Jesus the Jew

By Amy-Jill Levine


That Jesus was a Jew has created a publication industry: we find on bookshelves such titles as Jesus the Jew, The Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus in His Jewish Context, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, and now with The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, I’ve contributed to the collection.

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

Yet when it comes to the pew, even when Christians acknowledge that Jesus was a Jew, there is little content to the label. Nor are things much better on the Jewish side. Jesus is one of ours, both by practice and by halacha, Jewish law. Plus, his mom is Jewish (we’ll leave aside the question of his father). Yet we Jews don’t acknowledge him. Frankly, if we Jews are willing to acknowledge such Jews as Freud, the Marxes (Karl and Groucho), Einstein, and Adam Sandler, why not acknowledge Jesus as a fellow Jew? That does not mean that we need to cite him in a worship context. Otherwise put: Jews can appreciate much of the message of the Kingdom of Heaven without worshiping the messenger.

How “Jewish” was Jesus?

He dresses like a Jew, even to the point of wearing of tzitzit fringes, for it is fringes that people reach out out to touch in hopes of a healing.

He eats like a Jew–that is, he keeps kosher. In Mark’s gospel, there is a verse that states Jesus declared all foods clean, but this is Mark’s editing and not something Jesus did. To the contrary, not only did he keep kosher, but all his immediate followers did as well. In fact, one of the major debates in the early Church was whether gentiles who followed Jesus needed to do so as well. The conclusion: they didn’t.

He teaches in synagogues and the Temple in Jerusalem, and he shows enormous respect for the mitzvot, the commandments, so much so that he debates how they are best to be understood and enacted. He did not find the Torah, the Law, a burden but a delight.

He honors the Sabbath and keeps it holy, and his comment, “The Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) finds a connection in the Talmud. Commenting on Exodus 31.14, “For the Sabbath is holy to you,” tractate Yoma 85b interprets, “The Sabbath is given to you; you are not to be delivered to the Sabbath.” That is, the celebration of Shabbat should be one of joy, not of constraint; of rest rather than fear of transgressing a commandment.

In terms of epitomizing, summarizing, the teaching of his faith, he’s right on track. Legend has it that Rabbi Hillel–one of Judaism’s greatest teachers–was asked by a potential follower, “Teach me the Torah–that is, teach me all of your traditions, your values, your practices, and your theology–while standing on one foot.” Hillel wisely responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. All the rest is commentary, go and learn.” A few decades later, Jesus instructed his followers, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

When we extend Jesus’ teachings from single lines to prayer, we again find continuity with Judaism. Let’s start with “our father, who is in heaven…” Jews typically called, and still call God “Father.” As Malachi 2:10 asks, “Have we not all one father?” But the opening offers more than piety. It also concerns politics. The Caesars were called “father” along with titles such as god, son of god, and savior. By speaking of the “father in heaven,” Jesus, and his fellow Jews, insisted that Rome is not the “true” father.

Concerning “Hallowed by your name,” the making sacred of God’s name is a component of most Jewish prayers, especially the Kaddish, which begins, “Magnified and sanctified be [God’s] great name.”

“Your kingdom come” echoes Judaism’s concern with the olam ha-bah, the world to come, a time marked by universal peace.

“Your will be done?” Jesus does this by doing what Jews have always done: building a fence about the law. For example, to those who heard the commandment, “Do not swear falsely,” he stated, “don’t swear at all.”

“Give us this day our daily bread” evokes Jewish texts that portray heaven as a banquet. What do we do in the world to come, the olam ha-ba? We eat, for this is a time when no one goes hungry. The Greek expression (the New Testament is written in Greek) translated as “daily bread” probably meant, in Jesus’ original Aramaic, “tomorrow’s bread.” Thus the prayer asks for “tomorrow’s bread today”; it seeks the coming of the messianic age, when we can all–Jews, Christians, everyone–eat at the messianic banquet.

As for “forgive us our trespasses”–the original was “forgive us our debts” (as the Sermon on the Mount puts it). The call here is for economic justice, in fact for the Jubilee year when all debts are forgiven. It says, “don’t hold a debt. If someone needs, you give.” As Habakkuk puts it, “Alas for you who heap up what Is not your own! How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge” (2:6).

“Lead us not into Temptation” is better translated as, “Do not bring us to the test.” Jewish tradition talks about tests given to humans–particularly worthy humans. God decided to “test” Abraham, as the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, begins. The prayer ends, “And deliver us from evil” or, better, “the evil one” who is, of course, Satan. And we recall the testing of Job.

To understand Jesus in his historical context helps us Jews understand our own history better even as it helps Christians understand their own tradition. I find, as a member of an Orthodox synagogue and as a professor of New Testament Studies in a predominantly Christian divinity school, the more I learn about Jesus in his historical context, the more I come to know, and to appreciate, my own Jewish tradition.

About Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion, and a member of Congregation Sherith Israel (Orthodox) in Nashville, Tenn. Her most recent book is The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperSan Francisco, 2006).