The Latest Generation of Jewish Scholars Give Us Their Take on Jesus and Jewishness

If you could go back a few centuries to a shtetl in Eastern Europe—or even to the early 1900s in the Lower East Side of New York City—and ask, Who do you think Jesus is?, you might receive a response like the following.You would probably be told that “Yoshke” was an illegitimate child, a sorcerer who led the Jewish people astray, a bad man who stole the name of God in order to work his deceptive miracles. Perhaps you would also hear him referred to as Yeshu, standing for the Hebrew phrase, “May his name and memory be blotted out.” Those ideas about Jesus go back at least as far as the middle ages.

But starting around 1750, the Enlightenment (in Hebrew, Haskalah) swept through Western Europe and North America. Secularism moved in and religion moved out. Many now felt free to look at Jesus apart from traditional religious teachings. In this new climate, a fresh Jewish appraisal of Jesus began to emerge. Jewish writers began to speak of him as a fellow-Jew and a teacher of Jewish ethics. While authors such as Claude Montefiore, Joseph Klausner, and Samuel Sandmel didn’t always see eye to eye about Jesus on all points, their re-evaluation filtered down into the Jewish consciousness. That is why the question Who do you think Jesus is? is now often answered with, “A good teacher”—even by those who have never read his teaching!

Riding the New Wave

The past several years have seen a “new wave” of Jewish publications about Jesus, the New Testament, and even Paul. In contrast with earlier times, today “proselytism” (the term some use in place of “evangelism”) is off the agenda for many Christians. Churches have repudiated a history of anti-Semitism while the dialogue movement has stressed the commonalities between Jews and Christians. The upshot is that Jews are more open to learning about Jesus as someone who is part of Jewish history without feeling uncomfortable about doing so. While Jewish believers in Jesus might wish that this new open-mindedness went further, we can be glad for the positive aspect: Our people are exploring Jesus’ Jewishness more than ever before.

Jewish writers of the new wave* have focused on several areas. Following is an overview of three of these areas, which I have placed in order from the least to the most surprising (ranked according to the Robinson Scale of Surprise).

By understanding the Jewishness of Jesus, Jews and Christians can better understand one another.

Amy-Jill Levine teaches at Vanderbilt University. (See our interview with her here.) Her 2006 volume The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus has a bridge-building focus. “If the church and synagogue both could recognize their connection to Jesus, a Jewish prophet who spoke to Jews, perhaps we’d be in a better place for understanding” (p. 228). With humor and winsomeness, Levine takes the reader on a tour of ways in which Jesus’ Jewishness has been misapprehended. En route, she goes beyond American evangelical Christianity to find examples of misunderstandings about the Jewish people in such diverse places as the World Council of Churches (a mainstream Christian ecumenical organization) and in African Christianity. Negative portrayals of Judaism as “legalistic, purity obsessed, Temple dominated, bellicose, greedy, anything distasteful to Christians” remain frequent in Christian preaching and teaching. Nor are Jews free of their own biases. To the end of mutual understanding, Levine concludes with a chapter of practical suggestions on how Jews and Christians can avoid pitfalls in communicating with and about one another. In the end, she is hopeful that better understanding will lead some to make a course correction and more accurately speak and teach about Jesus and Judaism—whether they are Jews or Christians.

Jews should read the New Testament.

In his book Opening the Covenant, Michael Kogan (Montclair State University) recounts how he taught a class on Paul to a study group of Jewish doctors in the early 1980s. Kogan’s approach to the New Testament literature was sympathetic and irenic, not surprising given his pluralistic tendencies. But Kogan was an exception—until recently.

It happened last year: The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT) was published, the first time the entire New Testament was being presented to Jews and Christians by a group of mainstream Jewish scholars. Under the editorship of Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, some 50 top-tier Jewish contributors wrote notes to the New Testament in the style of a study Bible. They added essays and introductions. The editors explained the rationale behind JANT:

“Many Jews are unfamiliar with, or even afraid of reading, the New Testament. Its content and genres are foreign, and they need notes to guide their reading. Other Jews may think that the New Testament writings are irrelevant to their lives, or that any annotated New Testament is aimed at persuasion, if not conversion. This volume, edited and written by Jewish scholars, should not raise that suspicion. Our intention is not to convert… . Rather, this book is designed to allow all readers to understand what the texts of the New Testament meant within their own social, historical, and religious context …” (p. xii).

