Amid the continuing debate over who Jesus was, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight asks what Jesus did to revolutionize religious thought. Placing Jesus firmly in the Jewish tradition, McKnight identifies Jesus' key innovation as his modification of the Shema: to the ancient Jewish commandment to "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might," Jesus appended a relatively obscure dictate from Leviticus: "Love your neighbor as yourself." In a new book, McKnight argues that Christians must reexamine their commitment to love, and offers "the Jesus Creed" as an essential guide to spiritual formation. We spoke to him recently about Jesus the Jewish prophet and revolutionary Christian.

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.

This sounds pretty parochial. His mission seems to be pointed directly at what was going on temporally in Judaism at that time.
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.