2013.01.14 – 2013.09.30
Who was Jesus? What sort of society did he live in? What contemporary ideas influenced him? These are just some of the questions that the Jewish Museum in Stockholm is seeking to answer with the exhibition Jesus the Jew. With a view to finding some answers we formed an exhibition committee at the museum consisting of Åke Bonnier, Tord Fornberg, Ulf Hirsch, Morton Narrowe, Yael Fried and the undersigned.
The committee discussed the concept and the content of the proposed exhibition for more than a year. Initially the discussions were wide-ranging and less focused but, in due course, a more scholarly and historic path developed. We all wanted to get close to the person of Jesus and to understand his situation and what it was that motivated him. In my experience, the monthly meetings of the exhibition committee were lively, instructive, and extremely stimulating. I dare to claim that all the members of the committee found them rewarding. During the year of planning and preparation, the exhibition team was further strengthened by the addition of Göran Larsson, though at a distance as he is based in Jerusalem.
So far, the committee’s deliberations have been many-sided, if not unique. This is the first time in Sweden that representatives of both Christian and Jewish faiths have collaborated in such a concrete fashion. The very fact that all the members of the committee have a profound knowledge of the subject, though with different insights and, perhaps, different ideas as to what we are trying to achieve, has been essential in making it possible for the museum to present a valid picture of the person of Jesus. This has led to a multifaceted and highly stimulating exhibition, enhanced by a catalogue which contains scholarly articles by members of the committee – Åke Bonnier, Tord Fornberg, Göran Larsson and Morton Narrowe – as well as Irit Dagan, Kristian Göransson and Karin Zetterholm.
Our ambition of producing a narrative of Jesus the Jew has been a major challenge – not least because of the fact that we sought to create a scientifically accurate account. The written sources about Jesus’ life are primarily books of the New Testament. Flavius Josephus, in his history of the Jews, confirms that Jesus was a historical figure. Archaeological finds, too, help us to better understand the society that Jesus lived in at the time of the Second Temple. Accordingly, the exhibition contains items that are two thousand years old and that have been generously loaned by Medelhavsmuseet – which houses collections of ancient and historical relics from the Mediterranean countries – Sweden’s National Museum of Economy, as well as from private owners.
The exhibition, designed by Anna Skagerfors, portrays Jewish life in Judea and Galilee during the Roman occupation. We become acquainted with Jesus from his birth, and follow him to his tragic crucifixion.
The Jewish Museum in Stockholm constantly strives to counter anti-Semitism and to increase tolerance between people. The present exhibition will act as a platform for interreligious discussion and lectures on our common heritage. We very much hope that it will also stimulate further discussion, given that an exhibition on this theme has never previously been shown in Sweden.
Last but not least, I should like to thank the exhibition committee, the authors of articles in the catalogue and all those who have generously helped to fund the exhibition or who have loaned items to be shown in it. Without your contributions it would not have been possible to mount this pioneering exhibition.
Jesus and the times in which he lived
The religion of the country in which Jesus of Nazareth was born some 2000 years ago was a Judaism that had still not set into a dominant orthodoxy. All directions of Judaism at the time were based on two fundamental beliefs or principles which united all the currents and all the sects, while each group maintained its own way of interpreting these principles.
Historians today believe that most people in Israel at the time of Jesus were religious but did not belong to any of the active political or ascetic groupings. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes whose leaders in Qumran wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Zealots and a range of other parties and religious communities that we are, as yet, not familiar with, shared with the rest of the populace a belief in the Bible’s divine origin and that God had established a covenant with the Jewish people. Each of these groupings believed that they alone owned the correct and true interpretation of the Torah’s laws and commandments. But none would have doubted the Jewishness of the other groups. They were all fellow believers and they all showed a certain tolerance to each other. They lamented the “blindness” of the others but did not deny their right to their own interpretation.
The land of Judea – the name was changed to Palestine by the Romans a good while after the death of Jesus – was occupied and the populace paid high taxes but, for the most part, the Jews were able to practise their religion without outside interference. But, at the time of Jesus, there were numerous groups just waiting for God to intervene and to establish a kingdom of peace on earth. How this was to be achieved was not clear, but many people awaited a Messiah, a person who, with the help of God, would succeed in changing the world once and for all. That this kingdom of God was at hand was a message that John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth and many others preached. John the Baptist and Jesus encouraged religious observation in the form of repentance, penance and living in accordance with the law, unlike the Zealots and others who supported violent actions and war.
Jesus was a popular Jewish leader of his day who, besides his itinerant preaching ministry in Galilee, was also expected to cure the sick and do miracles. More important than the miracles were Jesus’ interpretations of Bible texts which were taken up by his disciples and which were rejected by the leaders of other religious currents. The tragedy of his crucifixion can best be explained as a mistake caused by the inability of the Romans to distinguish between different schools of Messianic Judaism. The facetious epithet “King of the Jews” inscribed on the cross expresses Rome’s inability to understand the Jesus movement.
Jesus the Jew
One of the main causes of prejudice between Jews and Christians is a lack of knowledge about the Jewish world that Jesus was part of. Nothing could be more obvious than that he was born of a Jewish mother (prior to 4 BCE while Herod the Great was still alive), that he was circumcised on the eight day of his birth, was redeemed (from service in the Temple) at one month, and that he grew up in a religious Jewish home. Luke tells us that, at the age of twelve, Jesus caused the Scribes of Jerusalem to marvel at his insights. When, at the age of thirty, he started his teaching ministry, many people were astonished at his knowledge and his ability to bring the message of scripture to life. Reports that he cured the sick and performed miracles also caused large crowds of people to seek him out.
Jesus also encountered fierce opposition, primarily from the Pharisees and the Scribes. Their disputes were about how scripture should be interpreted – for example what was permitted and what was forbidden on the Sabbath – but never about scripture as such. The real point of contention was whether Jesus lived up to the various expectations among the Jews as to whom the Messiah might be and what he would do. Here there were different opinions, something that became highly apparent in connection with Jesus’ death on the cross. But the people who interpreted Jesus’ death as an atonement and who believed that he had risen again on the third day, were also Jews, as were the earliest communities that believed in Jesus.