Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Misunderstood Jew

The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
© 2007 Amy-Jill Levine
250 pages


 Amy-Jill Levine is a Jew for Jesus. No, not that kind of Jew -- she's happily Orthodox, thank you very much. But she grew up with Christian friends and developed an interest in Christian culture to the point that as a child, her Barbie and Ken dolls took celebrated Eucharist with one another -- and as an adult, she teaches on the New Testament at a largely Protestant divinity school. As someone who cherishes both religious traditions, she writes to help Christians and Jews understand one another, and believes that such an understanding may and must be rooted on the fact that Jesus, the inspiration of Christianity, was thoroughly Jewish. He is neither a heretical figure Jews should distance themselves from, nor a theological revolutionary who rendered Judaism irrelevant to those who followed him.


The first chapter covers material which I expected to be the whole of the book; using the gospel accounts  to establish that Jesus was a Jew in practice, beliefs, manners, and dress. Some of this is open to interpretation -- Levine believes that Jesus simply taught the heart of Judaism without answering to particularly restrictive schools of it and emphasizes that the Christian perception of Jewish orthodoxy is somewhat skewed given that the Pharisees of the bible are written as villains.   After this she devotes a chapter to the growth of the Christian church  from a small community of Jews to a network of communities spread out around the Mediterranean basin, dominated by 'Gentiles'.  As the church moves further away from Judaism, hostility between the two now-divergent faiths increases, and this leads into several chapters on anti-Semitism. First, Levine examines claims that the New Testament is explicitly anti-Jewish. She doesn't believe so, but allows that it CAN be used in an anti-Jewish fashion,  and this is a source of agitation for her throughout the book. She even devotes a chapter ("With Friends Like These...") to attacking liberal theologians who see Christ as rescuing spirituality from religion...because, since the religion in question is Judaism, they must not think very much of it. This chapter bothered me, for Levine seems overly sensitive. Criticizing the perceived excesses of first-century Judaism is no more anti-Jewish than criticizing the abuses of the Israeli state is anti-Semitic. Excesses are excesses regardless of who perpetuates them.  Unfortunately, Levine doesn't seem to keen on the idea of admitting that there were excesses at the time, when surely there must have been -- when has an institution with the power of religion never been abused?

The final chapter, however, ends things on a high note. In "Distinct Canons; Distinct Practices", Levine drives home the point that Judaism and Christianity are different religions: Jewish theology and Christian theology aren't the same. The best example is that of original sin and the fall from grace. It is Paul who invents the idea that Jesus died as a sacrifice to redeem people, and it is Christians who are obsessed with the idea of sin and it keeping them from the afterlife. Judaism isn't about the afterlife. 

While the book has its merits, I left ultimately disappointed. I think more space should have been devoted to first-century Judaism to more fully establish the context of Jesus' life, especially since first-century Judaism and modern Orthodox Judaism are as different as first-century Christianity and its modern forms. Jesus' Jewish audience shares ideas with him that no modern Jew would profess -- belief in Satan as a villain, for instance,  seen as an evil dragon.  They're also obsessed by the end of the world; that apocalyptic fire is now largely dead. The Misunderstood Jew should still be of use to Christians who are utterly oblivious about Judaism, but I think the the audience it would best serve are Jews who are leery of both Jesus and the New Testament, for Levine does establish that Jesus and the gospel accounts are firmly rooted in Jewish culture and not hostile to it. 

Related:

I haven't read either of these, but I'm fans of both of the authors and look forward to experiencing the books at some point. 

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