The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. – John 4:19-22 ESV
In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob he made an extraordinary statement, “Salvation is of the Jews.” I found this statement quite puzzling to begin with. How could Jesus say that without the Jewish people humanity could not be saved? I found his statement very ethnocentric, even a little offensive to tell you the truth.
I live in country with a myriad ethnic groups and I understand the heightened nature of cultural sensitivities. I know the world in which Jesus and the first century Church inhabited was full of cross cultural interactions. To say you are better than any other group based on your ethnicity has been the cause of so many problems in my society and the world at large. With these things in mind I was quite confused as to why Jesus would make such a statement. According to the passage Jesus was breaking many social conventions in his interaction with the woman. If he was trying to suggest the superiority of his race he would not have done so by freely interacting with people he wasn’t supposed to. I had to give him the benefit of a doubt.
Jesus wasn’t trying to suggest the superiority of his ethnicity. Paul argues brilliantly in Romans that both Jews and Gentiles are in need of the grace of God. To think otherwise goes against the very grain of the Gospel. Jesus wasn’t settling an ancient dispute on sacred space. It was neither at Gerizim or Zion but rather in the lives of people that God wanted to be worshipped.
Jesus told the woman it was the Jews, not the Samaritans, who knew the God they worshipped so that is why salvation is from the Jews. As I have said before, to understand the Scriptures we have to inhabit their world both in study and imagination. According to the biblical narrative God has deliberately revealed himself to a specific group of people. The prophet Amos writes,
You only have I known of all the families of the earth – Amos 3:2 ESV
It is essential in understanding the biblical drama that Israel is God’s chosen avenue to save humanity. God has chosen the family of Abraham to bless every single family in the world (Genesis 12:1-3.) God had revealed himself to Israel so that through Israel he might reveal himself to the world.
I have observed that Christians throughout the world and in different generations portray Jesus through their own cultural lenses. Many people in Africa (and probably other parts of the world) think of Christianity as the white man’s religion. Christianity came to many parts of the Majority World through Western conquest and colonialism. The atrocities committed under such regimes are therefore associated with Christianity and sometimes with Jesus himself. India for instance has been largely resistant to the Gospel because of this.
The paintings of Jesus as a long haired, bearded, blue-eyed northern European characterise the Son of God in art. The moment you see such an effigy you think of Jesus. I remember reading that the Greeks portrayed Jesus as a clean shaven young man similar to their god Apollo. There is also quite a popular notion among people of African heritage that Jesus was black and it is white people who reinvented him in their image. What I find interesting about all these cultural portrayals is that they miss Jesus completely. Yes artists do have a certain amount of license in their field but perpetuating an unrealistic representation of Jesus is unhelpful. Jesus has cross-cultural appeal but we must acknowledge the culture he emerges from. Jesus was a Jew. His Jewishness is not anecdotal or insignificant. It is central to him being the saviour of the world.
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. – Romans 9:4-5 ESV
Paul helps to further elaborate Jesus’ statement on the importance of the Jews. Paul does not divorce Jesus from his Jewish heritage. He rather thinks of Jesus in the Jewish context. In fact he argues that Jesus is literally the God of Israel in the flesh. All of Israelite history had converged in Jesus.
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. – Romans 3:1-2 ESV
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. – Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV
The Scriptures are inherently Jewish. In the words of Prof John Walton of Wheaton College, ‘The Bible was written for us but not to us.’ The word of God came to the Jewish people so we have to understand the Scriptures in their historical and cultural settings. It would be wrong to read the American Declaration of independence as a Ghanaian legal document. Yet there are important lessons I can learn from it as a Ghanaian on the history and development of democratic thinking and governance. Similarly, we begin to misinterpret the Bible by ignoring its cultural heritage.
The New Testament is not the Gentile part of Holy Scripture. It is rather part of a narrative continuum starting from Genesis. Genesis should not only be thought of as the book that chronicles the creation of the cosmos. In the beginning God makes man is his image and likeness and is charged with taking care of the creation. From the onset God has always worked with man in fulfilling the divine agenda.
God first chose Adam as his partner. After the failure of Adam God chose Noah. Some have called Noah’s flood a recreation account. As the earth was submerged in water so was the ancient world. Noah and his wife were tasked with ‘replenishing’ the earth, a command reminiscent of the language used in Genesis 1. Still humanity failed and so God called Abraham. God carried out his plan for the human family through Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, and then finally Abraham and Sarah.
In comparing these three origin stories there are important parallels and recurring themes. It was not mere coincidence. What preceded Abraham was to explain God’s intent in choosing this wandering Aramean. The story of the creation is actually seen through Jewish eyes. Abraham is seen as the successor to Adam. God is the hero of the story and Israel is meant to be his faithful sidekick, a dynamic duo if you will. The faithfulness of Israel has been questionable throughout its long history. Though they had many triumphs their failures have been more numerous and in a sense more spectacular. Like Adam, God had placed them in an idyllic environment to serve him but through their disobedience they had been ejected. When you see the Bible through the narrative of the people of Israel many foggy parts of the Word come into focus. The reason Israel failed was because of human sinfulness. It is from this background that Paul argues in Romans that all have sinned, both Jews and Gentiles. He continues to reason that though Abraham’s family has not always been faithful, God has been faithful to them. The promise he made to his friend Abraham he has fulfilled in Jesus, the offspring of Abraham.
Israel was not chosen because they were a great and mighty people but precisely because they were not. The grace and mercy God showed his people Israel he has extended to the world through faith in Jesus.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands– remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:11-13 ESV
We have now become a part of the story of Israel and share in their heritage. Like them we were once not a people, unpitied, but now by the mercy of God we are his chosen people (1 Peter 2:9-10.) Paul preached this mystery, that it was God’s plan from the beginning to bring Jew and Gentile together as one new man in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2-3.) The Church cuts across every distinction bringing people together from all stripes and conditions. She is the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless every family on earth through him.
Modern biblical scholarship has moved towards a more historico-culturally aware understanding of the Scriptures. Especially in New Testament studies scholars have recognized the profound influence of Second Temple Judaism on Christianity. There is also the Jewish Reclamation of Jesus where Jesus is studied as a Jew of his time. I remember hearing one scholar ask another, “How did we miss this!” For most of modern New Testament studies the Jewishness of Jesus was ignored. This is what the scholar was referring to in his exclamation. I personally think we need a Jewish reclamation of the biblical narrative itself. The Gospel is a global cross-cultural message yet the biblical worldview emerges from a Jewish one. We need to think in the same categories that the ancient community that received the holy text thought in.
God’s plan to rescue the world through the Jewish people was fulfilled through one Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David and the Son of God.