A Jewish Take on Jesus: Jesus Was Smack in the Middle of the Jewish Tradition of His Time. Remembering That Can Make You a Better Christian, Says This Jewish Scholar of the New Testament

Article excerpt

Train, for a moment, the long lens of history on Amy Jill Levine's life story. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council likely had no idea that their declaration Nostra Aerate, issued in 1965, would so affect the life of a Jewish grade-school kid riding the bus with her Portuguese Catholic friends in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. This Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions would at least attempt to put a stop to comments like the one that was hurled at Levine one day: "You killed our Lord!"

Her Catholic accuser got this information from whom? Why, the parish priest, of course. Shortly thereafter Nostra Aetate would go forth, admonishing him and the whole Catholic Church that the events of Jesus' passion "cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

Undeterred, Levine grew up to teach New Testament at a divinity school in the middle of the Bible belt. She has held office in the Catholic Biblical Association. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which she co-edited, zoomed to number 31 on Amazon's top 100 list when it was first published last year.

Levine also teaches New Testament courses on Monday nights at Riverbend maximum security prison. She meets with divinity school students and Riverbend inmates over biblical texts. Jesus would definitely approve.

But then he was Jewish, too.

What was it like growing up Jewish among so many Christians?

Our neighborhood was heavily Portuguese Roman Catholic, and almost all of my friends were Catholic. I wanted to go to church with them, and I was lucky enough to have parents who said, "If you want to go, that's fine. Not a problem."

My parents had explained to me that Christianity, which in our case meant Catholicism, was very much like Judaism. We worshiped the same God. We prayed the same psalms. We followed the Ten Commandments. We Jews had a few more commandments, but Christians had extra books in their Bible. We had some differences. And a Jewish man named Jesus was very important.

When all of my friends were preparing for first communion, I didn't understand the ritual involved, but I became obsessed with the dress. My mother bought a bride dress for my Barbie doll, and I used to practice giving communion to Barbie. My friends taught me how to do it with Necco wafers.

In that same year a little girl said to me on the school bus, "You killed our Lord." That was the only anti-Jewish thing I ever heard growing up, by the way. My family and I were welcomed in the neighborhood with no problem.

I remember saying to this little gift, "No, I did not." She said, "Yes, you did. Our priest said so." When I got off the school bus, it took my mother a while to figure out why I was crying hysterically. So I explained that I had killed God, and she explained to me that God was doing just fine, which was quite a relief.

What did your mother do?

She made a few calls to the local diocesan office, and the priest was actually reprimanded. This was during the Second Vatican Council, but Nostra Aetate had not yet been published. That document marked a sea change in terms of the Catholic attitude toward other faiths.

After that, I announced to my parents--I did not ask--that I was going to catechism. I was going to find out where this problem came from, and I was going to stop it. And again my parents, who were remarkably open-minded, said, "As long as you remember who you are, go. You might learn something."

I found out later that my cousin Eleanor played poker on Tuesday nights with one of the priests, and that's how my enrollment in catechism class got worked out. At least that's what I heard.

Anyway, whenever I could, I went to catechism with my friends. The stories are what grabbed me, because they were my stories, and not just the "Old Testament" stories, using that term in the Christian sense, but the New Testament stories as well. …