Other Jewish treatments of the New Testament have appeared from divergent viewpoints. Rabbi Michael Cook (who also contributed to JANT) teaches at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the training school for Reform rabbis. In 2008 he brought out Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment. For Cook, the gospels do not show us the real Jesus. Rather, he claims that the gospel writers changed the story to reflect the increasing anti-Jewishness of the later church, an approach long followed by many mainstream and liberal Christian scholars. Cook has simply branded it with his own term, “Gospel Dynamics.” He takes a more defensive approach than JANT: Jews should read the New Testament so they can think intelligently about those parts that have been used to foment anti-Semitism.

Herbert Basser of Queens University in Canada (another JANT contributor) has given us The Mind Behind the Gospels: A Commentary to Matthew 1–14. Like Cook, he too believes that Matthew reflects a later anti-Jewish, pro-Roman stance. More positively, the author of Matthew—whom Basser asserts was not Jewish—was a preserver of traditions that he himself did not often understand. Yet while that gospel preserves Jewish traditional rhetoric and thought, Basser also finds the history and theology in Matthew to be anti-Jewish in the extreme. Some will find his uneasy juxtaposition of the positive and the negative to be lacking cohesion.

Some Christian doctrines are actually Jewish.

This may be the most surprising conclusion to emerge from the “new wave” of Jewish scholarship concerning Jesus. Benjamin Sommer is professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where Conservative rabbis are ordained. In 2009 he wrote a book with the strange and somewhat disturbing title, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. “The startling or bizarre idea in the Hebrew Bible,” he says, “is … not that God has a body—that is the standard notion of ancient Israelite theology—but rather that God has many bodies located in sundry places in the world that God created.” When he invokes his ideas to explain Genesis 18—where one of the three visitors to Abraham appears to shift between being a man and being God—we find an unexpected affinity with those who appeal to this passage to demonstrate the biblical roots of the Trinity and Incarnation.

Significantly, Sommer concludes:

This study forces a reevaluation of a common Jewish attitude toward Christianity. Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with grave suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. What I have attempted to point out here is that biblical Israel knew very similar doctrines, and these doctrines did not disappear from Judaism after the biblical period… . The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects (pp. 135-36; italics added).

While Sommer rejects Jesus as Messiah on other grounds, his linkage of the Hebrew Bible with the Trinity and Incarnation cuts across the grain of traditional Jewish thought.

Across the country in Berkeley, California, Daniel Boyarin teaches Talmudic Culture and Rhetoric. In his latest book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, Boyarin says, “While by now almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, is happy enough to refer to Jesus, the human, as a Jew, I want to go a step beyond that. I wish us to see that Christ too—the divine Messiah—is a Jew. Christology, or the early ideas about Christ, is also a Jewish discourse” (pp. 5-6).

The idea of a human-divine Messiah, he says, is not a later pagan addition but was part of the early Jewish Jesus-movement.

[According to an older view,] which has been popular among liberal Protestants for over a century, the idea of the divinity of Christ could only have been a relatively late and “Gentile” development that marks a decisive break with anything that could reasonably be called Jewish…. A second approach, currently enjoying ascendance especially among New Testament scholars, sees the earliest versions of high Christology as emerging within a Jewish religious context (pp. 54-55).

Boyarin also maintains that the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is not a later Christian distortion of its true meaning.

This commonplace view has to be rejected completely. The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that—indeed, well into the early modern period. The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish … (pp 132-133).

As the New Wave Arrives on Shore…

So where will this new wave of Jewish writing on Jesus take us? Clearly, it does not mean that Jews are rushing to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. What it does mean is that not only is Jesus’ ethical teaching recognized as Jewish—Jews were saying that 150 years ago—but increasingly, so are other aspects of the New Testament and Christian theology. What then is Jewish about Jesus? Is it the “original” Rabbi Y’shua, only discovered when we peel away layers of later anti-Jewish invention? Or is it the whole megillah, so to speak, right down to Christian doctrines once thought to be pagan to the core? The Jewish jury is still out.

And it is a long way from the scholar’s study to the average Jewish man or woman on the street. But as the earlier wave of Jewish “Jesus-thinking” eventually filtered down to the pews, we may see a time when it will be axiomatic that Jesus was Jewish and that faith in him as Messiah is a Jewish belief.

At that point, the discussion may move from “Is it Jewish to believe in Jesus?” to “Is it true?” That will bring its own challenges, for our postmodern society does not comfortably address issues of truth, preferring to see the Jewish and Christian communities as each possessed of their own truth. But it will be an interesting time indeed if the tide of Jewish thinking takes that turn. Until then, scholars like Levine, Sommer and Boyarin have provided some substantial food for thought … and hopefully, for discourse with our unbelieving family and friends.

Note: All books mentioned in this article can be found at amazon.com.

End Note

Many more writers could have been included; the selection is representative only.