The Bible With and Without Jesus
How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently


Amy-Jill Levine
Marc Zvi Brettler

These pages: The Bible With and Without Jesus
Preface – Chapter 5
Chapters 6–13 (here)


the Bible

index pages:

The Bible With and Without Jesus
How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently

Copyright © 2020 by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler



“An Eye for an Eye” and “Turn the Other Cheek”
Antithesis or Extensions?

Turning the other cheek is, first, to be located in the context of his teachings on murder, adultery, divorce, oath-taking, and love of neighbor. Second, unless we recognize how the antecedent laws in Israel’s Torah functioned in their own time and in subsequent generations, we will necessarily misunderstand what Jesus is saying.

The teachings on turning the cheek, giving the shirt, and going the extra mile appear within a collection of sayings that begin with some variant of the formula, “you have heard it said. . . . But I say to you.” These are typically called “antitheses”—or oppositions. The label creates an immediate problem, for it suggests Jesus is opposing, or saying the opposite of, what the Torah teaches. That is clearly not the case. [...] Jesus is not presenting antitheses, in the sense of rejecting Old Testament law in favor of New Testament grace and mercy. Such interpretations do violence to the Torah, to the Jewish tradition, and to Jesus’s own message.

In providing instruction on how to interpret not only “an eye for an eye” but also such commandments as “you shall not murder,” “you shall not commit adultery,” and “you shall not swear falsely,” Jesus is doing two things that Jews have always done: (1) interpreting the text—for the biblical text, as we discussed in Chapter 1, always needs interpretation; and (2) seeking to understand how the Torah functions in their own lives and the lives of their community.

All cultures have various norms—legal, cultural, familial, religious—that suggest or mandate responses. Yet these norms also require interpretation—they rarely are broad or clear enough to cover every circumstance. Nor do such norms remain static; they necessarily change when circumstances change. Jesus, like other Jews of his day as well as before and since, interprets the Torah. [...] Instead of jettisoning the Torah, he seeks to determine how best it might be understood and practiced.
The Hebrew Bible’s Context

First, the Torah is not a law code in the sense of a comprehensive set of laws intended for use by the court, and in a number of cases, such as the Decalogue, it is unclear how or by whom they were enforced. Second, it contains several collections of laws that reflect different periods, authors, and audiences. Biblical scholars call the earliest collection, Exodus 20:22–23:33, the Covenant Collection (see Exod 24:7), the “book of the covenant”). It was compiled in Judah during the preexilic period and it was influenced by the eighteenth-century BCE laws of Hammurabi, king of Babylon. Also during the preexilic period, the authors of the Deuteronomic Law Collection (Deut 12–26) modified and supplemented the Covenant Collection. The Torah’s latest law collection is Leviticus 17–26, the Holiness Collection, so named after its injunction “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). Although it has roots in the preexilic period and is related to the Priestly (P) source, its current form is postexilic. Other laws, such as the law of circumcision on the eighth day (Gen 17), are interspersed in the Torah’s narratives.

Because the Torah contains these collections and other laws, it is best to speak of biblical laws rather than “the law.” It is also helpful to see how they often either contradict each other or contain significant differences.

The Struggle Between Justice and Mercy Jesus is no more rejecting the Torah than are the rabbis, who insist that “an eye for an eye” is a legal principle, not a juridical mandate. In the case of “an eye for an eye,” he changes the subject from bodily harm to humiliation. Therefore, we cannot determine how he would rule regarding actual injury. The irony is that, despite the frequent Christian claim that Jews take texts literally whereas Christians understand their spiritual value, here it is Christians who are reading the Torah literally and imposing that literal reading on Judaism.
Justice without mercy, reflected in “an eye for an eye” taken literally, is intolerable. Yet mercy without justice—a permanent physical injury that receives no compensation at all, or receives unequal compensation based on the economic status of the perpetrator—to us is equally intolerable. When we put Jesus into his Jewish tradition, we see that both concerns, justice and mercy, remain. Great care must be taken in using the Bible as a precedent for judicial issues—especially when the biblical materials are not as clear as we may think.




