Thoughts on Lutheran Zephyr’s Thoughts on Dr. Levine’s Thoughts

The Lutheran Zephyr has got an interesting post up that engages some things said by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. He is reporting a summarization of her comments (so I’m probably commenting on fourth-hand material here; caveat lector…) that remind Christians that Jesus was, in fact, Jewish and that therefore knowing things Jewish are an important piece of understanding him. Here are my thoughts in response to LZ’s thoughts that may or may not address Dr. Levine’s actual thoughts. :-D

One of the real successes of the third quest for the Historical Jesus was the rediscovery of a Jewish Jesus. [Nutshell–First Quest: Reimarus to Wrede (18th and 19th centuries, see Schweitzer’s classic chronicle of it in Quest for the Historical Jesus); Second Quest: Bornkamm et all (1940’s-’50’s); Third Quest: Perrin, Jesus Seminar, Crossan, +Wright (80’s to the present, see Mark Alan Powell’s great recent work on it.)] In the sense that Dr. Levine is calling for a recognition of this, she is speaking to the non-scholarly audience; most NT scholars have been on board with it for at least a decade. Ditto with the latest trends in Pauline scholarship.

Yes, modern Christianity–indeed, Christianity through the ages–has had Marcionite tendencies that attempted to divorce the NT from the OT, Christians from Jews. The dark side of this are the well-known expressions of anti-semitism. This is something we have to guard against and more pastors need to wake up to that the fact that the NT really cannot be properly understood without a solid grounding in the OT. In fact, this is the way a lot of earnest interpreters get into real trouble…

What I don’t hear in your initial summary of Dr. Levine’s thoughts, LZ, is a reflection on Judaism, however. Quick history lesson: 2nd Temple Jewish religion was a complex mass of different groups, theologies, and practices. There were several groupings or sects that stand out and most treatments of the topic zero in on Josephus’s attempts to explain it to the Romans. From what we can tell from the surviving texts–he’s done quite a lot of oversimplifying. There were all kinds of ways of beng “Jewish” in the centuries before and after Christ and for a while being Christian was one of them. All of that dramatically changed in AD 70. The sack of the Temple and the descturction of Jerusalem was a huge blow not just to Jewish pride but, more importantly, to Jewish self-identity and religious conciousness. Suddenly several different ways of being Jewish disappeared overnight. That is, those who held that the heart of Jewish religion was the sacrifical system of the Temple were in real trouble. Furthermore, so were those who believed that they and only the held the real secrets to the Temple liturgies, not those damn usurpers in Jerusalem (after all, they couldn’t hope to take it over and set things right any more). In essence, the groups whose polity and piety and less to do with the Temple dealt with it better. Christians were one of these. After all, we claimed that the true temple was, in fact, the physically body of Christ and by extension, his mystical body. Another group who was philosophically cheek-and-jowl with early Christianity, the Pharisees, were also in a better place to cope since others. They had been arguing all along that the true temple is not just the Temple but the people of Israel; hence, they’d been harping for years that the temple purity regulations should be obeyed at home as well. (There really are a lot of similarities between the Pharisees and us; this little drive-by can’t hope to do them justice.) Anyway, time passed, Christians and Jews moved apart and those Jews who wanted to retain their religious heritage rather than just assimilating started talking and systematizing how to do that. And that process took a while. The first authoritative text on it, the Mishnah (or key parts of it), took written form around 200, the Gemara (commentary on the Mishnah) and the Talmud (commentary on the Mishnah and Gemara) came even later, in the 500’s or so.

Now–here’s the point that I really want to make about this.

Yes, Jesus was Jewish. No, Jesus did not practice Rabbinic Judaism. In fact, it didn’t exist until centuries after his death. That is, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism developed alongside and with knowledge of one another. (Although, Christianity was essentially an entirely gentile enterprise from–say–the 150’s on so you can’t really say they were “competing.”) As a result, you can imagine that it bugs me when people who want to honor the religious roots of Jesus start pulling in practices of Rabbinic Judaism (The prime example being the Maundy Thursday Seder dinner. That’s a rant unto itself.) in the supposition that it’s “what Jesus did.” I respect they’re wanting to reconnect with Judaism in appropriate ways–that’s just not one of them… It’s historically anachronistic and more often than not does justice neither to Christian nor to Jewish theology.

Getting to LZ’s second point, there is a fundamental problem with the thoroughly protestant notion that Jesus has to be “rediscovered” by the means of historical inquiry. The distinction that some folks (like seminary professors) like to use to finesse this is to talk about the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. The idea here is that you can hold onto your theological Christ of Faith so you can dig and tackle the hard historical questions with your Jesus of History. The problem, as I touched on here, is that this attitude is fundamentally Nestorian.

