The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

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by Amy-Jill Levine

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Julie Glambush
In a book intended for Jews and Christians alike (but mostly addressed to Christians) Ms. Levine offers both critique and corrective on topics as seemingly disparate as the Jewish content of the Lord’s Prayer and Christian responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that is Ms. Levine’s point: to show how frequently and disastrously inaccurate beliefs about Jesus and early Judaism produce distorted relationships in the present.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
It is a simple truth that Jews and Christians should be close friends, since they share common roots and a basic ethical system. But the gulf between the groups seems vast. Levine, professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt, presents a strong and convincing case for understanding Jesus as "a Jew speaking to Jews," and for viewing Christianity as a Jewish movement that ultimately swept the world in its influence and authority. But with this expansion came an insidious anti-Jewish sentiment, fed by some New Testament texts (wrongly understood, the author urges) and the emerging political power of the Christian church. Levine does a masterful job of describing the subtleties of anti-Semitism, across the years and across the religious spectrum, from the conservative evangelical mission to convert the Jews to the liberation theologians who picture Jews as adherents to an older, less merciful religion. In the end, Levine offers a prescription for healing and mutual understanding; a chapter titled "Quo Vadis?" outlines steps that can be taken by Jews and Christians alike to bridge the divide that has caused so much suffering over the centuries. Written for the general public, this is an outstanding addition to the literature of interfaith dialogue. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Levine (New Testament studies, Vanderbilt Univ. Divinity Sch.) here seeks to shed light on the Jewish message of Jesus and his followers. She explains that Jesus's message is "very Jewish" and that understanding his connection to Judaism can enlighten Bible students of any faith. Levine examines many Jesus parables familiar to New Testament readers but does so in a Jewish light, showing the particular characteristics that would have "provoked, challenged, and disturbed" Jesus's audience. By identifying with this audience, the reader can better understand the intent and purpose of Jesus himself. Scholarly to the hilt yet enjoyable and easy to understand, this book does not point the finger of blame, but instead sets about to teach, or reteach, what has become very familiar to New Testament readers. For example, the reader is asked to reexamine the Lord's Prayer through Jewish eyes and to see that it, in a very Jewish way, "fosters belief, promotes justice, and consoles with future hope." Such insights are valuable and important for anyone seeking to grasp the New Testament. Highly recommended.-Wesley A. Mills, Empire State Coll., SUNY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Biblical Interpretation
“Passionate, witty, and compelling . . . Levine’s depth of knowledge and understanding are evident on every page. . . . There is much food for thought in this wonderful book.”
New York Times
Shows how frequently and disastrously inaccurate beliefs about Jesus and early Judaism produce distorted relationships in the present.

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The Misunderstood Jew

The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
By Amy-Jill Levine

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Amy-Jill Levine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060789662

Chapter One

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 islike 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). . . .


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Meet the Author

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee; Affiliated Professor at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge; and a self-described "Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt." She is the author of The Misunderstood Jew, The Meaning of the Bible (coauthored with Douglas Knight), and the editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament.

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Misunderstood Jew 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
rtink More than 1 year ago
This book should be read by every Christian to learn the truth about Jesus who was NOT a Christian but a Jew! We have enough difficulties understanding other Protestant religions without regarding Judaism. We ALL worship the same GOD and we must learn to understand each other if we are ever to live in Peace. Read Amy's book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author is very knowledgeable but writes for religious scholars not novices
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must for every student of the Scriptures. The author succeeds in communicatincg difficult concepts in a very readable, honest. respectful, thought-provoking, and most of all incredibly insightful manner.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoy Dr. Levine's insights and have learned much from reading this book and others written by her.
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