(Partially) Seeing Jesus from the East
Despite various classic art depictions, most of us realize that Jesus was not a Western white man. Various authors have recently offered resources friendly to the average believer to help correct this perception. 
A new addition to this conversation is Seeing Jesus from the East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most Influential Figure,  written by the great Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray. This book was written shortly before Mr. Zacharias’ death, and it aims to help Christians to understand Jesus within his Eastern context.
Seeing Jesus from the East includes some good insights. I appreciated the emphasis on how Jesus’ teaching method was Eastern in that he told parables to emphasize his points. Also, the significance of understanding the broader Eastern world’s social system of honor-and-shame is difficult to overstate when reading the Gospels. These points and many others lead me to agree with the authors’ premise that Jesus’ broader Eastern context is an important component in seeing Jesus more clearly.
However, I felt the authors did not take us to the ground level to see Jesus in the specific Eastern world in which he lived. The real, historical Jesus was a Jewish man who practiced Judaism and lived in the land of Israel. Attempts to understand Jesus’ universal message that do not emphasize his specifically Jewish context can obscure who Jesus was and is.
Despite my immense respect for Mr. Zacharias, I was disappointed that Seeing Jesus from the East paid little attention to Jesus’ Jewish context within his larger Eastern world. Surprisingly, the book even contains some statements diminishing the Jewishness of the gospel. Early in the book, Mr. Zacharias says this about the Jewish roots of Christianity:
“Paul…did not develop Christianity as much as he held it up against the grain of his strong Jewish roots.” (32-33) (emphasis mine)
This statement betrays an established and problematic Christian viewpoint that pits Paul against “Jewish roots.” Thankfully, many Pauline scholars today have called this viewpoint into question and begun to emphasize a more biblical depiction of the apostle to the Gentiles as a loyal Jew who practiced Judaism. 
The authors of Seeing Jesus from the East present Jesus and the disciples primarily as Middle Easterners. While they were indeed Middle Easterners, the result of this approach masks their Jewish identity. That seems to be the effect Zacharias and Murray wanted:
The battle for the Middle East today is about which son of Abraham is the chosen one—Isaac, from whom the Jewish people are descended, or Ishmael, from whom the Arab people are descended. God settles it once and for all. It is neither Isaac nor Ishmael. It is God’s Son, Jesus, who grants all the grace sufficient to be part of his family. (47-48)
God’s grace through his Son is sufficient to bring us all into his family, both Jews and Arabs, but by equating Jews with Arabs and then dismissing the claims of both, the authors imply that neither qualifies as God’s chosen people. I found that troubling viewpoint to be logically consistent with other statements in the book that conceal the Jewishness of our faith by framing Jesus and his followers within a generic “Eastern” category. Notice how the word “Eastern” is being used to replace the term “Jewish” in the following sentence:
What lies at the heart of faith and the context of that faith became the major teaching of the early church, which owes to the Eastern mind the understanding of faith and its interplay with faithfulness … We need to recapture the Easternness of Christianity. We need to get a fresh look at Jesus from the East. (84, 208)
Do we really owe the Eastern mind “the understanding of faith and its interplay with faithfulness,” or is it the Jewish mind? The repeated emphasis on “Easternness” in Seeing Jesus from the East intentionally obscures the Jewishness of Jesus and its significance in the early church. The fact is that the early church of the book of Acts was, at first, entirely Jewish and practiced Judaism. It is the Jewishness of Christianity that the disciples of Jesus need to see afresh and recapture.
One of the objectives of the new Jesus, My Rabbi Torah Club track is to present the authentic Jesus in his Jewish context. Seeing Jesus from the East is certainly important. But stopping there would be like seeing my home state of Georgia from an airplane 30,000 feet in the air. If you want to see Georgia, you must get on the ground.
To know Jesus better, we need to understand his Jewishness and learn to follow him as our Rabbi. To learn more about the Jesus, My Rabbi study, go to jesusmyrabbi.org.
- Examples include Robby Gallaty, The Forgotten Jesus (Zondervan, 2017), and Lois Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2009).
- Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray, Seeing Jesus from the East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most Influential Figure (Zondervan, 2020).
- For more on the Jewishness of Paul, please see my Malchut 2020 lecture, “The Unifying Judaizer.”
First Fruits of Zion