The Jewish Jesus Paintings -- The Real Problem

A weird controversy has apparently arisen in La Crosse, Wisconsin, over the decision of an artist to try to hang paintings of Jesus in the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center. According to the story entitled "Another view of Jesus: Artist argues ‘Rabbi Jesus’ paintings appropriate", the paintings of Jesus seek to depict Jesus in light of His Jewish heritage. According to Clara Maria Goldstein, president of the Eastbank Artists,

"It's a series of paintings I wanted to display because they have meaning and a message," Goldstein said. "I don’t know why my paintings are not appropriate. Why are paintings of Jesus as a Jew not appropriate when paintings of a non-Jewish Jesus is acceptable?

"While some may say the paintings are controversial, they are actually more authentic," she said. "The problem is Jesus has never been portrayed in this way."

Her paintings include Jesus celebrating Hanukkah and his bar mitzvah, Mary preparing Jesus for circumcision, the 10 Commandments, the Shroud of Yom Kippur, the 12 apostles as Jews, Jesus affirming his Bible at the cross and Rabbi Jesus saying to love one another.

The paintings can be viewed here.

When I first read this story and read the authors comments that "the problem is Jesus has never been portrayed in this way," I expected the problem was going to be that the paintings depicted Jesus in a way that pictured him as merely a Jewish preacher. In other words, I expected that these paintings would show Jesus in some light other than as the "Son of God." But, in fact, I think that the paintings are actually quite good and not the least bit controversial in the sense of depicting Jesus as a Jew. After all, Jesus was a Jew. He cam from a Jewish background, and was certainly raised with all of the Jewish traditions of His day. So, why would I get upset about pictures of Jesus celebrating Hanukkah or at His bar mitzvah. Assuming such practices occurred in the First Century (and I don't know for certain if they did), Jesus would have certainly done those things. So what's the deal?

Then I re-read the story and I realized that there were two potential problems with the paintings which is why they were asked to be removed. The first problem I saw came from the fact that the hospital was open to Jewish patients (as it should be). Thus, the problem wasn't that Jesus was depicted as a Jew from a Christian perspective; the problem may have been that Jesus was depicted as a Jew from the Jewish perspective. While I think that most Christians have no problem understanding that Jesus was a Jew, most Jews don't see Jesus as a Jew -- or, at least, they don't see Him as a true Jew. Thus, the hospital was concerned about the fact that Jesus being depicted as a Jew might be offensive to the Jewish patients.

Here's the problem with that -- this is a Lutheran hospital. I expect that it was originally founded by the ELCA or some other denomination of the Lutheran faith as part of an outreach to the community. It is part of a calling that Lutherans take very seriously of providing social ministry through such things as hospitals and other charitable institutions. As a former Lutheran, I know that these social ministries are a major focus of the church bodies. Yet, when many of these hospitals and other social welfare institutions were originally founded in the Lutheran Church, it was in furtherance of the cause of the Gospel. When a patient was brought to the hospital, it was never intended that the Lutheran faith would be hidden under a bushel. Rather, the love and care that the hospital was intended to give was to be given as the earthly representative of the care and love of the Jesus.

With that in mind, read the hospital's explanation for the removal:

A release by Gundersen Lutheran stated the hospital respects people of all faiths and acknowledges "an artist's right to express their personal beliefs through their work."

But the hospital also has "an obligation to determine what is appropriate for our diverse patient population, and our healing environment," according to the statement.

So, the hospital is concerned that it's Jewish patients may be upset that Jesus is being depicted as a Jew even though it is the belief of the Lutheran church (and the Christian church as a whole) that Jesus was, in fact, Jewish and almost certainly went through all of the ordinary customs that Jews of His day would have undergone? What does that do to the mission of the hospital? If it won't allow painting to be hung because it is worried that people may be offended by what is likely an accurate depiction of Jesus, doesn't that make it simply another secular hospital?

Then I thought of what may be the more pressing problem with the painting from the viewpoint of the hospital -- it isn't that the painting depicted a Jewish Jesus, it's that the painting depicted Jesus at all! After all, if the hospital doesn't want anyone to be offended by a depiction of Jesus in His Jewish roots, shouldn't the hospital object to any depiction of Jesus because of the fact that they might be offended by His claim to be the only true Son of God and the only means of salvation?

If that's the real problem, I suggest that the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center simply stop identifying itself with the Christian church because it's mission is clearly no different than any secular-based hospitals.


That is something that makes me angry. A lot of hospitals have been bought by secualr interests who run them as a business, and they keep the christian names. This is the case with Methodist and Presbyterian hospitals.
Jason Pratt said…
Historical note: actually, yes, they did celebrate Hanukkah in those days; and one of the scenes of GosJohn is set during that holiday (in the winter before Easter): starting at chp 10, v 22. The traditions of the time weren't overly different than now (based on subsequent rabbinic record).

It is, of course, a further question as to whether Jesus Himself would celebrate the Feast of Dedication; and, if so, to what extent and in what ways.

As to the representations being a potential problem for Jews (in the sense of showing Jesus to be a _loyal_ Jew), I can see this being paradoxically more of a problem than paintings showing Him in a Messianic or a Divine light--specifically because He made those claims (or anyway _we_ testify He made those claims. {s!}) It would be like the Lutheran hospital sanctioning a set of art focusing on Martin Luther being a loyal Roman Catholic (which he was for a significant period of time): that might be very offensive to people who are already probably in the hospital under high stress, (except of course the Jesus depiction would be proportionately stronger in meaning.)

BK said…
Good points, both.
Siamang said…
I think they should figure out their policy on this stuff ahead of time. Are they an art gallery or a hospital? What is their mission in showing the art?

I don't think the problem is that they show Jesus. I cannot imagine a religious hospital that didn't show some depiction of religious iconography. My two closest religious hospitals are filled with religious imagery.

I think the problem is that it may have been seen as a prosthletizing image.... a "Jews for Jesus" type of thing, which probably isn't in the hospital's mission.

I would however like to enter a plea on the part of the believers of both faiths involved. As an atheist it's all no big deal to me personally. Put whatever art they want, it's not an art gallery or a church, it's a hospital. I don't care what paintings they hang in the lobby.

But in my dealings with people of faith I have learned that they are all very sensitive to issues dear to their own particular beliefs. As a measure of respect for them and their deeply held spiritual beliefs, I think special care should be taken to remove things that they find offensive to those beliefs.
Anonymous said…
The problem is simple. Christians have been denying and bastardizing the Bible, they proclaim is the Word of God, for centuries.

One cannot be a follower of Christ, and not be a Jew. It is completely illogical to think otherwise.

Christ is the epitome of logic and truth, therefore all Christians are merely Jews, that believe Him to be the Messiah.

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