Book Title: The Misunderstood Jew
Author: Amy-Jill Levine
Date Published: November 20, 2007
Publisher: HarperOne; Reprint edition
Genre: 1. History
2. Judaism
3. Historical Theology
ISBN: 978-0061137785
Reviewer: Rich Robinson
Review Date: January 30, 2007

Update: I’ve continuing reading through The Misunderstood Jew. Chapter Two is From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church” and is the least satisfactory of all the chapters. It pretty much rehashes older, non-conservative views of the history of the early church. The early Christians expected Jesus to return any day; when he didn’t, they reinterpreted their beliefs to accommodate reality. Sometimes Levine gets breezy and ends up sounding like a Discovery Channel program on religion: “For Paul and Barnabas, the political fallout along with occasional persecution by the local synagogue was a small price to pay in order to save the world. Nor was it a huge problem, since Jesus was returning soon” (p. 72). “Only the train conducted by Paul, the one in which distinction between Jews and Gentiles is erased, will pull into the heavenly station” (p. 82). By the way, she doesn’t seem to recognize that Paul’s “erasure” of the distinction between Jews and Gentile only applied to entrance into the Kingdom of God – Paul frequently identifies himself as a “Jew” and lived like one.

On the other hand, Chapters Three (“The New Testament and Anti-Judaism”) and Four (“Stereotyping Judaism”) are much better, with much to both agree and disagree with. Levine, as she reiterates several times, has an openly “political” motive in her critique, namely to avoid the propagation of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. Much of her criticism ends up directed against recent non-evangelical scholars, though her words are also for “academics, priests, and pastors” of all stripes. I think she sometimes mistakes ignorance for malice (and I know that I’ve run across ignorance and anti-Semitism from Christians at various times and places). But she can be right on target, too, and there’s a lot of good food for thought in what she has to say.

Three chapters yet to go …

January 19, 2007

That’s the name of Amy-Jill Levine’s new book, subtitled The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Levine, Jewish and a member of an Orthodox synagogue, teaches New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, a largely Protestant institution.

I’m in the midst of reading it, having so far gotten through the introduction and chapter 1, “Jesus and Judaism.” Levine is stimulating and often quite funny. The introduction is a wonderful example. As Levine recounts her childhood, she notes that since according to her mother, Pope John XXIII was “good for the Jews,” Levine “immediately decided I would be pope: it meant lots of spaghetti, great accessories, and the job was good for the Jews. ‘I want to be pope,’ I announced to my mother. ‘You can’t,’ she replied. ‘You’re not Italian.’ Clearly, for a variety of reasons, I was in desperate need of instruction regarding the relationship between church and synagogue.”

It’s great stuff, and it continues that way with much vulnerability and honest insight. Levine wants to build bridges, and she writes with both sympathy and charity. Chapter 1, which is as far as I’ve gotten so far, surveys the relationship of Jesus to the Judaism of his day, including topics such as Torah, parables, and prayer. In the latter section, Levine unpacks the Lord’s prayer from a Jewish perspective.

Favorite analogy: “These tzitzit thus may be compared to WWJD bracelets. Just as the bracelets remind their Christian wearers to ask, ‘What would Jesus do'” so the fringes remind Jewish wearers of all 613 “commandments,” or mitzvot (Hebrew; singular, mitzvah)? (p. 24).

You have to love that.

Favorite quote that invites a good discussion: “To see him in a first-century Jewish context and to listen to his words with first-century Jewish ears do not in any way undermine Christian theological claims. Jesus does not have to be fully unique in order to say something or do something meaningful” (p. 51).

Which, after all, is part of the meaning of what Christians call the “Incarnation” — God became one of us, and specifically, he became a Jew. That must never be forgotten by the church. But what will Levine do with the claims that Jesus is indeed a first-century Jew, but also much more than that? Stay tuned.

Second favorite quote that invites a good discussion: “And yet some Jews do convert to Christianity, and some Christians convert to Judaism. Again, conversion is not a matter of whose teaching is ‘better’ or ‘true’ in any sort of objective sense; it is prompted by the teaching that provides the best personal sense of truth and fulfillment to the individual” (p. 18).

That’s a problematic statement. Maybe I will find out differently further into the book, but at this point I have to ask— is there no publicly available truth that can be evaluated in the arena of religion? If objective truth is irrelevant to one’s faith, what does it mean that Judaism declares Sinai really happened or when Christians proclaim that Jesus really lived, died, and was resurrected? Some Christians indeed have been prepared to dispense with history and speak of the “resurrection” happening “in their heart” — oblivious to the wholesale rewriting of their faith which that entails. How about for Jews? Was there a Sinai in our hearts but not in history? Does Abraham offer up Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22) only when we are asked to sacrifice something big in our lives?

Levine says none of those things, and so I put those questions to her. She is for mutual understanding, and I am eager to read further and get clarification. I’m sure she would be a stimulating conversation partner. I look forward to the rest of her book, with more comments to come.