Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Was Jesus anti-Jewish?

Prof. Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish woman who attends an orthodox synagogue in Nashville and who occupies an endowed chair of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. If you make a habit of watching the various Jesus TV shows that appear around Christmastime and Easter, you've probably seen her on camera. A-J, as her students call her (I was her student, and still consider myself such) is an engaging lecturer with an appealing sense of humor and a simply awesome command of the various themes, facts and passages of the New Testament. And she treats the New Testament a lot better than many Christian professors, clergy and laity treat the Old Testament.

Which brings me to her latest book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. It is precisely, I think, because of A-J's deep appreciation of Jesus as a specifically Jewish man, and the plainly Jewish character of the New Testament, that leads her to describe and rebut Christians' historic and ongoing habit of thinking of Jesus as some kind of "counter-Jew" who sought to radically change his own religious traditions and teachings or even overturn them. Even worse has been the use of the New Testament by Christians to justify anti-Judaism, which is a very short step from anti-Jew; neither position is simply tenable with the identity and life of Jesus.



This book is not another bewailing of how Christian Germany came to commit the Holocaust. In fact, the Shoah gets only a very brief mention in her book. A-J isn't writing to point the finger at Christians for our sins. She simply wishes to introduce the reader to the Jewish ordinariness of Jesus himself and of his place and time. Just as importantly, A-J explains simply and thoroughly the errors of both the Church and the Academy in drawing conclusions about presumed monolithic Judaism; both blocs have generally supposed that whatever Jesus seemed to oppose must have been normative in Judaism of his day. That is, clergy and scholars alike haven't studied Judaica to speak of, but nonetheless think that the New Testament describes Judaism both accurately and exhaustively. It just is not so.

As well, A-J exposes how modern theological fads (liberationism, feminism and many others), have so idealized Jesus away from his personal Jewishness that he becomes a heroic figure exemplifying whatever the faddists a priori wish him to be. Jesus' own people then become the paradigm for whomever the faddists wish to oppose in the present day, and the dysfunctions and injustices of today - whether patriarchy, colonialism, or various exploitations - are retrojected as the norm of first-century Judaism. Jews are then portrayed, sometimes explicitly, as domineering oppressors of class, gender, the outcast and the marginalized. Hence, in seeking to identify Jesus with the Palestinian cause today, one liberationist makes explicit an identity across two millennia between the Israeli "occupiers" of the West Bank and the Jews who (presumably) killed Jesus.

Finally, the book appeals to Jews not dismiss the Christian testament as wholly antithetical to Judaism's history and current practice. A-J explains, for example, how the Lord's Prayer (called, the "Our Father" in Catholicism) is a Jewish prayer through and through. (I remember this explanation from my first New Testament class with her, too.) Noting that after two thousand years of history it is too much to expect that Jews today will feel comfortable in praying it, she uses it to point out how Christian faith and practice is still pervaded by Jewish traditions and that there are many positive points of contact that adherents of either faith would be better off to appreciate.

I recommend the book without reservation. It's the best religious-topic book I have read in several years.

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