For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Misunderstood Jew

Posted on: September 12, 2015

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperCollins, 2006, 250 pp.

Misunderstood JewI had several seminary students and colleagues who raved about this book and the unique voice Dr. Amy-Jill Levine brought to Jesus scholarship as a Jewish scholar of the New Testament. I was surprised by how much of the book felt like old and familiar information, but also by the parts that felt new and intriguing. I found the first half of the book a bit boring, because it felt like something I have read many times in many places. However, the second half of the book covered new and interesting territory for me.

The introduction outlines Levine’s personal journey toward becoming Jewish scholar of the New Testament, and the unique project of this book to simultaneously illuminate the Jewishness of Jesus in the New Testament and the ways Christian interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish context continue to jeopardize interfaith relationships.

The first section of the book covers familiar territory recognizing that Jesus was faithful to his Jewish practices. While he occasionally broke the rules, he did not set up his ministry as a counter to the prevailing Jewish practices of the day. He wore tzitzit (fringed prayer shawl), kept kosher and Sabbath, drew on the Shema (Deuteronomy 6) for the Golden Rule. His parables and conversations over the meaning of the law follow Jewish rabbinical practices. In a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Levine makes an excellent case that Jesus’ use of the word “Abba” for God is not unique either, undoing an oft-repeated sermon topic. Her second chapter examines the unfolding division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the missionary controversies between Peter, Paul and James, and why Jews did not perceive Jesus to be the Messiah.

The midpoint of the third chapter, for me, marked an entrance into newer and more interesting material. After a basic discussion of the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and a recounting of the most famous anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament, Levine begins to explore the separation between Judaism and Christianity. She undercuts theories that Christians were thrown out of synagogues beginning at the end of the first century, naming the Council of Jamnia as a historical fiction and arguing that, if Christians were ejected, it is because they were no longer Jews in any sense of the word, replacing the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Jesus.

The fourth chapter, entitled “Stereotyping Judaism,” was the most new and insightful for me, because Levine levels a stark criticism of liberal Christian interpretations of Jesus.

Christian skeptics thus have an enormous problem. Why remain Christian if Jesus is one of several wise individuals with good ideas for social improvement? The easiest answer to the question is to argue that Jesus does what no one else ever did or could do; he is distinct, special, better. This process means depicting a Jesus who stands out as unique in his Jewish context; it also usually means enhancing the distinction, and this is done by painting the Jewish context in noxious colors. (120)

Those of us who wish to paint Jesus as a social justice leader tend to portray his Jewish context as the exemplar of injustice. Levine deconstructs misunderstandings about the harshness or impossibility of following Jewish law and the perception that all Jews anticipated a warrior Messiah. She then goes on to issue a strong critique, on both historic and anti-Jewish grounds, against the claim that Jesus was a feminist, based on biblical stories of his interactions with the Samaritan woman and his teachings on divorce. As one who has admired Jesus as a feminist based on these arguments, I took Levine’s critique to heart. It’s not that Jesus wasn’t good to women, it’s that our arguments to make that case rely on shaky stereotypes and exaggerations.

She proceeds to offer a similar deconstruction of liberal interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that rely on negative stereotypes of the Pharisee and Sadducee, instead seeing the “punch” of the parable in the animosity between Jews and Samaritans.

We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent of the Samaritan. (149)

These deconstructions persist in Levine’s questioning of the characterization of the temple as a “domination system”(154) or “ethnocentric system”(159)  in the analysis of the widow with the two coins and the Syrophoenician woman.

The remainder of the book combs through volumes of contemporary liberation theology for examples of anti-Jewish rhetoric or New Testament interpretation. She indicts everyone from liberation icons Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff to multiple publications from the World Council of Churches. Some of those WCC authors have not taken Levine’s critiques seriously, others have revised their arguments accordingly. The final chapters discuss contemporary Jewish-Christian relationships, including perspectives on the use of “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible,” the prevalence of Christian seders, and the conflicts around the plight of the Palestinian people.

My overall assessment of the book is that, while the first half was slow, the second half of The Misunderstood Jew was rich and thought-provoking, especially since Levine took aim at some familiar (and even beloved) interpretations of Jesus as feminist and exemplar of social justice. Her critiques of anti-Judaism will impact how I view and preach those stories in the future.

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4 Responses to "Book Review: The Misunderstood Jew"

I’ll admit I laid the book aside after reading the first three chapters, for much the same reasons you give above. Here’s my question: Levine’s conclusions take away the Jesus we learned about in liberal Christian seminaries. What sort of Jesus is left when she’s finished?

I would have laid it down at that point too, but I was in a clergy book group so I had to keep going. 🙂

I wondered the same thing when I was reading, but I found that she didn’t completely deconstruct that version of Jesus for me. She softened it, and made him a bit less singular in his opinions and behavior.

I pondered how those 2nd Wave Feminists made such a hard, strong case for Jesus as feminist because they had to do so. We are free, now, to look with a bit more nuance.

The fact remains that the gospels are tough on the Pharisees, though, and since I generally use those stories to point to our church “regulars” and never to the Jews of today, I think the critique of the powers and principalities remains apt.

Indeed. As you set it, it is a conflict among faithful Jews about how best to be faithful. So many don’t frame it that way, however.

Interestingly, I actually found myself comparing Levine to some of those strident early feminist theology books–making as hard a case as possible, diving after every example (no matter how remote), in order to make her point.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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