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This bold, fresh look at the historical Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity challenges both Jews and Christians to re-examine their understanding of Jesus' commitment to his Jewish faith.
About the Author
Rabbi David Zaslow, M.S., is the spiritual leader of Havurah Shir Hadash, a synagogue in Ashland, Oregon. He travels the country leading workshops with churches and synagogues on the Jewish roots of Christianity.
Today our faith traditions are in need of healing – both within themselves and with each other. Rabbi Zaslow's book is a dose of sacred medicine for both Christianity and Judaism. He challenges us to face our prejudices, while affirming and celebrating our unique traditions. While Jesus has a different meaning for a Christian and a Jew, reflecting on that can takes us on a deeper and yet more universal journey into our own faith. Based on solid scholarship and a luminous open heart, Zaslow makes a powerful and much needed contribution to the interfaith dialogue. Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. Author of A Woman's Journey to God, and co-author of Your Soul's Compass
This an important book, for Christians and Jews alike. Rabbi Zaslow has tried to stimulate a conversation and build bridges between the two faiths. This is a critically important task, and this book makes that attempt with broad scholarship and great clarity. Rev. John M. Salmon, Ph. D., Princeton Theological Seminary
Christian readers will find their faith stirred by reading this book on their own, or as shared reading with Jewish friends. Renewal is coming to faith by learning in the presence of the other... It is as if Jesus has been holding his breath, waiting for this time. Rev. Dr. Joseph Ward, D.Min., Presbyterian Church USA
Christians professing faith in Jesus will surely learn and be enriched immensely by studying Rabbi David Zaslow's great new book. The book is a must read for everyone exploring the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The book fosters conversation and co-operation through mutual respect… fresh and insightful approaches to historic issues that have driven a wedge between two faiths that ironically share so many common values. Rabbi Zaslow encourages the orchestra to play the music that the world needs to hear and enjoy. Dr. Brad H. Young, Ph.D. Oral Roberts University author of Parables: The Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation
Theology books are rarely real page-turners but if you yearn to know Rabbi Jesus better, and to understand his parables and sayings, you won't be able to put this book down! Rabbi Zaslow has put the pieces back together for us. Learning more about the roots and branches that Jews and Christians share will bring us closer to the center of God's new community and create a way to peace for people of every faith. The Rev. Dr. Barbara J. Campbell. Pastor, St. Mark Presbyterian Church
Rabbi Jesus seen in his native setting was a he artful teacher of Jewish lore and morals. Rabbi Zaslow has brought him home to us so that we may hear him among his own contemporaries whom we honor and learn from. Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author of Jewish With Feeling and Davening
This book will broaden the minds and deepen the hearts of individuals who read it, but imagine the possibilities for deeper understanding and compassion between Jewish and Christian congregations if Jesus: First-Century Rabbi was used in interfaith study groups! I thank my friend and spiritual colleague, Rabbi David Zaslow, for his scholarship, humor, honesty and generosity of spirit . This unique resource is a gift to us all. The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, Episcopal Priest
Readers of Jesus: First-Century Rabbi will find the common areas—Torah, tradition, and sacred space—a protective umbrella reverencing the faith truths of two world religions….“As the wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” (Isaiah 11:6) those of Judaic-Christian interests may liken this text to a protective tent under which clubs and congregations can neighbor through an exchange of religious inspiration and return to their respective traditions with living waters. Sister Carolyn Sur, School Sister of Notre Dame St. Louis University
Fascination with the “historical Jesus” has occupied scholars for well over two centuries, and myriad portraits of Jesus have emerged to line the bookshelves of religious historians and theologians alike: “Jesus as social revolutionary,” “Jesus as political radical,” “Jesus as Jewish Messiah,” “Jesus as wisdom teacher,” “Jesus as feminist/liberal/socialist/conservative.” Each new publication is ever hopeful of shedding light on the “real life” of a man who surely has earned the title of most controversial figure ever to walk the earth.
However, with so many cooks in the kitchen—scholars and laymen of diverse religious (or secular) and cultural backgrounds have all weighed in—the fruits of such scholarship have unfortunately been all too often a source more of division than of reconciliation or noble contribution to a united search for accuracy and truth (the response to and controversy surrounding Islamic writer Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth earlier this year serves as a prime example). So, as with every new addition to this body of “historical Jesus” writing, with the publication of one of the most recent works on the historical Jesus—Rabbi David Zaslow’s Jesus: First Century Rabbi(Paraclete Press $23.99)—we must ask: What do we have new here? What more can we learn? What can this particular author’s particular perspective add to this discourse?
