Understanding Jesus and first century Judaism

Mar. 26, 2014 @ 10:52 AM

Learning how to avoid anti-Jewish preaching and teaching is not a requirement of Christian seminary students. So Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, is taking it on herself. Levine spoke to a roomful of ministers Tuesday at Beth El Synagogue in Durham for the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill’s Community Relations Council 2014 Ministers’ Conference.
Levine, who is co-editor of “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” lectured on “Misunderstanding First Century Judaism Means Misunderstanding Jesus.” She said there are common errors made about understanding the first century that, “if we get wrong, we get Jesus wrong.”
Levine said she’s not talking about really bad pastors who preach that Jews killed Jesus, but “mistakes we make when we can’t hear the problem and don’t know the history.” One error, she said, particular to Protestants is considering the Old Testament about law and the New Testament about grace, so that a negative picture of the law is given.
“Paul says the law is holy and just and good,” she said, referring to the New Testament figure. “Jesus himself followed the law.”
Levine, who received her doctorate from Duke University, said when she was a student she heard bad Jewish stuff from professors and would ask, “How do you know that?” She talked about examples of Jesus following Jewish law. She also said that Paul didn’t discover the idea of grace, it is in the Scriptures of Israel.
“Jews don’t follow law to earn God’s love, it’s already in place,” she said. Levine said following law is a maintenance system to stay in the covenant.
Levine also talked about purity law and the Good Samaritan story from the New Testament book of Luke. The telling of the story that the priest and the Levite avoided the guy in the ditch because of purity law is nonsense, she said, because saving a life trumps everything else. She said the best explanation for why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop comes from Martin Luther King Jr. King preached that the men walked by because they were afraid for themselves, but the Samaritan questioned that if he didn’t stop, what would happen to the man? Levine also noted that Samaritans were not oppressed minorities. The way to preach the Good Samaritan, she said, is that the enemy is the third person who stops to save the man’s life.
Regarding feminism, Levine criticized former President Jimmy Carter’s new book and literature from the World Council of Churches that talked about Jesus freeing women from previous oppression. Rather, she said, first century Jewish women could divorce, owned property, and controlled their own money. She cautioned against preaching Easter sermons in which the men didn’t believe the first women witnesses of Jesus’ Resurrection because they were women.
“The reason is because people don’t come back from the dead – the problem is not the witness, it’s the message,” she said, and so the men ran to check for themselves. Women also had leadership in the first century building synagogues and serving as prophets, Levine said, referencing New Testament text.
“I’m not arguing first century Judaism was egalitarian; 21st century America is not either,” she said.
A minister in the audience asked Levine if Jesus was an apocalyptic Jew or a reformer. They’re not exclusive, Levine said. Apocalyptic discussions begin with ethics, and she sees Jesus interested in both, she said.
Jesus was really quite Orthodox, Levine said, because he goes further than Jewish law. The law says do not commit adultery, but Jesus says don’t think about it, either. The law says feed your enemy, but Jesus says love your enemy, too, she explained.
Levine said that New Testament texts have been interpreted in anti-Jewish ways. “Judaism does not need to look bad for Jesus to look good,” she said.