I have a confession to make. I never read an A-J Levine book until last week. (But I do own and have used the Jewish Annotated New Testament, which is excellent btw.)
But I have been wanting to read Levine’s work and since I am teaching a course on the Gospels in the spring, I thought I would pick up her new book Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven (Abingdon Press).
This is not a technical work for academics. Levine’s book is almost like a Bible study. It is short and written in a more conversational style. Levine introduces academic matters accessibly and peppers the text with humor and charm.
What is Levine’s goal? She helps to put Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5-7 into the context of early Judaism. She demonstrates that Jesus was not trying to reject or challenge Judaism; on the contrary, his teachings resonate with the Old Testament, Jewish sages of the second temple period, and to some degree what we see in early Rabbinic literature. Levine also teases out the very practical values of service, love, authenticity, commitment, and integrity that are taught by Jesus.
As many of you know, Levine does not identify as a Christian, and she is a member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. So, it seemed a bit strange to read from her what feels like little sermons that make up the chapters of the book. But her advice is resonant with the Christian tradition and salutary for Christian readers of Matthew.
I think Levine is at her best when she is debunking weak or false assumptions about Jesus rejecting or dismissing Judaism. Or when Christian writers exaggerate “unique” features of the New Testament, she calls them out on it. She also does a good job of “showing her work” when it comes to teaching readers good exegetical method. For the Sermon, she is constantly pointing back to the Old Testament foundations, looking at parallels in Matthew, and bringing into the conversation Jewish voices from around the time of Jesus.
This book was a quick and engaging read; I can’t say Levine brought something “brand new” to the table, but insofar as it will help individuals and groups better ground their study of Matthew’s Jesus in his own time and world, it is a success. I would pair this book with Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount commentary and Jonathan Pennington’s thematic commentary, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing for rounding out your study.