In my last posting, I confessed my guilt of including subtle and not so subtle anti-Semitic references in my preaching. I pointed to resources that can help mitigate this tendency, which flows from erroneous Christian interpretation of scripture. I mentioned the book written by Rebekah Simon-Peter that serves as a primer to teach those of us who preach in Christian churches. Today I want to take a further look at Simon-Peter’s The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message, published by Abingdon in 2013.
Simon-Peter intermixes her personal story with biblical interpretation to help Christian preachers understand better the Jewish background of Jesus and Paul. She grew up Jewish in Connecticut in a Reformed Temple and as a young adult attended an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. A vision of Jesus on her 29th birthday shook her to her roots. She shares the testimony in her book. I was fortunate to hear her share the same in person. “I was meditating, fully awake, when all of a sudden, right before my eyes was Jesus. He didn’t look like any of the pictures I had seen before. He wasn’t blond-haired, blue-eyed, or fair skinned,” she writes (A Jew Named Jesus, p. 14). Rebekah Simon-Peter experienced a vision of Jesus that was vivid and real, something that any Christian would love to experience themselves. “Every cell in my body knew: this was Jesus. He had thick, wavy, dark brown hair; a full dark brown beard; olive skin; dark eyes. Handsome, actually. Jewish, definitely. He never actually moved his lips or spoke out loud to me. His eyes said it all: I understand you. I accept you. I love you” (p. 14).
Simon-Peter resisted the implications of the vision. Through the help of friends, she embarked on a journey of understanding the Jewish Jesus and found herself, several years later—against anything she ever would have imagined—entering Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She joined a historically black congregation in Denver and eventually became part of the pastoral team there. Eventually, she was ordained a United Methodist Minister, served churches in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, and now is in extension ministry helping people like me understand the Jewish Jesus. She also provides coaching and consultation on a variety of subjects.
Through keen biblical analysis, Simon-Peter addresses many of the culturally popular anti-Jewish stereotypes. She helps the reader dig deeper into the Jewish context of scripture to bring a fresh—and freeing—understanding that helps Christian preachers better understand the meaning of their faith tradition. She takes on questions, such as, “Was Jesus a Christian?” “Did the Jews Reject Jesus?” “Did the Jews kill Jesus?”
As much as Christians need a better understanding of the Jewish Jesus, Simon-Peter also writes that Jews would benefit from a fresh look at the teachings of Jesus. She sees signs that Christians are gaining a better appreciation and knowledge of the rich Jewish heritage in their faith and that Jews are coming around to “explore what might be possible for us in this relationship” (p. 89). There are signs that Jews may be coming around to re-engage the life and teachings of one of their own on their own terms.
Thus, in this book, there is a weaving together of the Christian and Jewish story, its history, both negative and positive, and an invitation to look upon one another with new eyes, however difficult that may prove to be. She challenges Christians to embrace fully the Jewish Jesus. She challenges Christians to refocus on the central teaching of Jesus, namely, the Kingdom of God. Such a focus will also better connect Christians to its rootedness in Judaism. She challenges Jews also to hear Jesus’ message as fully Jewish.
Simon-Peter’s book is a gift to all of us. She acknowledges that there is hard work to do in Jewish-Christian relations. She offers us an opportunity to explore the common ground of our respective traditions as a step toward more fully embracing one another. I found this book a valuable primer in understanding better the Jewishness of Jesus and of Paul, the apostle.
In a world that still harbors hatred toward people of the Jewish faith and tradition, it is important that those of us who preach and teach in a Christian context, avoid the mistaken interpretations of the New Testament that spur anti-Semitism. We will become better Christians in the process.
In the next blog post—the last in this series—I will share my thoughts on how helpful the writings of Amy-Jill Levine have been.
The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2016 includes an entire section entitled, “United Methodist Guiding Principles for Christian-Jewish Relations” (Para. 3292). The section includes how selective use and misuse of Scripture over the history of the church has generated “negative attitudes toward and actions against Jews” (p. 302). Furthermore, it says, “The church as an obligation to correct erroneous and harmful past teaching and to ensure that the use of Scripture, as well as the preparation, selection, and use of liturgical and educational resources, does not perpetuate misleading interpretations and misunderstand of Judaism.