Palestinian activist, Linda Sarsour, might have made big waves by saying that Jesus was a Palestinian, but the claim isn’t new.
The assertion is made as a way of trying to separate Jesus from the people of Israel and his Jewish identity. It tries to recast Jesus as a political freedom fighter who would stand against the nation of Israel, rather than the Messiah of Israel who came to take away the sin of the world.
Linda Sarsour even took a quote from the biblical book of Revelation (1:14-15) about John’s vision of Jesus and said it came from the Qu’ran! She was mistaken on many levels. It’s obvious that Jesus was a Middle Eastern man rather than a white caucasian, but there’s no getting away from the fact that he was a Jew, living in Judea, who said he was called first and foremost to the people of Israel. Even Benjamin Netanyahu’s son took issue with the controversial tweet, telling Sarsour that Jesus had “King of the Jews” written over his head on the cross.
Jewish Jesus and his Israeli Identity
Jesus was not just any Jew – he was (and is) the King of the Jews! He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He was circumcised on the eighth day and called the Jewish temple in Jerusalem “my Father’s house”. He taught, kept and respected the law of Moses. He celebrated Passover and other Jewish feasts, and when asked what the most important commandment in the Scriptures was, he recited the Shema:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30)
When he spotted Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree (symbolic of Israel) Jesus says to him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael replies, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
In Acts, Peter addresses the crowd at Pentecost as “fellow Israelites”, or “people of Israel”, as does Paul.
From [King David’s] descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. (Acts 13:23)
Jesus said he was called the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 15:24), and referred to the land as either Judea or Israel (eg. Matt 8:10, 10:23). He prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he taught in synagogues, and said he was only coming back when the Jewish people were living in Jerusalem, ready to welcome him in the name of God (Matt 23:37-39).
Moreover many others in the New Testament, both friend and foe, described the land as “Israel”, whereas Palestine is not mentioned. The angel who warned Mary’s husband, Joseph, to flee to Egypt, gave them instructions about when to return to Israel. Not Palestine. Those mocking Jesus on the cross called him the King of Israel, and many times crowds are amazed saying nothing like this had happened in the land of Israel, and praised the God of Israel. Luke 1 and 2 describes the faithful saints, Simeon and Anna, who recognised that Jesus as the One sent to bring redemption to Israel.
“When will you return the kingdom to Israel?” Ask the disciples in Acts 1:7. Instead of rebuking the idea that such a thing would happen, Jesus simply says that only God knows the timing. They probably didn’t imagine 2000 years would pass by before Israel was an autonomous state once again, and we are still waiting for the fullness of God’s Kingdom rule and reign from Jerusalem. But it will come.
Nope, there’s just no getting around it. Jesus was as Israeli as they come. He was born in Israel, lived, died and rose again in Israel, and will return to Israel.
The Palestinian Connection
Yeshua’s family in Nazareth were Jewish, his friends were Jewish, and he was from a town with a Hebrew name in the Galilee region. However, today Nazareth is a largely Arab town, over 80% Muslim, many of whom identify as Palestinians. The Arab Christians of Nazareth (some of whom serve on our team here at ONE FOR ISRAEL!) may feel very much in the minority there now, but 2000 years ago they would have been even more so. Nazareth was once a Jewish town, and the Galilee was replete with synagogues and a Jewish population1. Not so many Christians around at that point! Much less Muslims – Arabs were by and large still in Arabia until the Muslim conquests many centuries later.
But did you know that the term “Palestine” did not originate with the Romans?!
It’s true that the Romans renamed the land after the historical enemies of the Jewish people, the Philistines, but in actual fact, the name Palestine goes back hundreds of years before Jesus lived in the land in the flesh.
