Vanderbilt University professor Amy-Jill Levine wants you to understand Jesus’ world

Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee
Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee The New York Times

Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament and Jewish studies professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is on a mission to show us Jesus as a first-century Jew. Followers will better understand Jesus’ teachings when they understand the world in which he lived, the roles of women, and the laws that governed that world.

Levine is making several appearances in Kansas City supporting her book, “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” while talking with educational groups, churches and synagogues. While traveling, she answered a few questions by email:

Q. How do you describe what you study and write about?

A. Jesus, the people who followed him, and the people who followed other paths, especially those paths within the Jewish tradition.

Q. What tools do you use to learn what Jesus’ life and times were like?

A. Historians use all the tools available to us: archaeological data, early Jewish, pagan, and Christian writings, cross-cultural studies …

Q.What aspects of Jesus’ life as a Jew are least understood by average Christians?

A. Unless we understand first-century Judaism — the role of the law, women’s lives, the relationship between Israel and Rome, the relationship between Jews and pagans, the function of the Temple, Jewish views of the afterlife, etc., we will misunderstand Jesus.

Q. What part of your work fascinates you most?

A. The Bible has been interpreted across the generations by different people, from different locations and at different times. Theologically, one could say that this is the Holy Spirit at work. Historically, we see how the text prompts new readings.

Today, for example, we have new biblical studies addressing sexuality, immigration, globalization, ecology and the prison system. New questions lead to new interpretations, and thus the Bible remains a living text.

Q. Is there historical or archaeological evidence, outside the Bible, that Jesus lived?

A. We have no archaeological evidence that Jesus existed. The texts we have are either written by his followers or influenced by their reports. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are numerous good reasons to see Jesus as an historical figure.

The more difficult question is determining how much of the information we have from early Christian writers goes back to Jesus, and how much of it represents the memories, extrapolations or even mystical experiences of his followers.

Q. Is it possible that Jesus was married?

A. Many things are possible, but not all are likely. The best evidence suggests that Jesus was unmarried. Celibacy had a place in first-century Jewish life, but the more the followers of Jesus promoted virginity, celibacy and continence, the more the Jewish tradition promoted marriage and families.


Amy-Jill Levine’s appearances in Kansas City include:

▪ 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library, 14 W. 10th St.: “Jesus’ Parables in their Jewish Context.”

▪ 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, dinner and program sponsored by the American Public Square at the University of Missouri-Kansas City: People on a panel representing different faiths will respond to Levine’s remarks.

▪ 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, Shabbat service at Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City: Levine will speak about her work as a Jewish scholar who teaches New Testament. The synagogue meets at Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church, 9300 Nall Ave., Overland Park.

▪ Noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24, Second Presbyterian Church, 318 E. 55th St.: Levine will address Christian clergy and educators on “Understanding Jesus Means Understanding Judaism.” To reserve a luncheon space, call 816-363-1300.

▪ On Oct. 25, Levine will meet with groups from the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.