Many United Methodists will recognize Amy-Jill Levine from Disciple Bible Studies. A leading expert in New Testament, she is featured in several video segments in the Bible course. Levine, who is Jewish, doesn’t claim the New Testament as sacred herself, but she enriches Christians’ understanding of the text with insights into Jesus’ Jewish identity. She’ll be speaking at Perkins at the Fall Convocation, which takes place November 15-16 on campus and virtually.
Levine is Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford Seminary and University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies Emerita, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies Emerita, and Professor of New Testament Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University.
We asked Levine about her planned topic for the Convocation; here are her answers.
Perspective: Given that you are Jewish, how did you end up devoting much of your career studying Jesus and the gospels?
Amy-Jill Levine: The study of Jesus and the Gospels is the study of Jewish history: Jesus and all his initial followers were Jews living in the Jewish homeland. More, Christian understandings of Jesus and the Gospels have, throughout history, had negative impacts on Jews. Thus, I seek both to recover Jewish history and to correct the mistakes Christians have made about Jesus’ Jewish context.
You’ll be focusing on some of the parables as part of your keynote at the Fall Convocation. Why the parables?
The parables are primarily stories told by Jesus rather than stories about Jesus; they are fabulous Jewish stories told by a talented Jewish storyteller. I do not believe in Jesus as Lord, but I find his parables speak to universal concerns, from family values to economics to the need to envision a more generous society. The more we know about the parables’ historical context and connections to Israel’s Scriptures – what Christians traditionally call the Old Testament and Jews the Tanakh – the more profound they become.
By the way, I have no problem with the term “Old Testament” for the Christian Bible part I. I’m old; old is good in countless ways.
In your preview video, you say that Jesus “gets to the heart of Torah and the heart of the prophets.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
I have met many Christians who regard Torah as legalistic and lifeless; who picture the divine in the Old Testament as wrathful, and who regard Judaism as a toxic system that Jesus seeks to eliminate. These views are not just wrong, they are deadly.
The Torah, from a Hebrew term meaning “Instruction,” is central to ancient Israelite identity, to Jesus’s teachings, and to Judaism today. Necessarily, interpretations change over time. Without addressing new understandings – of slavery, of women’s roles, etc. – religions stagnate.
Jesus makes Torah more rigorous rather than less. For example, to the commandment against murder, Jesus adds a commandment against anger.
In debating fellow Jews on how to follow divine will, Jesus places himself within rather than against his tradition.
Jews and Christians, most often out of ignorance rather than out of malice, bear false witness against each other. It is my hope that my talks can correct the errors, encourage people to appreciate the gifts that both Judaism and Christianity offer, and help people see Jesus as affirming Jewish tradition rather than dismantling it.
In the video previewing your talk, you say, “I’m inspired by (Jesus), I learn from him, sometimes I’m even indicted by him.” Is there a parable that speaks to you in particular?
The parable of the “Prodigal Son,” which is a bad title for the parable (better: the Parable of the Father and Two Sons), along with the accompanying parables of the Lost Coin and Lost Sheep from Luke 15, should force us to attend to the overlooked, to make everyone feel counted, and to recognize our responsibility in preventing the marginalizing of others.
You plan to talk about what Luke had to say in his four verses devoted to Mary and Martha. Anything that might surprise people?
The story of Martha and Mary is not, contrary to one popular reading, an account of how Jesus invents feminism by teaching a woman. To the contrary, women were not only students but also educators in Jewish culture. There’s much more going on here, from questions of women’s ministry to the definition of hospitality to the biblical motif of older and younger siblings, to the identification of Jesus as Lord.
Many United Methodists know your name from Disciple Bible studies. Do you ever get recognized?
I’ve never seen the Disciple Bible films – I don’t even have a sense of how I look on camera. Nor have I seen the tapes done for the Abingdon Bible Studies on Advent, the Passion, the Sermon on the Mount, and most recently the Difficult Words of Jesus. I worry that if I review these films, I’ll consistently find fault: I should have been more clear; I should have given another example. I’m not a celebrity; I’m a teacher who really likes talking with others about Jesus, the Gospels, and Second Temple Judaism.