Though the addition of a Jewish point of view and the attempt to understand Jesus in the context of 1st century Judaism is hardly novel (the works of Jewish scholars Heinrich Graetz, Abraham Geiger, Claude Montefiore, Joseph Klausner, Geza Vermes, Jacob Neusner, and Paula Frederiksen are all exemplars), Zaslow’s goals and approach to his topic are wonderfully refreshing and positive. His hope is not only to contextualize Jesus’s life and ministry in terms of Judaism but to find ways to use the life of Jesus to reconcile historical and all-too-often bitter divisions that have grown between contemporary Jews and Christians. His target audience—comprised of both Jews and Christians—is asked to come to his work with an open mind and the hope of dispelling misrepresentations of the other’s faith and with a commitment to avoiding criticism or attempts to change each other.
One cannot help but be enamored by such a lofty ideal, and, as a Christian reader, I was especially motivated to embrace Zaslow’s goal by one particular chapter devoted to Anti-Semitism, in which he describes how even in the writings of some of Christianity’s most beloved early church fathers—Origen, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine, among others—elements of prejudice against Jews existed. At its best moments, this book did achieve its goal. Having grown up in an evangelical church and continuing to worship within this tradition to this day, I was happily led to realize gaps in my Sunday School knowledge of Jewish history and tradition: Zaslow’s explication of the Jewish sacrificial system was among the best I have read; his highlighting of the similarities between Jesus’s Our Father prayer, the Beatitudes, and Jewish sources including the Talmud, Siddur, Baba Kamma, and Old Testament was enlightening; and his fascinating description of the “Hebrew mindset,” which avoids dualistic distinctions that often characterize Christian theology and apologetics, including rigid categorizations of past-present-future, physical-spiritual, and animate-inanimate were incredibly helpful as well.
At each of these moments, I felt that, both intellectually and spiritually, Zaslow’s words had opened up my faith in a way that—without threatening it—had simultaneously expanded and strengthened it. Perhaps Zaslow’s greatest accomplishment with Jesus is that this book will certainly inspire its readers to ask more questions, to delve more deeply into Jewish history and tradition, and to do more research into the culture and religion of Jesus. However, I must also confess that my reading experience was not entirely smooth sailing. I bucked at Zaslow’s attempt to deal with both Judaism and Christianity as monolithic religious systems, often breezing past denominational and theological differences within each faith which seemed, at times, significant (for example, Catholic versus Protestant understandings of salvation). And while Zaslow repeats at several moments that practitioners of a religion should be the ones responsible for defining their faith’s meaning and terms, I found myself wishing that he had perhaps brought a Christian co-author on board to most accurately represent contemporary Christian viewpoints on Jesus’s Judaism. Furthermore, there were a few moments where the similarities Zaslow asks his readers to see between Judaism and Christianity required me to suspend my disbelief too far (that Christ is to Christians as the Torah is to Jews, that the Christian Trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit parallels the Jewish trinity of God, Torah, and Israel), and I never was quite able to get C.S. Lewis’s trilemma of Jesus as liar, lunatic, or lord out of my head, never feeling entirely resolved about accepting Jesus as wholly man for Jews but wholly divine for Christians, despite Zaslow’s effort to suggest that it’s possible to embrace both scenarios simultaneously.
Undoubtedly, only the most theologically liberal of Christians will escape these pages without some chafing: among Zaslow’s assertions are that all Christian missionary efforts to Jews are misguided and should be halted, that Jesus’s claims to be the Messiah or Christ should not necessarily be interpreted as unique, that Paul may not really have been a committed Jew but may have been just “pretending” to be one so as to gain conversions to Christianity, and that the notions of exclusive salvation and replacement theology of any stripe should be rejected. Zaslow is an evangelist of his cause and ultimately makes clear what the version of Christianity he believes is both most faithful to the historical Jesus looks like as well as what he imagines the ideal nature of Jewish-Christian relationships to be.
But as I so often tell my students: beliefs worth holding on to are ones that are put through fire and come out sound on the other side. And while Zaslow’s Jesus does challenge both fundamental principles and key theological elements of Christianity, it also passionately, devotedly, and lovingly extends an olive branch to Christians. The hope that by highlighting the similarities and common origins of our faiths will draw us closer together into better relationships with shared goals is both welcome and noble. It is certainly a delightful addition to the often-heated discourse surrounding the “historical Jesus,” and I would heartily recommend this book to scholars or practitioners of Judaism and Christianity alike. There is something here for everyone to think on, study deeper, and be inspired and changed by. Amber Stamper, Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith December 2013
The first century is a time whose stories evoke controversy as perhaps no other period in the history of religion. Who was “the real” Jesus? The answer to that question has altered loves for better and for worse until our very day. So a book like Jesus: First Century Rabbi, by Rabbi David Zaslow, which tries to answer the question, demands serious attention.
