Amy-Jill Levine, The New Testament, and Anti-Judaism

April 1, 2014

Here we continue our serialized and interactive review of Amy-Jill Levine's "The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus." This installment considers her third chapter, "The New Testament and Anti-Judaism."

You might think me a slow reader when I tell you that it took me quite a few hours to do a note-taking rereading of this third chapter of Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.  But I am not a slow reader. Rather this chapter is so thorough and thought-provoking that it demands a slow and careful reading, and in my case, rereading, and the notations in the margins are like a severe case of literary psoriasis.

As elsewhere in her book, Levine is frank but fair. She opens the chapter by stating something with which I disagree,  which quickly changed to a basis for agreement:  While in her view, for Paul “the coming of the Messiah had erased the distinction between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free,” he still remained a Jew who referred to the Jews as his people, who spoke of the continued dignity and calling of the Jewish people, os that “to call him anti-Semitic” would be mislabeling.  Thank you for your forthright truthfulness, Dr. Levine.

Unknown-5She then gives this helpful definition of anti-Semitism and therefore also of the term anti-Semitic:

Anti-Semitism refers to hatred of Jews as an ethnic group and it assumes an essential and unchanging Jewish identity. Anti-Semites believe that Jews are, in their very being, “different,” and there is no way for them to remove that otherness. Anti-Semitism ascribes to Jews innate negative traits. . . . Given this definition, neither Jesus, Paul, nor the New Testament is anti-Semitic.

The remainder of her chapter examines whether the New Testament is anti-Jewish (negative about Judaism). There can be no doubt that according to some readings of the text, including hers, the New Testament is indeed anti-Jewish. I do not agree, but still, Levine is a reputable scholar, and one who builds her case with care. She needs to be taken seriously.

In contrast to the task of defining anti-Semitism, she explains how and why anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish are hard to define, and finally lands on a parallel to Potter Stewart’s classic definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Inevitably, anti-Judaism is in the eye and mind of the beholder. Many things that well-meaning and peaceable Christians hold dear come across as anti-Jewish to Jewish people, such as the doctrine of eternal punishment for those who do not believe. Many Christians who genuinely love and respect their Jewish friends will hold to such a teaching out of loyalty to their communal stance on what the Bible means, but this does not mean that such people are anti-Jewish. They are simply honoring the party line while loving Jewish people, even passionately so.

The same cleavage between doctrine and sentiment is evident in approaches to gender equality and homosexual rights: Christians who are neither anti-gay nor anti-woman may hold positions that offend or disappoint gays and women. The lesson here is to not be quick to throw the label “anti-Jewish” around. Not all that looks anti-Jewish is in fact so. And we would all do well to embrace the rabbinic dictum, “. . .  judge every person favorably."  In other words, make it a habit of life to give people the benefit of the doubt.

She considers and dismisses the approaches taken by those who hold that it is possible to determine whether a document is anti-Jewish by reconstructing the historical circumstances, authorial identity and intent, and the identity of original audiences. Not so fast says, Levine: such determinations are almost always hypothetical and therefore cannot form the basis for ruling on the question at hand.

Three Problem Texts

However, if anti-Judaism is in the eye of the beholder, she challenges us to examine three text which are anti-Jewish in her eyes. She examines the texts, and the various explanations prevailing that seek to blunt the hard edges each displays.

Her first choice is 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 which at first blush seems baldly anti-Judaic, even anti-Semitic.

14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.

Levine considers and dismisses various interpretive strategies employed by those seeking to weaken the apparent virulent anti-Judaism in this passage. She ends up by saying that Paul may have meant exactly what he appears to mean here, being in the grip of some sort of apocalyptic fervor which caused him to see things in black and white terms in view of the impending final sorting out of the sons of light and the sons of darkness.

What she doesn’t consider is an answer I stumbled across years ago browsing in the Library at Fuller Seminary. It was sometime in the early 1990s. The library at the time I had four floors with you tables on every floor where students would sit and study. Being an information junkie, I would periodically go through various periodical guides and find interesting articles that I would browse. This story concerns one of those articles and a chance encounter that was anything but chance.

