Out of His Depth: In Response to Bernard Starr

Ignorance is bliss, so they say, but ignorance presented as wisdom is simply embarrassing.

Yesterday psychologist Bernard Starr published a piece in The Huffington Post entitled: “Jesus ‘Used to Be Jewish’? That’s Not What the Gospels Say”, which you can read by following this link. In it, Dr. Starr provides some anecdotal information and conclusions he has drawn about research conducted for his new book exploring Jesus’ Jewish roots. Like many authors seeking to draw attention to themselves by doing something dramatic, if one may paraphrase Addison DeWitt, Dr. Starr’s intellect is far too short for that gesture.

At the very beginning of his piece, Dr. Starr comments that “I found that many still believe that Jesus was born Christian and that he launched a new religion.” While it is clear error to believe that Jesus was born a Christian, the choice of phrase, “still believe” would seem to indicate that, in Dr. Starr’s opinion, if you believe that Jesus founded a new religion, you are somehow stuck in a past filled with error. Apparently two thousand years of Catholic teaching can be entirely refuted by someone whose career primary consists of going on the radio to tell old people to do yoga.

Dr. Starr then goes on to explain that the purpose of his book is “the goal of healing antagonisms and closing the longstanding divide between Christianity and Judaism.” To that laudable end, he makes the following observation:

Then when I stumbled on several Medieval and Renaissance paintings of Jesus, his family and disciples, I was struck by their misrepresentations, distortions and anachronisms. This prompted me to examine hundreds of other classic paintings. I even took a walking tour of the Renaissance galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. To my astonishment, Jesus, his followers and his Jewish community were consistently pictured as blond, fair-skinned, northern European latter-day Christians, often surrounded by latter-day saints, Christian clergy and Christian artifacts — images totally at odds with biblical facts and without a trace of any Jewish connections. I concluded that these distortions of “omission” established a powerful platform for anti-Semitism that continues to reverberate today. The artworks set the “Christian” Jesus apart from “the Jews,” when, in fact they were all part on the same Semitic tribe of dedicated Jews.

Apparently, Dr. Starr blames European artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for depicting Jesus and His disciples as people from their own culture, rather than as Jews from 1st century Judea. How dare Giotto portray Jesus preaching in a walled town in Tuscany! Burn all the paintings of van der Weyden for having the Circumcision of Jesus take place in a medieval Flemish church!

Following Dr. Starr’s line of reasoning, we must also assume that he is deeply offended by the ancient Ethiopian frescoes of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles as Ethiopians dressed in brightly-colored robes. Not for him Tang Yin’s magnificent “Madonna and Child” from the Ming Dynasty, portraying Jesus as a little Asian boy sporting a traditional Chinese topknot. And whatever you do make sure you do not show him any of the Japanese ivory netsuke of the 17th century portraying Jesus with Asian features, or images of Our Lady of Guadalupe with indigenous Mexican features, and so on.

Dr. Starr’s fundamentally flawed, underlying assumption is that scenes from the Life of Christ which he observed in museums were designed to be realistic depictions of life in Roman Judea. They were not, partially because no one knew what the place looked like; nor, as it happens, is there any description in the Bible of what Jesus Himself looked like. Most European artists of the Medieval and Renaissance periods had never been to the Middle East, nor had the overwhelming majority of the people who would see their work. In fact, most people rarely or never left the town in which they happened to live, because travel was dangerous, unpleasant, and expensive.

From the beginning of Christian art as a genre, it was intended to serve as an aid to prayer, not as an accurate commemoration of an historic event.  As observed by the hugely influential Catholic art theorist Francesco Pacheco, an artist himself and the father-in-law of the greatest of all Spanish painters, Velázquez: “the principal goal of the artist will be to achieve a state of grace through the study and practice of his profession.”  Using images to help people understand and relate to what they were hearing in the Gospels made the stories of Christ and His followers more real to them, particularly in a time when few people could read.

Down the centuries, Jesus has been portrayed in a huge variety of ways by those who have come to believe in Him.  The earliest known artistic portrait of an adult Jesus was painted in Syria, and depicts Him with close-cropped hair, no beard, and wearing the robes of a 3rd century teacher of that era. Clearly, Syrian Christians of that time were not only familiar with the Jews, but many of them were themselves converts from Judaism or descended from such converts. Yet they still chose to portray Jesus symbolically, in a way that seemed most familiar to them, to help them think about their relationship with Him.

Moreover, Dr. Starr’s argument completely crumbles when we see how European artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance portrayed the Romans. It would not have been very difficult at all for an artist of around the year 1400 to have painted the Roman soldiers who appear in the Gospels in proper Roman armor, since many European cities were full of Roman remains which they could have studied. Yet more often than not, the Romans were portrayed anachronistically, either in contemporary European armor, or even in everyday clothing of the era. And yes, the men arresting and torturing Jesus are often blonde-haired and blue-eyed as well.

There are many more examples of error in Dr. Starr’s piece for you to refute and enjoy, if you care for that sort of thing. However it is patently clear to the casual reader that Dr. Starr’s degree is in psychology, for in his article he does little else but try to present his own bias as fact, and to provoke reactions of self-doubt among those too afraid to ask questions or to challenge his ill-founded assumptions. In effect, he displays his own ignorance of the subject matter while attempting to mock that of others on the same subject.

Dr. Starr ends his rather amateurish and poorly-researched romp through Church history by stating that his aim is “to help heal the rift between the religions and galvanize the reconciliation process.” If this article, and the book which it presumably summarizes, serves as an example of how he intends to go about doing that, then quite frankly he has utterly failed. For my part, I will lay my personal hopes for greater Judeo-Christian understanding at the feet of those who are actually qualified to improve upon it.

Detail of “Our Lady of Japan”
Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel

3 thoughts on “Out of His Depth: In Response to Bernard Starr

  1. Doc Starr’s attempt as a theologian/church historian is proof positive that Smart People are highly skilled at proving how dumb they are. I think he should have heeded Bl. Pope John Paul II words, “Stupidity is also a gift but it mustn’t be misused.”


  2. Dr. Starr not only misunderstands religious art of any age, but using a dulled axe, built of his assumptions, lays waste to Modern and Contemporary Art as well. I’m sure he didn’t mean to slander artists in his efforts to hurt others. 😉


  3. I completely agree with you that it’s unreasonable to expect cultures not to portray Jesus in light of their own reality. But another article that Starr wrote points out that many times, people were quite offended if Jesus was portrayed as Jewish in any way. It’s one thing to innocently adapt him to one’s own setting, its quite another to violently reject his true reality. In that sense, Starr has a good point.



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