author of The Misunderstood Jew:
Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
Levine is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New
Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and Graduate
Department of Religion. Her many other books, articles, and essays
address topics like Christian origins, Jewish-Christian relations,
and women in the Bible.
a widely sought-after resource for the media and a speaker who describes
herself as “a Jewish Yankee feminist teaching in a southern
Christian divinity school,” Levine has given hundreds of talks
on biblical topics to academic and nonacademic audiences—people
of all faiths and none whatsoever. She has served on the editorial
boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic
Biblical Quarterly and has held office in the Society of Biblical
Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association
for Jewish Studies.
she is also a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination
of Religion, one of the organizations at the Center for Inquiry.
Her awards include grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National
Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned
words religion and spirituality get mixed up and matched up a lot
these days. As a member of an Orthodox Synagogue and a biblical
scholar, how do you define these two words?
today tends to be defined as personal if not anti-institutional;
conversely, “religion” is associated with a set of practices
and beliefs held by a community. The two need not be mutually exclusive.
The problem with “spirituality” as currently defined
is that it risks devolving into an egocentrism, a “me-ism”
devoid of ethics, practice, and community. The problem with “religion”
as it is currently defined is that it risks devolving into a system
of poorly understood if not ossified or irrelevant doctrines and
rites. But in both biblical and twenty-first century settings, religion
and spirituality work together: spirituality keeps religion from
becoming routine; religion keeps spirituality from becoming self-absorbed.
often lecture and teach in churches and interfaith settings. From
your experience, how do religious versus spiritual perspectives
affect the ways in which Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of
other faiths encounter and understand biblical texts?
everyone can understand “spirituality” since it transcends
denominational or institutional settings. One can be “spiritual”
without having an affiliation with, or even knowledge of, Scripture
or tradition. When the conversation turns to spirituality, people
share experiences and impressions and can get to know each other
arise when people who define themselves as “spiritual”
but not “religious” have little understanding of the
religious traditions. Their view of particular “religions”
can be narrow, erroneous, or uninformed. Then again, I encounter
even more people who are members of churches, synagogues, and temples
who know very little about the distinct teachings of their traditions.
our culture is filled with appeals to Scriptural authority, too
few people have actually read the texts, let alone explored how
Christians and Jews over the centuries have understood it. Too
few Christians understand the differences among the Four Gospels,
or how the various Christian movements came to take shape; too few
Jews have read the Rabbinic literature that underlies the traditions,
practices, and beliefs of Judaism today. Interfaith conversation
thus can serve as an excellent means not only for learning about
one’s neighbors, but also learning more about one’s
their understanding of Jesus?
is no single understanding of Jesus; even the New Testament provides
four Gospels, along with distinct views offered by Paul, the catholic
epistles, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation.
Further, various branches of both Christianity and Islam—along
with the individuals in the Church and in the Mosque— have
their own understandings of Jesus. An historical approach to Scripture
allows individuals to cross denominational and religious lines and
see where connections can be made and where we must agree to disagree.
what ways do the Gospels serve as a lens to help us to understand
Jesus as a religious Jew as well as a spiritual human being?
was a Jew by practice, belief, culture, and ethos, and the Gospels
make it abundantly clear how central his Jewish identity was to
him: his focus is the G-d of Israel, and how that G-d understands
justice, compassion, and the human community. He finds the Torah
central enough to argue with fellow Jews about how best to practice
it; he honors the Sabbath and keeps it holy; he teaches in the synagogues
of Galilee and the Temple in Jerusalem; he keeps the laws of purity
and so practices sanctification of the body; his teachings consistently
evoke the Scriptures of Israel…. He fits fully within his
Jewish tradition and expresses that tradition with his own memorable
manner of teaching. Unless we understand Jesus as a Jew, we’ll
misunderstand him and we’ll misunderstand the Judaism of his
effect does not seeing Jesus as a Jew have upon one’s encounter
with New Testament texts?
often Christian readers divorce Jesus from Judaism: he becomes the
only Jew who ever proclaimed love of G-d and love of neighbor, the
only Jew ever to show compassion to women, the only Jew ever to
counsel non-violent resistance. Yet the love commands,
already in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, are at the heart of Judaism;
Jesus is no more, and no less, progressive on women’s issues
than the vast majority of his contemporaries; Jews in the first
century were known for nonviolent protests—actually early
versions of “sit-ins”—against various Roman injustices.
the very least, seeing Jesus as a Jew prevents the creation of anti-Jewish
stereotypes. More, recognizing in Jesus’ words the Jewish
concerns for the poor, for social justice, for compassion, as already
stated in the Torah and the Prophets and as central to Judaism as
they are to the Jewish Jesus, helps Christians recover the Scriptures
of Israel—what the Church calls the “Old Testament”—as
something much more than a collection of “predictions”
about the Messiah.
