What Does It Mean To Say ‘Jesus Is Palestinian’? | Sojourners

What Does It Mean To Say ‘Jesus Is Palestinian’?

A Palestinian woman walks with a child past a shadow of a cross cast by the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, before Christmas December 16, 2010. Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad.

As a Palestinian Christian, I am proud to be a descendant of the world's most ancient Christian community. My pride transcends the mere fact of belonging; it is rooted in the cultural legacy and global impact that our community has bestowed upon the world through nurturing and shaping Christianity from its earliest days until now. But this pride carries with it a solemn responsibility: I must be committed to preserving the integrity and values of this cultural and religious heritage, indigenous to my homeland, from being misappropriated to justify oppression, whether mine or someone else’s.

This is why I wear a shirt emblazoned with “Jesus is Palestinian” at protests I attend across the globe. My reason for wearing this shirt is beyond its provocative statement; it is a deliberate act of claiming Jesus as my ancestor to reclaim his identity as a Jewish subject under Roman occupation in first century Palestine. As a Palestinian in the United States, I know this assertion is a challenge to Christian hegemony, serving as a powerful reminder that Jesus was a disenfranchised imperial subject. For Palestinians like myself, Jesus is not only a historical or religious figure; he is a testament to our enduring heritage — an ancestor symbolizing both our deep roots and our ongoing struggle for justice and liberation.

But some Christians bristle at the assertion that Jesus is Palestinian. Why?

Contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, Peter Wehner, has criticized this designation, interpreting it to be an attempt to dissociate Jesus from his Jewish background. For Wehner, referring to Jesus as a “Palestinian” is rooted in an anti-Jewish, Palestinian nationalism that seeks to deny Jewish indigeneity to the Holy Land and separate Jesus from his identity.

But this argument presents the history of the Holy Land and Jesus through a myopic point of view that fails to account for the history of Palestine, the social circumstances Jesus faced, and the ways modern Palestinians relate to Jesus’ social circumstances. To say that Jesus is Palestinian is to fight back against revisionist narratives about the history of Palestine and the view that Jesus’ Jewish identity must be pitted against his identity as a Palestinian.

The revisionist history of Palestine

The word “Palestine” significantly predates Roman imperialism, with its earliest recorded usage tracing back to the late Bronze Age. Variations of the term were consistently used by ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Romans, including in The Histories, an influential historical work from circa 425 B.C.E written by Herodotus, often hailed as the “father of History.”

Yet, the history of Palestine, as presented in Western narratives, has frequently been shaped by Orientalist historians and biblical scholars. This approach has aimed to validate various fictional accounts found in the Bible, like the story of the Exodus, which some use to justify Zionism and the current apartheid. Even with the consensus among scholars that the Bible is not a history book, it remains peculiar — especially from my Palestinian perspective — to observe how often Western Christians still refer to the Bible for “historical accounts” of Palestine.

Here, it’s important to note what the late literary scholar and Palestinian Christian Edward Said, so poignantly expressed in Permission to Narrate“Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them.” If facts require context and social purchase to become widely accepted, revisionist history primarily relies on narratives of domination.

One such narrative is that modern Israeli Jews are the unbroken lineage of first century Palestinian Jews, the rightful owners of the land. In this narrative, modern Palestinians are framed as descendants of subsequent Arab “invaders,” and are allotted a conditional claim or no claim at all to the land. And as a Palestinian Christian, I am confronted with a profound sense of erasure within this discourse, a sentiment echoed by numerous members of my community.

This manipulation of the historical narrative serves as a tool to justify systemic violence and perpetuates the occupation under the guise of historical restitution based on an intractable, centuries-old, Muslim-Jewish conflict. This effectively shifts the perspective away from settler-colonialism to an irreconcilable age-old “who came first” dispute. But, even if one were to uncritically endorse the biblical narrative, this would not absolve the modern state of Israel from settler colonialism, nor would it make Jesus’ affiliation with modern Palestinians any less real.

