One of Amy-Jill Levine’s concerns in The Misunderstood Jew is that, although more and more Christians know that Jesus was Jewish, we underestimate the extent that he was an observant Jew. Many of us have known non-observant Jews, Jews who do not keep the Sabbath or the kosher food rules, for instance.
So she is at pains to put aside the notion that, because Jesus challenged some of the rabbis, he was a renegade Jew who did not think observing Jewish customs to be important.
She makes the point that Jesus dressed like a Jew. He wore fringes. Matthew 9:20 and Mark 6:56 mention these. The criticism of overdoing this in Matthew 23:5, where Jesus says the Pharisees tended to make their fringes too fancy and ostentatious, does not undercut the reality that Jesus did wear fringes. These were the tassels that male Israelites were supposed to wear on the four corners of their outer garment (Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12). Today, outside of the synagogue, you only see Orthodox Jews doing this. Levine says they were a little like WWJD bracelets worn by some Christians. They were reminders to observe all the commandments.
Furthermore, she argues that Jesus ate like a Jew. Some criticized Jesus on account of who he ate with (tax collectors and sinners). Apparently some criticized Jesus for eating and drinking too much (Matthew 11:10). But no one criticized Jesus for eating pork or shell-fish. We can take it for granted that he kept a kosher diet. If he had not it would have been a huge point for his enemies.
She talks about the incident where Jesus sent a herd of pigs over a cliff (Mark 5:1-20) to make the point that this is the only time the Gospels mention Jesus having contact with pigs, and that he did not have an affectionate attitude toward them. But she makes a strange off topic remark that eating pork is “conspicuous consumption” since pork costs more to raise than it is worth. I won’t argue the agricultural economics. That is not my field or hers. But I don’t think economics has anything to do with kosher law. It is like the argument that unrefrigerated pork has a parasite risk. It does. But if economics or hygiene had anything to do with kosher law, that law would be universal. It would apply to all people. But the kosher diet is a covenant marker for the Jewish people.
She is right, I think, when she says that the statement in Mark 7:19 that he declared all foods clean is a product of community theology in Mark’s Gentile church. It is a parenthesis that does not reflect the historical Jesus. If Jesus had declared all foods clean, the problematic nature of this very issue in the Book of Acts and the Corinthian correspondence of Paul would be very hard to understand.
She also says that Jesus taught like a Jew. Some Christians seem to think that the conflict with the Pharisees shown in the Gospels, mean that Jesus taught something revolutionary and in conflict with Judaism. But she interprets Jesus’ teaching as part of a discussion within Judaism. The teachings of Jesus fall within familiar rabbinic discussions. She thinks those who say that Jesus broke with Judaism be rejecting the oral tradition are wrong.
For one thing scholars have not been able to establish that the oral Torah (written down in the Mishnah) that governed later Judaism was actually in place at the time of Jesus. Jesus does not show a view of the Torah systematic enough to challenge rabbinic teaching. Levine says that Jesus was not part of any rabbinic school, but also that he was not opposed to them. Rather, Jesus responded to specific questions about Sabbath law or which is the greatest commandment and so on. Sometimes he agreed with the majority of the rabbis. Sometimes he took a minority position. But only when he forbid divorce did he go completely outside rabbinic tradition. So for the most part, Jesus took part in an ongoing discussion within Judaism.
An example of this is Jesus teaching about the Sabbath. Some Christians have portrayed the Jews of Jesus’ time of having turned the Sabbath from a day of rest and joy into a burden and constraint full of picky minutia. (I am sorry to admit that she could use some sermons that I preached years ago as evidence for this.)
She makes fun of this idea. If this were the case then the Jews of that time apparently needed psychotherapy. But only Jesus was liberal, open, and healthy in his attitude. Really? She points out that most Jews would have agreed with Jesus about healing on the Sabbath. In Luke 13:10-17 Jesus appeals to this sentiment against one uptight official. The crowd (the Jewish majority) sided with Jesus.
Also in his use of parables, Jesus taught like a Jew. The prophets before him and the rabbis after him taught in this way. Some of Jesus’ parables seem to lend themselves to an overly simplistic framing of the Pharisees as “bad guys”, but overall they are challenging and very Jewish.
Jesus prayed like a Jew. She uses the Lord’s Prayer to elaborate this. There is nothing non-Jewish in this prayer. She uses examples to show that Jesus was not alone in addressing God as Father. Prayer for daily bread and forgiveness are very much a part of the Jewish liturgical tradition. She shows how Jesus teaching prayer for forgiveness of debt rather than peccadilloes is profound and goes right to the pocketbook.
She says that understanding Jesus in this Jewish context can enrich anyone’s understanding of Jesus. Her writing certainly contributes to that.