I just finished a book which was out of the norm for me. (The BOOK was out of the norm, NOT that I finished it. Although I do have more than a few still lingering for me to finish…) The name is: The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is Jewish, and is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee. As a practicing Jew, Levine brings an interesting slant to the study of the New Testament. She does a remarkable job of straddling the un-declared, yet very real line of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity. She also explains the ministry and teaching of Jesus from a Jewish perspective. Levine gives insight into not only the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teaching from first century Judaism, but also how much in line with Jewish instruction and tradition Jesus was, and is; of which many parts of the church seem to have either been ignorant, at best, or deny and castigate, at worst. She is especially interested in developing, and helping others develop, an ongoing conversation between different faith traditions; especially between Christians and Jews.
Levine became interested in Christianity when watching the funeral of Pope John XXIII on TV as a child. She became so interested, in fact, that she told her mother that she wanted to be pope when she grew up. Her mother responded dryly, “You can’t. You aren’t Italian.” (Pg. 1. Love that line!) Her interest was furthered by her surrounding neighborhood. “I was in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a suburb of New Bedford, in a neighborhood that was predominantly Roman Catholic, and Portuguese. Thus my introduction to the church was through ethnic Catholicism, and it was marvelous: feast days and festivals, pageantry and mystery, food and more food.” (Pg.1-2) She attended both Hebrew school at her synagogue, and catechism with her friends at a Catholic church. Her early years were spent crossing the cultural and religious lines of Judaism and Christianity.
One of the first signs to her of dissonance between the two traditions occurred on a bus ride home from school one day at the age of 7: “…a friend on the school bus said to me, ‘You killed our Lord.’ ‘I did not,’ I responded with some indignation. Deicide would be the sort of thing I would have recalled. ‘Yes you did,’ the girl insisted. ‘Our priest said so.’ Apparently, she had been taught that ‘the Jews’ were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since I was the only one she knew, I must be guilty. But at the time, I did not understand the reasons for the charge or have the means to address it.” (Pg.2)
Eventually, when in high school, she read the New Testament, and began to understand from where the little girl’s charge emanated. However, she states, “…I had, fortunately, been inoculated against seeing only hate. My Christian friends had modeled for me the grace and friendship that are at the heart of the church: my parents had told me that Jesus was a Jew speaking to other Jews, and that his basic message was exactly the same as that of Judaism: to ‘love the Lord your God,’ and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ So I knew that, although the New Testament could be read as being anti-Jewish, it did not have to be read that way.” (Pg.3)
Levine’s purpose in the book seems to be at least three-fold, in my opinion:
1. To inform and educate Christians on the importance of remembering the time and place of Jesus’ message, as well as the fact that Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews in the context of a first century occupied territory of the Roman Empire. She speaks of Jesus as part of “…a continuous… line of Jewish teachers and prophets…” (Pg.20) She reminds us that Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law and prophets, not abolish them.
2. To publically confront anti-Jewish teaching which the church inadvertently or purposefully promulgates in the message it teaches about Jesus’ life, teaching, and death as it relates to Judaism.
3. To encourage interfaith conversations, events, and ministries within communities.
As I sat in church today while we were finishing a discussion/series on the book of Galatians, I realized just how easy it is to step over the line into anti-Jewish language and thought. Trying to define the distinctiveness of the Christian faith can sometimes become exclusion instead. As Paul combats the teaching of people trying to deny the new Gentile freedom of faith practice, by requiring adherence to Jewish practice and tradition, it is easy to frame the argument into good versus evil; and some of the language of the New Testament seems to do just that. However, it is too easy for us to use our own cultural biases to interpret ancient culture and the scriptures which address issues the first century people were facing. Doing so only clouds the message, and robs it of its continual power to enlighten and change perspectives and lives. In the following, Levine makes the above point well:
“Historically, Jesus should be seen as continuous with the line of Jewish teacher and prophets, for he shares with them a particular view of the world and a particular manner of expressing that view. Like Amos and Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, he used arresting speech, risked political persecution, and turned traditional family values upside down in order to proclaim what he believed God wants, the Torah teaches, and Israel must do. This historical anchoring need not and should not, in Christian teaching, preclude or overshadow Jesus’s role in the divine plan. He must, in the Christian tradition, be more than just a really good teacher. But he must be that Jewish teacher as well.
Further, Jesus had to have made sense in his own context, and the context is that of Galilee and Judea. Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears. The parables are products of first-century Jewish culture, not ours; the healings were assessed according to that worldview, not ours; the debates over how to follow Torah took place within that set of legal parameters and forms of discourse, not ours. To understand Jesus’s impact in his own setting—why some chose to follow him, others to dismiss him, and still others to seek his death—requires an understanding of that setting.” (Pg.20-21)
There are many voices in the church which espouse strong interpretations as to the deep, rich message of scripture, and allowing others to hold differing interpretive messages without responding in arrogance and disrespect doesn’t always seem to be the norm. We do need to delve deeply enough into the history of that time and place, in order to catch the meaning there. We then can re-interpret both the impact and meaning into our own setting.
Levine points out how many of the church’s interpretations about the practices and beliefs of Judaism in first century Judea and Galilee, as well as the message of Jesus towards the Judaism of his day can cause an anti-Jewish sentiment in Christianity; even when it isn’t intended. She writes in detail of ways Christianity typically stereotypes Judaism in the first-century and then responds with rhetoric which shows how Christianity uses these stereotypes in ways which promote anti-Jewish thought and even action. (Pg.119-166)
Personally, I was struck by this notion. At first, I felt Levine was being too sensitive and defensive. I especially found my first impression to be interesting when she later notes that other Christian theologians responded in like manner when she confronted their statements in articles they had written and the anti-Jewish slant their views communicated. I believe we don’t really know the depth of our own prejudice until life brings it into full, frontal nudity.
However, I have also come to believe Jesus’s hard statements can be directed to the church in similar ways today. In fact, I have a theory that all organizations eventually drift from originating structures, and intentions which takes them away from the forms and priorities that made them successful in the first place. This drift must be corrected by re-defining or re-interpreting the original intentions of the organization. If this process isn’t undertaken, vitality is lost. This is, to me, one of the lessons of the Tower of Babel. When architects, engineers, and builders lose focus of the point of the structure by turning it into a self-aggrandizing project, communication lapses, and they speak in “different languages” because they are only concentrating on their piece of the building process, and their vision of how it “should” look and be. I think religious organizations are no different. We can build theological, economic, political, or corporate Towers of Babel. The principle is the same.
Phyllis Tickle (Google her…) theorizes that every 500 years, the church undergoes a theological re-interpretation crisis in response to changing understandings of the world, culture and the universe in general. I think it especially likely that the growth of science, technology, and overall knowledge increases the importance and likelihood of this re-interpretive crisis within the church. When we understand the universe, the earth, and people differently; we have to look again to the founding principles and revelation of God in order to understand how they relate to our new knowledge of reality. Since Christianity grew from the same roots as Judaism, Levine’s emphasis on the importance of cross-faith (my term) interaction is well-founded. There is no threat to deny the distinctiveness of Jesus and his message, or the redemptive nature of his death and resurrection, by interacting with Jews. Nor is there any need to try to proselytize. We must realize God’s freedom to draw people to God in the manner God chooses. As Christians, we are told to lift Jesus up. God does the rest. But lifting up Jesus doesn’t mean putting others down through exclusion.