Why Jesus is a Palestinian

As 20th century theologian Howard Thurman poignantly reminds us in his seminal 1949 work, Jesus and the Disinherited, “Jesus was a poor Jew,” and because of this, he was subject to Roman cruelty. Thurman emphasizes that Jesus’ lack of Roman citizenship status meant that “if a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar.” Jesus was a member of a disenfranchised group amid a larger, dominant group that sought to establish control. Through this lens, we draw parallels between life in Palestine during the times of Jesus and what we currently endure today.

To say Jesus is Palestinian is to articulate a narrative that both honors his Jewish identity and emphasizes his profound role as a liberator within the specific context of Palestine. This dual recognition does not diminish his universal significance as a figure of liberation but enriches it, highlighting the particular resonance of his life and teachings for us. Jesus is not merely a symbol of liberation in the abstract; he is a direct ancestor, a beacon of resistance whose life under occupation mirrors the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people.

This is further amplified by Palestinian liberation theologian Naim Stifan Ateek in A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Ateek narrates how the essence of Palestinian liberation is intrinsically linked to Christ’s human journey as an oppressed individual who craved justice. For Ateek, Christ’s humanity provides a crucial hermeneutical key for interpreting biblical texts in a manner that resonates with the lived realities and aspirations of Palestinians today: “The most useful hermeneutical key is Jesus Christ himself. With this hermeneutic, it is possible to determine the meaning and relevance of the biblical text of our life today.”

This framework does not merely seek to contextualize scripture but actively engages it as a source of inspiration and guidance in the pursuit of liberation and justice. It reinforces the connection between past and present liberation struggles, reflecting a Palestinian heritage of resilience against oppression. This is not an erasure of history or Jesus’ identity, but a reaffirmation of a narrative that honors the multifaceted identities of Palestine and its people.

Jesus and Palestine today

Ateek shows us how stories from the Bible, like Jesus’ birth, resonate with the lived reality of Palestinians today, particularly amid the unfolding genocide in Gaza and the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

According to Luke, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and not in his native Nazareth, due to the Census of Quirinius, a Roman mandate requiring registration in ancestral towns (Luke 2:2). This event, despite its historical ambiguities, echoes the situation of contemporary Palestinians.

Post-1967, following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a census led to Palestinians being issued three distinct types of identification based on registration: for the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. These IDs dictate movement and profoundly disrupt family life, including my own.

I was born into a family where my mom has a Jerusalem ID and my dad has a West Bank ID. As a result, our family faces significant challenges under the Israeli color-coded ID system. My father, sisters, and I are assigned green West Bank IDs, and we are therefore restricted from freely entering and residing in Jerusalem. On the other hand, my mom, who has a blue Jerusalem ID, has far greater freedom of movement and the ability to live in Jerusalem. But living in Jerusalem as a Palestinian comes with the financial burden of proving that you actively maintain a “center of life” in Jerusalem and not spending much time outside the city. Residency checks are also a regularity where authorities inspect trash and question neighbors. During my childhood, she risked losing her Jerusalem ID to live with us in the West Bank.

Just as Jesus’ early life was marked by displacement and peril, so too are the lives of countless Palestinians who are caught in the throes of an unceasing war. This parallel is set against a backdrop where Palestinians are being dehumanized, described as “human animals” by Israeli officials, and enduring Western media’s coverage which often lacks nuance and empathy. This rhetoric is contributing to the rising death toll in Gaza — which has surpassed 27,000 people — the highest death rate of any other conflict in the 21st century.

Amid these realities, to say that Jesus is a Palestinian affirms a historical truth and resists the narratives that seek to erase our presence and legitimacy in our land. It’s a declaration that the Jesus who preached liberation and justice in the face of imperial tyranny is a direct ancestor of the Palestinian people.

Affirming Jesus’ Palestinian identity is important to me as a Palestinian Christian because our perspective on the history and development of the Christian faith has been marginalized. It’s deeply troubling to witness a religion that emerged under occupation being used to justify the modern occupation that we are currently experiencing.