Book Review: The Jew Named Jesus

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     I rarely read hot-off-the-presses books (you might say ‘cheap’, but I prefer good old-fashioned stewardship), so getting to read Rebekah Simon-Peter‘s new book The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message was a real treat.*  Equal parts memoir, salvation history, and a challenging call to the church today, Simon-Peter’s highly personal new book addresses some crucial questions in the life of the church.

Simon-Peter’s story is a fascinating one.  Raised a Jew, and spending time in both Orthodox and Reform circles, she experienced a dramatic encounter with Jesus that led her to search.  That quest eventually brought her not just to to the church, but to seminary and ordained ministry as a United Methodist Elder.  In this respect, she has much in common with Lauren Winner, who has also narrated her journey from Judaism to Christianity.  Most interesting here is Simon-Peter’s search for identity: her entrance into the church made her an outlier in many Jewish circles, while the Jewish identity and faith she wished to still claim caused her challenges in reading the New Testament and understanding her identity as a Jesus-follower (marrying a Catholic do doubt made things interesting as well).  On p. 21, she describes herself as a “Reform-Odox-Metho-Juda-Lic.” (!) Most fascinating are the tidbits about her work, as a Jewish-Christian clergywoman, with an African-American UM congregation.  There are serious implications here for Jewish-Christian relations and for how the church relates to Jews who have come to follow Christ.

Furthermore, Simon-Peter does an admirable job dealing with some very heady problems in post-Holocaust New Testament studies.  The horrors of the Shoa loom large across any contemporary discussion of Jewish-Christian relations, and Biblical interpretation is front and center in these debates.  Her chapters address weighty biblical and theological questions: “Was Jesus A Christian?”; “Did the Jews Reject Jesus?”; “Did the Jews Kill Jesus?”; “Has God Rejected the Jews?”  Sadly, these answers are not obvious to many today in both academic and ecclesial circles.  The identity of Jesus as a Jew is still a source of embarrassment both for the Anglo church and for scholars who have preferred to see Jesus as a radical or revolutionary rather than a faithful Jew of the 1st century AD. Likewise, the critical place of Israel in God’s plan (“salvation is from the Jews”), which has not been undone but fulfilled in Christ, is often missing in much Christian thought and speech.  Simon-Peter provides a helpful corrective on these and other points.

While not an in-depth scholarly treatment, she does address these vital topics in ways that would be accessible to anyone.  For clergy and those who have studied either comparative religion or Biblical studies to a significant degree, I would hope that much of this is not new.  For those who have not explored these matters, however, this is an excellent and worthwhile introduction.

A couple of concerns are worth mentioning.  It’s a fairly skinny book, at around 100 pages of text.  I imagine this has to do with the targeted audience; I found myself wanting deeper exploration in several areas, but a shorter work probably prevents many who should read this from being scared off.  About 3/4 of the way through, I was worried Simon-Peter was not going to mention some of the central themes of the so-called New Perspective on Paul, which has been largely shaped by the concerns she raises.  Near the end she gets there, writing:

“The point is that we are so accustomed to seeing Paul refracted by Luther’s fights with the church, that it’s difficult to see and hear Paul on his own terms.” (80)

That said, I would have liked to have seen more engagement with this literature reflected in her endnotes (folks like Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, and Doug Campbell come to mind).  Instead, she relies a bit heavily on Amy-Jill Levine (an excellent source, to be sure), particularly her Jewish Annotated New Testament.  A couple of times Simon-Peter references less than impressive sources such as the notes or introductions from the NIV Study Bible or New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Her argument would be bolstered by reckoning with what Lesslie Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity,” which helps explain why 21st century people find the concept of chosenness so deeply offensive.  Likewise, some engagement with Barth’s concept of election (in which election becomes about Jesus rather than double predestination of the “true church” in today’s aggressive neo-Calvinism) could be fruitful in her attempts to connect Israel’s vocation to the Church’s mission.

Simon-Peter does some of her best reflection when making use of interlocutors such as NT Wright and Diana Butler Bass. Her writing style is easy to read and informal, and she uses enough humor to keep you interested.  Occasionally her language is a bit imprecise or unexplained (for instance, on p. 86 she uses the phrase “universal salvation” in passing with no elaboration). By and large, though, these are minor quibbles with an otherwise well-done book that serves an important role in the current conversations between Christians and Jews.

The Jew Named Jesus addresses questions that are too often ignored and mishandled.  Centuries of getting these things wrong laid the groundwork not only for vicious anti-Semitism in Europe and America, but for the near-extermination of the Jewish people at the hands of baptized Christians.  Much is at stake here.  As a pastor, I still get asked some of these questions regularly.  After a recent trip to Israel, more than one parishioner asked me, “How could someone live over there, see all those places, and still not believe in Jesus?” Early in my ministry, I watched in horror as a pastor performed a clunky Messianic seder** at a youth group meeting complete with an altar call and everything (I later discovered that the UM Book of Worship instructs, rightly so, that such celebrations are disrespectful unless led by a Jew).  Worse still are the blatantly racist comments one still hears on the mouths of too many churchgoers, at least here in the Bible Belt.

But such misunderstanding and ongoing division will not endure into the eschaton.  Simon-Peter’s closing chapter, “A New Heaven and A New Earth,” may be her best.  “Something more powerful than ‘us versus them’ awaits us,” she says hopefully in the concluding pages. (102)  Amen, and come, Lord Jesus. We your people – both the branch and the “wild olive shoots” –  await your Kingdom. (See Rom. 9-11, which Simon-Peter uses several times.)  Help us to anticipate it, celebrate it, and lean into it now.

*A copy of this book was provided to the author for the purposes of review.

**My favorite line from the book confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine about Messianic Judaism: “They seemed to me to be no more than Evangelical Christianity covered with a patina of Hebrew.” (101) She goes on to say that Messianic Judaism has matured greatly in recent years, which I long to see confirmed myself.  Nonetheless, that line caused me to laugh our loud.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Jew Named Jesus”

  1. My wife and I attended a Messianic Jewish wedding nine years ago in Montreal for my nephew and his wife. The ceremony was in Hebrew and French. My nephew has since finished a PhD in Hebrew at Harvard. He teaches now. At the wedding rehearsal dinner he spoke to us about different kinds of Messianic Judaism. His version does not evangelize (like Jews for Jesus) and tries to be as authentically Jewish as possible, while maintaining belief in Yeshua. Seeing them, it felt like I was with the earliest Christians. Mainline Christianity, in its eagerness to befriend Judaism, tends to denigrate Messianic Judaism. But what I saw in Montreal was a precious and authentic thing.

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