“Drink My Blood”: Sacrifice and Atonement
The Blood of the Covenant

Blood remains a powerful image in both biblical testaments. In Christian thought, the Christ’s blood atones for sin, and the wine of the Eucharist is, whether literally or metaphorically, his blood. For Jews, male circumcision—and the blood of circumcision—remains a ritual central to Jewish identity.

It is not unusual for Jews to be told by some Christians that they are damned to hell because they do not accept the atoning blood of Jesus to save them from their sins or ransom them from hell. Such comments reflect a lack of knowledge of Jewish views of atonement, including the rabbinic emphasis of repenting and turning (shuv-ing) from sin and toward God. At the same time, Jews would do well to understand the Jewish background of Christian claims regarding the blood of Jesus. The development of Jewish and Christian rituals, especially absent the animal sacrifice conducted in the Temple, shows how deeply interwoven the two traditions are.


“A Virgin Will Conceive and Bear a Child”
From Prediction to Polemic

The history of interpretation of this chapter should also teach us some humility. At one time or another we might claim certainty about what a text means. The different interpretations of Isaiah 7:14 by different religious groups over time should warn us against any narrow or restricted meaning.

Finally, the fact that such a central notion in Christianity as the virginal conception is mentioned explicitly only once in the New Testament offers a central lesson as to how all scriptural religions develop over time: Sometimes a notion barely attested in scripture becomes significant at a later period, and sometimes an idea that a scripture emphasizes time and time again becomes less important, or even falls by the wayside. Thus the history of interpretation of the sign of Immanuel teaches us much about how all religions have, and can, change over time.


Isaiah’s Suffering Servant
The Servant’s History in Later Jewish and Christian Traditions

Isaiah 52:13–53:12 has yielded numerous readings, some prompted by Hebrew and Greek nuances, some polemical, and others pastoral. This diversity of interpretations warns us against reading the text in only one way or at the expense of someone else. Perhaps Jews, who have denied that Jesus is Isaiah’s servant, can come to appreciate how Christians, reading typologically, adopted this interpretation. Perhaps Christians might come to appreciate that Jews have their own understandings and therefore might not read this passage only as the suffering of the servant, but as his exaltation, offering hope for those who suffer everywhere.

This passage forces Jews to wrestle with notions of vicarious atonement, especially when used to explain or justify horrific events that are void of meaning. It is inappropriate to suggest, for example, that the Shoah (Holocaust) was ultimately a good thing since it contributed to the existence of the modern State of Israel. The end does not justify the means.

Conversely, we must appreciate that some who live under oppressive circumstances believe the assurance that God understands their suffering, and therefore that their suffering has some value, some meaning.


The Sign of Jonah
Jesus and the Sign of Jonah

Like the fables of Aesop and many of the parables of Jesus, the story of Jonah gives us a lesson that we do not want to hear, but need to hear. The book of Jonah is a moral tale: provocative, entertaining, and open to several interpretations, most of which interrogate our sense of justice. remind us of the importance of repentance, proclaim the graciousness of God, affirm the potential morality of sinners, and promote the value of empathy. It comes to mean, especially in Christian contexts, an assurance of resurrection and final judgment and a foreshadowing of the mission to the gentiles. Given today’s world where stereotyping, nationalism, threats of violent destruction, and a decided lack of humor mark our culture, [it is] especially important to read Jonah and find what meanings it still has.

To leave Jonah to children is a loss; to read Jonah only as would a child is a greater loss. The genre, whether fiction or fact, should matter little for Jews or Christians. Fiction, in short stories, in parables, or in midrashim, is often a better teacher than nonfiction.

The Story of Jonah in Its Earliest Historical Context

Jonah’s first readers, likely living in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile and the repatriation of many Judeans back to their homeland in the sixth century BCE, would find in these forty-eight verses messages about divine compassion, the nature of prophecy, God’s universality, the importance of repentance, and the need to recognize their own calling. The book, like the comparable four-chapter book of Ruth, responds to some of the more nationalistic voices that sought to preserve the repatriated community’s identity by keeping a distance from outsiders. We note this concern for universalism since we have heard from our Christian students that Judaism (by which they mean the “Old Testament”) is xenophobic and that Jesus, in turn, invents universalism. To the contrary, for the Tanakh, the God of Israel is the God of the world, and people are judged not according to ethnicity but by ethics. Jonah is in the same universalistic tradition as the first chapter of Genesis, which proclaims that all people are created in the divine image.