On this particular day, by chance, I sat down next to a Chinese man who had all kinds of graph paper with neatly written notations in Chinese and Greek spread out before him along with many books. Being by nature curious, I asked him what he was doing. He told me he was working on the first Chinese commentary on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. I mentioned to him that coincidently, I had read an article recently about 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. I told him how the article said that the interpretation of the this passage has been skewed in Bible translations by the insertion of a comma that obscures a restrictive clause. Current translations, such as the one Levine quotes, reproduced here, speak of “the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone,” making Paul’s statements to be generalizations about the Jews in general. However, when that offending comma is omitted, the statement speaks of “the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone,” thus speaking of a particular group of people, the leaders in Judea, who at that time were experiencing trials which Paul viewed to be appropriate to their recalcitrance. The important thing to note here is that the language of the text in the Greek does not have the same force as the interpretive tradition embodies, down to this day. When what Gilliard calls “the Antisemitic comma” is removed, everything changes.  GIlliard's article is this one: Frank D. Gilliard (1989). "The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15." New Testament Studies, 35, pp 481-502.

On that day in the library, my new Chinese friend asked me somewhat urgently, “Where is that article?”  I went to the librarian who helped me reconstruct where I might have found it, and then brought it to him. He then told me that this passage was the last passage he needed to comment upon in his commentary, and that he had been struggling with it for six weeks, knowing that the passage simply could not be as anti-Semitic/anti-Judaic as it appeared. By my “accidentally” reading that article, and “accidentally” sitting at his table on that day, the way was opened for him to finish this gift to the Chinese church.

And that is a true story of the astounding sovereignty of God.

Levine  next deals with the passage in Matthew when, prior to the crucifixion, the crowd in the Praetorium cries out “his blood be upon us and our children,” a really horrific moment. There can be no doubt that this passage has caused untold grief to Jewish people down through the ages. I like best the response given many years ago by Sam Nadler. He pointed out that shortly thereafter, Yeshua would be praying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Sam then asked, “Whose prayer do you think God heard?” Brilliant response. Yet still, this passage has certainly occasioned grief to the Jewish people.

The third passage she deals with is from John, chapter eight: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.” Like the previous passage, this has brought great grief to the Jewish people. And in this discussion she deals with a nest of thorny issues deserving to be the basis of long and repeated discussion. 

She considers some common attempts at muting the sharp edges of this passage:

  1. Pontifical Biblical Commission – These words were written not because these people were Jews but because they are not good Jews. Of course, that is little comfort. Are we to believe that only good Jews who believe in Jesus are not children of the devil?
  2. John is talking about Judeans and not Jews.  But anyone hearing John’s gospel read would not make such a distinction. The point is, such a characterization would surely be seen as anti-Judaic by John’s hearers/readers.
  3. Not all Jews, just the leaders: still an insult to Jews as Jewish people follow their leaders, or at least revere them. To insult the leaders is to insult the people and to be perceived as anti-Judaic.
  4. John addressing a group that had been expelled from the synagogue [page 104]. Those who hold to this view contend that John was writing into a highly charged polemical context when believers in Jesus were being evicted from their synagogues, something mentioned three times in the Gospel of John, in Chapter 12 and Chapter 16.  The your images that the heated rhetoric in the Gospel of John, the polarized rhetoric, is a consequence of times of crisis.

Dr Levine give  reasons why she discounts this explanation. First, and as previously stated, conjecture about who wrote the Gospel, and when, and to whom, is notoriously unreliable and one cannot base a decisive argument on conjuecture. Levine says in addition,

In gospel studies, scholarship proceeds according to an elegant circular argument: it determines the audience on the basis of the text, and then determine the meaning of the text on the basis of the audience. This process does not mean that the scholarship sloppy or incorrect; it means that any conclusion based on the death of the author and audience, including conclusions about anti-Judaism, must remain tentative.

Furthermore, she states that

There is no evidence, for example, the Jews across the Empire were expelling Christians from the synagogues in the first century. Paul indicates the Jews who confess Jesus when I thrown out of the synagogues: on the contrary, they were Dragon and beaten. Up to the fourth century, church fathers were still complaining the Jews welcomed members of the church is into the synagogues.

