Uncovering the Jewish Context of the New Testament

Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine reveals what Jews (and Christians) should know about Christian scripture and Jesus the Jew

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2012.—Ed.

The Sermon on the Mount. Ca. 1440-1445. Fresco.

As Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine can attest, the New Testament can often seem strange or even offensive to Jews, but with a better understanding of the texts as Jewish literature about Jesus the Jew, both Jews and Christians can gain an appreciation of its deep Jewish context. In this painting of the Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico, Rabbi Jesus teaches his disciples. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY.

Most Jewish readers approach the New Testament, if they approach it at all, with at best a certain unfamiliarity. This is unfortunate, according to Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, for much if not all of the New Testament is Jewish literature. She points out that Jesus the Jew is the first person in recorded history to be called “Rabbi,” and Paul is the only undisputed first-century Pharisee from whom we have written records. Most of the other New Testament writers were also Jewish, writing for a Jewish audience.

Unfortunately, for many who are Jewish, New Testament writings may well leave a first impression of dismay, if not worse. For these readers, a second look is advisable. When the New Testament is understood within its own historical context, not only can Jews recover part of Jewish history, but they can also comprehend the New Testament’s polemics, its assertions of Jesus’ divinity and its claims of fulfilled prophecy.

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

In the gospel stories about Jesus, the Jews are often identified as the opposition—even the enemy. This conflict is now read as Christians vs. Jews, rather than the internal Jewish dispute it was in the first century. It is a text that has shaped Jewish-Christian relations, often in negative ways. In looking at the New Testament in context, readers can appreciate what Jews and Christians hold in common and how the two groups gradually came to form separate religions.


BAS Library Members: Read more from Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine about the Jewish context of the New Testament in “What Jews (and Christians too) Should Know About the New Testament” in the March/April 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in March 2012.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Origin of Christianity

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible by Lawrence Mykytiuk

The Jewish-Christian Schism by Lawrence H. Schiffman

Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax by Nathan T. Elkins

The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians, Part 1 by Douglas Boin


Posted in Bible Interpretation, Jesus/Historical Jesus, New Testament.

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  1. MR says

    Amy-Jill Levine’s fine article will help all of us to understand that Jesus had come to the Jews, to set up the kingdom that the prophets had spoken of. “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10: 5-7). In Acts 9:15 the resurrected Lord describes Saul (Paul) as “…a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel…”. Now there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile! “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us…” (Ephesians 2: 14).

  2. David says

    Maybe I’m confused but I understood the term “Rabbi” to date back to the Maccabean Revolt…over 100 years before Jesus was even born.

    Also, Josephus would be as “undisputed” as Paul and he also claimed to be Pharisee. His works are well preserved. I’m sure there are more works as well but Josephus just comes to mind.

    And the New Testament doesn’t “often identify” Jews as the enemy. When the term is used negatively it is almost always referring to the Jewish leadership (but not even all them are seen as the enemy…Jairus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea).

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  4. al says

    Is Dr Amy Jill Levine an ultra rthodox, orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, messianic or a secular humanist jew in orientation or all of the above or none at all ?

  5. Jeanne says

    Levine points out that “Jesus the Jew is the first person in recorded history to be called ‘Rabbi'”, however I do not agree with this point since the title “Rabbi” occurs in Matthew, Mark and John in reference to “Scribes and Pharisees” as well as to Jesus. Herschell Shanks maintains that while “the evidence would support an unofficial use of the term during the days of Yeshua (Jesus’ actual name in his native tongue – Aramaic), the official status of the term (Solomon Zeitlin agrees Shanks on this point) ‘Rabbi’ does not come about until the 2nd century CE.

    In any case, aside from this one point, Levine’s article reminds us of the Jewish culture Jesus/Yeshua came from, and considering his culture, one cannot separate the historical Jesus – the Jew – from the Jesus associated with today’s Christian faith. This is definitely worth a “Share” on my author’s page today! Thank you for posting!
    JB Richards
    Author of “Miriamne the Magdala-The First Chapter in the Yeshua and Miri Novel Series” and Content Creator for The Miriamne Page

  6. Jose says

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  7. nwaugo says

    Levine I totally disagree with in your research. Many so called scholars have been working to discredit the existence of Jesus Christ by Their idealistic views. Holy writings is pointing to Christ and his mission to accomplish his fathers will and purpose. We believe and love him.

  8. Sam says

    This article is indeed thought provoking, what matters most is that all that is said in the NT about Jesus is factual and real.

  9. Frank says

    Another teaser. I wish you wouldn’t publish or republish short articles that give no information and those of us who are not members yet are left hanging. Some of us just for one reason or another cannot or will not be members. We notice a lot of information for members. But when we read an article in biblical archaeology daily we would like to get the full information if you’re going to publish it that way. Thank you.

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