What you call the Jesus Creed begins with the Shema-"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might"-and then Jesus adds a verse from Leviticus. What do you think was Jesus' impetus for adding that line?
Jesus had a bone to pick especially with the religious establishment-the priestly establishment [of his time]; this is not a criticism of Judaism in general--because it was fracturing society. He fought them, the Pharisees and the priests, pretty severely because of the impact that they were making on individual people's lives. I like my expression, although it's potentially dangerous--I will be accused, I'm sure, of anti-Semitism on this, but I love the expression that Jesus taught not love of Torah but the Torah of love.
To me, there is no more profound example of that than the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the priest and the Levite avoid what they think is the dead body. They did so because that's exactly what the Torah teaches. One of the great privileges of a priest was to avoid corpse impurity because of his status. Jesus says, no, you cannot neglect to love others in what you think is obedient to God.
The Shema comes from the Torah...
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the Shema. By the first century, we find evidence that it was standard practice for Jews to recite the Shema as a form of their prayer life and confessional life, the way many Christians recite the Apostles Creed or the Lord's Prayer.
Jesus amended that Creed by adding Leviticus 19:18. Leviticus 19:18 is not cited as a significant text in any Jewish evidence that I know of. It did not play a central role in ethics. I'm not saying that Jews didn't believe it was important to love their neighbor. I think they did. But they didn't give it creedal significance the way Jesus did.
It comes in a pretty important part of Leviticus, where a lot of the kosher laws are written. But do you have any idea whether a first-century Jew would even have known where these words came from?
They would have recognized it as a commandment in the Bible. But John calls this a new commandment, that we are to love one another. He makes it such a big deal that we know that we love God by loving one another. So, they understood Jesus as giving them a new commandment though they knew it was an old commandment. It gained centrality and understanding in how to live the life that God wanted.
What did this mean for the the priestly class?
Well, you're touching on a central nerve for me. I think Jesus got his criticism of the priestly class from his cousin, John the Baptist. John is the son of a priest. Yet John taught that purity was to be obtained in the River Jordan. That's a pretty radical act. Because normally purity was only available from the priests.
It's connected to the temple. Purity emanates from the inner temple out. John declared purity through confession of sin and baptism at the Jordan River. There is a challenge to the power structures of that culture.
All prophets work in their own neighborhood, and Jesus' ministry was for His people. I mean, here's a great statement-Matthew 10:5-6, He tells His disciples, "Don't go to the Gentiles, don't go to the Samaritans, go to the lost sheep of the House of Israel." Jesus' focus was on Israel, preparing Israel to become a light to the nations. It's an incredible statement. With the Gentile woman, Jesus said, "I was only sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel." "But Jesus," she said, "even the dogs pick up the crumbs at the table." And Jesus says, "Okay, here are some crumbs of miracle for you." But clearly Jesus's focus is on His people.
Doesn't that imply He didn't intend or didn't have a consciousness of what His larger legacy would be?
No, I wouldn't say that. I think He saw beyond that. I think He set the seeds for the Gentile mission at the table where He welcomed people to the table if they would simply come and sit with Him, listen, and partake in His vision for the kingdom of God. I mean, He was egalitarian. Anybody who wants to sit at the table is welcome. There weren't lots of Gentiles hanging around. There are several instances in which he meets Gentiles, and He ministers to them always, but His focus was on His people.
What's the relationship between that mission and being the divine Savior of the entire world?
I think the vision of the Bible is first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. Paul says the same thing. It's the eternal election of Israel that's so critical to Genesis 12 and 2 Samuel 7--this is my people, Israel, and so there's always a focus on Israel.
Christians have lost their Jewish connections and one of the exciting things to me I see in the church today is a renewed interest in the Old Testament and Jewish roots of Christianity. That's some of what I'm tapping there into.
Do you get the sense that Jesus was concerned with the survival of Judaism?
Well, clearly John and Jesus are preaching in an era when they believed that it's an emergency. There's an urgency, because if Israel doesn't respond and wake up, doom is going to come. It's going to feel like Babylon again, it's going to feel like Assyria. He tells them, you have a generation to respond. And Matthew 24 or Mark 13, however, whichever passage you want to deal with, is the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
There is some sense that the Torah is being somewhat corrected by what Christ is saying--or am I misunderstanding?
Well, this is a difficult issue. I mean, the big issue right now is the word "supercessionism." I don't think Jesus is just saying, I fulfill the law in the sense that "I teach its true meaning." I think He sees a transcendence here.
In fact, one of the beautiful things about your book is how it changes our understanding of the moral lesson of the Good Samaritan. In the context of the Torah, which commands them not to touch what they think is a dead body, it's a much less judgmental story.
Yeah, many people might have heard that parable and say, well, this is exactly the way a priest should behave. Jesus catches people in a situation we all find ourselves in when we think we're doing what's right before God, but we're being unloving toward someone else. I don't think the Good Samaritan is all that judgmental. It's probing of how we make decisions.
If Christianity has lost its Jewish roots, how can Christians acquaint themselves with Judaism better?
Number one, read the Old Testament. Second, imagine a world that was largely controlled by Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. I don't think that every Jew followed everything in the Leviticus codes, but pretty close. Imagine what it's like to live in that world.
And third, is--my goodness, this is almost embarrassing--look for Jewish traits in the Gospel. I was interviewed recently by a person who had read my book, who said, "I didn't realize how Jewish Jesus was." Now that's embarrassing to me. It's embarrassing because it means they've got a Jesus who's a total modern American. As Christians, we need to capture the power of our story, which is the continued story of the Old Testament. It is not a new story, it's a continued story. It's new too, but if it doesn't make sense if the first part is not understood.