Another alleged source of intercommunal tension was the Council of Jamnia, called Yavneh, which allegedly took place in 90 A.D. This was an alleged jeiwh council convened to help Judaism regroup in view of the destruction of the Temple and the attendant slaughter and destruction. As part of this nexus of events, Rabban Gamliel asked the sages who would compose a benediction pertaining to the “minim” [sectarians] to fit into the statutory liturgical prayers.  Samuel ha-Katan did the job, but the story goes that the next year he could not recall it even in the course of a multi-hour attempt.

Levine finds this narrative full of problems. First, the Council of Jamnia appears to be a historical fiction patterned after the Church’s Councils. Second, even the term “minim” is unattested until the end of the second century. Third, the blessing that was eventually added to the statutory prayer, called “the Shemoneh Esrei” or “the Amidah” makes its appearance more than one hundred years after the alleged Council of Jamnia, and in the earliest text, the Pharisees are cursed along with the minim!

Still, there are many Christian scholars who believe that the events surrounding the Birkat haMinim, the benediction about the sectarians, is behind the polemical tone of John’s gospel.

6 Reasons for Intercommunal Tension Between First Century Christians and Jews

Returning to the original thought that the Gospel of John was written in a polemical environment when the lives of Yeshua believers were especially endangered, Levine offers six possible reasons why the synagogues of the Roman Empire might have been disturbed by the presence of Yeshua believers:

  1. They may have been encouraging Gentiles to leave off eating meat offered to idols. Eating such foods was an expected behavior in the Roman Empire, and a normal part of patriotic and civilized behavior. By undermining this, one was fomenting rebellion against the social order—and perhaps the synagogues were alarmed that this anti-social behavior would bring down upon them the wrath of Rome.
  2. Perhaps the Yeshua believers were encouraging God-fearers to join with them, and leave the synagogues, thus losing the exemption given by the Roman government to Jews who were not required to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar as a loyalty test.
  3. Might the believers in Jesus be asserting that anyone who did not believe as they did was a child of Satan? That would certainly have made them unwelcome in the local synagogue!
  4. Might they have been interrupting local services with ecstatic displays, speaking in toungues, etc.
  5. Perhaps they were declaring Jesus a King, and thus a rival to Caesar, a very dangerous thing to be?
  6. Burton L. Visotzky suggests “perhaps Jews feared being associated with Christians and rounded up for the same persecutions Christians experienced on the local level. There are midrashim that describe the arrests of rabbis on suspicion of what looks like Christian sympathies.

So here, while rejecting some common theories positing a tension between the early Yeshua movement and the Jewish community, Dr. Levine has produced six alternative reasons why that may have been so. And regardless of whether some or all of her reasons are right, and most seem credible, or the alternative explanations are right, the consensus emerges that there were tensions. And I would contend that these tensions help to account for the polarized and polarizing language in John’s gospel. Furthermore, accept for the moment as I do that this expulsion of Yeshua believers from their synagogues endangered the lives of those Christians who now lacked the Jewish communal exemption about burning incense before a bust of Caesar. If this were the case, then many Christians may have been tempted to downplay their Yeshua faith and blend into their synagogue context, rather than risk capital punishment under the Roman heel.  If this were the case, then John’s strident language which demanded that one choose one’s side, and highlighting the injustice of expulsion for the synagogues, is altogether understandable, and must be interpreted not as theological contemplation, but the language of crisis.

This is what I believe was the case.

At the end of the chapter she returns to a helpful perspective introduced earlier, demonstrating her great fairness once again. It is a good note on which to close today's review:

If we are to get past the forced politeness that often marks interreligious conversation and take the risk of engaging in honest communication, we must make every effort to see you through each other's eyes, hear through each other's ears, and interpret with a consciousness of each other's sensitivities. . . . Although the New Testament can be seen as anti-Jewish, it need not be. Words — inevitably — mean different things to different readers. We need to imagine how our words sound to different ears.


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