Levine, Amy-Jill. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. HarperOne, 2006.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

How Jewish was Jesus? Thoroughly.

If only we would stop forgetting that.

If only EVERY CHRISTIAN would read this book.

Barring that, if only every pastor and Christian writer would read this book. And take its message to heart, and take the pledge “I promise to abstain from anti-Judaism from now on!” If only.

Cover of The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine

It probably won’t happen, because abstaining from anti-Judaism would require pastors and Christian writers to re-learn some old Bible-reading habits, to revise some of their staple exegetical assumptions, and to throw out some of their go-to interpretive moves, the ones that make Jesus look good and better and best by making Judaism look bad. According to Levine,

Church homilies and sermons, daily and weekly Bible study, and even respected academic monographs depict, both explicitly and implicitly, a Judaism that is monolithic, mired in legal minutiae, without spiritual depth, and otherwise everything that (they hope) Christianity is not (Levine, 119).

I’d love to disagree with that. Unfortunately, when I pause to recollect how I’ve heard Judaism described from the pulpit almost all of my church-going life, I can’t. In fact, most of us reading this know well that some pejorative description of Judaism – how it is so much more misogynistic and oppressive of women than Jesus was, how it was preaching a picky procedural God of wrath while Jesus was preaching forgiveness from a heavenly father, how it was so much more legalistic and superficial and centered on empty ritualistic performance than was the religion of grace that Jesus and Pauline Christianity inaugurated – is only a click or two away. Chances are decent that we wrote it.

Changing that probably won’t happen, certainly not right away, but it COULD happen, and if it happens, it will probably have something to do with The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine.

Levine’s book – which has been out for over a decade now – aims to correct that traditional Christian interpretive perspective. She educates her readers on Jesus’s own Jewishness, the continuities between things Jesus says and does (as reported in the gospels) and things Jewish rabbis of his time would have said and done, and the deep influences of Jewish thought and practice on the early church. She examines some of the possible sources of anti-Judaism in New Testament texts, from the perspective that those texts were written by people in the midst of an intense intra-communal argument about what religious ideas, practices, and community to embrace. And she brings a scholar’s eye and expertise to challenging some of the commonplaces about “Jesus, unlike the Judaism of his day.”

Levine’s main point is that Christianity does not have to be anti-Judaic, even though it has been, historically, for a long time. In fact, there is a lot to be gained by recovering Jesus’s and the early disciples’ Jewish context and Jewish identity. That recovery opens up new understandings of familiar New Testament texts – for instance, her analysis of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer, in Luke 18:9-14, points out how a customary Christian reading, which blandly identifies with the justified tax collector, misses the profoundly self-critical force of the parable as it most likely would have been heard in its original context (Levine, 37-41).

There are reasons for the traditional erasure of Jesus’s and the disciples’ Jewish identity – and they may even be understandable. Seeing the history, and seeing its consequences, makes anti-Judaism something that Christians are now, more than ever, able to choose against. But the obstacles to overcome in eliminating our habitual anti-Judaism are formidable.

One of Levine’s points in that regard, a sad one, is that when it comes to statements about Judaism, we often can’t trust Christian scholarship. Even recent Christian scholarship. Even recent Christian scholarship published by reputable presses with official commitments to anti-anti-Judaism.

Scholars and seminarians are as likely to say historically unwarranted things about “bad, old” ancient or Second Temple Judaism as non-scholars. It happens because scholars have picked those factoids up from other scholars, who’ve picked them up from other scholars, in that endless game of academic citation recycling, in which the authority of academic status tends to preclude fact-checking. And because fact-checking, when it comes to “what the rabbis say” or “Second Temple Judaism,” is hard.

Most Christian seminarians, and even most Christian scholars, haven’t studied Aramaic, or Talmudic literature, or Jewish history, or done any of the basic study necessary for a working familiarity with rabbinic Judaism. Sometimes not even enough to recognize that contemporary rabbinic Judaism and ancient Judaism are two different things. The demands are steep, and it’s not everyone’s area. Most seminarians have learned about Jesus’s historical context from a few pages in their Hebrew Bible II textbook; whichever one it was, there’s a good chance it was already the product of traditional Christian commonplace recycling. Many Christian seminarians, and even lots of Christian scholars, continue to read the gospels of Matthew and John and the letter to the Galatians as reportage, rather than as texts that already, themselves, represent a particular perspective on the Judaism (or more accurately, Judaisms) of the day in which they were written.

For that matter, many Christian seminarians, and even lots of Christian scholars, continue to take Leviticus as representative of the Jewish legal environment in Roman Palestine in 25 CE. We wouldn’t hire a lawyer who only consults the Constitution of the United States when preparing for a case. But we’ll accept statements about what was going to happen to pregnant Mary, Jesus’s mother, based on only Levitical texts without batting an eye. Levine is here to encourage us to stop doing that, start doing our homework, and start paying better attention to what area scholarship actually tells us about Jesus’s 1st century religious and social context.

Ironically, perhaps, Levine suggests that the modern liberal or “progressive” emphasis on a low christology and a “teachings of Jesus” Jesus has exacerbated this problem (120). The fully human fully divine indispensable-person-of-Christ Jesus doesn’t need to be made to stand out from the crowd of first century rabbis and charismatic healers by invidious comparisons with existing religious traditions, to which he can then be portrayed as superior. Being The Savior is superior enough. The impulse to use caricatures of first century Judaism to establish Jesus’s “Best Religious Teacher” credentials becomes more irresistible as Jesus’s Incarnate Word of God credentials get swept under the Enlightenment rug. That’s an interesting observation.

I myself find Levine as an author balanced, witty, warm, and accessible, though clearly she has an agenda. But I support her agenda, so that presumably affects my reading. I used the book in my latest class (“Christian Tradition”), and can attest that some of the students, fresh from church and Catholic school, had the kind of readerly problems typical for paradigm-challenging texts: “She seems very defensive.” “Is she really a reliable source?” [For information on Second Temple Judaism or the Talmud. To which I say, “Mmm, probably more reliable than your pastor.”] From her reports of some of her experiences with other authors and speakers, included in the text, she gets this a lot. As one academic correspondent says of Levine, in a response to a critique in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, “I think that Levine’s pain as a Jewish woman can make her see anti-Semitism where it does not exist” (quoted in Levine, 189).

So, reader be warned. Cultivating sensitivity to Christian anti-Judaism involves re-learning or at least re-thinking a body of material that “everybody knows.” Un-learning and re-learning, in my experience, is always challenging, often annoying, sometimes infuriating. I really enjoyed this book. Probably not everyone will.

In that light, I particularly appreciated Levine’s concluding summary of practical suggestions for interfaith conversation (215-226), which work as well for interfaith-friendly Biblical reading and teaching.

I also really appreciated her inclusion of this story about Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov, who had reportedly learned “how we must truly love our neighbor” from a conversation he had overheard:

The first said: ‘Tell me, friend Ivan, do you love me?’
The second: ‘I love you deeply.’
The first: ‘Do you know, my friend, what gives me pain?’
The second: ‘How can I, pray, know what gives you pain?’
The first: ‘If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?’

‘Understand, then, my sons,’ continued the rebbe, ‘to love, truly to love, means to know what brings pain to your comrade.’ (116-117)

If only we would all take that to heart. We could solve so many problems that way. Even the ones that come from forgetting that Jesus was Jewish.


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