Amy-Jill Levine (click for source)

This last weekend I had the opportunity to attend some lectures by Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University. She came to San Antonio to discuss Jewish-Christian relations. On Friday evening she gave the talk at Temple Beth-El for the Shabbat service (which happened to be a Bar Mitzvah as well). On Saturday she gave three lectures at Trinity University.

Levine has become one of my favorite scholars on antiquity, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity. Her The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus was very thought provoking. In the last year year or so I’ve obtained The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which she edited with Marc Z. Brettler, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us edited with Douglas A. Knight, and The Historical Jesus in Context edited with Dale C. Allison and J.D. Crossan. Each book has been helpful and informative.

When the rabbi introduced her at Temple Beth-El he described her as “the most significant Jewish scholar on Jesus since Paul.” She thanked him for his “over the top” description, but this does shed some light on how she is respected in both the Jewish and Christian communities. As well as being a top notch scholar she is active in pursuing interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians. The event I attended mixed historical studies with contemporary concerns.

On Friday evening she spoke briefly on how “How Jews and Christians Misunderstand Each Other,” which covered several topics that Jews and Christians need to consider when in dialogue. Since it was a synagogue service the talk was short and I didn’t take notes.

I did take a lot of notes on Saturday though. Levine gave me a lot to consider. I will share some thoughts in this post and more in a subsequent post tomorrow.

Historical Research:

In her first lecture titled “Jesus, Judaism, and Jewish-Christian Relations” Levine presented her presuppositions. She argued that the Bible is a book that doesn’t provide answers as well as it teaches us how to ask the right questions. She reminded the audience that when she looks at the Bible as a historian she does so with bias: she determines what questions to ask, what answers she finds, and what rhetoric she uses when presenting her findings. She said that all historians participate in “spin.” As an example, she noted that there are now historical facts one could associate with the recent Vice-Presidential Debate, but the interpretation or the “spin” is drastically different depending on whether you tuned into FOX or MSNBC afterward. Likewise, historians do look at legitimate data, but there is spin that must be considered. This is why she felt obligated to set forth her presuppositions: this allowed the audience to think critically about what she had to say. I respected this forthrightness.

Interpretive Matters:

At the synagogue service Levine remarked that Jews and Christians read the Bible differently. She said this is fine. When she speaks with fellow Jews about Christians “finding Jesus” in the Old Testament she reminds them that this is perfectly legitimate if one considers the lens being used by Christians. Likewise, Christians may understand Jews better when they acknowledge that Jews do not approach Scripture with the same lens. This is important to consider when participating in interfaith dialogue (or even evangelism of Jews as Christians): our readings aren’t objective interpretations in a vacuum. We have a lens through which we read a text. Our first step is to try to understand how the other person “sees” things.

On Saturday she reminded the audience that Christians told their stories of Jesus using the lens of Torah. Jesus did things and the evangelists framed those actions using narratives from Torah. As an example she compared the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew with the life of Moses showing how Matthew frames Jesus’ life using Moses’ storyline.

Problematic Texts: 

Levine reminded us that we all have texts that are problematic. This is why we read our sacred texts in community. It helps us use our “lens” better. What cannot be said by Jews of Christians is that the New Testament contains this or that problematic text, but that Jews don’t have concerns of their own, and visa-versa.

New Testament’s Usefulness for Jews:

Levine argues that the New Testament provide some of the best texts for understanding first century Judaism. She said that Jesus is the first person in antiquity to be referred to as “rabbi,” and the Paul is the only known Pharisee whose direct writings remain with us. As a child Levine was discouraged from reading the New Testament, but she states that she has found that it provides key insights into the history of the Jewish people and that Jews benefit from reading the New Testament to better understand themselves.

The Jewishness of Jesus:

Likewise, Christians cannot read the New Testament without recognizing its Jewishness. Bad theology (Christology) results from taking Jesus out of his Jewish environment. Levine gave examples from some old statements made by the World Council of Churches and former President Jimmy Carter who compared first century Jews to the Taliban (she chose organizations and people she “likes” to critique rather than organizations or people that she doesn’t like). Often Christians describe first century Jews as vicious legalist. Levine notes that this is a mischaracterization. First century Jews were mutifaceted. One cannot say “the Jews” and have something apply universally to all Jews of that era.

Jesus fits into a first century Jewish context. In the story of the woman with the ailment his outfit appears to have tzitzit. He observes the Law. He argues like a Jew of the time. He has teachings that we find appear in later rabbinics.

Levine challenges the view that Jesus is the first to call God “Father,” citing other Jewish documents where God is presented as a Father. She does suggest that Jesus’ use of “Father” may be political since preserved inscriptions depict Caesar Augustus show that he used the title “Father” (like Americans call George Washington a “father” of our nation). According to Levine the title “Father” for God may have had anti-imperial overtones: God is our Father, not Caesar.

If one does want to find uniqueness in Jesus’ teachings Levine says she cannot find another who advocates that one must “love” their enemy. There are many statements in Jewish Scripture and other writings advocating treating one’s enemy well, but love is another step altogether.

Levine shared a few other insightful comments such as her interpretation of the “give us today our daily bread” as maybe coming from an Aramaic statement that says, “Give us tomorrow’s (eschatological) bread today.” Also, she argues that Luke’s depiction of the child Jesus being placed in a trough is meant to symbolize a bread for the nations concept.

Liberal Protestants and the Jewish Jesus:

One of the more interesting statements Levine made was the claim that she finds the Jewishness of Jesus suffers the most at the hands of liberal Protestants.  Why? She said that conservatives do not need to find a way to make Jesus unique. They believe Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, fed the masses, resurrected from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Many liberal Protestants do not believe these things, so their desire to find something unique in Jesus leads them to present Jesus as the first feminist, a Marxist reformer of corrupt economics, and so forth and so on. Inevitably the “enemy” of all things progressive becomes stuffy, legalistic, first century Jews, a mischaracterization.

Tomorrow I will share my notes and thoughts from her final two lectures.