The Jewish Context of Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine

The time of Jesus—a period variously called late Second Temple Judaism, early Judaism, and even middle Judaism—had no single leader or authorized group to tell Jews how to follow Torah or what to believe. Even if someone had claimed this authority, most likely people would still have disagreed over the person’s scriptural interpretation, theological proclamation, ethical teaching, or claims of legitimation.

Jews disagreed on the Messianic job description (would the Messiah be a priest, Davidic king, angel, human being, shepherd, or some other kind of being?), on life after death (resurrection, immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and so forth), and on their relation to Rome (some wanted revolt, others accommodation or acceptance). They disagreed on what counted as Scripture: some accepted only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, collectively called the Pentateuch; others regarded as sacred the prophetic literature and the other writings in the Bible; and still others included what we today would consider Pseudepigrapha such as Jubilees and 1 Enoch. Some Diaspora Jews read their Scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint); in the homeland and points east where Aramaic was the vernacular language, Hebrew texts were sometimes glossed with Aramaic paraphrases (Targumim).

Yet despite such diversity, most Jews shared certain central beliefs and practices: they loved their God (Deut 6:5), followed the Torah, were the people Israel in covenantal relationship with their God, and shared a connection to their homeland and temple. Torah—Hebrew for “instruction” and often used to designate the Pentateuchdetailed their origins and practices. They knew they descended from Abraham, escaped Egyptian slavery, and received at Mount Sinai commandments (Hebrew: mitzvot) for living in covenant with their God, including such matters as male circumcision, diet, Sabbath observance, tort law, and the sacrificial system. Archaeology of first-century lower Galilee yields few pig bones, but numerous miqvaot (ritual baths), aniconic decoration, and stone vessels (which, unlike ceramics, do not convey impurity and so are more convenient for the preparation of kosher food).

All this indicates an environment that celebrated Jewish identity. We might think of Torah observance as an ancient form of “multiculturalism” in that it promotes the distinctive aspects of Jewish identity. By following certain practices based on Torah, Jews necessarily indicate that they have refused to assimilate into the broader Roman Empire and lose their distinct identity.

Because many Torah commandments lack detail—for example, how does one “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”? (Exod 20:8)—Jews developed various forms of interpretation. Jewish groups such as Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes disagreed on how to live according to Torah, just as today Christians disagree on how to understand and celebrate baptism and the Eucharist. Jews generally held that the Jerusalem temple was important, but some imagined a new temple that would replace what they considered a corrupt institution with illegitimate leadership.

The Greek term Ioudaios, usually translated “Jew,” can also be translated “Judean,” that is, someone whose homeland is Judea, just as an Egyptian would be from Egypt or an Ethiopian from Ethiopia: this translation demonstrates the connections of the community to their homeland, a connection recognized by Gentiles as well. Jews knew they were not Gentiles, although Gentiles did worship together with Jews in synagogues and the Jerusalem temple, and some formally affiliated with the Jewish community.

This Jewish diversity is easily demonstrated by a short list of Jews: Paul the Pharisee from Tarsus who once persecuted Jesus’ Jewish followers; Philo the philosopher from Alexandria in Egypt who read Scripture through Greek philosophical lenses; Josephus, the Judean priest and army general who wrote Jewish history under the patronage of the Roman emperor Vespasian; Herodias, wife of Herod Antipas and sister of King Agrippa I, who followed her husband into exile; and Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed Messiah and worshiped by fellow Jews and, eventually, Gentiles.

Amy-Jill Levine, "Jewish Context of Jesus", n.p. [cited 1 Dec 2022]. Online:


Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine
Professor, Vanderbilt Divinity School

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she also Affiliated Professor, Woolf Institute, Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK and in spring, 2019, teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

Opposed to pictorial representations or depictions.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

The historical era of Judaism spanning the periods of Persian and Roman rule, from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

An ascetic sect of early Judaism whose adherents probably included the inhabitants of Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Contaminated as a result of certain physical or moral situations, and therefore prohibited from contact with holy things. (See also: "purity" (HCBD).)

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

An ancient Jewish book that retells the stories of Genesis with added references to angels, fallen angels, and prophecy. It was highly regarded by early Christians and the Jews from Qumran, and is still considered canonical to Ethiopian Jews and Christians.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

Permitted within the Jewish system of dietary rules.

Support (especially monetary) that is bestowed from one person or organization to another, or a system of such support. Patronage typically flows from the more powerful to the less powerful in society.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Works that claim to be written by authors that scholars have determined did not write them.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible; at first done orally and simultaneously with oral readings of the Bible in Hebrew, the Targums were written down over the course of the first few centuries C.E. There are a number of Targums, some of which are more literal translations of the Hebrew Bible and some of which include significant expansions and digressions not found in the biblical text.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Deut 6:5

5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Exod 20:8

8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.

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