I’m guilty of including subtle and not so subtle anti-Semitic references in my preaching. There are passages in the New Testament, when read literally and without an understanding of a backstory, that lend themselves to negativity about Jews. This is an important topic, especially considering recent neo-Nazi, anti-Jewish, white supremacist hate demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia and elsewhere. Words matter. Whether a new church planter explaining Christian faith to newcomers or a pastor of an existing church, understanding the Jewishness of Jesus is important. If we don’t understand the Jewish background of the New Testament, sometimes we can fall in the trap of preaching anti-Semitism. For instance, Luke 23:20-25 and Mark 15:1-15 place the blame for Pilate’s decision to crucify Jesus on the Jewish people. However, if we understand more fully Jesus’ Jewish context, our preaching can avoid what Amy-Jill Levine calls “false and noxious stereotypes” (see “Bearing False Witness: Common errors made about Early Judaism,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, Oxford University Press, 2011).
In my preaching and my writing, I have benefitted immensely by understanding the Jewishness of Jesus. Two authors have helped me along the way: Amy Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, and Rebekah Simon Peter, a United Methodist minister, who lives in Casper, Wyoming. I consult Levine’s and Brettler’s reference book whenever I preach now. Levine’s book on parables of Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, is also immensely helpful in understanding the Jewish context of these stories.
The book to read first for a better understanding of the Jewish context of Christian scripture is Rebekah Simon-Peter’s, The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message, published by Abingdon in 2013. Simon-Peter grew up a child of a Roman Catholic father and a Jewish mother. She was raised in the Jewish faith. She tells her story of faith in the first chapter, a story that started with a vision and led to ordination in The United Methodist Church as an elder. Claiming that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish is important for these times. Simon-Peter affirms “that Jesus was born a Jew, raised a Jew, lived a Jew, died a Jew, and even was resurrected a Jew . . . He honored and observed the Sabbath . . . the Torah, the Hebrew Bible” (p. 20). She underscores Jesus’ Jewishness so that we as Christians can understand our faith story better, but also that we can understand our humanity better. Simon-Peter writes, “How we see, name, and claim Jesus has everything to do with how we see, name, and claim each other” (p. 21).
In the next blog post I will unpack more thoroughly Simon-Peter’s contribution to our understanding of Jesus. In a third post, I will share my thoughts on how helpful the writings of Amy-Jill Levine have been. For now, get a copy of Rebekah Simon-Peter’s aforementioned book. Dive into the Jewishness of Jesus.