted the meaning of the Torah in his teachings. He also saw the Torah as being eternally authoritative.

Finally, in his prayer, Jesus addressed Jewish themes such as the holiness of God’s name and will and the hope for the coming of God’s Kingdom to save the righteous from the corruption of the sinful world.

You’d have to close your eyes not to realize that Jesus’ religion was Judaism.

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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