Some quotes from the Book
The Hebrew root for “overthrown” (3:4), h-p-ch, literally means to “turn” or to “reverse,” and thus Jonah ironically predicts the fulfillment of his prophecy when the Ninevites “turn” from evil to good.

Jonah does not want a merciful God who offers second chances; he wants a God who will destroy Nineveh for its current great wickedness and so confirm the prophecy. The book thus prompts us to ask what sort of God we want: the one who forgives or the one who destroys? It asks what we want our enemy’s fate to be: to be erased from the earth, or allowed to work toward reconciliation? As we saw with our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and the question of what to do in cases of physical injury, mercy without justice is intolerable, but so, the book of Jonah insists, is justice without mercy.

God spares the Ninevites, but in the next generation, those same Ninevites would not spare Israel. Here we have another brilliant irony. Although fictional, the book of Jonah draws upon the historical figure Jonah ben Amittai. According to 2 Kings 14:25, this Jonah was a nationalistic prophet who lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II (d. ca. 742 BCE); he was active at the same time as the prophets Amos and Hosea. The same verse in 2 Kings that identifies Jonah indicates that, at Jonah’s message, Jeroboam had “restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah,” that is, Jeroboam extended the borders to where they were according to 1 Kings 8:65 at the idealized time of King Solomon. [...] Jonah is thus the perfect protagonist for our story; the prophet who promoted Israel’s expansion becomes the one to promote, instead, Nineveh’s repentance.

Even more ironic, had the Ninevites not repented, God would have destroyed their city. Had God destroyed their city, they would not, in the next generation, have destroyed Israel. The repentant one day may be the sinful the next; we all have the potential both to repent and to ravage.

Jonah in Jewish Eyes

Jonah’s use in the New Testament has made it important for the Christian community, as has its use during Yom Kippur for the Jewish community. It is among the best-known biblical stories, though as we have noted, only small parts of the book, focused on the “whale,” are typically remembered. The sign of Jonah has been interpreted as a call to repentance, an assertion of divine mercy, a prediction of both Jesus’s resurrection and the general resurrection of the dead, an anti-nationalist manifesto, and an anti-Jewish screed. Perhaps it functions best as we suspect Jesus used it: as an open sign for each listener to fill in. We must not only learn what the book might have meant to its original audience but also appreciate how it has been interpreted over time, for different times call for different emphases.

But the sign of Jonah should not be open to free play. The rest of the biblical text helps us to control against incorrect interpretations. The worst way of reading the book is to see Jonah as a role model, since the biblical text suggests that Jonah is, rather, a negative example: he is the one who wants destruction rather than redemption; he wants justice without mercy; he is concerned about himself, not about others. He's also whiny. [...]

Jonah is also a warning. In attempting to flee from his calling, he shirks his responsibilities not only to others but to himself.


“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”
Psalm 22 in Jewish Sources

Today, Psalm 22 is heard in Christian churches on Good Friday. It is still heard in some synagogues in connection with the holiday of Purim. The psalm speaks to horror and danger, but it speaks to more than that. It allows us to express the feeling that many of us have had—that God has abandoned us. At the same time, it ironically insists that we have not abandoned that relationship. A lament psalm is a poem of raw honesty and fidelity. It is appropriate on the lips of Jesus the Jew, and anyone who feels abandoned by God.


Son of Man
The Postbiblical Future of the Son of Man

If readers had a better sense of the historical setting of the book of Daniel and of the role of apocalyptic imagery and literature in providing comfort and hope to people who find themselves powerless in the face of an oppressive system, the apocalyptic eschatological Son of Man may continue to speak today. The Son of Man, from Daniel and 1 Enoch through the Gospel tradition, speaks to the righteousness of God who has the power to enact justice. This reading precludes rather than promotes violence on the part of his followers.

