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Understanding Jesus starts with comprehending the context of the first century world in which he lived, a biblical scholar said Friday in Billings.

Amy-Jill Levine engaged an audience for two hours at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, drawing on her extensive knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, and her humor. She welcomed questions and spoke often with individual audience members.

Her talk, titled “Understanding Jesus Means Understanding Judaism,” was the first of four she is giving this weekend at the West End church.

Levine is a professor of the New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. She told the crowd of more than 50 people she wanted to clear up some common mistakes regarding Judaism in the time of Jesus, often referencing specific Bible texts. 

Christianity, Judaism and Islam are historically based religions, she said, standing in the middle of the sanctuary.

“We talk about people in a particular time and a particular setting,” Levine said. “Jesus in the first century in Galilee and Judea or Moses in Egypt and then the wilderness. Or King David in the beginnings of what becomes Jerusalem.”

Without knowledge of the culture and traditions, she said, “we’re going to get the person within that context wrong.”

Levine talked about how inaccuracies are perpetrated, saying the majority of divinity schools and denominational seminaries do not train clergy how to avoid anti-Jewish teaching.

“Every problem I mention I learned in graduate school, and I believed it,” she said. “If I was listening to misinformation and didn’t realize it was wrong, how could somebody who didn’t study know?”

The globalization of Christianity also has caused other cultures to view the faith through their own lenses, Levine said. And they may not even realize that their beliefs are offensive.

She gave an example out of her own life of that, saying when she was a kid, her mom might say something to her Levine and her siblings like, “stop acting like wild Indians.”

“My mom was not a bigot,” Levine said. “But she became more aware of how offensive that was. If nobody tells you, you keep going with it.”

She began to list misperceptions about the typical Christian view of Judaism in the first century. Levine talked about what she called the "problem of law," where the law is viewed as bad and Jesus as good.

Jesus often argued with other Jews about the law, Levine agreed, but that kind of arguing is part of the fabric of Jewish life. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God,” and one way to wrestle with God is to wrestle with the words in the text.

“Another case is people think Jews are following the law to earn God’s love or place in heaven,” she said.

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In truth, Jews got the law under divine grace, and they respond to grace by following the law. Levine equated that to married people who follow simple rules such as not going to bed angry, or putting the toilet seat down.

“You’re not doing it to earn love,” Levine said. “That’s what you do because you love somebody.”

In the time of Jesus, following the law enabled Jews to keep their identity in the broader Roman Empire. Rome thought everyone under its purview should worship the Roman gods and follow other Roman customs.

The Jews, by following their own laws, remained distinct, Levine said.

Turning to the topic of women, she said the view often was that the first century represented the epitome of misogyny, where women were completely downtrodden.

“Jesus comes along and invents feminism,” Levine said.

That way of thinking evolved especially in the 1970s, when women in critical mass began to earn Ph.D.s in the New Testament. They were not only interested in the New Testament as history, she said, but in the role of women in the church.

“If Jesus was proactive for women, they could go to seminaries and say ‘you ought to be ordaining us, putting us in leadership,’” Levine said.

What is known, she said, is in the time of Jesus, women owned their own homes. Women of means supported the ministry of Jesus or other apostles. They had the freedom of travel, following Jesus on his travels.

On the other hand, Jesus didn’t appoint women to leadership positions. No women were at the Transfiguration or part of the Last Supper or at Gethsemane.

“Is Jesus progressive on women?” she asked. “No more and no less than any other Jewish rabbi.”

Levine addressed a number of other misconceptions. She closed with one about the temple, where it's often taught that Jesus cleansed the Jewish temple because of his fury at the greedy merchants.

Instead, she gave a different perspective, that Jesus was upset by people who spent their work week sinning and then came into the temple, offered a sacrifice and thought everything was OK.

"A modern analogy is if you're an inside trader or loan shark during the week and then on Sunday you come to church and put $50 in the plate and think everything is keen between you and God," she said.

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