Rediscovering Jesus with Amy-Jill Levine

THERE’S not a better Christmas gift for the Bible reader on your shopping list than Amy-Jill Levine’s new Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.

From childhood, Christians grow up hearing the parables (the stories told by Jesus) so frequently that mentioning “the Good Samaritan” or “the Prodigal Son” is more likely to prompt a yawn than an inspiring reflection. But today, we promise you this: If you read this new book about Jesus’s parables, you will close the back cover with far more questions than you dreamed possible.

And that’s a very good thing. This highly esteemed Bible scholar, who is a veteran in opening up the minds of college students, clearly loves these short stories by Jesus and wants readers to treasure the mufti-faceted reflections that Jesus intended to provoke in his listeners.

Oh, one more thing: This book isn’t a bad Hanukkah gift, either. Amy-Jill Levine is Jewish and one theme running through this new book is the need to weed out mistaken, anti-Jewish interpretations that have crept in around Jesus’s stories down through the millennia. Jesus didn’t intend those dangerous mistakes to grow like weeds around his stories. After all, Jesus was Jewish himself.

The author isn’t arguing that Christian clergy harbor anti-semitism. The biggest problem, she argues, is that seminaries rushing to cover long lists of educational goals for their students have neglected to zero in on accurately teaching about 1st-century Jewish perspectives as the New Testament was being written. This leaves many preachers “unintentionally repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes,” she writes. “If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of ‘Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism—whatever it was—must have been bad,’ then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed her about this new book. Here are …


DAVID: Most of the New Testament Bible scholars we’ve featured in our online magazine have a Christian affiliation—not all but the majority of them. You bring an eye-opening perspective to your books because you are Jewish. Tell us just a bit about your perspective on Jesus and his stories.

AMY-JILL: I really like Jesus; I just don’t worship him as Lord and Savior.

As I say in the book, “I continue to return to these stories, because they are at the heart of my own Judaism. They challenge, they provoke, they convict, and at the same time they amuse. At each reading, when I think I’ve got all the details explained, something remains left over, and I have to start again. The parables … are pearls of Jewish wisdom. If we hear them in their original context, and if we avoid the anti-Jewish interpretation that frequently deforms them, they gleam with a shine that cannot be hidden.”

I find Jesus’s teaching compelling—his teaching is spot on. And, if I can see that from my perspective outside of Christianity—then how much more so can Christians appreciate these stories from within.

DAVID: Americans love the Bible. Every year, huge numbers of Americans tell pollsters that we own Bibles and read them regularly. On the other hand, when pollsters ask Americans to name the four gospels—the majority can’t name Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So, clearly, we have a deep and widespread interest in Jesus’s parables, but most Americans need some help in remembering the details.

Our good friend Steve Klaper from The Song and Spirit Institute for Peace is a traditional Jewish “Maggid,” or preacher-storyteller, and he frequently talks to Christian audiences about the Bible. Steve describes Jesus as a brilliant Jewish teacher with a knack for teaching the Jewish tradition to people who were largely illiterate, 2,000 years ago, and who had little time to study scripture. You’re drawing a similar conclusion here: Jesus was a very gifted teacher with a talent for preaching some powerful religious themes to his listeners—in stories they could easily understand.

AMY-JILL: Jesus is saying to his listeners: Here are some stories that tell you what you already know deep down but you don’t want to acknowledge. He’s not presenting that much in these stories that would be terribly new to his listeners. What he’s doing is—he’s digging into people’s moral conscience. He’s hoping to open up their hearts. He wants people to respond by saying, “Yeah! I’ve known that all along. Yes, this is the way I should be living my life!”


DAVID: Jesus is doing something really wise here. He’s not telling people that they should change their lives because of some external rule book. He’s reaching into the very hearts of his listeners for self-validation of these stories. We are moved by the stories because we know, at a gut level, that they’re true. And, in the process, he’s often leaving his listeners more deeply disturbed than if he’d just read a list of rules, right?

AMY-JILL: Parables are not generally designed to comfort. They’re designed to challenge. That’s how they function as a genre.


DAVID: And with such a provocative genre, it’s possible to draw the wrong conclusions if you’re preaching or teaching about these parables. One of the running themes in your book is helping Christian readers understand the accurate Jewish context of these stories. Let’s talk about a specific example: The Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32.

