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

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.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

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.
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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.
 

 
How did Christianity become a religion distinct from its Jewish origins? Read The Origin of Christianity in Bible History Daily.
 

 

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

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  1. Bud 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).

  3. are says

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