March 18, 2005

A.J. Levine: "Christians say the darndest things (about Jews)"

One of the coolest things about attending a seminary like Truett that is affiliated with a university is the variety of guest lecturers who regularly drop by to share their perspectives on life, the universe, and everything with us. One of the most recent was Dr. Amy Jill Levine, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University and Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality (also at Vandy). Dr. Levine holds the distinction of being a practicing, non-messianic Jew who is also a very well-respected New Testament scholar (yes, you read that correctly). The title of her lecture was, "Christians say the darndest things (about Jews)," and as you might imagine, she brought a unique perspective to the topic.

Her thesis was that most Protestant exegetes recognize that the New Testament has been interpreted "anti-Jewishly," yet many of us slip into this kind of error nonetheless. She went on to discuss five of the most common ways this happens and to offer suggestions to help us avoid them:
  1. Portraying Jews as untolerant of the early Christians. Yes, John's gospel refers three times to Christians being expelled from the synagogue. Yes, John also quotes Jesus as calling his Jewish listeners, "children of the devil." But Paul preached in synagogues and was never expelled; rather, he was subjected to community discipline. The real question, from Dr. Levine's perspective, is why did synagogues respond the way they did to Christians. She made the point that most of our churches would respond similarly if someone made the kinds of assertions in our worship services or Sunday schools that early Christians were making in the synagogues. She pointed out, "Splits in the church occur today for far less urgent reasons."
  2. Portraying the Law as an unbearable burden to Jews. Of the claim in Acts 15 that the Law is "a yoke we cannot bear," Dr. Levine said, "This makes sense only if it was written by a Gentile," and pointed out that the average Jew didn't feel this way about the Law. The real question, from Dr. Levine's perspective, is how do you follow the Law. She pointed out that in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tightened the Law rather than loosening it. "The speed limit isn't a burden," she quipped, "Unless you want to speed."
  3. Portraying the Jewish messianic expectation as belicose. Sure, some Jews were looking for a warrior messiah who would use violence to free Israel from Roman oppression. But that view was only one of many. Painting a picture of "Jewish violence" versus "Christian peace" is grossly simplistic. She pointed out that there is more than enough violent imagery in the book of Revelation alone to put this false dichotomy to rest.
  4. Portraying the Jews as male chauvenists. Generalization is rampant here. We're most guilty of this when we preach about the women in the gospels, such as the woman at the well or the woman who touched Jesus' robe. Dr. Levine suggested that our subconscious motive in preaching like this is, "The worse you can make the Jews look toward women, the better Jesus looks." But the broader contextual evidence shows that the Jews took a much different view of women than is typically presented in sermons and Bible studies.
  5. Portraying the Jewish picture of God as cold and distant, in contrast to which Jesus calls the Father "Abba." Two misconceptions here: That Jesus was an innovator in calling God "Abba," and that "Abba" is an affectionate form of "Father," perhaps best translated for today's audiences as "Daddy." Dr. Levine showed from the rabbinic literature that neither is true.
To help all of us young preachers and teachers overcome these errors, Dr. Levine offered herself--in a metaphysical sort of way. "Imagine me sitting in your class or sanctuary," she said. She encouraged us not to sit still for teaching that encourages attitudes toward Jews (or others, for that matter) that are out of sync with Jesus' own teaching on how to relate to your neighbor. All in all, it was an incredibly informative lecture, and more than a little entertaining, as Dr. Levine has both a quick wit and a disarming sense of humor. The Baylor community was very blessed to have her.


At 9:20 AM, Blogger Rick said...

I am often amazed of how ignorant I am of Jesus' "religion". Two years of studying Biblical Hebrew and four years of seminary left me realizing just how little I understand the context and culture of where my religion developed.

It is difficult to grasp THEOLOGY without understanding anthropolgy and history.

At 5:39 PM, Blogger Connie said...

Thank you for having that tidy kind of mind reserved for academics, scholars and antiquarian book dealers. Hence, a precis of this billiant work! I repent me of these sins...and Good Friday is the best day to do that, I think.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Owlb said...

I happened on your blog and your item on A.J. Levine's "Christians say the darndest things (about Jews).: You've mostly Protestants in mind who read the informal profile of "Jew" from varous places in the New Testament, along with cultural accoutrements of the reader (one may add). I found the piece to be worth serious meditation. But, here's a historiogrpahical problem underlaying the various Christian Scriptural snapshots as well. Which turns on, or in consort with the whole problem of dating the various mentions. Thanks for drawing our attention to Levine's reflections. - Owlb


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