Dominic Lawson: It's no wonder some Christians forget that Jesus was Jewish

Jews do not come knocking on your door at an unlikely hour like some Christian evangelicals

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The muse of Minnesota, Garrison Keillor, is generally thought of as an impeccably liberal figure. He was raised as a member of the Plymouth Brethren, a notoriously rigorous Christian sect; but as an adult he became an Episcopalian by choice, indicating a much less stern attitude to matters of faith than that practised by his parents.

Yet, in the week of good will to all men, Keillor suddenly demonstrated a flash of that old-time religious fervour – even fury. In his regular column for the Baltimore Sun he launched into an attack on two groups which he claimed were attempting to destroy the true spirit of Christmas: Unitarians and (whoever would have guessed it?) the Jews.

This (in part) is what he wrote: "Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong [for them] to rewrite 'Silent Night'. If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn 'Silent Night' and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write 'Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah'? No, we didn't. Christmas is a Christian holiday – if you're not in the club, then buzz off ... don't mess with the Messiah."

I think it's a bit late in the day for Keillor to tell Jews not to mess with the Messiah – and I am not referring to the Crucifixion. The whole sound and feel of the American Christmas has long been dominated by Jewish lyricists and composers. As Michael Feinstein observed in The New York Times two days after the eruption of Mt Keillor: "If you look at a list of the most popular Christmas songs you'll find that the writers are disproportionately Jewish: Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas', 'The Christmas Song' (yes, Mel Tormé was Jewish), 'Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow', 'I'll Be Home For Christmas', 'Silver Bells', 'Santa Baby', 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' and 'Winter Wonderland'."

Whether or not he realises it, Feinstein is doing nothing more than amplifying Keillor's point. There is nothing specifically Christian – or even religious in any sense – about the songs he lists. Indeed, "Santa Baby", as immortalised by Eartha Kitt, is sublime only in its erotic suggestiveness. On the other hand, it would take a peculiarly paranoid personality (not that there is a global shortage of same) to see this song as a fiendish attempt by Jews to persuade decent Gentile men to fantasise about sex with naughty girls on Christmas day, rather than ponder the Mystery of the Incarnation.

Yet, to use that ghastly phrase beloved of sermonising vicars – "in a very real sense" – Christmas is all about a Jew. Well, of course, you knew that Jesus was a Jew, and that "Jesus" is a kind of Anglicisation of his proper Hebrew name, Yeshua; but more to the point, all we know about this man tells us that he thought of himself as an observant Jew (which he was) and preached only for the benefit of his fellow Jews. As he told the woman of Canaan: "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel"; or as he (rather devastatingly) imparted to a Samaritan woman: "Ye worship ye know not what; we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews".

Indeed, the entire nativity narrative makes sense only to a student of specifically Jewish prophecy involving the blood line of King David. As Howard Jacobson (of this parish) wrote with characteristic wit: "Matthew employs his opening 25 verses – through a plethora of begettings – to establish Jesus's line of descent, not only back to David but to Abraham. Thus begins the Christian Bible: bending over backwards to prove beyond dispute Jesus's impeccable Jewish bloodline. As though being the son of God is not genealogically enough."

Not surprisingly, there was a thorough attempt by Christian scholars of a much earlier generation to create a very different image of Jesus than that understood by the actual writers of the synoptic gospels. One of the leading theologians of the 20th century, Karl Adam, professor of dogmatic theology at Tubingen University for 20 years, proclaimed that Jesus was a Gentile based on the immaculate conception of Mary because "his mother Mary had no physical and moral connection with those ugly dispositions and powers which we condemn in those who are full-blooded Jews".

You couldn't imagine such sentiments being uttered by modern theologians, but still I suspect that even enlightened Christians of the present day have an image of the physical Jesus in their mind's eye which corresponds more closely with Karl Adam's depiction than that suggested by more recent research (or, indeed, common sense). For example, English translations of Matthew and Luke tell us that crowds would flock to touch the "hem" or "fringe" of Jesus's garments; but what they were trying to touch was not a "hem" but the tassels (or, more properly, tsitsit) worn even today by Orthodox Jews.

It is understandable why Christians should have wished to de-Jew Jesus. Even leaving aside the murky matter of anti-Semitism, it is obvious that if you are creating a universal church (as the Roman Emperor Theodosius required, in order to construct a faith which would unite his vast multicultural dominions) you can't allow the suppositious founder of that Church to be anything other than a universal figure.

Judaism, however, is intensely tribal, and has not the slightest interest in attracting converts. Indeed, completely unlike Christianity, it makes it as difficult as possible for outsiders to join its club. That is, after all, the real reason for all those fiddly dietary laws: it has nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with trying to keep Jews and Gentiles from socialising with each other at mealtimes.

On the one hand, this should make people much less fearful of Jews: they do not come knocking on your door at an unlikely hour like some Christian evangelicals, nor do they take the view of some Islamist cultures, that anyone who secedes from their faith to another is guilty of a capital offence. Yet it is the very closed exclusivity of Judaism which many people seem to find threatening – just as some others are fixated with an idea of the unique wickedness of Freemasonry for the same reason.

No wonder, therefore, many Christians find the idea of the real historical Jesus – Yeshua – so very unacceptable. If the person they think of as the Son of God was in fact an Orthodox Jew who would have been perplexed, if not appalled, by the notion of being the saviour of anyone but his fellow Jews – well, it certainly doesn't fit with what political spin-doctors would call "the narrative".

All the same, I have some sympathy with Garrison Keillor's outburst. For Christians, the Nativity tale has an almost indescribable power to move and inspire. It does seem degraded by jingle-bells muzak booming out of every shopping mall; but, please, dear curmudgeonly Garrison, don't blame all of that on the Jews. Irving Berlin is not the Anti-Christ.

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