In the The Misunderstood Jew, scholar Amy-Jill Levine helps Christians and Jews understand the "Jewishness" of Jesus so that their appreciation of him deepens and a greater interfaith dialogue can take place. Levine's humor and informed truth-telling provokes honest conversation and debate about how Christians and Jews should understand Jesus, the New Testament, and each other.
Jesus and Judaism
Belief in Jesus as the Christ—the Messiah—separates church and synagogue, Christians and Jews. It is not the only distinction, but it is the basic one. For Christians, the claim that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life is obvious: it is proved by Jesus's resurrection, confirmed by the Bible, and experienced by the soul. For Jews, claims of Jesus's divine sonship and fulfillment of the messianic prophecies are false. Since we live in a world of cancer and AIDS, war and genocide, earthquakes and hurricanes, the messianic age cannot be here yet. Since there is no messianic age, obviously the messiah has not yet come. "How could anyone believe in Jesus?" ask Jews, while Christians wonder, "How could anyone not believe in Jesus?" What is self-evident to one is incomprehensible to the other.
Differences between Jews and Christians derive not only from different sacred Scriptures, historical memories, and lived experience; they derive also from belief, from faith. Christians "believe" in Jesus because Jesus fills Christian hearts and souls. In Christian terms, belief comes through "grace." Once the belief is in place, then the various arguments from the Bible, from nature, or from personal testimony about Jesus's lordship serve to bolster that belief. In other words, belief is like love: it cannot be compelled. It does not rest on logical argument or historical proof.
The same argument holds for Judaism. For Jews, the system is complete: there is no need for a New Testament, for the Torah and its interpretations within the Jewish community already offer revelation of the divine. Although the analogy is a tad strained, the Torah functions for the synagogue as Jesus does for the church: it is the "word" of the divine present in the congregation. Thus to ask Jews why they don't believe in Jesus is tantamount to asking Christians why they don't follow Muhammad. For Jews, Jesus is unnecessary or a redundancy; he is not needed to save from sin or from death, since Judaism proclaims a deity ready to forgive repentant sinners and since it asserts that "all Israel has a share in the world to come" (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).
And yet some Jews do convert to Christianity, and some Christians convert to Judaism. Again, conversion is not a matter of whose teaching is "better" or "true" in any sort of objective sense; it is prompted by the teaching that provides the best personal sense of truth and fulfillment to the individual.
Where we can agree, however, is in Jesus's own connection to Judaism.
Jewish Context and Content
The fact that Jesus was a Jew has not gone unrecognized. Libraries and bookstores are replete with volumes bearing such titles as Jesus the Jew, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus and the World of Judaism, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, Jesus in His Jewish Context, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus, and three volumes and counting of A Marginal Jew.1 The point is more than simply a historical observation. Numerous churches today acknowledge their intimate connection to Judaism: connections born from Scripture, history, theology, and, as Paul puts it, Christ "according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:5). Nevertheless, when it comes to the pew, the pulpit, and often the classroom, even when Christian congregants, ministers, and professors do acknowledge that Jesus was Jewish, they often provide no content for the label. The claim that "Jesus was a Jew" may be historically true, but it is not central to the teaching of the church.
The Nicene Creed, composed in the fourth century, proclaims:
We believe in . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
The Apostles' Creed, likely dating a bit earlier, acknowledges
Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day he arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
On the one hand, the creeds do not speak of "the Jews" as responsible for the death of Jesus; he "suffered under" and "was crucified under" Pontius Pilate. On the other hand, the creeds do not mention Jesus's Judaism at all. With the stress in some churches on Jesus's divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, his historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven.
The problem is more than one of silence. In the popular Christian imagination, Jesus still remains defined, incorrectly and unfortunately, as "against" the Law, or at least against how it was understood at the time; as "against" the Temple as an institution and not simply against its first-century leadership; as "against" the people Israel but in favor of the Gentiles. Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the "poor and the marginalized" (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). . . .