‘Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art’ now at Israel Museum

"Behold the Man Exhibit," Israel Museum, December 22, 2016-April 16, 2017
"Behold the Man Exhibit," Israel Museum, December 22, 2016-April 16, 2017 (Photo: Cliff Keller)

An exhibit featuring Jesus is currently on display until April 16 in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, the largest cultural institution in the State of Israel, ranked among the world’s leading art and archaeology museums.

Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art is the “result of extensive scholarly research [yielding] multivalent, unexpected, and at times subversive artistic responses.”

“From the 19th century until today, Jewish and Israeli artists have engaged with the figure of Jesus, addressing complex questions of collective and individual identity.”

KNI visited the exhibit at the end of January.

“Yeshu?” the gallery attendant asked when approached for directions to the Springer Gallery, using the name, Yeshu, like many Jews, to avoid pronouncing the name, Yeshua, the historical Hebrew name by which Jesus of Nazareth was known.

Behold the Man is set in a quiet, spacious and well-lit hall. It was well-attended on the evening we visited despite cold and rainy weather. On display were the works of multiple, diverse artists in varied media—oil on canvas, sculpture, acrylics, photography, charcoal, carpentry, ink and fabric among others.

“European artists [have] reclaimed Jesus as a Jew,” the exhibitors claim, “and [have] portrayed him as a symbol of Jewish suffering. Zionist artists have used the resurrection as a metaphor for the rebirth of the Jewish homeland. Some Israeli artists related to Jesus as a social rebel or misunderstood prophet, while others identified with his personal torment or his sacrifice for the sake of humanity, which they connected to more recent victims of intolerance and warfare.”

Martin Luther Bible cover showing Christian cross and Jewish Menorah superimposed.
Cover of Bible translated by Martin Luther showing superimposed Christian cross and Jewish Menorah.

One of the more intriguing items on display is a Bible translated by Martin Luther on which appear the superimposed images of a Jewish menorah and Christian cross. Luther, until around 1536, had expressed empathy for the plight of European Jews until later becoming convinced that they would not willingly convert to Christianity (and after which he infamously urged their persecution and destruction).

The exhibit seems to be balanced in its characterization of Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth, the world’s most important historical, religious and, now, political figure. Alongside a good bit of irreverence, anti-Zionist references and oblique allusions to Yeshua as a “natural, native Palestinian” are also displayed sensitively to and, perhaps, longing for Yeshua’s messianic promise of grace, hope and salvation.

The description beside the painting, Christ teaching in Capernaum by Maurycy Gottleib reads in part, “Gottleib may well have been the most important Jewish painter of the nineteenth century…he created a body of work that joined Polish Christian culture to his own Jewish identity in a search for reconciliation.

Christ teaching in Capernaum shows Jesus standing in the pulpit of a synagogue built in Greco-Roma style. His body is wrapped in a prayer shawl, but his head is surrounded by the halo from Christian artistic tradition. Not all of the men and women listening to him appear to be Jewish.”

The exhibit also features a photo by Nes Adi, (“Untitled,” Last Supper) in which Israeli soldiers sit together while eating a meal seated at a long table precisely as were Yeshua’s disciples in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Last Supper. A print of Adi’s photo sold at auction in Sotheby’s for over $100,000 in 2005. Another sold for over $250,000 in 2007. The photo also appeared on the front page of the New York Times in 2008.

A recent Times of Israel article by Jessica Steinberg describes Behold the Man as “150 works by 40 artists [which] explore the complex, evolving attitudes of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli artists toward the Christian savior.” Despite Steinberg’s limiting characterization of Yeshua, the article’s eye-opening headline reads, in part, “Jesus comes back to the Jews.” Perhaps, as foretold by the Prophet Zechariah millennia earlier, the Jews, at last, have begun to come back to Yeshua as well.

“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and of supplication so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.” ZecHARIAH 12:10