A Critical Analysis of The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine: The Truth Behind the Division of Christians and Jews
The Misunderstood Jew is a profound and thought-provoking book; which causes deep reflection in Christians and Jews alike. Amy-Jill Levine authors a story of personal reflection backed up with traditions and understanding of the word. Levine is a Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Which may surprise some readers that a Jewish person functions as a New Testament scholar at an institution based in Christianity.
Levine organizes The Misunderstood Jew with an Introduction, seven chapters, and an Epilogue. In this review, I would like to go through each section, to celebrate Levine’s insights and arguments as well as reflecting on thought-provoking issues.
Levine begins the Introduction by being personal and touching to the reader; while addressing the issue of scholarship in modern day relation. Levine uses her individual experiences to relate and connect with the reader from the beginning. After a short introduction, Levine begins Chapter One, “Jesus and Judaism,” a chapter that reminds the reader that Jesus lived in the first century as a Jewish teacher of the law, and the only way to understand Jesus is to put him in a Jewish context. This is because there is no evidence of Jesus ever breaking the law because he was a faithful Jew and that should not be an issue for Jews or Christians, but it is for some reason. Which is why the very first sentence of Chapter One is, “belief in Jesus as the Christ- the Messiah- separates church and synagogue, Christians and Jews.” (23) Levine backs up her statements by quoting scripture and other relative books on the subject. Which is why Levine makes two important remarks the first being that Jesus’ disagreed with the other Jewish teachers of the day. Allowing Levine to recognize that there is diversity in the Jewish faith and could be the reason, the first group of Christians could be another group of Jews with a different interpretation and application of the law. And did Jesus interpret the Law in a separate way than the Jewish teachers by being more inclusive, which could be why the church began to include Gentiles in the faith.
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The book continues with Chapter Two, “From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church,” a chapter that takes the varieties of the Jewish faith and the significant issues that Paul caused with his gentile mission. The author does a fantastic job of explaining the variety of first-century Jews faith and the expectations that they had or did not have. Levine acknowledges that Jesus more than likely had “messianic” view of himself and this leads her to believe that “whether Jesus was a or the messiah is another question, and that can be answered only by the voice of faith, not by the voice of the historian” (93). Levine’s interpretation of Paul in her analysis of Galatians (89-93), is very thought-provoking, especially when she argues with Gal. 3:28 “neither Jew of gentile” changed the Jewish faith permanently. I personally found Paul’s words in Galatians to promote a reform of the Jewish faith by making it more inclusive (from a Gentile or Christian’s view point) that came across terribly negative to the majority of Jews when Paul was alive. I did have to rethink about it “obliterate[ing]” the Jewish identity when in later texts, like 2 Cor. 10:22 and Phil. 3:4-6, it appears that Paul never thought his Jewish identity was obliterated. Paul, however, did find his faith to be redefined or even transcended. Levine then reflects on Romans 11 and its changing statements about the Jewish future.
In Chapter Three, “The New Testament and Anti-Judaism,” there is quite a bit of explanation and thought put towards Christian Anti-Semitism, and why so many Christians are not Anti-Jewish but instead just trying to fully understand the bible’s authority. Levine admits that the term “Anti-Judaism” is not easy to define, so she uses three different texts in the New Testament that are often the cause of Anti-Jewishness: 1 Thess. 2:14-16; Matt. 27:22-23; and John 8:44. Making these texts difficult to understand but crucial to analyze, because a bad interpretation can cause severe damage between the people of God. Levine states: “The only resolution to the question of New Testament anti-Judaism cannot come from historians. The elimination of anti-Jewish readings must come from theologians, from those members of the church who conclude that anti-Judaism is wrong and insist on Christian sensitivity to the issue” (116). However, Levine admits that she is not fully prepared to deal with the struggle of putting the original texts in first century context to understand them, while this is something that is necessary to fully understand the texts.
Levine then begins to focus in Chapter Four, “Stereotyping Judaism,” which looks at the seven common stereotypes of Judaism in the first century for Christians. Levine goes into each stereotype in precise and thought-provoking detail. One stereotype that stood out to me was the third one: “The proclamation that Jesus was a feminist in a woman-hating Jewish culture” (125; discussed 131-43). I found Levine’s take to be fascinating, especially since she spoke exclusively about rabbinic texts to explain the stereotype. The way she presented it caused me to view Jesus in a vastly unique way than Jewish males of his time come across, because the way Jesus treated women is something that should be celebrated.
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The book continues with Chapter Five, “With Friends Like There…,” where Levine discusses the importance of basic issues like the liberation theologies. That has led to the World Council of Churches, and many theologians that have worked to “soften” Christian Anti-Judaism. In Chapter Six, “Distinct Canons, Distinct Practices,” Levine uses her wit to argue that Jews and Christians use and have different biblical texts, that hold similar histories, rituals, and ways to worship. Until a person realizes those differences, they will not be able to accept inter-faith dialogue, because they are ignoring the differences between the faiths and using certain passages to back up their agenda.
Levine begins to wrap up The Misunderstood Jew with Chapter Seven, “Quo Vadis?” a noticeably shorter chapter where she gives her own personal suggestions of how the synagogue and church can work together. Levine really makes a thought-provoking point when she talks about how Jesus died. She points out that “nor did the Jews believe, for the most part, that they needed Jesus’ death to save them from sin or death.” (229) One of Levine’s more notable points was when she discussed Jesus threatening Roman order, because her point is exact and crucial to understand why Jesus was crucified. Levine admits that in Jesus’ time he was viewed as a real threat to the Roman empire and they feared him calling himself king and gaining followers.
The Epologue wraps up the book by being a brief appeal that ends with this final sentence: “And if the church and synagogue both could recognize their connection to Jesus, a Jewish prophet who spoke to Jews, perhaps we’d be in a better place for understanding” (228). This is an invaluable statement that reminds one to not build up barriers between Jews and Christians, because Jesus came to earth to save everyone. Until Jews and Christians acknowledge that they are both connected to Jesus and Jesus was not against the Jews, in fact he often retold the original law. The Misunderstood Jew is a story that causes a reader to truly evaluate the scriptures and understand how the original words were intended to be interpreted and read. All because Levine does a fantastic job or organizing and thoroughly explaining her insights and arguments, causing readers to thoroughly reflect on thought-provoking issues.
- Levine, Amy-Jill. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. HarperCollins, 2007.
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