Daniel dreams a dream of “one like a son of man” who is to be given “dominion and glory”; “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” for “his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.” Daniel’s vision is an eschatological one. No matter whether we read Daniel’s imagery as referring to an angel, the people Israel, the ancient worthy Enoch, or Jesus of Nazareth, the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled.


Conclusion: From Polemic to Possibility
The New Covenant: “ ‘At That Time,’ Says the Lord . . .”

For the early church, Jeremiah’s statements were read as prophetic for the far future and as fulfilled by Jesus, as we have seen with Matthew’s nativity story.

Similarly, Jeremiah’s “new covenant” is seen as enacted by Jesus’s suffering and death and connected to the gift of setting humanity free from Satan and sin.

Indeed, both Judaism and Christianity are unfinished projects awaiting the messiah, though they differ in beliefs about this messiah’s identity and job description. For the church, the fulfillment of any new covenant requires Jesus’s second coming, sometimes called the “parousia,” the Greek term for “appearance” that signals the entry of the conquering hero into his newly gained city. Traditional Judaism still anticipates not only the coming of the messiah and the ingathering of the exiles but also the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. [...] Both Judaism and Christianity claim the promises of Jeremiah, and the rest of the scriptures of Israel accompanying those promises. Both await fulfillment—each in its own way.

In the Interim

In the past, Jews and Christians fought over the legacy of Israel’s scriptures: each claimed not only to be the true Israel, possessing the true interpretation, but also that the other’s interpretation was wrong. Yet even in polemical contexts, such as Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, glimmers of a more irenic approach can be seen [...] Recently, however, Jewish-Christian dialogue has opened multiple possibilities that do not require a zero-sum conclusion. Leading the way in this conversation is the Roman Catholic Church. Since the 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) emphasized that all Jews of all times should not be held responsible for the death of Jesus, the merging of ethics with exegesis has become paramount.

In the twenty-first century, we are finally at the point where Jews and Christians can read their shared texts differently and learn from each other. We all can, and must, even read those texts unique to the other’s tradition. Jews do well to read the New Testament and then to share these readings with Christians, and Christians do well to look at nonbiblical Jewish sources and then share them with Jews. We are finally at the point where we can interpret the Bible, whatever its content, not as a zero-sum problem but as an opportunity to correct certain older readings based in polemic, creating newer ones based on the possibility of mutual respect if not in complete agreement.

What We Learn

A few mechanisms can serve to help interpreters from going off the hermeneutical deep end and into the depths of solipsism.

The first is at least an understanding of how the text may have been interpreted in its original context and how it has been understood over time. To begin by asking, “What does this text mean to me?” is a fine start, but it should not be enough. We can learn from engaging with what others, both from within and outside our particular traditions, have seen.

The second is to look at original languages, such as Hebrew and Greek. For those who lack such skills—that is, for most people—all is not lost. Several websites give various versions so that we can see how, and often why, those who do have the language skills arrive at their own translations. Many commentaries discuss the nuances of Hebrew and Greek in any given passage.

The third is to raise the question of ethics, since all interpretations have the potential to affect behaviors. We have seen how both Jews and Christians have ways of summarizing their traditions, or of finding touchstones in the text that guide other interpretations. [...]

Connected with the ethical duty of interpretation is the concern for multiple voices. Jews from Iran or Ethiopia may see things in the Tanakh that Jews from Ukraine or Spain may not; Christians of color may offer different emphases than Christians with European origins. Men and women may note different aspects in a text. At the same time, we return to history, for if we are to support multicultural readings, or readings from a person’s particular subject position, we should also respect the fact that the author and the text have their own cultural embeddedness. To ingore that historical connection threatens to colonize the text; it is to impose one culturally determined interpretation upon the original, culturally embedded text.

The Bible was not meant to be a source of hidden predictions, with God as the trickster who tells us what is going to happen only after the fact. The Bible is torah, “instruction.” Yet we must constantly reassess how we teach and live this instruction, for what is appropriate in one period or for one person may not be in another setting or for a different audience.

text checked (see note) June 2021

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Background graphic copyright © 2021 by Hal Keen