A prescription for Jewish-Christian relations; “The Misunderstood Jew” is Amy Jill Levine‘s new book

Amy-Jill Levine recalls twice being approached by “nice, silver-haired Protestant women” who had never met a Jewish person. They wanted to know where she had had her horns removed.

“They were both surprised and relieved to know that Jews don‘t have horns,” Levine said.

As a Jewish expert on Jesus and the New Testament, the Vanderbilt professor has also experienced a neo-Nazi interrupting her lecture to protest the decidedly non-radical concept that Jesus was Jewish. Another time a student from Kenya was standoffish; it turned out that in the student‘s native language the word “Jew” meant “someone who deceives or betrays.”

In her new book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Levine painstakingly illustrates the wasted effort that has gone into obscuring, distorting, explaining away or ignoring the simple fact that Jesus was a practicing Jew.

“Jesus of Nazareth dressed like a Jew, prayed like a Jew (and most likely in Aramaic), instructed other Jews on how best to live according to the commandments given by God to Moses, taught like a Jew, argued like a Jew with other Jews, and died like thousands of other Jews on a Roman cross,” Levine writes in The Misunderstood Jew.

The book, released in November by HarperSanFrancisco, has drawn positive reviews for her arguments that denial of Jesus‘ Jewish heritage fuels anti-Semitism on one hand, and on the other robs Jews from fully enjoying the richness of Judaism.

“This is precisely the book we have long needed, abundant in scholarship and leavened by gentle humor,” said Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, calls The Misunderstood Jew “an indispensable guidebook to future Jewish Christian dialogue.”

“Levine challenges both Jews and Christians to move past their mutual misconceptions without ceding what is essential to both,” Gibson said.

Citing Texas songwriter Kinky Friedman‘s “They Ain‘t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” Levine argues that some Christian theologians have set up Judaism as a straw-man foil, the opposing force that Jesus overturned.

“Christians find in Jesus the answer to whatever ails the body politic, whether it is war, ethnocentrism, an institutional religion intertwined with the state, or misogyny,” Levine writes. “In order for Jesus to serve this liberationist role, he has to have something concrete to oppose. The bad ‘system‘ then becomes, in the scholarship and in the pulpit, first-century Judaism.”
This convenient prop is not only inaccurate, but has led to anti-Semitism both accidental and sinister.

Among many examples, Levine points out commonly accepted theories that women were freed from oppressive Jewish society by Jesus, that Jesus cut through a too legalistic Jewish tradition that was onerous for followers, and that the “God of love” of the New Testament is different from the “God of wrath” in the Old Testament.

In each case, Levine, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies and first director of the Carpenter program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality, shoots down the premise.

“The New Testament records numerous rights that Jewish women had in the first century: home ownership, patronage positions, access to their own funds, the right to worship in synagogues and in the Temple, freedom of travel, and so forth,” Levine writes. “Women did not join Jesus because ‘Judaism‘ treated them poorly; nor did they stop being Jews, any more than Jesus himself, once they joined.”

Levine points out that average Jews had no sense of their religious law as burdensome. Dietary restrictions are no tougher than the modern vegetarian faces, nor were pork products common in either Galilee or Judea, so there was little temptation to stray from the law. Tithing practices are similar in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and Americans manage to abide by many more United States laws than can be found in the Talmud.

The “God of wrath” versus the “God of love” is another invention that needlessly divides, Levine said. Both testaments display divine love and divine anger.

“As different as they are, church and synagogue have the same goals, the same destination, whether called olam habah, the kingdom of heaven, or the messianic age,” Levine writes. “The two cars pull into the same station, and they have the same stationmaster there to welcome them.”

Among 26 prescriptions for Christians and Jews to fruitfully move forward, one stands out: “Practice holy envy,” Levine advises, citing the work of Krister Stendahl. “Look at the other tradition with generosity and seek to seek the good.”

Media contact: Jim Patterson, jim.patterson@vanderbilt.edu
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