The “Jewish” Jesus

“If we misunderstand first-century Judaism, we will misunderstand Jesus.”

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine turned religion inside out with her graciousness and delightful humor for those gathered at the first lecture presented by The Guibord Center on March 27th 2011.

“In order to understand Jesus fully, we need to have a sense of how the people who first heard him understood him, which means we need to know how his words sounded to First Century Jewish ears. If we get the context wrong, we’ll get him wrong.”

The perspective she then offered provided those present with an opportunity to experience Jesus, his piety, prayers and parables in a fresh and exciting way.

Ten Points to Consider about “The Jewish Jesus”

  • Jews knew that parables were not nice stories about helpful travelers and loving fathers. Parables were designed to challenge and to indict. If we hear a parable and think, “that’s nice,” we’re not listening well.
  • Jews believed in a loving, compassionate, G-d whom they addressed as “Father.” To think that Jesus invented an intimate relationship with G-d is falsely and negatively to stereotype his fellow Jews.
  • The view that the “Old Testament” is a “book of wrath” while the “New Testament” is a “book of love” is not only a factual error, it robs from Christians the numerous pastoral resources of the earlier Scripture.
  • Jesus neither abrogates nor lightens the commandment of Israel. The commandments forbid murder; Jesus insists on loving the enemy. The commandments forbid adultery; Jesus forbids thinking about it.
  • Jesus did not invent love of G-d and love of neighbor (Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19). More broadly put: Jesus does not need to be original in order to be profound.
  • Jesus is not a universalist among a gentile-hating Jewish population. Gentiles worshiped in the Jerusalem Temple and in synagogues. Jewish tradition praises righteous gentiles, and most Jews did not think one had to be Jewish to be “saved.”
  • Judaism did not epitomize misogyny, Jesus is not the only rabbi to instruct women, and Jesus does not “liberate” women from Jewish culture. Jewish sources and the New Testament show that women had freedom of travel, their own funds, owned homes, worshiped in synagogues and in the Temple, and served as teachers, prophets, community leaders, and patrons.
  • The Temple was not a “domination system” that stole from peasants, overcharged for offerings, and was bereft of divine presence. “Den of thieves,” an expression from Jeremiah, is where thieves go to feel safe, not to rob (the analogy is of Christians who sin during the week, puts a $20.00 in the collection plate on Sunday, and return to sinning on Monday). The Temple welcomed peasant and elite, men and women, Jew and gentile, and there sinners find reconciliation with G-d.
  • Jesus was not the only to counsel against violence. When the Emperor Caligula wanted to put his statue in the Jerusalem Temple, the Jewish population, rather than stage a revolt, engaged in what may be history’s first “sit-down strike.”
  • Jews and Christians will not agree on the theological meanings of Jesus’ cross or of Easter, but we do share a common history. To understand Jesus as a Jew within a vibrant, complex Jewish environment allows Christians to hear anew his words, and it allows Jews to recover part of Jewish history.


Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006).

Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler (eds.), The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Amy-Jill Levine, John Dominic Crossan, and Dale C. Allison (eds.), The Historical Jesus in Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).