This Christmas I have been hearing a lot about the Jewishness of Jesus. Radio Preachers, Seminarians, Bible Scholars, and Rob-Bell-fans have been reminding us that Mary and Joseph were Jews and that the Jewish baby Jesus was wrapped in Jewish swaddling clothes and laid in a Jewish manger. These are not particularly new this year; actually, such ruminations have been around for ages. They just seem to be appearing with greater frequency (according to my anecdotal evidence).
Why all the talk about Jews at Christmas? What is the significance of the Jewishness of Jesus?
I think one reason why we talk about the Jewishness of Jesus is to defend the historicity of the event of Christmas. We want to assert that this is not myth or a legend in the order of Santa Claus. This story is real flesh and blood history that took place in the time and space of the Jewish people. Such an emphasis on historicity is especially important for apologetics, as it serves to shore up a potentially floundering faith in the face of modern skeptics. The Jewishness of Jesus' birth empowers us to say, "No, this is not a myth; it really happened!"
But historicity is not the whole picture. The apologetic concern is not the only concern. We also talk about the Jewishness of Jesus because it helps us understand the story better. Hearing about the complexities of Jewish bethrothal practices helps us to grasp why Mary and Joseph's situation was so harried. Knowing that the shepherds were were the lowest class in Jewish society helps us get the message of Luke's account. The Jewishness of Jesus helps the stories make more sense, therefore making an old story come alive.
... but ...
But I wonder if these two aspects really get at the heart of what it means to say Jesus is Jewish. I wonder what it is like for Jews to overhear Christians talk about this stuff. I wonder if Jews think we don't take the Jewishness of Jesus seriously. Because if we did, we would not just talk about historicity and hermeneutics. Why? Because as long as its just about defending and understanding the story, the Jewishness of Jesus is still just accidental to the story itself. In other words, it is not an essential or necessary aspect of the story. We are interested in Jesus' Jewishness because we are interested in Jesus, and he just happens to be Jewish. If he happened to be Filipino, Belgian, or Kazakh, then we would be studying one of these cultures. But he didn't. So we just happen talk about Jews during Christmas.
What would it mean for the Jewishness of Jesus to be more than accidental to the Christmas story? It would start with remembering that Jesus is a Jew because he is the the fulfiller of God's covenant with Israel. He is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Annointed One of God. These are Jewish titles, which are not just culturally interesting but theologically loaded. They remind us of the history of Israel, and that we are not talking about God-in-general but Yahweh, the God of Israel. Furthermore, Christians confess that this Jewish man Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son of God. To put it more badly: God became a Jew. God is Jewish.
The Jewishness of God should give us pause concerning how we treat our Jewish neighbors this holiday season. More importantly, the Jewishness of God should give us pause concerning how we treat God this year. Do we really beleive that he became this man? Do we take that seriously? Does it bring out awe in our hearts? Does it color everything we do? Does it affect our picture of how God relates to his creation? Does it imply something about what it means to be human? Do we really worship the God of the Jews who became a Jew to save the Gentiles?
In light of the Jewishness of God, Christmas is also about identifying God. It did happen in history (historicity), and its cultural context helps us understand it (hermeneutics). But it also definitively and irreversibly identifies God as the God who became this Jewish man. This God, and this God alone, we celebrate this and every Christmas.