Q: A few years ago, I overheard a Catholic woman ask her friend, “When did Jesus become a Catholic?” A few of us laughed but did try to explain that Jesus was the Christ. He was born Jewish and died Jewish.
One of my Jewish friends asked me, “When did Jesus become a Christian?” Soon after that, a relative asked me, “Well, when did he become a Catholic?” Please address these questions in your column.
A: Yes, Jesus was born Jewish. By the time that he was executed by the Romans, however, many Jewish people would have considered Jesus as guilty of blasphemy because of certain actions and his teachings about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
At least since the sixth century before Christ, the bedrock of Judaism has been monotheism, belief in one God. God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures progressively insisted on monotheism.
The Gospels record several incidents where Jesus is accused of blasphemy for directly or indirectly claiming divine prerogatives. For example, when Jesus cured the paralytic man lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1-12), he saw the man’s faith and said, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (v. 5). Similar passages occur in Matthew 9:1-8 and Luke 5:18-26.
“Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, ‘Why does this man speak that way? Who but God alone can forgive sins?’ Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, ‘Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise, pick up your mat and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority for sins on earth—he said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home'” (Mark 2:8-11).
After Caiaphas, the high priest, commanded Jesus, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God,” Jesus said, “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You [members of the Sanhedrin] have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?’ They said in reply, ‘He deserves to die!'” (Matthew 26:63-66, with a similar passage in Mark 14:61-64).
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Pilate questions Jesus about calling himself “the king of the Jews.” That scene is given in more detail in the Gospel of John. “Pilate said to them [the crowd], ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him.’ The Jews answered, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God'” (19:6b-7). Pilate orders that Jesus be crucified for treason, for not rejecting the title “king of the Jews.”
Not all Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries considered him guilty of blasphemy—his mother, Mary, the apostles and the disciples, for example.
To say that Jesus died Jewish may be too simple; he saw himself as bringing Judaism to a new level. Even so, the earliest Christians continued to frequent the Temple in Jerusalem (Acts 3:1-26 and 5:42).
From the very beginning, the followers of Jesus asserted that they were monotheists, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were not three gods in the same sense that pagans, for example, considered Jupiter and Apollo as gods.
Jesus’ followers were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26)—only after his death and resurrection. That term and catholic (universal) were interchangeable from the second through the 11th centuries A.D.