I guess where it really comes down for me is this: are we looking for information about a historical figure in the past–or are we learning about a relationship with a living, dynamic being, who swoops up on us and shocks us with his love? Fudamentally, are we asking about the dead or the Living? If we believe that Christ is strongly and powerfully alive, then it changes the whole framework for how we shape the questions. As I see it, an undeniable part of what t means to be Christian is learning about how the relationship unfolded with our spiritual ancestors. If we really believe that the Church is the Body of Christ in more than just a metaphorical sense, then we must learn our history as part of learning about who he his. We must look for his face in the faces of the saints–then and now.

[And for the sake of full disclosure, many of the thoughts in that last paragraph come from a book I heartily recommend Living Jesus by Luke Johnson (a former Benedictine New Testament scholar).]

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Lutheran Zephyr’s Thoughts on Dr. Levine’s Thoughts

  1. Lutheran Zephyr

    Thank you very much for this post. I knew that you could shed some light and broaden my understanding of this topic. I almost mentioned the “Christian Seder” in my post, and I’m glad you addressed it.

    Anyway, I’m still taking it all in, and if the kids permit, I’ll comment some more later . . .

    Thanks for giving my post a look. A blessed New Year to you all!


  2. Caelius

    There is an opposite tendency to Marcionism in Christianity that also inflames Jewish-Christian relations. Sometimes, interpreters who are strongly attuned to the Old Testament (thanks, I suspect, to the influence of Origen, both Eusebius and Athanasius fall into this set), get exceptionally annoyed that Jews don’t see how obvious Christ is in the OT. Frankly, because their style of argumentation is attuned to Gentile philosophy, their arguments ring quite hollow from a Jewish perspective. The influence of this school of thought has driven far more anti-Semitism than Marcionism per se because of the parallel development of the Mishnah and the Talmud, which de-emphasized the study of the Tanakh. You can read a few of Chaim Potok’s novels to get a sense of how Talmud-Tanakh tension still pervades much of Orthodox Judaism. Additionally, the Mishnah and the Talmud contain anti-Christian polemic to answer the anti-Jewish polemic of the parallel Patristic writings. One scholar of Patristics essentially told me that I shouldn’t take the Mishnah seriously as an account of Temple practice because of the potential anti-Christian biases.

    See the 146th Novella of Justinian… (at the bottom)

  3. Anastasia

    as a specialist in roman religion, this insistence on the essential jewishness of christianity is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. not for the reasons you get into here, but it’s nice to read someone talking about it.

  4. Matt

    Hey Derek, I clicked over from Anastasia’s blog. I don’t mean to wave my ignorance about too proudly, but what are your objections to Christian observation of the Passover Seder?

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    A lot of great thoughts. I agree with Anastasia–to understand Christianity in its historical context requires looking at both Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. And yes, I do in this case separate being Christian from studying Christianity

    Matt, I posted on that for your comments…

  6. *Christopher


    Levine has returned me to my study of OT/NT with Jack Sanders at the UofO and Luise Schottroff at GTU again. The richness, messiness and diversity of first century Judaism was a big emphasis of Sanders as was the relationship between Jesus/Paul and the Pharisees. Much of my best work was in those classes in examining Paul and Qumran. Levine’s work has caused me to shift my dissertation somewhat as a result because these matters pertain to liturgical interpretation as well, but has also caused me to again wonder if at a core temperament level in terms of practice I’m not more compatible with Judaism for a number of reasons. I’ll post on these soon.

    I will make two points about Caelius’ comment. The spiritualizing tendency has been indeed dangerous (Marcion) but the Christianizing tendency has been perhaps more dangerous to Jews as used once Christians were in power, but this “reading back” is there from the get go in the Gospels and Paul, and I’m not sure we can avoid seeing Christ in the Christian OT (which is of course not the same thing as the Tanakh).

    Yes, there is anti-Christian material in the Mishnah and even Talmud, though not much, a lot less in fact than what we can find in the Gospels or Paul or Epistles. That is not the same as anti-ChristianISM. It is only when certain anti-Judaistic tendencies in our tradition (which can be found in the Gospels and exploited) are coupled with a long-standing ability of Christians to enforce and carry out certain policies (power) with regard to Jews that we end with anti-Semitism properly speaking; these policies emerge very shortly following Constantine’s death, and though we can find exceptional Christians in the period who rebuked the practice of burning synogogues during that period, etc., they are the exception. Speaking up for the Golden Rule has it seems always been the exception. This is not to say that Christians may have been better off if Jews had been in charge, but it is to say that we are Jewish or Christian held to a fundamental principle of the Golden Rule. One Rabbi who lectured in our OT class pointed out that we can’t “disown” the “rule” as not Christian while claiming the “exception” simply because we disagree with the participation or acquiescence of the “rule”.

    It’s the difference between a prejudice or having disagreement openly in interfaith dialogue and an ISM.

Comments are closed.