Pt 3: A Question from Levine’s Second Chapter

This is part of a series of blogs on Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, just released by Harper San Francisco. Amy-Jill Levine teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt and is an Orthodox Jew, though a progressive and a feminist (how’s that for a contradictory list of identifiers!). My musings on her book may range from using her as a springboard for topics to critiquing her work or allowing her work to critique myself and others.

First the bad news and then the good news. Levine’s second chapter is a little dry. Nothing revolutionary here. It is called “From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church.” Could have been interesting, but in the first place it was a little too basic. I guess it was written for benefit of readers who are not well-read in New Testament background and Second Temple Judaism.

Anyway, one annoying feature–she makes a dozen or so attempts to color the early Messianic community as a Marxist movement. She uses a bizarre collection of unrelated verses in the New Testament to paint a picture of a movement that rejected traditional family values (“neither married nor given in marriage” Mk 12:25) and that canceled all private and public debt (“they had all things in common” Acts 2:44). These things will work in the Age to Come because sin will be dealt with, but they are naively utopian in this age. For the record, Marxism has never worked.

Second, the good news. Levine does raise a few interesting issues in this chapter. The one that caught my attention was this one: Why Paul persecuted the church is a matter of some speculation. was he concerned that members of the Way were seeking to replace the Torah with Jesus? . . . Had he heard that the followers of the Way were teaching that the Law was unimportant or marginal or somehow replaced by Jesus? . . . Could Paul have been worried about the safety of his fellow diaspora Jews [because this new movement was viewed as Jewish and was bound to clash with the Romans]? . . . Or had Paul heard that Jesus and his followers uttered threats against the Temple? . . . Or perhaps Paul had heard that these messianists were praying to Jesus or through Jesus, for that practice may have suggested a second God . . .

This is an interesting question to raise. Why was Paul persecuting the Yeshua-followers?

Too often, it is assumed that Paul was a sort of proto-Pelagian before Christ. Pelagius believed man was essentially good and that we could earn merit by keeping God’s commandments. We can save ourselves. Supposedly, this is what Judaism, especially Pharisaism, believed. Thus, Paul went from being a saved-by-keeping-the-law Pharisee to a saved-by-faith-apart-from-the-law Christian. Much of this view comes from Luther’s reading and Luther read Paul in light of his own struggle with the Catholic church and indulgences.

Just today I was reading from a Christian missiology book (Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology And Mission by Dean E. Flemming) which gave this exact (minus the word Lutheran) portrayal of Paul’s “conversion.” It is a terrible misunderstanding and oversimplification.

Jews like the pre-Yeshua Paul were not worried about “getting in.” They were already in. They were Jews and they did not fall away from God’s covenant. They did not think every time they gave a denarius in alms they got closer to earning a ticket to heaven.

So Paul probably had no qualms about a community of Jews who followed the teachings of a man like Yeshua who kept the law. The Messianic Jews were known for keeping the law. Paul did not persecute the Yeshua-followers over the issue of Torah.

N.T. Wright has made a case that Paul was a Shammaite Pharisee (What St. Paul Really Said, a book with many flaws, but worth reading). He was part of a movement motivated by zeal like Phinehas in the Torah. He believed that he could help bring Messiah if he would rid the land of heretics.

What made the Yeshua-followers heretics? It is impossible to say with certainty since Paul’s complaint is never spelled out in detail. Yet the obvious answer would seem to be that: (a) they claimed their leader was the Messiah though he did not fulfill the expectations of Messiah (defeating Rome, restoring Israel, ruling the world in peace), (b) they claimed that Yeshua was divine, and (c) they claimed the Messianic Age had already begun.

Paul certainly had a different idea of the Messianic Age. It was the same as the idea of the Zealots, who sought to overthrow Rome with violence and assassination. Yet Paul’s method was zeal for Torah and purifying the land. Paul wanted to see Rome overthrown, but the way to make it happen was to bring Israel into forced obedience to Torah (don’t laugh, Hezekiah and Josiah had been praised by God for doing just that).

So, what happened to Paul on the Road to Damascus? Did he finally see that the Torah was obsolete and the new way of the lawless gospel was God’s answer? No, he saw that he was wrong about Messiah and the Messianic Age. He found out that a notorious Jew executed for claiming Messiahship had been raised from the dead. The Age to Come had already started, just as these followers of the Way proclaimed. The resurrection of the dead had already started in Yeshua. And the Gentiles were already being included as the prophets had foretold. His previous vision of messianism was wrong.