His work actually continues a recent trend of books trying to better understand who Jesus was, by placing him in the context of 1st century Judaism. Rabbi Zaslow’s effort is a particularly accessible and loving work, which will bridge a gap felt by both some Christians and Jews.
Whether one agrees with his analysis or not, the spirit in which the book is written is a beautiful lesson for much interfaith encounter. His animating premise is that contemporary Christianity and Judaism share a common narrative far richer than many in either camp often appreciate, and that each can better understand both their own story and the other’s, when they more fully appreciate that shared narrative. About this last conclusion, the author is certainly correct, but his use of “root/branch” or “elder sibling/younger sibling” metaphors to describe Judaism and Christianity are more problematic, and actually lead to some potential problems in building the most fruitful and durable inter-religious encounters.
While both most Jews, and many Christians, appreciate the apparent advantage of treating Judaism as the elder tradition, as the author does, it is not exactly true. In fact, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity co-arise at roughly the same time i.e. the first century.
The challenges with applying the “root/branch” metaphor are most apparent in the book when we read citations from texts in the so-called root tradition, Judaism, which are younger than those found in the so-called branch tradition, Christianity. Not to worry too much though, as those are not the only available metaphors in thinking about how these two traditions are related to each other.
Perhaps more productive, would be thinking of both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity as twin children of a common mother — the Hebrew Bible. While that metaphor may offer some unique challenges to both communities, it better represents the actual history of each tradition, and may also help explain some of the enormous pain that has arisen between the two over the centuries. That however, is for another time.
I would offer two additional cautionary notes, also based on the book, in the hope of maximizing the encounters which this book helps to facilitate:
1. The Jesus of this book is so much the one with whom the author can identify, that it reminds us to be careful that our bridge-building efforts actually bridge us to more that who we already are, and who we want those we find on the other side to be. The richest bridge-building efforts invite us to connect even when those across the bridge are genuinely different from us.
2. The same book which so lovingly “saves” Jesus as a good rabbinic Jew, may do so by crucifying Paul, his best known evangelist. It’s a common enough challenge, which most of us face at some time or another — making peace with an old challenger by locating a new person on who to park all of the old enmity. While Rabbi Zaslow’s book may not go that far, at times it comes close, and in doing so reminds us how easy it is for even those of us with the very best of intentions to find ourselves making new friends by identifying new foes.
Ultimately though, this is a beautiful book, and when read as an example of how to see what we love most in ourselves as being deeply present even with others, it deserves the attention of all people whose love of God and humanity is as deep as their love of the particular faith they follow. Brad Hirschfield, Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith December 2013
Our contemporary, commodity-based mindset does not hold onto subtleties and contradictions very well. We don't have much room in our minds for mystery, riddle, and paradox as we once did. We want answers. We pose our questions in black and white, either/or. An evangelical pastor once said to me, "Either Jesus is the Savior or he is a fraud." I asked, "Why? Where did you come up with such a clear either/or choice? Maybe he is Savior to you and great rabbi to me, and we're both right." – from the book We could all do better by eliminating old prejudices and misunderstandings.
Jesus: First-Century Rabbi takes a fresh look at the historical Jesus and the Jewish roots of Christianity, challenging both Jews and Christians to re-examine their understanding of Jesus’ commitment to his Jewish faith. Instead of emphasizing the differences between the two religions, this text explains how the concepts of vicarious atonement, mediation, incarnation, and Trinity are actually rooted in classical Judaism. Using the cutting edge of scholarly research, Rabbi Zaslow dispels the myths of disparity between Christianity and Judaism without diluting the unique features of each faith. Zaslow is the spiritual leader of Havurah Shir Hadash, a synagogue in Ashland, Oregon. He travels the country leading workshops with churches and synagogues on the Jewish roots of Christianity.
According to Zaslow in Jesus, the time seems to have arrived when Christians and Jews are beginning to have a new understanding of each other. Old notions and prejudices are rapidly being discarded, making room for what the Holy One might have had us understand all along. After the Holocaust, it's time to ask, as the great first-century sage Hillel did, "If not now, when?" In March 2008, Time magazine cited ‘Re-Judaizing Jesus’ as one of ‘10 Ideas That Are Changing the World.” Zaslow in the introduction says he thinks he knows why.
What we need are more passionate, joy-filled discussions and dialogues with an underlying celebration of what we have in common. A good ground rule for interfaith encounters would be for members of each faith tradition to self-define their own beliefs. Members of each respective faith can then agree to discontinue relying upon what they think the other believes, and to rely on the new definitions. Zaslow says he has compiled Jesus for his Christian friends who wish to learn and study the Jewish roots of their faith, and for his Jewish brothers and sisters who often lack accurate information about first-century Jewish beliefs and religious practices.
