Tackling myths about Jesus, Judaism

Vanderbilt's Amy-Jill Levine spoke in Cambridge on Christian and Jewish misperceptions of Jesus and his Judaism. Vanderbilt's Amy-Jill Levine spoke in Cambridge on Christian and Jewish misperceptions of Jesus and his Judaism. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
By Rich Barlow
November 22, 2008
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Amy-Jill Levine is not given to cliches, but the one about the road to hell and good intentions cropped up in a talk she gave last week. Levine used the old saw to summarize her point: Liberal, tolerant Christians are defaming Jews and Judaism.

From the left-leaning World Council of Churches and liberation theologians to former President Jimmy Carter, Christians have spread myths about Judaism: that Jesus overthrew a wrathful Old Testament God in favor of a loving deity, that he preached compassion against an obsessive-compulsive Jewish adherence to legalistic rules and purity laws, and that he was a first-century feminist up against a misogynistic Jewish establishment, said Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville.

All of which is wrong, and "it happens not by bigots, but by well-meaning ministers who are uninformed," she said to an audience last week at Cambridge's Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church. And Jews shouldn't feel too superior, she said, for they also need to bone up on their own history and appreciate, not reject, Jesus' role in it.

When it comes to religions, "I am an equal-opportunity kvetch," she said.

Two years ago, Levine published to laudatory reviews "The Misunderstood Jew," a book based on her research into Christian and Jewish misperceptions of Jesus and his Judaism. The message comes from a woman who revels in contradictions. Her website calls hers "a Yankee Jewish feminist . . . in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible belt." (She was raised outside New Bedford.) An Orthodox Jew, she teaches the New Testament, and her upbringing in a community of ethnic Massachusetts Roman Catholics left her with eclectic tastes: She finds "Silent Night" prettier than "I Had a Little Dreidel."

A respected academic, she showed her laid-back side when she doffed her black heels at the start of her talk. "I don't like to teach with my shoes on," she explained. "But these really are fabulous."

The informality prefaced a steely, passionate dismembering of what she called lingering misapprehensions of what first-century Judaism and Jesus were all about.

As for Jewish law imposing a burdensome array of nit-picking rules like kosher eating, Jews don't find them onerous, and didn't in Jesus' day. "It's not as if Jesus is going to be tempted to eat a ham sandwich," she said.

Far from dismissing the laws, Jesus embraced them, she recalled, in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's gospel: "Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law."

She disputed critics who say the Hebrew Bible depicts a harshly vengeful God, citing passages showing God's love. And the idea that "Jesus was Hillary Clinton," a feminist trailblazer, overlooks inconvenient facts - he didn't recruit women among his 12 apostles, for example - as well as Gospel attestations that Jewish women didn't have it as bad as critics allege. They're variously pictured as owning homes, having access to money (some subsidized Jesus' mission), and traveling independently.

Some scholars question whether Jesus was Jewish at all, she said, although she quickly stripped that idea of credibility by reminding her audience that it is a favorite neo-Nazi canard.

She finds practices such as Christian churches' sponsoring Passover seders, while more benign, still offensive, partly because some Gospels say the Last Supper was a seder.

John's Gospel, however, says it wasn't, and Levine believes him, on grounds that it would have been remarkable for Jewish authorities to arrange a hearing for Jesus during such a sacred time, analogous to the Supreme Court hearing a case on Christmas Eve.

Besides, she said, the seders of Jesus' day were governed by rules that no longer exist and so can't be replicated. She questioned the point of Christian seders, since Christian theology holds that Jesus is the new "Paschal Lamb" through his atoning death, replacing the lamb slain in the Jewish temple at Passover.

Her words apparently won one convert.

Following her talk, Harvard-Epworth pastor William (Scott) Campbell lightheartedly directed the audience to the place where refreshments would be served, describing it as "the room where we no longer practice the seder."

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