Today, in Story of the World history, we finally came to a chapter I have been giving much thought since I first flipped through the book well over a year ago: The Beginning of Christianity. The whole narrative appears in 2 sections: the birth of Jesus, and the teachings, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Because it’s a short chapter, I decided to do it all in one pass, which is very unusual.
It’s a busy week, but I wanted to share a few quick thoughts:
- This is a VERY short chapter, especially compared to earlier chapters about Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Julius Caesar, and heck, Anansi the mischief-making African spider. There’s more about Christianity later on, but this is really it about Jesus. I was kind of grateful it was so short – but if I was Christian, I might honestly have reason to feel offended that my entire belief system seemed to have been condensed into four short pages.
- I took a bit of time at the beginning to explain the vocabulary, and you should too. Crucifixion was a common punishment, imposed by the Romans to ensure the “pax romana,” which may have been peaceful, but wasn’t always pleasant for Roman subjects. Jewish parents might not know that the nails were not part of the standard treatment – it’s my understanding that most prisoners were tied up and suffocated to death very, very slowly (it becomes hard for the diaphragm to function with the arms in that position). I did explain that Christians believe Jesus was also nailed to the cross – this was very uncommon, from everything I’ve read. Resurrection is a word that means coming back from the dead. More on this later, but I wanted to be sure that we all knew what we were talking about.
- Susan Wise Bauer does a great job of presenting the narrative AS narrative; as a story. She states very clearly that people who believe the things in this story, and who celebrate the birth of Jesus as Christmas are called Christians. Naomi pressed me on this point: she asked, “but is it a TRUE story?” Because, of course, I guess she noticed the difference from the way I treated the stories of Avraham and Moshe – I treated this one more like the Anansi story – as an interesting story from another culture. More on my responses to her later.
- It’s interesting to learn about this right before Pesach because of the clear parallels between the story of little-baby Moshe and little-baby Jesus. We didn’t really talk about this, but the narrative clearly appealed to Naomi Rivka because it centres around a young woman and her baby-dilemma. (She loves baby stories, but doesn’t every little girl?) I’m very glad she’s getting WAY more Moshe than Jesus this week… and I might plan to cover the story of Moshe even if it wasn’t Pesach time to show the parallels and the way the redemption of bnei Yisrael came about through Hashem’s plan for this little baby.
- The chapter does a good job of pointing out that December 25th is observed as the birth of Jesus, but doesn’t mention that Easter is marked as the weekend of his death and resurrection. I think if I was Christian, that would bother me a whole lot, and I also think it’s worth explaining to my Jewish children because they have so much Christian family. I believe – and some Jewish parents would probably disagree – that it’s important for them to know that Christian holidays have substance and meaning: it’s not just about eggs and bunnies and chocolate, or trees and lights and Santa, or whatever. I want them to know what their Christian family believes and celebrates – there is too much “anti-goyish” sentiment in the Jewish community already, and I could go on and on about the self-hate that creates in our “half-Jewish”* kids (see bottom of post for clarification).
When Naomi asked if it was a TRUE story, here’s what I said, pretty much verbatim (maybe a bit more articulate here):
Most of the people who lived around Jesus in Israel did not follow him while he was alive. When Christians started telling the story of his resurrection, most of the Jews who lived back then didn’t believe them either: they just kept on living their Jewish lives, and we are descended from them. They didn’t think they needed to be Christian and follow Jesus, and neither do we.
She wanted a bit more information about the resurrection – about whether I believed it could have happened:
There is a story in the Tanach of Eliyahu ha Navi [I was wrong; it was Elisha – doh!] brought a person back from the dead – the person was dead, but then there was a neis and he wasn’t. [she pressed me and asked if I thought that was true] That story is in the Tanach so I think there must be something true about it, even though I don’t know very much about that story. [yes, I was a bit flustered] So I think people perhaps COULD come back to life, with a neis, but I don’t think that happened with Jesus, and neither did the Jewish people who lived around there at that time – even his friends and neighbours. They knew more about it than I do, because they lived right there, and they decided they didn’t believe it really happened.
She also pointed out that Christians believe in OUR Bible, with a bit of an ellipsis suggesting that maybe we should believe in ours.
Yes, it’s true that Christians include the Tanach in their Bible – they think Avraham and Moshe and everyone in those stories are holy and important people. But Christians also have their own books, their Bible, that tells the story of Jesus, and about the things they believe. Many people have their own holy books – most religions have their own books and their own stories, and we don’t follow them. Most people in the world are not Christians, and those are all people who don’t believe Jesus was the son of God. [this was another thing she asked if I believed]
The Romans at the time thought their emperor was the son of God – it was a common title for somebody very famous and popular [Egyptians also said this about their Pharaoh], so I think it was normal for Christians to say their leader was also the son of God. But the Jewish people at the time didn’t believe that – the people who believed that were called Christians.
I’m not saying these are the best answers – just thought I would share what came to mind in the moment, because I think it was mostly a good discussion that opened a lot of doors to understanding while making it very clear that this is what we believe.
If I could have clarified more, I think it would have been the fact that Christianity (then as now) largely failed to find a following among the Jews of Jesus’ place and time. Where it caught on like wildfire was in the pagan world, where the truly revolutionary ideas were ones that came straight from Judaism – the concept of a Sabbath, of man created in the image of Hashem, the idea of a universal moral code. All these things come from Judaism, and they are things we had (and still have) already – so although the pagans loved the ideas they found in Christianity, we had already been teaching and sharing those ideas for thousands of years before Jesus came along… and ever since.
If you’re interested, here is the majority of this chapter as it appears in the free previews in Amazon.com. This is not exactly the way it appears in our version, for some reason. The discussion of BC/AD dating is missing from ours, and the “narrative” sections are more clearly offset from the rest of the page so it’s obvious that they are a story, taken from the Christian Bible. Click for slightly larger images, or visit the page on Amazon.
(click this link to buy the book on Amazon – yes, I get a very, very small commission which helps offset the costs of homeschooling)
The next lesson, Chapter 38, is an interesting one as well, dealing with The End of the Ancient Jewish Nation and the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. Should be fascinating…
And now – something important:
* Earlier, I used the term “half-Jewish,” in quotes, because halachically, there is no such thing, but our children know full well that their ancestry is not ALL Jewish. I love Yiddishkeit, but I don’t ever want them to think that either half of their family is any less worthy of Hashem’s love or that any part of their heritage is less fascinating and meaningful than the Jewish half. If it sounds like I have an ax to grind, it’s because of things I’ve heard secondhand from my high schoolers. The sweeping generalizations about “goyim” must end because – to my children and many like them – the “goyim” are their beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. End of rant – for now.