I hope you had a chance over the weekend to hear Prof. Amy-Jill Levine (pictured here) in Kansas City talk about how to understand Jesus in his Jewish context. For her full Vanderbilt bio, click here. She's a Jewish scholar who teaches New Testament studies to Christian ministerial students.
At 6:30 tonight I'll be leading a follow-up discussion to her appearance here at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Even if you missed Levine's talks here I hope you can join us.
Briefly here today I will summarize a few points that she made, most of which grow out of her new (well, relatively new) book, The Misunderstood Jews: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.
* Christian seminaries generally do not teach students how to understand Jesus in the context of the various kinds of first century Judaisms in which he lived. The result is that many preachers continue to pass along, often without meaning to, anti-Jewish sentiments because they simply don't know how to understand the New Testament in a Jewish context. "Jesus was a Jew. This should not be news."
* If Christians often don't understand either first century Judaism or Judaism today, it's also true that "for the most part Jews have no clue about the diversity in Christianity."
* Some of the early leaders of the Liberation Theology movement expressed anti-Jewish thoughts that have continued even today among some followers of that approach.
* The World Council of Churches has produced many publications of the last 25 years that contain "shockingly anti-Jewish statements." Although the WCC at first denied and then defended these publications, Levine said, it recently has asked for help in fixing the problem.
* Anti-Jewish sentiments drawn from the New Testament come from many unexpected places, including former President Jimmy Carter's Bible studies, available online. Levine said she has found him, for instance, comparing early Judaism to the Taliban.
* Christian preachers, often without malice, wind up passing along anti-Jewish views because they have not been taught to understand how to read the New Testament in its Jewish context. For instance, they sometimes will say or insinuate that all Jews at the time of Jesus wanted and expected a militant Messiah. Well, Levine said, some did. But most did not. So it's inaccurate and reflects badly on Judaism to suggest that Jesus' peaceful approach was somehow out of character with Jewish tradition. It was not. Similarly, the idea that Jesus introduced a radical new idea by calling God "Father," or, in Aramaic, "Abba," flies in the face of much evidence that Jews before, during and after Jesus' time often called God "Father."
* It's important to understand the wide variety of followers of Judaism and of who considers himself or herself a Jew today: "The definition of a Jew cannot be Holocaust plus no Christmas tree."
* The Lord's Prayer is a perfectly good Jewish prayer. Indeed, at the end of the Friday evening gathering (which attracted Christians, Jews and no doubt others), one of the associate pastors of Village Church led the audience in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. It was quite lovely.
Well, there was much more -- and will be more tonight as we ponder what she told us over the weekend and what difference it might make to Jewish-Christian relations today.
* * *
RELIGION SWITCHERS ALL AROUND US
I participated in a conference call yesterday for journalists about the next religion study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and will have a more detailed posting about that in a few days (after I deal with a few other subjects). But to get you thinking about the study on why Americans seem to change their religious affiliations so much, I'm offering here today several stories about the study. For a Washington Post piece, click here. For the Associated Press story, click here. And for the USA Today version, click here. Despite all the churning in religious life in the United States, the people who did the study say it would be incorrect to call Americans mindless religion shoppers. For this new survey, called "Faith in Flux," click here. For previous Pew surveys on the religious landscape in the U.S., click here.