The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

by Amy-Jill Levine
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
250 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by David Scholer

The Misunderstood Jew book coverThis is an important and wonderful book; it deserves deep reflection and a wide-reading audience among Christians in particular.  A fine combination of scholarship and personal reflection, the book is eminently fair to both Jews and Christians, discussing both traditions with empathic understanding.

Levine is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.  Some readers may be surprised that a Jewish person functions as a New Testament scholar in an institution identified with Christianity.  Actually, there are now several such scholars, although this reality is one which has developed primarily in my own lifetime.

Readers of this journal should know of Levine’s marvelous series of ten titles, which she edited, in the Feminist Companion to the New Testament series (there are volumes on Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul, Deutero-Paul,  Hebrews and General Epistles, Mariology and the New Testament Apocrypha; published 2001-2006 by the Pilgrim Press).  These books are a very helpful collection of articles that should be consulted by all who are concerned with feminism and the New Testament.  Levine also edited a book, Women Like This… (1991), focused on Jewish women in the Greco-Roman world.

The Misunderstood Jew is organized with an  Introduction, seven chapters and an Epilogue.  In this review, I would like to comment on each section (especially the Introduction and chapters 1-3 and 7), attempting to celebrate Levine’s insights and arguments as well as raising some issues for further reflection.

The Introduction is very personal and very touching; all scholarship addressed to issues of contemporary importance should include such a statement of the author’s experiences that lead one to write such a book.   I laughed and wept —and wished I could write my story in response.

Chapter One, “Jesus and Judaism,” is a cogent presentation of the fact that Jesus was a Jew who lived and functioned as a teacher of the Law in a first century Jewish context.  That Jesus was a faithful Jew (there is no evidence that Jesus ever violated the Law) should not ever be again an issue for Christians (or Jews). Levine mentions other relatively recent books on this subject; her presentation may be the most compelling to date.  I did miss a longer sweep of Jewish study (and reclamation) of Jesus, although that was probably not Levine’s interest here.  For example, one thinks of Claude Montefiore’s works (1909; 1910) and that of Joseph Klausner (1925).  There are also the reflections of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (beginning in 1868), founder of the Hebrew Union College.  I have always been struck by Harry A. Wolfson’s “How the Jews Will Reclaim Jesus,” first published in 1925 as the introduction to the second edition of J. Jacobs’ Jesus as Others Saw Him. (Wolfson’s essay was reprinted in the Menorah Journal 49 (1962), 25-31.)

But, enough of this.  Two perhaps more relevant comments: (1) Levine might have given more attention to Jesus’ debates with other Jewish teachers with whom he disagreed (she does, of course, recognize the diversity of Judaism); for a Christian this often leads to the observation that at least the first generation of Christians might be seen as another Jewish group arguing about the application of the Law. And (2) one might ask whether Jesus, a faithful Jew, did interpret the Law in a more inclusive way than some Jewish teachers, which influenced the church toward including Gentiles.

Chapter Two, “From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church,” especially takes up varieties of Jewish messianism and the massive issues of Paul and the gentile mission.   Levine presents well the fact of variety among first-century Jews on messianism, including those who had no such expectations at all.  Levine recognizes that Jesus himself probably had some kind of “messianic” ideas about himself and concludes 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” (86).

Levine’s discussion of Paul is very helpful for Christian Pauline scholars. In the most gentle way, she raises the difficult questions of how to interpret Paul.  Her analysis of Galatians (78-82) is very thought-provoking, including her argument that Gal 3:28 “neither Jew or gentile” obliterates Jewish identity.  I think that it is clear that Paul’s arguments in Galatians are designed to stake out a new, inclusive “Judaism” (from a Christian point of view) that can appear to be very negative toward the majority of Jews in his day.  Whether this “obliterates” Jewish identity is not so clear to me; later texts, such as 2 Cor 10:22 and Phil 3:4-6, would seem to indicate that Paul did not think his Jewish identity had been obliterated.  True enough, he did see it as redefined and even transcended; that is the issue for discussion.  Levine more briefly reflects on the importance of Romans 11 and its more conciliatory statement about the future of Jews.

Chapter Three, “The New Testament and Anti-Judaism,” naturally follows.  It is a remarkably fair discussion which, while condemning Christian anti-Semitism, understands that so many Christians are not motivated by anti-Judaism but are trying to understand biblical authority.  Levine very carefully points out that the term “anti-Judaism” is extraordinarily difficult to define.  She discusses at some length the three texts in the New Testament that are most often cited as possibly anti-Jewish: 1 Thess 2:14-16; Matt 27:22-23; and John 8:44.  Indeed these are crucial and difficult texts.  These are texts that Christian scholars must study carefully and teach with as much awareness as possible about the damage that interpretations of these texts have done throughout the history of the church.  Levine again says: “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).  I am not prepared, nor is Levine, to dispense with the struggles historians must undergo in reading texts in their first century settings.  But, it is true that the hermeneutical tasks place a significant obligation on Christian scholars.

Levine did select three crucial texts, but I would also note that Rev 2:9 and the equivalent words of 3:9 are very difficult texts, as are certain passages in Hebrews (e.g., 7:12, 22; 8:13; 10:18); they, too, need exacting work.  I want to comment on one item in detail with reference to the difficult passage of 1 Thess 2:14-16.  Rarely has any scholar observed in this connection 2 Chron 36:15-16; note its emphasis on Israel’s rejection of God’s messengers and the closing line: “… until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (TNIV), which comes at the very end of the Hebrew Bible (where the order of the books is different than in Christian Bibles).  This strikes me as remarkably similar to Paul in 1 Thess 2:14-16 and, in my theory, sets Paul’s text in a valid Jewish tradition (and thus is not an anti-Jewish statement).

Chapter Four, “Stereotyping Judaism,” takes up seven common stereotypes that Christians have about the Judaism of the first century.  Levine discusses each very carefully and convincingly.   The stereotype I wish to comment on here is her third one: “The proclamation that Jesus was a feminist in a woman-hating Jewish culture” (125; discussed 131-43).   As I indicated in an article in this journal (30:2 [Summer 2006], 4-7) Christian feminists have been too guilty of a subtle form of anti-Judaism.  This was true of my own earlier teaching, but I have worked diligently to correct this bias.  When I teach my course on women in the New Testament and cover Jesus in his Jewish context, I give a long lecture on the positive images and aspects of women in Jewish thought and culture.  While I applaud Levine deeply, I do, however, think that she has underplayed the negative male texts found in Philo, Josephus, Sirach, and some other works (Levine discusses exclusively rabbinic texts in this section).  Jesus was strikingly different than the images those Jewish males projected.  Jesus’ treatment of women is something both Jews and Christians should celebrate together.

Chapter Five, “With Friends Like These…,” discusses liberation theologies, the World Council of Churches, and various contemporary theologians who have tried to “soften” Christian anti-Judaism.  This is an important discussion of some very basic issues.

Chapter Six, “Distinct Canons, Distinct Practices,” argues wisely and convincingly that Jews and Christians have different biblical texts, different assessments of similar ideas and history, and different rituals and worship practices, and that accepting these realities makes for better inter-faith dialogue than do the misguided attempts to ignore the differences by glossing over them and/or using “language games” to obviate them.

In my words, each tradition must hold its deepest theological convictions firmly and humbly with enormous respect for the other’s perspective.  The God of Israel and of the church is One and the same; we need not fear dialogue under the wings of a loving, merciful God, portrayed both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.  If I may be so personal, when I was Dean of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, I arranged on a regular basis to have a Jewish rabbi teach a course on Judaism and Jewish views of Christianity—with no strings attached.  Many students took this course and learned a great deal from it (we also had this rabbi preach in chapel—a little uncomfortable, but wonderful).

Chapter Seven, “Quo Vadis?” provides eleven pages of practical suggestions on how the church and synagogue can travel together in discussion.  It is a brilliant and thoughtful list of detailed ideas.  One item that raised a question for me was the section on addressing the reason Jesus died (222).  What Levine says about Jesus as a threat to Roman order is correct and crucial; yet, I strongly suspect that Jesus’ conflict with temple authorities also played a role (of course, the temple authorities may have been Roman functionaries).  I can think of only one thing to add to Levine’s comprehensive list: Jews and Christians should be ready always to forgive each other for unintended hurts and serious misunderstandings.

The Epilogue is a very brief story and an appeal, concluding with this 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).  Indeed!  As a Christian, I have especially cherished Paul’s conclusion to his discussion and internal debate in Romans 11; Paul writes: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or  who has been his counselor?” (vv. 33-34, TNIV).  And, note, Paul cites here Isa 40:13!

All in all, Levine’s book is a true gem.  It is a very important book for Christians to read.  Would that all partners to theological dialogue were as careful and kind as Levine.


© 2007 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, volume 31, number 1, Spring (April-June) 2007


David M. Scholer
David M. Scholer was Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, a position he held from 1994-2008. He was also the Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies in the School of Theology at Fuller. David was a longtime member of EEWC who passed away in 2008.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.