Six Questions for Amy-Jill Levine

by Jews for Jesus | October 02 2012

JFJ: The Jewish Annotated New Testament has made quite a splash in some circles. What were your expectations as co-editor in terms of its reception and impact among Jews and Christians? Have those expectations been met so far?

Amy-Jill Levine: Rather than thinking of “expectations” for the Jewish Annotated New Testament, I thought in terms of two major goals. First, we wanted to produce a resource that would correct anti-Jewish stereotypes that frequently accompany New Testament interpretation. The volume flags the stereotypes, shows why they are wrong, and provides alternative interpretations so that Bible studies and homilies will not inculcate or reinforce false views of Jews and Judaism.

Second, we wanted to provide Jews a resource for recovering Jewish history. The New Testament is necessarily part of that history. Much of it was written by Jews; it talks about Jews and provides insights into contemporaneous Jewish views. Some of its interpretations have led to tragic relations between Jews and Christians over the past two millennia.

So far, both goals seem to be met.

JFJ: Could you summarize the thesis of your book The Misunderstood Jew and your purpose for writing it? Were there any “action points” for the Jewish and Christian communities that you hoped to see come out of its publication?

A-JL: Thesis: If we misunderstand Jesus’ Jewish context, we will misunderstand Jesus. If we take Jesus out of his Jewish context, not only will we misunderstand him, we are likely to promote false, negative views of Judaism. The book shows how Jesus’ piety, politics, parables, prayers, polemics, and passion (sorry for the alliteration) make sense within first-century Galilee and Judea. It shows how and why Christian interpretation—including by some well-motivated Christian feminists, Christian liberation theologians, and Christians concerned for the Palestinians—can devolve into anti-Judaism, as well as how to correct these readings. It details the common root of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, as well as how and why the two movements separated.

Action points: the last chapter is an alphabet, literally, on stumbling blocks that prevent Jews and Christians from engaging in helpful conversation.

JFJ: The Jewishness of Paul has also been on the agenda of Jewish writers, though with more controversy. From the publication of W. D. Davies’ Paul and Rabbinic Judaism in the 1940s through Daniel Langton’s recent The Apostle Paul in the Jewish Imagination, Jewish writers have grappled with Paul vis-à-vis his Jewish background. Do you think there will ever be a “Jewish reclamation of Paul” as there has been a positive re-evaluation of Jesus in his Jewish context?

A-JL: Thank you for mentioning Dr. Davies. He was my teacher at Duke. He was not, however, Jewish. Paul has served for many Jews (and not a few Christians) as the villain of the New Testament, the one who took Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven and distorted it into a Hellenized (i.e., pagan) proclamation of Jesus. This extreme view is slowly dissipating. There is already a modest reclamation of Paul by Jews (e.g., Mark Nanos, Pamela Eisenbaum). I think this reclamation will be less popular, in part because most readers find Paul’s epistles less accessible than the Gospels and Acts, and in part because in religious conversation, Jesus is of greater interest.

JFJ: The question of the Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament is of course a separate one from the question of its truth (even though “truth” is variously understood). Currently the question for many Jews tends to be whether putting one’s faith in Jesus is “switching teams” sociologically. Others argue that the very idea of Jesus as Messiah is not theologically acceptable as a Jewish option. Based on recent trends, do you foresee a time when the Jewishness of faith in Jesus will be a given, and the question for those who care to engage the issue will then revolve around the matter of the truth of the gospel/Christian message?

A-JL: It was Pontius Pilate who asked “What is truth?” I am not inclined to put myself in his company. Theological claims are not open, as far as I can tell, to any empirical test. Belief is not like sudoku; it is like love. It is, to use Paul’s language, based on “grace,” not logic. I’m personally much more interested in what people do than in what they believe.

Finally on this, I find theological debates about “truth” (e.g., the almost incessant atheist vs. theist debates) at best uninteresting, and usually tedious, or nasty.

In terms of your phrasing, “the Jewishness of faith in Jesus”: the first people who proclaimed Jesus “Lord” in the sense of being part of the Divine were Jews. That proclamation made sense in a first-century Jewish context. By the fifth century, however, it no longer made sense. Churches did not want among its congregants people who identified as Jews, or who held to practices that distinguished Jews from the other nations. Jewish communities did not want among their members people who worshiped Jesus, or understood the Divine to be a Trinity, or who held the books of the New Testament to be sacred.

Today, I think the idea of “Jesus as messiah” is less controversial within the Jewish community than the idea of “Jesus as G-d.” While the “Jewishness of Jesus” is increasingly a “given,” the Jewishness of people who worship him as divine remains an area of discussion and likely will continue to do so. Here conversation between Jews who worship Jesus and Jews who do not—conversation for introduction, not evangelism or counter-evangelism—would be helpful.

JFJ: Specifically, do you think Jewish followers of Jesus (or others who believe in evangelizing) should have a voice at the table when Jewish scholars talk about Jesus or when Jewish-Christian dialogue takes place?

A-JL: At places where scholars gather—the Society of Biblical Literature, for example—everyone with appropriate credentials is welcome at the table. At Vanderbilt Divinity School, where I teach, we have had Jewish believers in Jesus, as far as I can recall, in every entering class, and their voices are welcome.

In terms of Jewish-Christian dialogue, this would depend on several factors: the goal of the dialogue; the concerns of other participants; their level of trust with each other; the new participant’s expertise on the topic under discussion; the affiliation the new participant claims (e.g., on what side of the table does this participant sit?); whether the new participant’s primary agenda is evangelizing, etc. In most “dialogues,” as in most scholarly settings, the purpose is not evangelizing.

At some point, interreligious dialogue—Jewish/Roman Catholic, Jewish/Evangelical, Jewish/liberal Protestant, etc.—should address the phenomenon of the contemporary Jew who believes in Jesus. It may be easier first to discuss conversion (in which the Jewish follower of Jesus self-identifies as a Christian and is so recognized by a Christian group, for example, Edith Stein) rather than of Jews who believe in Jesus and still identify as Jews. I also wonder if it would be better, before having the Jewish-Christian dialogue about which you inquire, first to have a conversation between Jews who believe in Jesus and Jews who do not. Here I would like to see several perspectives among Jewish believers in Jesus represented, from Jews for Jesus to Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism, just as I would like to see various (other groups) of Jews represented, secular to Reform to Orthodox. For this conversation, the participants would need to decide the goals of the dialogue and the questions to be addressed.

JFJ: Most readers of this publication believe that followers of Jesus ought to evangelize both Jews and Gentiles. Do you find that viewpoint acceptable in the modern context?

A-JL: One could translate Matthew’s “Great Commission” (28:19) as “Make disciples of all the gentiles” (the Greek is panta ta ethne) and so leave the Jews alone, but that Gospel provides no abrogation of the earlier command to evangelize “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6; cf. 15:24). Thus, followers of Jesus who evangelize are being biblically faithful.

I do, however, have problems with several ways in which evangelism has been done. Stealth evangelism I find dishonest; evangelism that proceeds along the lines of “believe my way or you will fry in hell” I find obscene; evangelism for the sake of converting people to a particular belief, but which does not manifest that belief in care for others (cf. Matthew 25) I find at best a missed opportunity. Personally, I’d like to see the money supporting missionaries whose primary role is getting people to convert (to any religion) be redirected to health care, homes for the homeless and food for the hungry, working with our new “minority” group, the incarcerated American (I have been teaching for eight years at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute in Nashville), engaging in ecological protection, etc.

Finally, the majority of people who want to bring Jews “the good news of Jesus” do so not out of hatred of Jews, or disrespect for Judaism, but out of love. It would be good for all Jews to realize this.