In your book, you devote 45 pages to exploring this very short story as well as two others that appear just before it in Luke—the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Toward the end of the chapter, you even raise the urgent question of whether Muslims and Jews, the children of Abraham’s two sons (Isaac and Ishmael) might someday reconcile—as Abraham’s two sons finally came together to bury their father Abraham. There are so many questions worth exploring in this chapter that anyone with a Sunday school class or a small discussion group could spend a long time discussing all the issues.

But let’s talk about one point you raise in this chapter: Jewish fathers were not heartless, as some preachers suggest about the father in this story.

AMY-JILL: There’s nothing remarkable in a father welcoming home a son. Jesus’s listeners would have known: Of course this kid will be welcomed back! And we know he’s going to be welcomed because we’ve just heard Jesus tell the story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. What’s surprising is that so many Christian biblical interpreters say that it’s surprising that the Dad rushes out to greet the kid. It’s not surprising at all.


DAVID: The larger context here is your argument that most Christian preachers have woefully little time to study the Jewish background of New Testament life, right?

AMY-JILL: I think the majority of anti-Jewish interpretations that we do find in contemporary preaching are not the result of anti-semitism. They come from ignorance.

DAVID: You’ve been in the forefront nationally in urging seminaries to devote more time to this subject.

AMY-JILL: That’s right. Ministerial candidates aren’t required to learn about avoiding anti-Jewish interpretations. So stereotyped images of scripture can find their way into sermons.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, some interpretations of this story can fall into the argument that sets up this figure of an “Old Testament, unforgiving God of wrath” against Jesus who comes to invent a new “God of love.” That’s a complete misunderstanding. We might hear a preacher telling us that we should be surprised when the Dad welcomes home the prodigal son. We might hear: “Oh, how surprising that would have been for a Jewish father to welcome home such a son.” But that’s nonsense! Fathers welcome home sons. And Jewish fathers at that time would have welcomed home sons.


DAVID: Within your own lifetime, Christian leaders worldwide have made a historic move toward improving relationships between Christians and Jews. In the wake of the Holocaust, the whole world could see the tragic result of preaching contempt. Next year, we all will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate, a major milestone in healing Christian-Jewish relations.

AMY-JILL: I was pretty young during Vatican II and I only realize the importance of it retrospectively. What shaped me more as a kid were civil rights issues. My family knew what it was like not to have rights. So we knew that we should make sure that no one else was denied civil rights. We understood how dangerous this was. I had a cousin by marriage who was a freedom rider and who was killed in Mississippi. I remember Passover seder meals when we talked about what it meant to be slaves today. My parents had very, very strong moral values and those were values that they inculcated in me. Then, my father died when I was quite young so I lived with my mother and her mother–so three generations of Jewish women in one household. There was a great concern in our home for those who needed care, those who we should care for.

I grew up with great concern about what happens when you’re a widow. Growing up, I knew there were forms of unfairness that could arise when you were Jewish in a Christian environment or widowed in a largely married environment. I was well aware that there must be fairness and justice.

DAVID: You’re talking about the clarion call in scripture, from Isaiah and elsewhere, to care for the poor, the widowed, the stranger. And these themes show up in Jesus’s stories as well. What makes these parables so timeless—as you demonstrate in each section of your book—is our ability to raise so many different kinds of questions from each of these very short stories.

AMY-JILL: We need to remember that these are stories, not prescriptions. So, we can enter these stories at various points. Because we can do so—we can be challenged in various ways.

Particularly in some of the longer parables like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan—we can enter as the person in the ditch, or the prodigal who is heading home, or the older brother who has done everything absolutely right and is feeling unacknowledged and uncounted. Or, we can enter as other characters in these stories. And, we can return to these stories and find ourselves entering through a different character with each new reading.

The Bible is not a one-size-fits-all answer book. The Bible provides us both comfort and instruction—and challenge as well.

DAVID: How do you hope this new book will affect readers?

AMY-JILL: I hope that, after reading my book, they’ll be able to read the New Testament in a way that gives them a different and a hopeful view of how they might understand the parables. And if they come away challenged and inspired and refreshed, that would be great.

Care to read more?

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. suzy farbman says

    Interesting story. Thanks for introducing us to this scholar who presents an important perspective and does such valuable interfaith work.