Reading the Bible as a lifelong Christian means it is easy to accept certain things about the story rather uncritically. While we recognize that Jesus was Jewish, we tend to contrast Jesus with most other Jews of his day. We also tend to assume a straight line from the Old Testament Law to the Jews of Jesus’ day to the Jews of our day. What we do not realize is that there was a lot of development of what it meant to be Jewish in both of those periods.
Amy Jill-Levine has done Christians everywhere a huge service with her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of Jesus. She writes with humor and wit, especially early on. Yet as you move through the book much of this is left behind and the tone becomes somber as she attacks the anti-Semitism she sees in the Church throughout history and today. The biggest benefit of this book is that Jesus is placed deeply within his cultural context, a context much richer than we often make it. Levine takes familiar texts and asks questions that Christians do not ask. She helps us see where our assumptions about first-century Judaism have led to a misreading of texts. Further, this book is not just for Christians. Early on Levine points out the irony that Jews today have no problem celebrating great Jews of the past from Freud to Einstein to Marx (Karl and Groucho) but not Jesus. By seeing Jesus as a Jew, Levine argues he can be appreciated as a Jew.
As I read there were moments when I began to wonder if Levine’s Jesus was so Jewish as to not stand out in the first century. To put it another way, if he fit in so well to his culture, why on earth was he crucified? For Levine, the answer is that Jesus could garner opposition to some of his claims without every single thing he did being totally new and radical. Jesus can be unique, to Christians, even if some of what he did was not totally unprecedented but instead fit nicely with segments of Jewish thought in the first century. Or as Levine puts it, “Jesus does not have to be unique in all cases in order to be profound.”
Overall, an enlightening and engaging read. I highly recommend this book for pastors and I hope I keep in mind some of its lessons when I talk about Jesus.