In about 350 BC, Aristotle wrote this about the Dead Sea in Palestine:
“Again if, as is fabled, there is a lake in Palestine, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in it floats and does not sink, this would bear out what we have said. They say that this lake is so bitter and salt that no fish live in it.” 2
Even further back, in the fifth century BC, the ancient historian Herodotus also wrote of an area called Palestine:
“…The Phenicians, together with the Syrians who dwell in Palestine furnished three hundred; and they were equipped thus, that is to say, they had about their heads leathern caps made very nearly in the Hellenic fashion, and they wore corslets of linen, and had shields without rims and javelins. These Phenicians dwelt in ancient time, as they themselves report, upon the Erythraian Sea, and thence they passed over and dwell in the country along the sea coast of Syria; and this part of Syria and all as far as Egypt is called Palestine.”3
It seems that the general area had indeed been known as Palestine for a very long time. Perhaps we can talk of the historical area of Palestine as we might say “The Levant”, or “The Mesopotamian Basin” – not referring to a defined nation state, but a general area. In this sense, it could be argued that Jesus was indeed a Palestinian, since he came from that region. We could similarly say that Abraham was a Mesopotamian wanderer, and that the patriarchs were from the Levant, but we must respect the fact that Jesus never identified himself as a Palestinian, and the Bible speaks only of Israel and Judea. As far as ethnicity, he was not a Philistine or a Phoenician or an Arab, even though all those peoples are loved by God. Jesus was most certainly a Jew, from the Israelite tribe of Judah.
Is it wrong to say Jesus was Palestinian?
Given that Jesus only ever “identified” as a member of the house of Israel, it does seem a bit rude to recast his heritage to be something other, even if he was from an area sometimes known as Palestine. But more importantly, there are subversive forces at work which we need to be aware of.
It is often hatred of Jewish people and the nation of Israel that has resulted in this attempt to reinvent Jesus, with prominent Palestinian official Saeb Erekat calling Jesus the first Palestinian “shaheed”, or martyr. Since his version of the word martyr tends to mean killing other people for your cause rather than giving up your own life for your cause, it could hardly be more inappropriate. It also rejects what God has done in bringing his people back and reestablishing Israel, as the Bible said he would do.
David Parsons writes in the Jerusalem Post that another source of this assertion has come from liberation theology which flourished in Latin America in the last century:
“As Marxist elements started stirring revolutions throughout the region, many local Catholic priests began supporting the cause by portraying Christ as a revolutionary who fought Roman oppression.”4
But Jesus never lifted a finger against Roman oppression. He never rose up against Rome in word or deed, nor did he encourage others to do so, but rather taught the powerful principles of turning the other cheek and going the extra mile.
He had far more important business in mind, and knew that the empire would fall in the not too distant future. He was as non-violent as a person could be in very oppressive circumstances. His version of resistance was very different – he had other more eternal matters on his agenda.
There’s enough room for all in the arms of Jesus
Even though salvation came from the Jews, as the Samaritan woman confessed in John 4, Yeshua came to bring his salvation to every nation, tribe and tongue.
If a Palestinian reads about Jesus and identifies with him today as a man from their neck of the woods who understood oppression, that is good news! Because he died for them too. Palestinians are welcomed by Jesus – his arms are open wide to embrace all who come to him.
It’s interesting that just as the God of Israel was getting ready to go out to the nations, we see Jesus distancing himself from the man-made religion of the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders of his time. Jesus speaks in such a way that people of every culture and nationality are able to relate to him, and come to know him as friend, brother, Lord and Saviour.
If Linda Sarsour sees Jesus as someone who cares about her people, she is right. He does. But she would be wise not to try to separate him from his own people of Israel, lost as they may be.
He is still the Lion of Judah.
- Aristotle, Meteorology, Book II, Part 1 (Translated by E. W. Webster)
- Herodotus (484–425 BC), Book VII of THE HISTORIES, called POLYMNIA, 89, Translator: G. C. Macaulay, Release Date: December 1, 2008 [EBook #2456], updated: 2013
- Jerusalem Post, No Truth to the Palestinian Jesus, David Parsons, 11th July 2019
Photo by Paul Keiffer on Unsplash