SAN FRANCISCO — Growing up Jewish in North Dartmouth, Mass., Amy-Jill Levine loved Christianity.
Her neighborhood “was almost entirely Portuguese and Roman Catholic,” Dr. Levine said last Sunday at her book party here during the annual American Academy of Religion conference. “My introduction to Christianity was ethnic Roman Catholicism, and I loved it. I used to practice giving communion to Barbie. Church was like the synagogue: guys in robes speaking languages I didn’t understand. My favorite movie was ‘The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.’ ”
Christianity might have stayed just a fascination, but for an unfortunate episode in second grade: “When I was 7 years old, one girl said to me on the school bus, ‘You killed our Lord.’ I couldn’t fathom how this religion that was so beautiful was saying such a dreadful thing.”
That encounter with the dark side of her friends’ religion sent Dr. Levine on a quest, one that took her to graduate school in New Testament studies and eventually to Vanderbilt University, where she has taught since 1994. Dr. Levine is still a committed Jew — she attends an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville — but she is a leading New Testament scholar.
And she is not alone. The book she has just edited with a Brandeis University professor, Marc Zvi Brettler, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press), is an unusual scholarly experiment: an edition of the Christian holy book edited entirely by Jews. The volume includes notes and explanatory essays by 50 leading Jewish scholars, including Susannah Heschel, a historian and the daughter of the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel; the Talmudist Daniel Boyarin; and Shaye J. D. Cohen, who teaches ancient Judaism at Harvard.
Amy Jill-Levine is the co-author of the new book, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us.
Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, TN; she is also Affiliated Professor, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge UK. Holding the B.A. from Smith College, and the M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke University, she has honorary doctorates from the University of Richmond, the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, the University of South Carolina-Upstate, Drury University, and Christian Theological Seminary. Her recent books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperOne), The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us, co-authored with Douglas Knight (HarperOne), the edited Historical Jesus in Context (Princeton), and the fourteen-volume edited Feminist Companions to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings (Continuum). With Marc Brettler she also edited the Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford). A self-described Yankee Jewish feminist, Professor Levine is a member of Congregation Sherith Israel, an Orthodox Synagogue, although she is often quite unorthodox.
I did the following interview with Amy Jill-Levine via email:
* What is it in Christianity and the New Testament that enthralls you?
AJL: I am interested in the intersection between what we today would see as Jewish and Christian histories and theologies, in what Jews and Christians share in common, in where we differ, and in why.
* Have you ever considered conversion to Christianity?
AJL: I have never considered conversion; to the contrary, I find my own Judaism completely fulfilling.
* How are you as a committed member of another religion frequently
persecuted and maligned by Christianity able to study Christianity/New
Testament objectively? Considering the way the Gospels/Martin Luther
et al cook up deadly lies about Jews without which the Holocaust would
not have been possible, why don’t you have an agenda to debunk
Christianity and to make it look horrible?
AJL: All texts are open to interpretation, and any text can be interpreted in harmful ways. For example, those who look to the book of Joshua to promote ethnic cleansing or to various parts of the canons of both Church and Synagogue to promote slavery or the subjugation of women are using the texts to create harm. If we can locate how and why harmful interpretations develop and then demonstrate that alternative readings are more historically accurate, theologically warranted, and ethically compelling, then we provide the means by which to prevent the sins of the past from being repeated.
* What happens to you emotionally when Christians try to make you
Christian? I presume such people don’t make your skin crawl. If so,
AJL: Most Christians who seek to bring Jews (or anyone else) into belief in Jesus as Messiah do so out of love, not hate, and I respect their motivations. If one has what one believes to be good news, one should share it. Moreover, the Gospels proclaim that followers of Jesus should evangelize (see Matthew 28.19), and again, I respect Christians who are attempting to be faithful to what their Scripture teaches. My concern is not evangelism per se, but harmful evangelism; I am however concerned about Evangelism that promotes fear rather than love, since it deforms the gospel message. To state, “believe in Jesus or you’ll go to hell” creates the image of a G-d as a bully rather than as a loving Father.
* One of your new books is: “The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (Harper)” So what happens when you study scripture and you disagree with what scripture is apparently teaching? Could you give an example of this conflict. I’m thinking about homosexuality, for instance. The Torah is clear that anal sex between men is an abomination. I believe that you are quite liberal in such matters. So what do you do? Do you regard the authors of the text as homophobic and leave it at that?
AJL: One of the definitions of what it means to be “Israel” is to “wrestle with G-d.” Thus, I will wrestle with the text. Such wrestling is already part of the Jewish tradition. For example, regarding the “eye for an eye” statements, we Jews conclude first that the point is not to engage in maiming but to avoid the escalation of violence, and second, that as the rabbis tell us (m. Baba Kamma), injury must be redressed through compensation for medical expenses, loss of work, injury, and so on. For those who consider Scripture to be a guide for life, then to stop at the words of the text is insufficient. We must also determine why the words are said and what the text is trying to teach us; we must see how the teaching relates to our own experience, to the teachings of our tradition, to the touchstones of love of neighbor or concern for life. If we simply stop at the words of the Bible, we are committing bibliolatry: we are worshiping the Bible rather than that to which it points. More, we are restricting divine teaching to the text, as if G-d has had no communication with us over the past several millennia.
* What is the need for a Jewish Annotated New Testament? Isn’t this
like a Jewish Annotated Protocols of Zion?
AJL: The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT) is a necessary resource for Jews and Christians and anyone interested in preventing anti-Jewish teaching, in showing Jews and Christians today what we have in common and where we disagree, and in promoting a better informed view of the histories and theologies of Synagogue and Church. For Jews, JANT provides a guide to Second Temple Jewish society in all its vibrant diversity, a guide for understanding Christian history for if we Jews want our Christian neighbors to understand our histories and traditions, we should show them the same courtesy; and a resource of combatting anti-Jewish teaching and preaching. For Christians, JANT provides additional insight into the Scripture of the Church, recovers how those who first heard the words of Jesus and Paul would have understood their meaning, and corrects anti-Jewish stereotypes.