Sunday, February 26, 2017


We shouldn’t tear down Judaism to build up our concept of Jesus. That is one of the major points in Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

At one point Levine writes: “ understand the man from Nazareth, it is necessary to understand Judaism. More, it is necessary to see Jesus as firmly within Judaism rather than standing apart from it, and it is essential that the picture of Judaism not be distorted through the filter of centuries of Christian stereotypes; a distorted picture of first-century Judaism inevitably leads to a distorted picture of Jesus.”

She gives insightful analyses of things like The Lord’s Prayer, a number of Jesus’ parables, and the Old and the New Testaments. 

She discusses Paul’s writings and the four Gospels. She describes how they (in part) came to contribute to the misunderstanding. 

And she critically analyzes examples from historical and modern day preaching, scholarship, and church documents.

Levine is an equal opportunity critic. She takes in to liberal and conservative commentators. She is especially critical of some statements which come out of liberation theology.

But she does all this in an oddly gentle way. She always acknowledges the strengths of the faiths and documents she uses. And she argues that only honest discussion based on who Jesus was and on the unbridgeable differences between our beliefs will lead to understanding. Anything else, distorts both sides of the debate.

“To engage in interfaith conversation means to understand that what is dogma to one participant is danger to another, that what is profound may also be painful. Jews and Christians need to read the texts together.”

In another place, she says such discussion is crucial. She tells the story of a man who attended one of her lectures--

“...I noticed that he was wearing jackboots. Then I saw the swastika on his jacket. And then it occurred to me that he was not raising his hand; he was doing a Nazi salute. This young man is part of the new breed of the old hatred. Like many major German New Testament scholars of the Nazi era--including people whose works are still being read in New Testament studies--he believes Jesus was Aryan. It is the Aryan Christian who is heir to the biblical tradition, not the Jew (and heaven knows, certainly not anyone who is not white).”

When Levine called on the man, his question to her was, “You are not saying Jesus was Jew, are you?”

So we surely need to read what Levine writes today. In an era when even the American president failed to mention the Jews in his Holocaust memorial statement, we need to get back to an understanding that Jesus was a Jew.

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus is one of the most powerful religious books I’ve read in several years. I can not summarize this book or even give a full sense of it in these few words. But for those who are interested, there is a simple solution. Read the book for yourself. Make your own decisions about what Levine has to say. 

One goal for my reading this year is to read one religious book each month.

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