Sure, Jesus Was Son of God. But How Was His Fiction?

● Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
By Amy-Jill Levine
HarperOne, 320 pages, $25.99

When we were children, many of us (especially those of us in yeshivot) were taught to abominate the Christian Scriptures; they were precursors to 2,000 years of Jew hatred. At the very least, it was suggested by our teachers that we could learn nothing from the New Testamant about Jews and Judaism, and that the Christian Bible was the quintessential expression of avodah zara, or idolatry.

To Amy-Jill Levine, who enjoys regnancy among Jewish New Testament scholars, this view is nonsense. Levine, a professor at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, conceived of and co-edited “The Jewish Annotated New Testament.” An important volume whatever its flaws and holes, it is based on twin premises: First, Jews can learn much about Judaism — especially Judaism in Second Temple Judea — from the Christian Bible; and secondly and more important, illiteracy in Christian Scripture precludes ecumenical dialogue.

It would seem easy to dismiss Levine’s latest work, “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” as a slight book. Big mistake. That Jesus was the consummate storyteller is commonplace. But Levine cogently makes the case that the parables are not mere mayselech, tales and yarns, but that each parable had an “original provocation” or challenge for its original first-century listeners. Levine notes that the authors of the Gospels were among the first interpreters of the parables, and in the process “domesticated” them — a practice that, to the dismay of many, is continued by all too many preachers from the pulpit — diminishing the “original provocation” of the stories.

Levine chooses a dozen or so “short stories,” some of which are well-known parables — “The Good Samaritan” (Who is the “Samaritan” of “The Good Samaritan”?), “The Pearl of Great Price,” “The Rich Man and Lazarus” — and some not in common discourse. She begins each “story” with a literal translation of the tale — this reader discovered that he was able to hear the parable anew, outside the tried and true reading — and then locates the story in its historical and literary context, sweeping away interpretations that distort the original context. Levine is then able to offer the reader (listener, really) fresh readings of what the parable might have suggested to its earliest listeners.

Thus, a parable may not necessarily be about divine grace — a constant trope in the commentaries, often parroted from the pulpit — but about labor practices or economics in first-century Judea. (In many congregations it’s much safer to talk about divine grace than to suggest that society may be saved through corporate aid to the poor!) Or, the parable in its context may not be the story as commonly understood. For example, “The Rich Man and Lazarus” was traditionally understood by many generations of misinformed interpreters as confronting the Jewish view that the rich are righteous by virtue of the fact that they are rich, and the poor are necessarily sinners. Forgotten is the very Jewish view that God is particularly concerned about the poor, widows, orphans and strangers.

Levine’s exploration of first-century Judea is splendid; tax collectors, judges, merchants, widows and mustard trees provide the interstitial tissue for the historical context of the parables. But Levine goes well beyond context. She thoroughly — and wittily — rips the parables from the hands of the “domesticated” interpreters and re-reads them to us in the form that Jesus may very well have intended. In the process, we learn what Judaism could well have been about in Temple times.

All this said, Levine does make a few missteps, some minor, but together they suggest that the author might have taken greater care with the details concerning history and tradition. It’s not clear to me that the Sadducees were just another “group of Jews” — in effect, a sect — as Levine has it. The Sadducees, or Tz’dukim, who were part of the priestly class that controlled the Temple, the power-center in Judea, represented a parallel tradition to the Pharisaic rabbinic leadership. They were not just another sect, but also represented an entirely legitimate tradition in Judea. That the Sadducees were marginalized, indeed demonized, by the rabbinic leadership after the destruction of the Temple is just another example of history being written by the winners. Further, the resurrection of the dead, or t’chi’at ha-meitim, in Jewish tradition is not the same as Olam Ha-Ba — the talmudic “World to Come” — as Levine says it is.

And did Jesus refer to the five books of the Pentateuch by their modern Hebrew names — Bereshit, Sh’mot, Vayikra, Bamidbar and Devarim? Not a chance! These appellations, taken from the first words of each book, are universally used by Jews today, but they date only from the Geonic period, many hundreds of years after Jesus. The titles contemporary to Jesus (as recorded in the Talmud) and used by him were Sefer Y’tzira, M’chilta D’nafkuta, Torat Kohanim, Chumash P’kudim, and Mishne Torah — or, as the Church Fathers correctly had them in translation, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (or Arithmoi) and Deuteronomy. These questions take nothing away from Amy Levine’s book, which is marvelous, and a serious contribution to the Jewish New Testament literature.

But most important is the lesson of the lessons of the “short stories” of Jesus. In her peroration to the reader, Levine moves past the “domestication” of the parables, and still shows how the parables were — and are — intended to disturb. Ministers, priests, imams and rabbis: take note.

Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and history.

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Sure, Jesus Was Son of God. But How Was His Fiction?

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