Writing in The New York Times on Christmas Eve, Peter Wehner, like so many Christians before him, sought to make Jesus relevant to contemporary readers by mapping present-day concerns onto first century texts to describe what his article calls The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ. His barrier-shattering, social justice warrior Jesus may be appealing, but this depiction is faithful neither to the Gospels nor to history.
Wehner yanks Jesus out of Jewish context and then falsely categorizes the Judaism of Jesus’ time as representing the toxicity of today’s contemporary culture. The piece is not only bad journalism; it is bad theology and bad history. Of the numerous errors in his short essay, we biblical scholars flag seven, a good biblical number.
First, he insists that Jesus associated with “outcasts”—the short article uses the term seven times—such as tax collectors. He then glosses this designation with “unclean… untouchable… marginalized…forsaken and despised.” Tax collectors were not cast out; to the contrary, Jesus tells a parable about a tax collector praying in the Jerusalem Temple. What is remarkable—and ignored in this piece— is Jesus associating with people who violate community welfare, the ancient versions of insider traders, drug-pushers, and human traffickers, and telling them to repent.
Second, Wehner finds it astounding that Jesus healed impure people such as a woman suffering hemorrhages and a man with leprosy. In so doing, he ignores Jewish precedents for this, such as the prophet Elisha healing Naaman’s leprosy. Jesus does not do away with ritual impurity, a natural state that all people at one time or another will experience. Jesus rather restores to purity people who have chronic medical conditions. Missing again is what is remarkable: Jesus practices free health care. Also remarkable: People seeking care approach Jesus; they advocate for themselves and so set a good example.
Third, Wehner insists that Samaritans “were despised by the Jews”. He fails to note that the enmity was mutual, and that Samaritans would attack Jewish pilgrims coming from Galilee to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. He then claims Jesus breaches theological barriers by speaking to a Samaritan woman. To the contrary, Jesus tells her that her religion is wrong. That is setting up barriers, not promoting diversity. Finally, Wehner sees this woman as worthy of condemnation because of her marital history and then takes Jesus’ lack of condemnation as a blessing. To the contrary, were she worthy of condemnation, her fellow Samaritans would not have listened to her news about Jesus. What is remarkable, and sad, is that for two thousand years Christians have been condemning a woman for the sole purpose of showing that Jesus did not do so.
Fourth, Wehner presumes that the parable of the Good Samaritan is about class, with the hero not “an influential priest, not a person of social rank or privilege, but a hated foreigner.” Wrong again. The priest and the Levite who ignore the injured man in the ditch are not people of privilege; village priests should not be confused with the high priest in Jerusalem, and Levites were at the time neither influential nor socially prominent. The Samaritan, conversely, has wealth, which is how he can bring the injured man to an inn and write the innkeeper a blank check. Remarkable here, among other things, is that the Samaritan stopped to help, despite the presence of bandits on the road. Remarkable as well, he paid for long-term care.
Fifth, we find the common but false view that Jesus more or less invented feminism by speaking with women. The system in which Jesus flourished was patriarchal, but so was Jesus, as attested by his 12 male disciples. Remarkable is that the Gospels show us much about first century Jewish women; they owned homes, managed their own funds, had freedom of travel, appeared in synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple, and some served as Jesus’ patrons. The Gospels detail Jewish women who are not marginalized and ostracized, but prominent and welcome.
Sixth, we read that Jesus “understood that the weak and dispossessed often experience God in a different way—as a dispenser of grace, a source of comfort, a redeemer.” The correct term for this notion that Jesus invented a new and better God is “Marcionism,” a heresy named after the early Christian teacher who claimed that the Old Testament and New Testament gods were different deities. Jews understood grace; they understood God as a source of comfort (that is why the Psalms remains so relevant to both Jews and Christians); they understood redemption. They understood the need for care for the orphan and the widow, the poor and the stranger well before the first century.
While Wehner cites Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 Lewiston, Illinois, speech about the “divine image and likeness,” he fails to note that Lincoln is citing Genesis 1, about the fundamental dignity of all people. The Jewish rabbis elaborated upon this text, noting “Precious is the human being, who was created in the image [of God].” Remarkable is Wehner’s entire dismissal of what the church calls the “Old Testament” as well as of post-biblical Jewish teaching.
Seventh, and most disturbing, Wehner presumes that Jews thought of disabled people—paralytics, the blind—as “worthless and useless.” To the contrary, the Gospels consistently depict the disabled, especially children, as embedded in family and friendship networks, loved and cared for by fellow Jews. Isaac (Genesis 27:1), Samson (Judges 16:21), and several early rabbinic teachers were blind, and they were neither worthless nor useless. Stereotyping the disabled is never helpful.
In the name of inclusivity and the need for humility and self-criticism about one’s own myopia, Wehner has demonstrated precisely such myopia vis-à-vis Jews, both of Jesus’ own time period and today. He yanks Jesus out of his historical context and ignores the only Scripture—what the church calls the “Old Testament” and the source of the “radical teachings” of the imago dei and of social justice—Jesus and his disciples followed. That’s not good news, whether for Jesus or for his modern-day followers.