Amy-Jill Levine tells us why Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament, can be seen to be sensible and acceptable to people of all religions, even Orthodox Jews, even Jewish women like her who attends an Orthodox synagogue and sits behind a segregated mechitza, separation, for women. She does so for teachings she considers authentic, when Jesus a Jew spoke to fellow Jews, not other sayings placed in the New Testament long after his death by people who spoke a different language, were not Jewish, had a different agenda, and never met Jesus.
She is the University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is highly respected by Jewish and Christian scholars and is the author of many scholarly easy to read eye-opening books. In her 2021 book “The Difficult Words of Jesus: A beginner’s guide to his most perplexing teachings,” she focuses on six of the many difficult to understand Jesus’s teachings with an insightful study of each. She also mentions some other difficult sayings “that have confused, confounded, and in some cases harmed, but without analyses,” although readers can easily use her analytical analysis techniques to understand them. She writes: “Since the name ‘Israel’ traditionally means ‘to wrestle with God,’ we do well with passages that confuse and disturb us. More, we do well to wrestle with passages that have and can continue to cause harm.”
She informs us what Jesus means when he answers a man who asked him in Mark 10:17, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus responds to the man who loved and questioned him in Mark 10:21, “You lack one thing; go and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me.” Jesus goes on to say in Mark 10:25. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The questioner is shocked! There is no indication in the New Testament that he accepted Jesus advice or became his disciple. Did Jesus mean for him to literally give up all his hard earned cash? If not, what did he mean? Was he trying to get the questioner to relinquish the Jewish tradition which did not require people to disperse all they owned? Didn’t he say elsewhere that he did not come to change even an iota, a simple dot, of Judaism? Why wasn’t he clear? How can we uncover Jesus’s intention?
In another statement Jesus seems to want to destroy family relations. He also seemed to deny the command in the Ten Commandments to honor father and mother. In Luke 14:26-27, he says, “ Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” How should we understand this? There are people who find religion in contemplation, others in study, still more in helping others, what is the meaning of the weighty task of carrying a cross? What does it accomplish? How does it help the carrier and society?
Other statements are also perplexing. Mark 10:44 has Jesus teach, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all.” A slave!? How does demeaning oneself help oneself and others?
Also Matthew 10:5b-6, “Go nowhere among Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Did Jesus forget the teaching of the Torah that he praised “Love the other as yourself.”? Why abandon Gentiles and Samaritans? Why insult fellow Jews by calling them “”lost sheep”?
And Matthew 25:30, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Why such a harsh treatment?
Similarly, the brutal statement in John 8:44a, “You are from your father the devil, and you chose to do your father’s desires.”
In regard to the insults in the last several examples, despite “the Gospels is substantially interested in making us better than we are,,,. Jesus issues numerous other insults.” For example: in Matthew 23, he calls the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites.” In Luke 13:32, he indicts Herod Antipas by calling him a “fox.” In John 8:44, he even calls Simon Peter “Satan.”