Paul started as a Jew and ended as a Messianic Jew. Plain and simple.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Amy-Jill Levine, Bible, Messianic Jewish, Theology, Yeshua. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Pt 3: A Question from Levine’s Second Chapter

  1. k.b. wilson says:

    I don’t understand your criticism of AJL’s reference to Mk 12:25. That verse, I think, is what Jesus says about the resurrection, not about here and now. If Jesus was apocalyptic, it does not concern this age, so is utopian for the Age to Come, which may in some sense of the word, be Marxist. Is AJL misconstuing the passage?

  2. K.B.:

    Thanks for asking me to clarify. Levine implies that the early Yeshua movement was applying Mark 12:25 (“neither married nor given in marriage”) in this age and not waiting for the Age to Come.

    Here is the quote: “Anticipating the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven, when they would be ‘neither married nor given in marriage . . . like angels in heaven’ (Mark 12:25), they promoted a system of family values that ran counter to the dominant Jewish view of the time” (p.55).

    Also, “. . . treating all in the group as members of one’s own family . . .” (p.62) and “. . . a utopian community in which they were all one family of mothers and brothers and sisters . . .” (p.63).

    My problem with this is that it takes too literally the social order of the congregation as if they eliminated completely the relationship of natural families. It also falsely connects Mark 12:25, about the Age to Come, with the practice of the early congregations.

    Thoughts? Comments?


  3. Jonathan says:

    You said,

    Jews like the pre-Yeshua Paul were not worried about “getting in.” They were already in.

    I ask the following question with humility…not with concealed motives…I really want to know (in your opinion):

    In post-Yeshua times, what is the eternal state of a Jew who rejects faith in Yeshua, but is obedient to Torah?

    In pre-Yeshua times, what is the eternal state of a Jew who did not have faith for the coming Messiah, but was obedient to Torah?

    Again, I am not trying to quiz you – I really want to hear your answers.

  4. Jonathan:

    You asked, in the age since Messiah has appeared, what happens to a Torah-obedient Jewish person in the afterlife?

    My answer is that there is no specific hope offered in the New Testament that such a person will enter the kingdom of heaven. The New Testament represents all people as separated from God unless through conscious faith in the atoning work of Messiah they are saved. I do not believe in some Wider Hope that may help people be saved unconsciously or postmortem through Yeshua.

    Then you asked, what about Torah-obedient Jews before Messiah’s appearance who did not believe in a coming Messiah?

    That question is flawed. The Messiah concept developed starting later in the Biblical period. There was no clear idea of a coming Messiah who would save everyone from their sins even late in the period. Isaiah 53 is certainly about a suffering Messiah, but it is not a text that could have been understood prior to the cross.

    What I am saying is this: I reject your premise that salvation in the period of the Hebrew Bible came by faith in a coming Messiah. It was simply believing God’s promises and being committed to him.


  5. k.b. wilson says:

    Maybe Chapter 2 is meant for readers like me, a 74 year old retired attorney described by friends as a non-Methodist agnostic member of a large midwestern Methodist church who spends his early mornings reading and questioning the Bible and commentaries thereon. I suspect I am out of my scope taking space on your page, but lawyers will be lawyers I suppose.

    I have just reread Chapter 2, specifically the reference to Mark 12:25 and to the mention of the social order of the followers. If the Sadducees posed the problem of multiple wives to Jesus, and if Jesus answered, 12:25 makes sense. If Jesus sent the 12 and others to evangelize, some communal living of their families makes sense.

    But neither of those isssues caused me to think when I read the chapter – I simply accepted both as possibilities for the time, not for a description of The Age to Come.

    Granted, I am biased – I enjoy AJL’s writings and lectures and agree with her basic premise, we need to talk with those whose views are different than ours.


  6. K.B.:

    Glad you are reading, man. I hope you will keep coming back and speaking your mind.

    I am saying Levine’s second chapter is subtly irritating, not completely off track. I feel sense of her liberal sensibilities coloring her reading in some ways I find odd. I’m sure my biases do the same for her.

    Anyway, simply, the part about not marrying is for the Age to Come. Jesus was not against marriage. He rather enjoyed the good wine at weddings in Cana, in fact.


  7. What made the Messianics heretics was their belief that Yeshua was “YHWH made flesh”.

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