Seeking Jesus in the context of Hebrew life and culture

Seeking Jesus in the context of Hebrew life and culture
The Birth of Jesus the Jew: Midrash and the Infancy Gospels

by Peter Keenan (Columba Books, €14.99/£12.99)

Peter Keenan is a man with a mission. He styles himself “a post-holocaust Christian”, and believes that the outlook of all Christians of every persuasion should be shaped by the fact of the Shoah. This has a bearing on the relations of both Christians with Jews, and relations between Christian groups.

According to the biographical notes with this book “Peter Keenan was born in Dublin. He studied for the priesthood but left before ordination. He holds a BA degree in theology, specialising in history and religious studies. He has lectured extensively at many gatherings of laypeople, clergy, students, and teacher gatherings. Peter has led educational visits/pilgrimages to the Holy Land”.

Back in 1986, he was appointed an advisor to the bishops’ conference of England and Wales. He served for many years as secretary to its Committee for Catholic-Jewish relations. So Christian and Jewish relations have been at the heart of his activities for most of his career. Hence one main aim of this book, to try to improve those relations.

Another aim of this book, it seems to this reviewer, would seem to be to establish a sort of ‘basic Christianity’, a sort of Christianity ‘degree zero’.

New ideal

This of course is not a new ideal. It is in effect the position of the Unitarians and of the non-subscribing Presbyterians – a miracle-free ethical religion that could be shared widely as a basic foundation. Unitarians were very influential in some places like Boston and Manchester in the 19th Century. But the position is not one that, I suspect, appeals to large numbers of Christians as “a Faith guided by reason and conscience” as the adherents of Ulsterman the Rev. Dr Henry Montgomery declared in the 1820s.

Peter Keenan has been anxious to make his views as widely available as he can

Some ‘liberal views’ of this book have attracted the attention of the popular press – there was no ‘first Christmas’ as Jesus was not born in Bethlehem but in Nazareth. But these are not really novel, but have been current for generations. They merely come as new to those who are unfamiliar with trends in Biblical inquiry.

(This idea also disposes of the idea of the ‘massacre of the innocents’, but as I observed in a previous year, the babies Herod needed to kill would have been perhaps not more than half a dozen. In any case Herod’s own eldest son Antipater was murdered five days before Herod’s own death, only a few months after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Even today near eastern leaders are little troubled by killing a few babies.)


This book is described as “a short introduction to how the Jewish literary genre of ‘Midrash’ has shaped the infancy stories in the two canonical Gospels and some apocryphal works.

It argues that these important faith testimonies are not ‘history’ in the sense that we tend to understand that term. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is a theological, not historical, statement.”

But the traditions of midrashic interpretation flourished from 500 to 1500 of the present era – and are therefore later than the emergence of the Gospel texts. It is a medieval Jewish method of textual investigation. But interpretation is not a method of composition. So the Gospel narratives are primary and the texts are being interpreted, not being created.

I fear that some scriptural scholars will take the view (as has just happened to me in conversation with one student) that he has over simplified the major problems involved here. This will be said by many other critics and it will in a sense be unfair to Peter Keenan.

His reason for writing this book, and it has taken great courage, was to find a basis of religion that the greatest number can share – not alone Christians but also Jews.


He thinks it is incumbent on Christians to appreciate ‘Jesus the Jew’ – but this is hard, for many find it difficult to grasp the basic notion that Jesus was not

himself a Christian. How could he be? Christians are those who follow him. And to do that they need to know and grasp what it was he actually said in his historical context. This is far from easy. It will call for further application by his readers.

Perhaps rather than worrying about the problems that concern scholars, they should take a firmer hold on what Jesus said (or is reported to have said, if we must) in answering that still vital ethical question put to him by his own critics: “Who is my neighbour?”

The Birth of Jesus the Jew is published by Columba Books