A Review of A.J. Levine’s “The Misunderstood Jew”

In her work The Misunderstood Jew, Levine makes an excellent argument for the importance of acknowledging Jesus’ Jewish identity.  Jesus was a man of the people and for the people; he was thoroughly Jewish. 

Jesus went to the synagogue, he was passionate about the Sabbath, he observed the Passover, he defended the sacredness of the Temple, and he always quoted the Old Testament.  If we read Jesus’ words and think that he was trying to lead a movement away from Judaism (or against Judaism), then we are reading very selectively.

Levine gives numerous examples of how the teachings of Jesus can appear to be “anti-Jewish” if we remove Jesus from his context.  One example is when we take Jesus’ rebukes of several Scribes and Pharisees and use them to paint a negative caricature of the whole religious system.   If Jesus gets into one argument with a religious person, we assume that the system itself was corrupt and that Jesus came to shut it down!  Another example is unnecessary contempt for the Jews under the assumption that they are the ones who killed Jesus, such as the portrayal of the Jews in Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ.

Part of our misunderstanding of the Jewish system comes from constructing a picture of Judaism based on the Bible; however, the New Testament was not written to describe Judaism, it was written to describe Jesus.

Many of us are carrying a picture of Judaism that is full of holes.  One hole that we create in our view of Judaism is to only view the Jews to be the people Jesus is talking to or arguing with, without including Jesus himself.  If someone asked me to describe to them some of the practices of ancient Judaism, I could truthfully answer by describing the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

Perceiving Jesus as someone who did not embody Judaism (or was in conflict with it) gives us the wrong impression that Judaism was entirely corrupt, obsessed with rules that were impossible to follow, and was oppressive to everyone.  This description might be true of a few bad apples on the tree, but it cannot describe Judaism as a whole.  Levine claims that the Jewish society was much more tolerant, and less obsessed with purity than modern Christians would like to believe.  She even jokes that their 600+ laws were no more burdensome to them than the laws the United States are burdensome to us (which is a far greater number).

I myself am not a Jewish scholar, and therefore I cannot prove or refute Levine’s claims about the atmosphere of Jewish society; however, what is impactful for me is that our generalization of Jewish society can cause us to miss certain aspects of Jesus’ teachings.   We can mistakenly assume that Jesus’ main goal in life was breaking down stereotypes.

One example is the story of the Good Samaritan.  Modern Christians assume that the Priest and Levite are uncharitable towards the injured man because of their Jewishness; they are preserving their “purity/cleanliness”.  The parable does not actually say this.  We could not even imagine that Jewish priests were good people who would obviously help someone in need, and that an unhelpful person in the story is just a uniquely bad person.  We create stereotypes.

In truth, the “stereotypes” that we may or may not see in Jesus’ teachings are the least scandalous thing about those stories.  Jesus’ audience of ancient Jews probably did not hold the same stereotypes that we do as modern Christians.  How would that change the message of the story?

This shows how many layers of understanding can be disregarded if we are satisfied with viewing Christ’s teachings as being comfortable modern lessons.  What if there was something shocking in the teachings of Jesus, and we pass by it because we want a modern American Jesus who is mildly challenging

What if Jesus didn’t come to remind us of what we know is wrong by telling us stories we already agree with?

I whole-heartedly agree with Levine that a fuller understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus can bring many new layers of meaning and complexity to his teachings.  I also agree that we Christians mistakenly assume that we know a lot about Judaism from reading the Bible, and can unintentionally have “anti-Jewish” sentiments because of our misunderstanding of their culture.  Levine’s book has certainly inspired me to want to study Jewish history, exploring her presentation of Judaism and gaining a greater understanding of the context of Jesus’ ministry.

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2 Responses to “A Review of A.J. Levine’s “The Misunderstood Jew””

  1. Matthew Wimer Says:

    Sarah, I can totally hear your voice as I read this!

    This is a profound understanding of Levine’s book, and Jesus as well. I appreciate your point that “If someone asked me to describe to them some of the practices of ancient Judaism, I could truthfully answer by describing the words and actions of Jesus Christ.” It is amazing to me how we can glimpse the reality of Jesus’ religion by watching Jesus himself, and pitting him against Judaism is like pitting C.S. Lewis against Christianity. They are not separate, but within.

    Sarah, as always, you are amazing!

  2. wardd11 Says:

    Excellent summary Sarah. It is certainly challenging to think that Christians are not God’s new favorite people. Wow.

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