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To access a digital copy of The Difficult Words of Jesusclick here.  There are times when Jesus taught things that seem problematic to contemporary readers. His comments lead to difficult questions about family values, economics, social justice, and religious respect. Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago, but the questions he raises are the ones with which we continue to struggle. In The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings (Abingdon Press), Vanderbilt University professor Amy-Jill Levine gives cultural, historical, and biblical context to some of the most difficult teachings of Jesus to help readers better understand how those teachings spoke to his first-century audience, and how they continue to speak to us today.Part 1 of an Interview with Amy-Jill Levine,
Author of The Difficult Words of Jesus
Q: Introduce us to your new Bible study, The Difficult Words of Jesus. In what ways are these words of Jesus “difficult”?
There are passages where Jesus tells his followers to hate their families, suggests the impossibility of a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven, appears to threaten individuals and entire cities with damnation, sanctions a positive image of slavery, denies an initial mission to gentiles, and says that Jews are children of the devil. These are only a few of the difficult sayings the Gospels ascribe to Jesus. Readers from antiquity to the present have wrestled with them. Different generations have found different interpretations, for what worked five hundred or even fifty years ago may no longer work today.
Similarly, the Scriptures of Israel (the Old Testament, the Tanakh) have difficult passages about rape, holy war, and divine violence. Our task as readers is to wrestle with these passages; that is what “Israel” traditionally means, to “wrestle with God.” The Bible is not simply to be read, it must also be interpreted. That’s what makes the text a living document. More to discuss texts, especially difficult texts, with others keeps a community healthy. I find that every time I teach a biblical text, my students ask questions I had not considered; they find new insights that I had not seen. Each time I read a text, I find new connections not only to other biblical texts but also to what I read in the morning’s headlines.
Q: You start right off in the introduction of the book by writing that the role of a religious community is not to be like sheep, despite all the sheep and shepherd metaphors found in scripture. Why is it important to wrestle with passages that confuse us rather than simply take them as we’ve been taught in the past?
We were taught many things in the past: that slavery was part of the natural order, that genocide is part of divine will, that belief should be based in fear of hell. Our task is not to be sheep—surely, we can have better career aspirations. Our task is to interpret the text in light of ongoing revelation provided by science, sociology, and recognition that everyone is in the image and likeness of God. We are not restricted to living in “first-century Bible land”—we live in the twenty-first century, and our task is to see what the Bible says to us today.
A mature faith wrestles with these questions, and it wrestles with the texts that prompt the questions. The courageous move is to address our problematic texts rather than to ignore them. The pastoral move is to acknowledge that they have caused harm and can continue to do so, rather than tell the people worried about holding a bank account or fearful at the end of life of a fiery hell or dismissive of the Gospels because they see an acceptance of slavery, “You’re overreacting,” or “Let’s just look at some other verses.” The theological move is to let the Holy Spirit guide our readings so that we can find life abundant, rather than fear and hatred. One does not need to be a biblical scholar to address problematic texts. I am more worried when people don’t find anything in the Bible that is at all problematic; I am even more worried when they dismiss the questions that others raise. We do our congregations, and especially our youth, a disservice when we do not question what a text means or wrestle with what we believe a text is saying. Discipleship does not mean becoming sheep.
Q: Please explain what you mean by the Bible is less a book of answers than a book that helps us ask the right questions.
The Bible speaks to issues that cross time and space—of family values, economics, life after death, ethnic prejudice, resource allocation, sin and salvation. It gives different answers to different people at different times, which is entirely appropriate, since human culture and knowledge, economic resources and national concerns differ across time and space. A message for a rich master may be inappropriate for a poor slave; comments that sound inspirational to members of one group may sound hateful to members of another. But in all cases, the messages and comments require our engagement. In that engagement, we ask the right questions even as we learn that answers may vary depending on time and place.
If we look at the Bible as a book that helps us ask the right questions rather than as an answer sheet, we honor both the Bible and the traditions that hold it sacred. For example, the Bible forces us to ask questions about economics: the sources of our resources, the way we use them, the hold they have on us. It raises questions not only about family values, but also about our identity both in relation to our parents, siblings, partners, and children, as well as the identity we want to construct for ourselves. How and for what do we want to be remembered? It reminds us of how normal the institution of slavery was to people in antiquity—and to people across the globe not only just a few centuries ago but also, in some places, even today. It demands that we take seriously what we proclaim to be the heart of our tradition: How can we claim that everyone is in the divine image and at the same time think of people as property, or as less than human? Congregations today may want to wrestle with the image of the ideal disciple as a slave, and with the image of Jesus as a slave to all: for some the images are liberating, and for others they are death-dealing.
Q: What are some things that a twenty-first century reader should keep in mind when trying to get to the root of a message originally written to a first century reader?
Jesus spoke to Jews living in the first-century Roman Empire, not to Christians living in a twenty-first century participatory democracy. Jesus spoke to people who were a minority in the Empire, not to people who are in the majority in North America or Europe. Jesus spoke in the vocabulary of the traditions of Israel, of Deuteronomy and Isaiah and Amos, a vocabulary substantially unfamiliar to the increasingly biblically illiterate readers of today. If we do not know the commandments and traditions of this earlier Scripture, and if we do not know how Jews of the first century interpreted those texts, we will inevitably misunderstand Jesus.
The books of the Bible were written in specific times and places by specific people who had messages for their readers. Sometimes those messages do not make a good transition from the first century to the twenty-first. And sometimes the questions we in the twenty-first century have do not find good connections to the Gospel texts.
In no case will we fully understand what a Scripture means. First, we can make educated guesses as to what Jesus said and did, but we do not have access to him directly; rather, we only have the memories, as flawed as memories always are, of what the Gospel writers, themselves not necessarily eyewitnesses, recorded. Moreover, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the New Testament is written in Greek, and we are reading the English translation. Second, the meaning of Scripture is not static, for along with questions of history, we also bring to the text our own questions. People who hold the text as sacred or authoritative will always bring to the text new questions and find in it new lessons.
Q: In addition to the study itself, what other resources are available to go along with The Difficult Words of Jesus?
The Difficult Words of Jesus is a book can be read independently or used with the companion study resources in a group setting. In addition to the book there is a Leader Guide as well as video sessions available. The Leader Guide includes session outlines for each group meeting with Scripture, prayer, opening activity, discussion questions, activity, and closing call to action.
On the six-session DVD, I guide participants through each chapter. The videos are also available via digital download from, or streaming through a subscription to Amplify Media. The video sessions are 10-12 minutes in length and, when combined with the six chapters from the book, make an ideal six-week group study.
The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings
Available August 3, 2021 from Abingdon Press
Paperback ISBN: 9781791007577 / $16.99
eBook ISBN: 9781791007584 / $16.99
Leader Guide Paperback ISBN: 9781791007591 / $14.99
eBook ISBN: 9781791007607 / $14.99
DVD ISBN: 9781791007614 / $39.99
  About the author Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences.
An internationally renowned scholar and teacher, she is the author of numerous books including Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial RabbiEntering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy WeekLight of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent, and Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Her latest release is The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings. She is also the coeditor of the Jewish Annotated New Testament.
Professor Levine has done more than 500 programs for churches, clergy groups, and seminaries on the Bible, Christian-Jewish relations, and Religion, Gender, and Sexuality across the globe.TwitterFacebookWebsite