The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine.
This blog post is intended to help my church navigate this popular book, and assist in an honest reading and wrestling with Levine’s points and criticism. So first, let’s do a chapter by chapter review:
1. Jesus and Judaism: Levine opens with a problem, the Church recognizes the Jewishness of Jesus, and there are plenty of books and references that teach what kind of meaning might be had from this context. But when it actually comes to applying the life of Jesus to our lives, we often vilify and misunderstand the very context that ought to inform our understanding of Jesus. Namely, Jesus was not against the law. Levine argues that Jesus kept kosher, loved the Torah, and taught His followers to do the same. She posits that references found in the New Testament account to the contrary are later additions by those who are trying to make Christianity appeal to a Gentile culture.
2. From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church: Levine continues the argument, showing that Jesus had a very Jewish understanding of the messianic age to come. It was His followers, namely Peter and Paul, who had to deal with the problems that a Jewish understanding of the messianic age. Since they are primary writers of the New Testament, it is easy to see that their mission to the Gentiles necessitated a departure from Jesus’s true identity as a Jewish messiah. His followers then created a false dichotomy between Jesus and the very people that He understood Himself to be the messiah of.
3. The New Testament and Anti-Judaism: Levine holds Christian feet to the proverbial fire, insisting that if the New Testament is to be read honestly, there is no way that we cannot interpret some anti-Jewish messages. The Jews killed Jesus. Their father is the Devil. They oppress Paul and Christians. Levine again insists that these messages were not from Jesus, but His followers.
4. Stereotyping Judaism: Viewing Judaism as a whole, united effort is a fallacy. Levine instructs the reader about a plurality of Judaisms, even in the first century, and especially now. The Jewish people have almost never acted as a complete whole, but the New Testament seems complicit in that false understanding. Furthermore, the Christian Church seems complicit in such an understanding too. Levine slams liberation and feminist readings of the New Testament, because it makes Jesus the Savior of an oppressive, racist, misogynistic, ritualistic faith that cares more for a temple than people: Judaism.
5. With Friends Like These…: Levine completes what she sets up in chapter four. She shows how many traditions and “academic” readings of the New Testament text use the Jewish faith as their whipping boy. She decries this use, and calls for an admission and repentance from the practice.
6. Distinct Cannons, Distinct Practices: Levine insists that one cannot understand who Jesus was without understanding Him as a first century Jew. Interpreting the Old Testament as a Christian is a faulty thing to do; not even Jesus did. Furthermore, interpreting Jewish practices (such as seder) through a Christian lens is to misunderstand it completely. She finishes the chapter with a generous view of recognizing differences in the faiths, and seeing that they are heading in the same direction.
7. Quo Vadis (where are you going?): Levine finishes her book by giving a list of practical tips for Jews to be able to read the New Testament with Christian ears, and for Christians to be able to read the entire Bible with Jewish ears. Mainly, she recommends that we not fall onto one side or the other, but find ways to be in community with the other.
My humble and pastoral guide:
I first want to recommend this book to you. It is probably going to be helpful in your life of faith, and your ability to love God, and love the people around you. That said, I do want to let you know a couple of assumptions that Levine runs on, which I believe you should be aware of. Once identified, you can pray and consult, and see if the Spirit confirms such beliefs.
First, Levine is primarily concerned with anti-Jewish tendencies. The whole book is more about being honest about those tendencies, and proposing ways in which we (as Christians) might embrace our Jewish neighbors. Please keep in mind that each of her arguments should be read in that context.
Second, Levine is a scholar. Scholarly work is perhaps the best tool that I know of which allows us to discover tension, paradox, and apparent contradictions in the Biblical text. Such things ought to be treasured by Christians. Most people will try to find ways to make those apparent contradictions disappear, or do great work to show how there is no actual tension there. I would caution that approach.
Levine uses her scholarly sharpness to also help alleviate such tension and paradox. For instance, there are many places in the New Testament (and Old, for that matter) which casts the “Jews” in a very negative light. Levine does much work establishing how Jesus never intended that. The result is to place Jesus on one side, and his Apostles on the other. I reject that. I will, however, do what Levine asks; and be honest about those passages. Rather than doing what many a bad theologian has done before me, and insisted that these passages allow us to hate Jews; I take it as an invitation to look at our community, and myself, and discover how Scripture is rebuking me; rebuking us. What are we being invited in to? Certainly, we cannot conclude that we are being invited to hate Jews.
On that note, let’s move to number three. It's a big one.
Understanding the Scriptural text, particularly the New Testament through the lens of first century Judaism is only one lens in through which we interpret Scripture. A metaphor may be helpful here: the actual text is a beautiful mountain scene. It is actual mountains and glaciers, rivers, trees and plains. But we can only see the scene through various windows.
Understanding the text through a “first century Jewish” window will allow us to block out certain parts of the scenery, and focus on certain parts. Certainly, this is valuable. But we can also see the text through the window which understands the scene as a response to what was happening in the Church by the end of the century, almost three generations after the death of Christ, when most of the Apostles were dead or old. Their recounting of the stories of Jesus are meant to be exegeted in a far different context then what a 30 year old Jesus lived in. This enables us to block out certain aspects of the scene, and enhance others.
Furthermore, we can also view the scene through the window which sees the stories of Jesus as meant for you and me today. It is speaking directly at us, by power of the Holy Spirit. Again, certain aspects of the scenery are ignored, while others jump out. This is valuable.
And now, naturally, I need to respond to those in my congregation who would say that such a view of Scripture is a very low view, and that I am probably a postmodern relativist. Well, if the shoe fits, I’ll wear it. I’ll own my heresy. But first, I would like to give you some food for thought.
I am not proposing that the mountain scene doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that all windows to view the scenery are equal, or equally valuable. The value depends on who is in the congregation, and how it is being applied. I am proposing that the mountain scene is absolute, but we have to admit that we are looking at it through a window. This requires more work, not less. It obligates us to dive deeper into our Text, and wrestle with it harder. It also allows us to move from window to window and find the places that the Spirit is calling to us. It means that we find more personal invitations in the text.
Finally, I would like to commend Levine in her rejection of pitting the Old Testament against the New, the Jews versus Jesus. Instead, we find our reading of the Bible pitted against the real Bible, and our Jesus pitted against the real one. In my humble, pastoral opinion, we ought to do the hard work to find out where those differences are, and let the real Bible, the real Jesus, win (whatever that might look like).