For centuries Christians have believed that Jesus was unique, that he challenged the prevailing culture of his time and had a revolutionary approach to life. He was the one who liberated people from the dictates of the law to initiate a new freedom in the Spirit, he was the one who revealed a God of love compared to a God of wrath found in the Old Testament. But seen from a Jewish perspective Jesus’ uniqueness was not so much in challenging the mores of his time but in his teaching. Jesus evolved as we all have done from the dust of the earth and lived as a Jew in a particular context of time and place. The place where he lived, Galilee, was not a backwater. It was cosmopolitan, situated on the silk road route, people living there would have encountered other cultures and beliefs and it is possible that Jesus spoke Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin.
A popular notion in Christianity is that Jesus had an intimate, filial relationship with God and called God Abba unlike the Old Testament God that was distant and transcendent. But the God of Jesus is the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is the Christian heresy of Marcionism to reject the Old Testament and to say there is a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and New is doing just that suggests Professor Levine. There are wonderful passages in the Old Testament that speak of God as Father and God’s intimate love for human beings. One of my favourites is from the Book of Wisdom “Yes, You love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, for had you hated anything you would not have formed it. And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist, how be conserved if not called for the by you” (Wis. 11:24-26). The God of the Old Testament is the God of Jesus and where else would Jesus have learned and developed his relationship with God if not within the Judaism of his time.
Recently christian feminist scholars, in their efforts to find a place for women in a patriarchal institution, have depicted Jesus’ relationship with women as unique and contravening the mores of his day. Jesus did have a relationship with women, they were among his followers, he taught them and they cared for him. A favourite story used to illustrate how radical Jesus was in his relationship with women is that of the Samaritan Woman. It goes like this: Jews and Samaritans were enemies; Jesus is crossing Samaria and asks a woman from Samaria for a drink – something no Jew or man would do in public; has a conversation with the women which shows he is the Messiah; the woman (who is declared to have five husbands) brings her townspeople to Jesus. Professor Levine gave us another take on the story. The woman comes to the well of Jacob at mid-day, not because she is an outcast but because she’s likely to have needed water. In the previous chapter of John there’s the story of Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night. In contrast the Samaritan woman comes in the full light of day at the same time as Rebecca came to the well and was recognised as a fitting wife for Isaac, reflecting as so many of the stories about Jesus do a story in the Old Testament. She could not have been an outcast but must have been respected by her townspeople or they would not have accepted her message and come to Jesus to see and hear for themselves. Nor need she have been a prostitute or shamed woman because she had five husbands. We do not know her circumstances. Did she have a levirate marriage whereby she married the brother of her dead husband? Was she widowed?
Professor Levine’s work shows a deep love and respect for Jesus. He is, she says, the first person to be called Rabbi in literature, his parables are outstanding teaching aids for adults that “are the best stories ever”. However, she also feels that if we christians get Jesus’ context wrong we get him wrong. To make Jesus out to be different from his time or a rebel against his culture and religion is inaccurate and a ruse to underline the uniqueness of Jesus. It can lead to a denigration of the Judaism of his time and a rejection of the Judaism of our time which can have terrible consequences, the worst of which we remember at the end of the month on Holocaust Memorial Day.
here to edit.