Rabbi Jesus


In an interview about her new book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Amy-Jill Levine emphasizes Jesus’ Jewish identity as a key to understanding what he taught:

Jesus is the first person in literature called “rabbi,” which at the time–the late first century–meant “teacher.” The term “rabbi,” today thoroughly associated with Judaism, signals for Jesus his own particular Jewish identity.

For Christians, Jesus should be more than a Jewish teacher. But he must be that Jewish teacher as well. If his teachings were not of import to the Church, the Gospels would have skipped right from the Nativity stories to the Passion–right from Advent to Lent. To see Jesus as a rabbi, a Jewish teacher, is to take seriously what he had to say: his parables, interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel, apocalyptic pronouncements, ethical guides–and all of these teachings can only be fully appreciated if we see how they fit into their own historical context.

She goes on to claim the parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps the most misunderstood:

Today, we hear that the “Good Samaritan” is about accepting the marginalized. Samaritans were not “marginalized” by Jews; to the contrary, they were the enemy. This fact also shows why the modern tendency to identify with the Samaritan is, although affirming for the Christian today, not what a first-century Jewish audience would do.

Or, we hear that priest and Levite ignore the injured fellow because they were following Jewish law concerning ritual impurity. The parable has nothing to do with purity laws; to the contrary, burying a corpse is one of the highest commandments in Judaism, a point made in sources ranging from the Deuterocanonical Book of Tobit to the writings of the first-century historian Josephus to the Mishnah and Talmud. Unless we know what the terms “priest,” “Levite,” and “Samaritan” suggested to that original audience, we’ll not only miss the parable’s profundity, we’ll promote negative stereotype of Jewish practice and ethics.

Recent Dish on the Jewishness of Jesus here.

(“The Parable of the Good Samaritan” by Jan Wijnants, 1670, via Wikimedia Commons)