The Misunderstood Jew and Misunderstanding Judaism

In the course I teach on Jesus within his historical context in at my church, each week I ask my students to repeat a mantra: Jesus Christ was a first century Jewish man living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.

While Jesus is more than what can be seen in his historical setting, He is not less than that. And in some sense, in order to understand Jesus as the faithful representation of God, we need to first see how he represents God within the world in which he lived and moved and had his being.

We can certainly start a discussion of Jesus with a “theology from above” kind of approach. In some sense, that would be appropriate and welcome. The second person of the Trinity. God very God. The kinds of things Orthodoxy emphasizes. And when the discussion begins there, our conservative conversants would be very happy. And rightfully so.

But my experience with conservative Christianity is often that it ignores the historical realities within which God operated when He sent His Son Jesus into the world. Historical questions are often negated with an eye toward theological concerns. A theology from above too easily mythologizes Jesus by removing him from the particularities of the historical circumstances within which He was incarnate.

On some level, let’s be honest, the Christian church needs a good theology from above and a good theology from below. Both inform our understanding of the God who transcends, yet operates within, time. After all, the very New Testament author who most emphasizes the divine nature of Jesus also said, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Amy-Jill Levine’s contribution to this discussion is a unique one. As a Jewish woman who also happens to be one of the New Testament scholars in the world, she is fully aware of the ways in which both conservative Christians and, yes, even liberal Christians remove Jesus from his Jewishness in order to prop up either a (conservative) theological agenda or a (liberal) social agenda. With that in mind, she wrote, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

In all reality, the book should be titled, The Misunderstood Jew and Misunderstandings Judaism. But her main objective is to establish interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians regarding the Jewishness of Jesus. By calling the church to see Jesus within his own Jewish context, she believes Jesus’ words can be heard afresh as the radical words of a man passionately in love with Israel’s God and passionately in love with the people of that same God.

Levine’s main concern through the book is exposing the extent to which Christians have removed Jesus from his historical, Jewish setting, and made Judaism a foil to, not merely Christianity, but whatever social agenda we happen to be passionate about in the moment. In this sense, instead of a Judaism gasping for breath and fighting to maintain its identity under the oppressive Roman regime, we have created a stereotype of Judaism that makes Jews and Judaism out to be the oppressive social and religious structure.

Systematically Levine walks through various New Testament passages – the Good Samaritan, the Virgin Birth, the Cross, and many others – and shows how these stories only make sense within their Jewish contexts. And some of them only make sense within specific Jewish contexts that are not universal to every Jewish theology from the first century. (Mind you, this rightfully points out that there was no monolithic Judaism in the first century: The Sadducees and Pharisees right in the NT suggest this if it’s not obvious enough.) She shows how biblical scholars of all stripes have selectively quoted, misquoted, misunderstood, disregarded, mistreated, and ignored the varied and nuanced particularities of Judaism as a whole and first century Judaism in particular.

In other words, Levine wants to show that Judaism as a whole not the historical foil to Jesus. Rather, if at all, certain expressions of Judaism may have been. Indeed, there were even times when Jesus’ words or actions only made sense precisely because he, himself, was a Jew. For instance, Jesus’ passion for justice and for the poor were not in contrast to Judaism, but were built upon Judaism. We cannot separate Jesus from the faith of his ancestors and make him out to be the first Christian. No. Jesus was through and through Jewish. He did not intend to start a new religion (as we understand religions). He came within the context of a long-standing religious, ethnic, ethical tradition and saw himself as a participant in a larger story, even if he participated as the climactic character within that story.

But it is a story, nevertheless, that began before Jesus arrived on the scene. And many – most – of what Jesus said was not unique to Jesus, but rather, had been taught by either the Old Testatament, itself, or other Jewish teachers prior, present with, or after Jesus. This need not bother the Christian, as Levine is right: Jesus does not have to be unique to be profound. But by understanding that Jesus was necessarily even trying to be unique in some of his teachings, we can see that we have profoundly misunderstood him.

One of the ways (among the many Levine notes) that Christians have mischaracterized Jews and Judaism is by saying that Judaism is a religion of law while Christianity is a religion of grace. This dichotomy, while helpful to many Protestants, is neither historically accurate nor scripturally helpful. I remember coming to this realization right after college when I was reading Psalm 119. I’d been taught in my Reformed/Protestant theological context that the Law was a burden that the Jews were trying to carry around and live up to. But when I read the Bible, itself, not least Psalm 119, I realized that neither ancient Jews (nor implicitly modern ones) see the Law/Torah as a burden, but as a grace. Judaism is as much a religion of grace as Christianity is. While Christians may disagree with Jews regarding the nature of how that grace is mediated, it is not fair to either Jewish persons or Judaism to characterize Judaism with the Protestant anti-grace polemic. This is just my realization. Levine much more articulately and adequately brought out many other angles on this same polemic, and called out many other unfortunate (indeed, hurtful) polemics.

There is much that could be said about Levine’s book and what she attempts to accomplish. For the most part, I found her word incredibly helpful and challenging. It reminded me, once again, of the hard work it takes to be faithful biblical interpreter. It reminded me, once again, of how our stereotypes and prejudices come through in our teaching and preaching – even when we have the best of intentions. And it reminded me, once again, of the ways in which the Bible is a many layered, multifaceted, beautiful book that sits just above the human condition.

I’m grateful for the scholarship and ministry of Amy-Jill Levine. I’m sure her words in this book will both challenge and offend persons of all religious and political stripes. Indeed, there were many places I just said to myself, “I appreciate what she’s doing here, but I can’t go there with her.” But nevertheless, she had important things to say that we can all learn from. And in her bravery and willingness to say these things, even when I disagree with her, I still think she is like the great prophets of the Old Testament. She is like the great spokespersons of Judaism. And, yes, in these things this Jewish woman in the 21st century living in the opulence of the American Empire is like Jesus Christ, the Jewish man living in the first century under the thumb of the Roman Empire.

Obviously, there is much more that could be said about this book. But if you’re interested in the topic, this bit was enough to whet your appetite.