What do Jews lose when they discount Jesus the Jew and fail to explore
the Gospels and what those records of his life report about his
religious beliefs and practices?
have no more and no less religious reason to attend to Jesus in
terms of religious or spiritual concerns than Christians do to attend
to the Qu’ran or the teachings of the Buddha. However,
at the very minimal level, Jews should find the gospels of interest
since, despite their Christian biases, they nevertheless preserve
information about Jewish history, practice, and belief. Next, by
hearing Jesus as a Jew conveying teachings about Judaism to his
fellow Jews, Jews today can hear our own tradition in words that
may not be familiar, but are definitely worth hearing. And third,
by reading the Gospels, Jews can learn how the words of Jesus the
Jew, spoken to his fellow Jews, became placed in a book written
for the increasingly Gentile Church and so became misunderstood
as words against Judaism. Thus they can see how anti-Jewish teachings
your students say, “I read the text and the Holy Spirit guides
me,” you are wont to respond: “Give the Holy Spirit
something to work with.” Between the lines is your belief
that the Spirit would probably appreciate a bit of historical investigation.
How does such sleuthing and the perspective it brings help one to
hear Jesus anew and, in turn, deepen his or her spiritual experience
of the text?
is blessed not only with a heart, but also with a brain, and it
would be a shame—indeed it would be sinful—to turn the
brain off when the subject is Theology or Biblical studies. Approaching
the Gospels from an historical perspective allows us to hear Jesus
as his first followers did: we can finally understand what made
him compelling enough to prompt his followers to leave their homes
and families, and what made him dangerous enough that Pilate had
him crucified. To ask how Jesus was understood in his own cultural
context should not undermine one’s faith; to the contrary,
it should enrich understanding. A faith perspective
that refuses to ask questions is a perspective marked by fear and
narrowness rather than by openness to the complexity, mystery, and
majesty of the divine.
recently said that to call early Judaism oppressive, repressive
and suppressive of women as if it were the Taliban in tallis
(prayer shawl) and tzitzit (fringes) is wrong. I hear variations
on those labels almost every time I lead a retreat or class in a
church. To be honest, as a Jew I hear a pejorative overtone as well.
Is that stereotypical view of Judaism a button pusher for you? And
whether or not it is, how do you respond?
of any form about any group are “button pushers” for
me, whether the subject is Judaism, or women, or the Church. In
encountering stereotypes, it is usually insufficient simply to say,
“That view is wrong” or “That view is offensive;”
more productive is to demonstrate how such views are wrong, and
here history is helpful
I am told, for example, that Jesus “liberated Mary from the
women’s quarters where she had been confined” or that
“unlike other rabbis, Jesus allowed a woman to sit at his
feet and learn from him,” I begin by noting, first, that most
houses at the time did not have women’s quarters; only the
wealthiest people in the largest cities could afford them. It is
our stereotypes about first-century Judaism, and first-century women,
that place Mary in the women’s quarters, not the text.
note that according to Luke, the house belonged to Martha, and then
point out that Martha is one of a number of Jewish women mentioned
in the New Testament who owned their own homes and had access to
their own funds. Third, I cite numerous Jewish sources demonstrating
not only that women received instruction but also served as teachers.
I suggest a thought-experiment: the story of Mary and Martha can
be read as teaching that Jesus only liked women who were silent,
servile, and seated at his feet; Martha, distracted by “serving”
(the Greek is diakonein, whence the term “deacon”) is
silenced. But this uncharitable reading is just as historically
inaccurate as the one in which Judaism is seen as marginalizing
often refer to the G-d of the Jews as a wrathful G-d and the G-d
of the New Testament as a loving G-d. The former sounds cold and
“religious,” and the latter sounds warm and “spiritual.”
I find the G-d of the Psalms and many of the stories in the Jewish
Bible to be as loving a G-d as one can find in sacred literature
worldwide. Can you say more about this?
view of different deities is actually a heresy, called “Marcionism.”
The G-d of the Scriptures of Israel—what the Church would
call the Old Testament and what Jews call the Tanakh—is
a loving father, compassionate shepherd, caring friend, and these
views carry over into the New Testament. At the same time, the New
Testament has its own share of divine anger and judgment, as a look
at the Book of Revelation immediately reveals. Jesus himself condemns
people to “the outer darkness, where there is wailing and
gnashing of teeth.” The New Testament is, moreover, very much
about practice and so about rules: as the Epistle of James puts
it, “Faith without works is dead.”
of the problem is the sense some Christians have that the “Old
Testament” is the “Jewish Bible” and therefore
not part of the Church’s canon. Another part of the problem
is the common Christian view that the Old Testament is about Law
and the New Testament is about Grace. The Torah—better translated
“Instruction” rather than “Law”—is
itself premised on grace. Jews do not follow Torah to earn divine
love or a spot in the afterlife: these are already part of the grace
G-d gives; we follow the Torah because that is our role under the
the New Testament is not simply about grace:
it is also about the ways by which one lives a life marked by grace.
