Wednesday, 6 April 2011


THE MISUNDERSTOOD JEW: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

Amy-Jill Levine

A Book Review by Annie Heppenstall

Reading this book has the same effect as if the person you have been talking about for years, presuming you know all about them, suddenly walks into the room and catches you at it. It would be utterly disconcerting, except that Amy Levine is so likeable. She has an intimate and affectionate knowledge of Christianity, Christian scriptures and the church and communicates in a highly engaging, easy-to-read way, but does not spare us Christians from some hard truths. I thought, having ingested Geza Vermes as a Theology student at the end of the 80’s, that I was quite good on ‘Jesus the Jew.’ Levine refers reassuringly to my former hero several times, but while Vermes as a historian keeps Jesus well within the context of 1st Century CE Judaism, Levine insists on bringing him out and making him – the whole issue – relevant to today, in the uncomfortable light of Christianity’s history.

Levine seems to leave no stone unturned. The pace combined with the challenge she presents, I felt needed to be counterbalanced by pauses for breath, to consider the far-reaching implications for Christian faith and attitude, and at times enquiry from more detailed information sources to rectify my own ignorance on some subjects. In many instances I would have welcomed the opportunity to challenge her back, particularly regarding the interpretation of some Gospel texts and Christian concepts, which naturally are dear to my heart. But in wishing to do so, I find my own defensiveness exposed and my emotional maturity tested and I have to ask myself whether I could display as much good grace as she does, in our imaginary interfaith conversation. In each case her stance is valid, whether I like what she is saying or not; she is a formidable dialogue partner and if we are serious about presenting Christianity sensitively and meaningfully in this post-Holocaust world then we cannot afford to ignore her.

The book needs to be read, but let me try to summarise a key point as far as I understand it. Despite recent theological and ecclesiastical advice to the contrary, Christian spokespeople persistently present Judaism as a negative foil for Jesus and the emerging church, and this continues to be a habitual way of reading scripture, despite all protestations, however genuine, that we abhor anti-Semitism and respect Jews and Judaism. It is an unjustifiable habit stemming from ignorance, and if followed through, does result, even unintentionally, in anti-Judaic sentiments. What is troubling, is the extent of this habit – we (or most of us ) do it frequently, unconsciously, despite our best intentions. It spreads from pulpit and publication, out into Christian community and occurs largely because of a misguided assumption that we can know Judaism because we read the ‘Old Testament.’ This is, as Levine points out, as ridiculous as somebody assuming they know us 21st Century Westernised Christians, because they have read the Epistles. The only way to know someone is to spend time with them, in person, and let them talk about themselves and reveal their own humanity and their own take on life; it is a process that requires some humility and willingness to listen and have our preconceptions dismantled. In this interfaith world, there is no longer an excuse for talking about another faith tradition without inviting them in to speak for themselves, and we should welcome Amy-Jill Levine for doing just that.

By way of illustration, let me finish with a short extract where Levine points out implications in a well-known and much-used quotation from the Epistle to the Galatians. It had simply not occurred to me that this passage could cause offence, until I read the following comment, but now it stares me in the face and calls me to find a different way of hearing the scriptures, ‘with the ears of my neighbour,’ as Levine puts it.

It is [therefore] pastorally helpful to imagine how the words of some New Testament passages can sound to people who are not Christian. For example, Galatians 3:28 proclaims, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female … in Christ Jesus.’ This verse may be very good news to the gentile men in Galatia, who now have the assurance that circumcision is neither warranted nor wanted. It might be good news to slaves …But to state that in the ideal world, or even in the purview of Christ, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek,’ sounds like the erasure of Jewish (and Greek) identity. Christian universalism thus entails the erasure of anything distinctly Jewish. Those who seek to promote multiculturalism might wish to rephrase Paul’s language to celebrate ‘both Jew and Greek, both male and female, and all, who should be free.’ (p. 114)

Ray adds I learnt recently that Amy Jill Levine is coming to Birmingham to give the Rabbi Tann Memorial Lecture in June details can be found below

The Third Annual Rabbi Tann Memorial Lecture: Jesus and Judasim - The Connection Matters Prof. Amy-Jill Levine, University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, will deliver the 3rd Annual Rabbi Tann Memorial Lecture on Thursday 2 June 2011 at 5pm in ERI Room G51 followed by a Drinks Reception. Her books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperOne). A self-described “Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt,” Professor Levine combines historical-critical rigour, literary-critical sensitivity, and a frequent dash of humour with a commitment to eliminating anti-Jewish, sexist, and homophobic theologies. For information contact Charlotte Hempel at or Isabel Wollaston