NOBTS Forum calls for understanding Jesus as a first century Jew

By Marilyn Stewart

NEW ORLEANS -- Evangelical scholar Ben Witherington III and Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine found many points of agreement regarding the “historical” Jesus during a recent dialogue at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  But on the issue of Jesus as Messiah, their views diverged.

Witherington, noted New Testament scholar and Asbury Theological Seminary professor, and Amy-Jill Levine, Vanderbilt Divinity School New Testament professor and a member of an Orthodox synagogue, spoke at the NOBTS Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum March 25 on the topic of “Christians, Jews and Jesus.”

Witherington is a frequent guest on radio and national television network programming regarding Jesus and the Gospels. His books, “The Jesus Quest” and “The Paul Quest,” were selected by Christianity Today as top biblical studies. Levine is general editor for The Jewish Annotated New Testament, a work that addresses the Jewish background and culture of New Testament times. Both are elected members of the prestigious SNTS (Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas).

The Greer-Heard Forum, made possible through the generosity of Mr. Bill and Carolyn (Greer) Heard, provides a venue in which respected scholars of differing opinions dialogue on critical issues in religion, science, philosophy and or culture.

“We have this event to teach our students how to think carefully and how to engage in conversations with those who disagree with them,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said. 

“In a world with such polarized diversity, the willingness and ability to talk with, and not simply about, those who disagree with you is a necessary skill if we are to introduce Jesus beyond the circle of those already transformed by His Gospel. We are NOBTS. We do conversations.” 

The speakers modeled respectful dialogue and even respectful disagreement during the two-hour forum. The two found many points of agreement as they discussed Jesus as a first-century Jew. Witherington stressed why seeing Jesus within his context is important.

“The culture we live in has grown progressively more biblically illiterate,” Witherington told the audience of about 500. “And in that kind of culture anything can pass for knowledge about who Jesus was…We need scholarship about the historical Jesus precisely because of where we are in our cultural history.”

Both speakers emphasized the value of friendship and knowing each other better.

“We need these dialogues because misunderstanding goes both ways,” Levine said. “In the same way that Christians are ignorant about early Judaism or contemporary Judaism or the 2,000 years in between, there are a number of Jews who are ignorant about Christianity… We need to be more generous with each other…”

Understanding Jesus and each other

Witherington, a North Carolina native, told the crowd that the images of Jesus he saw growing up were often more of a “blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale as a Scandinavian Jesus” than a biblically accurate image. Seeing Jesus accurately can help prevent injustices such as anti-Semitism, Witherington explained.

Levine agreed.

“A Jesus completely yanked out of his historical Jewish context, who doesn’t care about the people of Israel, who doesn’t care about Torah, who doesn’t care about the Temple, who has no connection to the Scriptures of Israel strikes me as perhaps a modern Jesus, but not an historical one,” Levine said.

Knowing Jesus as a Jew requires knowing the Judaism of Jesus’ day, Levine pointed out, but cautioned that the historical method used by historians still leaves unanswered questions. As example, Levine pointed to the tool of “criteria of dissimilarity,” whereby words and actions of Jesus are considered genuine when they are “dissimilar” to first-century Judaism and the early church.

“But all that does is make Jesus sound completely bizarre,” Levine explained. “It suggests discontinuity between what he said and what his followers proclaimed. I don’t find that particularly helpful.”

Witherington agreed. He acknowledged that the historical method cannot establish everything Jesus said or did. He pointed to the differences between the four Gospels saying that each is a “theologically interpretive portrait.”

“The Gospels are not snapshots,” Witherington said. “They are deliberately interpretive, beautiful portraits. They are not just facts. They are facts plus interpretation, just like a portrait.”

Witherington used as analogy the Rouen Cathedral paintings by French impressionist Claude Monet. In each, the scene is the same but the angles of sunlight are different due to the fact that the paintings were painted at different times of the day and year.

“Jesus is such a complex historical figure that I’m very thankful we don’t have just one portrait,” Witherington said. “It took at least four to make clear how very important he was to the earliest followers of Jesus.”

Jesus as Messiah

While Levine and Witherington agreed on many points regarding the historical Jesus, they parted ways on whether Jesus was the Messiah.

“This is where Jews and Christians disagree,” Levine said. “The dominant Jewish view is that when Messiah comes, the Messiah comes with the Messianic Age. It’s a package deal. If you don’t have a Messianic Age, then by definition, you do not have a Messiah. I take a lot of what Jesus says personally because he makes sense to me, but I don’t see that Messianic rule yet.”

Witherington answered, “And I would say, the kingdom is already and ‘not yet.’”

Levine said resurrection is something some Jews and Christians can agree on, explaining that Orthodox and conservative Jews today believe in a resurrection for everyone.

Witherington agreed, explaining this was why early believers didn’t fully understand Jesus’ resurrection, at first.

“It’s understandable that there wasn’t instant understanding,” Witherington said. “That’s why Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 has to explain, [Jesus] is the ‘first fruit.’”