Jesus the Misunderstood Jew: Part 1

This is the second in a series of posts on differences between Jewish and Christian traditions focusing in particular on attitudes toward the Bible, learning and dialogue.

In her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy Jill Levine says willingness to search and remain open to new understandings of faith and sacred text within a community of faith marks a fundamental difference between Jews and Christians.Levine, a Jewish scholar who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt University, writes,

“the general sense in the Jewish tradition is that one argues with the text and with fellow Jews about the text, and that in some cases multiple meanings are possible. Jews are more inclined to say, ‘I’m right and you may be right, too.‘” (p. 205)

This perspective sheds a different light on the divisive theological quarrels that occur in nearly every Protestant denomination today. These quarrels don’t often result in the mutuality Levine describes. Only the first half of the equation–the “I’m right” half–applies. In fact, some antagonists are more likely to seek banishment of those who believe “incorrectly,” that is, who believe differently from what the purists claim is the historic faith.

Levine says Jesus was a product of the rabbinic tradition of dialogue and his teaching must be understood in this context. It is marked by continuing discussion, discernment and new interpretation. To consider Jesus out of this context is to misunderstand his Jewishness and equally problematic, to misunderstand his teaching. Levine concludes Jesus is a misunderstood Jew.

We have come to this point she says because Jesus’ followers faced a challenge–How to extend his teaching among Jews and to non-Jews as well. Inherent in the challenge is another question: Was it necessary or desirable for non-Jews to become observant Jews?

It became clear to first century Christian leaders that it was neither possible nor desirable. Cultural contexts, political realities and racial and ethnic differences led the early Christian leaders to see that a dual mission was necessary, one that reached Gentiles as well as Jews. Paul took the mission to the Gentiles and Peter sought to present Jesus to Jews, primarily from his base in Jerusalem.

Because it took place outside the synagogue in social, political and cultural settings different from Jerusalem, the effort to reach non-Jews resulted in a different method, a focus on individual voices–Jesus, then Peter, and Paul–and their teachings. The Gentile mission also stepped outside the give-and-take of the rabbinic tradition.

Levine says this was a crucial shift. It led to different readings of sacred text and interpretations of the importance of religious practices. These, in turn, led to doctrinal disputes that required resolution and as Gary Wills has pointed out elsewhere, much of Paul’s writing deals with his attempts to keep the Gentile churches together and to clarify a consistent theology for the growing faith.

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