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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/20/13

Art Contributed to the Christian-Jewish Divide, and Art Can Heal it

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Bernard Starr
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From its very beginnings Christianity sought separation from Judaism. No small task since Christianity arose from Jewish prophesies and a connection to the Jewish Davidic line, which, according to the Torah, would produce the Messiah.

Adding to the challenge of breaking away from Judiasm was the fact that Jesus, as documented in the Gospels, was a dedicated practicing Jew throughout his lifetime and never indicated any desire to establish a new religion.

Even Paul, recognized as the founder of Christianity, never gave up his Jewish identity. Rather, he sought to make his brand of Judaism, which would eliminate circumcision and dietary laws, a new, more accessible Judaism that would be open to everyone. At the helm would be the Messiah Jesus.

Some scholars still persist in asserting that Paul rejected Judaism from the outset of his mission. For example, Reza Aslan, in his new book, Zealot, says that after Paul's conversion on the Damascus road, from persecutor of Jesus' followers to believer in Jesus, he "...immediately began preaching the risen Jesus, not to his fellow Jews, but to the gentiles. ..." But Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles Paul's mission, explicitly states that for the first few decades Paul reached out primarily, if not exclusively, to Jews.

Wherever he traveled his destination was synagogues: "And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues..."--in Salamis, Antioch, Iconium, Phillippi in Macedonia, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus (Acts: 9:20, 13:5, 13:14, 14:1,16:13, 17:1-2,17:10,17:16, 18:4, 19:8--also, see Paul's travels in his timeline).

Aslan and others who maintain that Paul rejected Judaism must also explain why Paul never made such a declaration. Furthermore, he went to his death charged by the Sanhedrin as a blasphemous Jew. If Paul had merely stated that he was no longer a Jew but a Christian, the Sanhedrin wouldn't have had authority to indict him, because the Sanhedrin only had jurisdiction over Jews for religious matters and especially because Paul was a privileged Roman citizen. Paul repeatedly said that the Romans had no quarrel with him: "Who, when they [the Romans] had examined me, would have let me go..." (Acts 28:17-20).

After Paul's death, Christian ties to Judaism rapidly faded; pagan converts became the dominant Christian constituency. With the establishment of a unified Church at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century (325 CE) the separation from Judaism not only accelerated but became a principal tenet of Church policy. Widening the rift were edicts that discouraged Christians from owning or reading the New Testament on their own and forbidding translations of the Bible into native languages -- edicts that remained in effect well into the Renaissance.

Thus, Christians only knew what they were told by Church officials. What they were told focused on devotional prayer, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the suffering of Jesus, the resurrection -- and that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus' death. The populace was protected from discovering what Episcopal Priest Bruce Chilton noted in his book Rabbi Jesus: "It became clear to me that everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews."

As the Church expanded through the Middle Ages and attracted conversions from the upper classes of society, a market for Christian art developed. Wealthy patrons, as well as the Church itself, generated a brisk demand for artworks to display in homes, castles, churches, and public places -- and the more Christian the paintings the more desirable. In the fierce competition for patrons, artists were eager to give their benefactors what they wanted and to ensure they didn't get what they didn't want. Not surprising, therefore, Medieval and Renaissance artworks omitted any Jewish connection for Jesus, his family, and close followers, thus adding a powerful wedge between Christianity and Judaism.

In many of these paintings the viewer sees a blond fair-skinned Northern European Jesus immersed in anachronistic Christian settings -- with Saints, High Church officials and Christian artifacts. In contrast, and reinforcing the implied difference, Jews were commonly pictured as dark and menacing.

In setting Jesus apart from Jews and Judaism these artworks, in combination with other persecutory Church actions, provided an overlooked and formidable underpinning for anti-Semtism.

The Louvre Museum in Paris set out to correct these distortions of biblical history in its 2011 exhibit, Jesus and the Face of Christ: "For Rembrandt, working from a Jewish model would have been a means of returning to a historical truth, or portraying Jesus unadulterated, as the Jew that he was -- a form of realism scoffing at tradition."

Rembrandt's religion-neutral portraits of Jesus are a welcome departure from the distortions of classical paintings. But they don't override the powerful impact of the bulk of artworks spanning hundreds of years -- images that fostered an illusion that Jesus was of a different religion and ethnicity than the others -- the Jews.

That's why I've invited artists to submit new renditions of Renaissance artworks for an exhibit that puts Judaism back in the picture. Viewed side by side, these paintings represent two themes that interface Judaism and Christianity: Jesus the dedicated Jew and Jesus whose life and teachings inspired a new religion.

Pope Francis' dramatic message on Sept. 11, 2013, lends support for this exhibit. In a giant step toward reconciliation, the pope declared, "We have discovered that the Jewish people are still, for us, the holy root from which Jesus originated." On the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah, Pope Francis sees a common yearning: "By Jews persevering in their faith in God they remind everyone, even us as Christians, that we are always awaiting the return of the Lord and that therefore we must remain open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already achieved."

It is my hope that the art exhibit Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian-Jewish Divide will help celebrate the pope's vision of a common ground for Judaism and Christianity.

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist, journalist, and Professor Emeritus CUNY, Brooklyn College. He is the author of The Crucifixion of Truth, a drama about historical antisemitism set in 16th-century Italy and Spain. At Brooklyn College, he (more...)

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