Can Christians and Jews actually celebrate the mystery and shake their heads in wonderment at the infinite wisdom of the Creator? Zaslow doesn't propose to minimize Jewish and Christian differences in Jesus. On the contrary, Judaism needs the broad spectrum of its various movements. Christianity needs its broad spectrum of denominations and movements. And both faiths in a most profound and mysterious way, need each other. Jews and Christians have theologies that differ when it comes to the nature of Jesus. But they also have an identical moral passion for justice and equality based on the prophets. They have parallel problems and challenges that face them both. And they love and serve the same God.
Zaslow hopes Jesus helps imprint a Jewish face on a Joshua whose name and identity was Hellenized and changed to Jesus, whose title is often changed to Lord instead of Rabbi so that he would appeal to the non-Jewish world, whose native country was called Palestine by the Romans in order to remove the identification with Judaism that Judea implied. He hopes that this book helps place the martyrdom of Rabbi Joshua in context to the tens of thousands of other rabbis and lay people who also died on the cross at the hands of the Romans.
Zaslow says he wrote the book with a focus on his Christian friends, but it is also for Jews who want to learn about the Jewish roots of Christianity. Jesus will clarify aspects of the life of the historical Jesus, the Jewish Jesus, the first-century Rabbi Jesus. Zaslow’s goal is simply to put his words and teachings into their proper cultural and religious context. The subject of this book has to do with the teachings within Judaism that were most likely studied and believed by the historical Jesus. The book does not focus on the Christian's faith in the theological Jesus – the Jesus worshiped by the church is the province of Christians. To a Christian he is seen as both Messiah and Savior. To a Jew, the messiah is an anointed person, and God is the Savior. The historical Jesus – Jesus the man, the Jewish man, the rabbi – he belongs to both of Christians and Jews. The focus of this book is on the notions, ideas, theology, scriptural passages, and eschatology that Jesus the Jew, Jesus the rabbi, the historical Jesus believed. What writings by other rabbis did Rabbi Joshua study during the first thirty years of his life? Who did he study with? Who were his favorite teachers? What prayers did he chant each morning and evening? What parts of the Jewish oral tradition did he quote or refer to that are recorded in the Gospels?
Zaslow in Jesus says that the time is ripe for Christians to delve into the powerful teachings that grew out of the pre-Rabbinic Judaism that Jesus was a part of, and that brought the world such great wisdom in the past two thousand years. Simultaneously, it seems to be the right time for Jews to reclaim Jesus as an authentic Jewish teacher and native son. SirReadAlot.org February 2014
As a Christian Priest I cannot recommend this book enough. It is one of the best pieces of interfaith Edifications I have ever had the pleasure to read, and re-read.
Rabbi Zaslow approaches Jesus in an unbiased and truthfully honest way. He can do this with total perfection because of two great but forgotten reasons, firstly Jesus like the author was a practising Jew who was devoted heart and soul to his faith, he was also like the author a Rabbi teaching from the wealth of the Torah and Oral Traditions.
This book gives us a beautiful tapestry that is the historical Jesus and sets him against an accurate back cloth of life and times. It hands us back the Hebrew Scriptures as Jesus loved them, not as something to be forgotten or defunct but as real and necessary today as they were to Jesus then.
This book is enlightening, deep, thoughtful and a blessing if read as it was written with a contrite heart, an open spirit and with love.
The disciples and those who heard Jesus in his day would have sat at his feet with the same open heart and listened to their Rabbi. While reading this book I too sat at the feet of Rabbi Zaslow and listened. Thank God I did! The Revd. Timothy Baker
Jews and Christians share a common history but disagree on its import. We share a common scripture but dispute its meanings. Jesus lived and died a Jew, but his message inspired a new tradition. Jesus: First Century Rabbi gracefully examines the life and times of Jesus through a Jewish lens and helps us appreciate the points of meeting. Rabbi David Zaslow goes back to basics: what the text says, what key words mean, and conditions in first-century Judea. He analyzes concepts such as faith and works, the Trinity, and more to suggest ways in which common ideas found divergent expressions in the two traditions, noting the distinctive expressions of each tradition. I was particularly impressed by Zaslow's final section, in which he addresses anti-Semitism and replacement theology. He asks Christian readers to consider how certain statements might be heard by Jewish listeners and notes that many Christian leaders have stepped away from a confrontational stance. Zaslow reminds us that they story of Jesus has its roots within the Jewish world. Zaslow calls on both Jews and Christians to hear anew the story of the other. He asserts that by acknowleding the other, we can both be stronger. It is this optimistic message that characterizes this useful and interesting book. Rabbi Louis A. Rieser, Congregational Libraries Today 2014