Jesus himself notes that he will acknowledge “not those who
say ‘lord lord’ but those who do the will of the Father.”
than “Son of G-d,” “G-d incarnate,” or “Lamb
of G-d,” Jesus goes by many different names – revolutionary,
wisdom-keeper, prophet, pacifist, healer, rabbi, mystic, and a long
list of others. Clearly, one’s early experiences and current
worldview color each individual’s picture of this man before
and after his crucifixion. If you could only use one sentence to
describe Jesus of Nazareth, who do you say he is?
think a single sentence sufficiently captures his complexity, or
the complexity of anyone else for that matter. I am not inclined
to reduce people to sound-bytes or labels.
have said that studying Jesus, Mary Magdalene, James, Peter and
Paul enhance your appreciation of your own Judaism. In what ways
does that happen for you?
a lovely irony, the Church preserves part of my own Jewish history:
in understanding the lives of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their associates,
I learn much about Jewish life in the first century, synagogues
and the Jerusalem Temple, diverse understanding of Scriptures and
diverse reactions to Rome, the numerous options open to women and
the enormous love parents had for children, the relationships among
Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, the rich and the poor, the Pharisees
and the tax collectors….
was moved when I learned that you teach the same class in a maximum
security prison that you teach at Vanderbilt University Divinity
School. Has this class had an affect on the spiritual lives of some
of the men who have taken it?
not ask my students at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison about their
spirituality—I would not intrude on something so personal.
On occasion, however, they do share their views with me. For a number
of them, perhaps for all, the class creates a setting where, as
one student put it, “For two hours a week, we are no longer
prisoners.” Another student said: “A.-J., you don’t
let people get way with sloppy thinking, and so we know that when
you tell us we’ve made a good point, we don’t feel like
you’re coddling us” (actually, he used a more colloquial
term than “coddling”). He went on: “All my life
people have told me that I’m stupid; but when you told me
I was smart, I believed you, and so I could finally believe in myself.”
of the Riverbend students have been in prison for over 30 years;
some will die there; a few were once on Death Row. Many of these
men have no family or friends in the free world; they know most
free-world people would prefer to ignore them, or execute them.
My point is not to overlook the obscene crimes they have committed,
or to ignore the tragedy of murder, rape, and child molesting. It
is rather to recognize that these men are also human beings, each
with his own story, his own hopes and concerns, and his own potential
to contribute to the human community.
you—what dimension has this class added to your spiritual
journey that could never have been realized any other way?
the practical level, by listening to my Riverbend students, I have
become increasingly aware both of the failures of the present U.S.
penal system and of the possibilities for improving it and so cutting
back on recidivism, corruption, and despair.
the spiritual journey, the following story epitomizes Riverbend’s
impact. One evening, discussing the “Lord’s Prayer,”
I argued in my best academic manner that Jesus spoke about forgiving
“debts” rather than “trespasses.” I mentioned
Jesus’ interest in economic reform, the Scriptures of Israel
that condemn holding debts, provide for the release of debts in
the sabbatical and Jubilee years, and seek to prevent the alienation
of land. I finished by noting that I would find it easier to forgive
a trespass, a slight against me, than to forgive a loan of several
of my students then said, “Lady, you have no idea what you’re
talking about.” He then explained how he had participated
in a program of restorative justice, and how he felt when the family
of the people he killed told him that they forgave him. “Lady,
you have no idea what sin is, and therefore you have no idea what
forgiveness is.” And he was right.
like this happen each time I go to Riverbend, where, as at Vanderbilt,
my students are also my teachers.
Misunderstood Jew examines what many might
call an elephant on the table. What does your truth-telling bring
to light that, in turn, enlightens readers in ways that other books
talking about Jesus the Jew have not?
was a first-century Jew who, like a number of his fellow Jews, taught
love of G-d and neighbor, non-violent resistance to oppression,
an openness to the grandeur and the presence of G-d, and a way of
seeing the world as G-d would like it rather than as humanity had
is, unfortunately, easier to talk about a legalistic, xenophobic,
misogynistic, elitist Judaism and then divorce Jesus from it than
it is to recognize and correct the prejudices that create the stereotypes
in the first place. It is easier to talk about how Jesus “frees
his followers from the Law,” as if the Law were some sort
of straight-jacket rather than the gift of G-d, than it is to proclaim
the demands that Jesus placed on his followers: give without expectation
of return, love the enemy, visit those in prison, become servant-leaders
rather than corporate managers.
Misunderstood Jew names the stereotypes that both Jews and
Christians have of each other—in effect, it fusses at both
Church and Synagogue members—explains how the stereotypes
developed, and then separates the chaff of prejudice from the wheat
what do you hope readers will say about your book and Jesus when
they read the last page?
at the end of the journey, readers have a greater understanding
of how Jesus fits within his Jewish context, of why some Jews followed
him and the majority did not, of how Church and Synagogue became
separate institutions that have for far too long been bearing false
witness against each other, and of how today Jesus might serve as
a bridge between Jews and Christians, rather than a wedge, I’d
be more than delighted.
Goldman is co-author of Finding
Jesus, Discovering Self: Passages To Healing And Wholeness
(Morehouse) and other books. An Explorefaith Q&A with her can
be found here.
©2007 Caren Goldman
To purchase a copy of THE
MISDUNDERSTOOD JEW, visit amazon.com. This link is provided
as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered