Book Review -- The Misunderstood Jew

That Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish professor of New Testament studies was a surprise to me. Why would a Jew teach the stories told of the Christian Savior? But when I thought about it, why not? Didn't I take courses in Old Testament from a Christian professor?

Which helps to make Levine's point. Our biases unconsciously affect our categories. And, as Levine argues in "The Misunderstood Jew," our categories often make Jews the bad guy in order to make Jesus look good.

I have been a Christian religious education teacher for a number of years and I recently received a Masters degree in theology. But I found Levine's thesis at once fresh and engaging, if not completely convincing. Her basic idea is that Christians, usually in an effort to make Jesus more palatable to secular, pro-feminist and pro-multicultural worshippers, often do so by making his Jewish culture more rigidly pietistic, misogynistic and insular. Take the divorce issue. It is not uncommon for progressive Christian preachers to state that Jesus's prohibition against divorce was actually a pro-feminist attempt to counteract the misogyny of Jewish custom. These customs (we are told) allowed men to put women aside for trifling faults, such as bad cooking. But Levine shows that the portrayal of Jewish customs is based on a single utterance by rabbi engaged in testing the hypothetical limits of just causes for divorce. Hardly was this statement the mainstream view of Jewish scholars or rabbis. But by claiming it was, Christians can water down Christ's absolute prohibition into a pro-female statement. Levine's familiarity with the New Testament is evident. In the case of divorce, she uses the gospel texts themselves to make a compelling case that the divorce question was not intended as a referendum on male domination, but a return to the Creator's intent as expressed in Genesis.

Levine takes on other Christian biases about Judaism's supposed hatred of the poor, its hyper-ritualism, supposed ban on corpse-defilement and many other issues. She relentlessly cuts down the forest of false opinions and bad scholarship to bring Jesus more into focus as a Jew of his time.

In some senses, I think Levine goes too far, even when she has a point. She disagrees with Christians who refer to the Old Testament as the "Hebrew Scriptures" on the grounds that the books were not all written in Hebrew, that Orthodox Christian Churches use the OT's Greek translation, and that Protestant and Catholic Churches include different books in the OT. Fair enough. But she goes into wince-inducing territory by claiming that using the term "Hebrew Scriptures" is subtly anti-Catholic. Also, one wonders what becomes of the Christian Jesus when he is blended so seamlessly into the background of his culture. Is it unfair to think that Jesus opposed some of the religious tendencies of his day? Must we assume (as Levine does) that no Jews were involved in his arrest and death? Perhaps one could see Jews as exhibiting the same tendencies - both good and bad -- of all religious people, including my own Roman Catholic coreligionists. Isn't it a human thing (not a Jewish thing) to confuse particular style of piety with love of God?

In any event, Levine has done a signal service to Christians as well as Jews with this book. Anyone who gives voice to the unspoken biases that inform our religious education and worship does a good that deserves praise.