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.
Finally, back to some reviews and reflections from Levine’s book.
Let me say that I am not completely happy with this book. I don’t think my unhappiness is merely due to difference in point of view. I recognize that Levine is not coming from the same point of view as me.
I am sympathetic to Judaism and to Christianity. I live as a Messianic Jew. I am frequently with Christians and frequently with Jews. I understand some of the issues from both sides. I am critical of both sides.
Levine is also critical of both sides. Her beliefs as a Jew peek through the pages and look to be on the left side of Orthodoxy. If she wrote a book on the Orthodox movement today I have no doubt there would be sharp criticism as well as respect. She is critical of Christianity as well. The way she reads the New Testament would be offensive in places to Christians who love the text. Anyone reading the Torah with the same critical attitude she applies to the New Testament would be offensive to Jews who love the text (and should be to Christians also).
For example, and with great irony, in a chapter where Levine is answering the question, ‘Is the New Testament anti-Jewish?’ she belittles a New Testament text. I won’t bother with specifics (this portion is on page 113), but does anyone like to hear about a text they venerate: “This story makes no sense from any historical perspective”? Maybe we should ask the question, “Is Levine anti-Christian?” Maybe we should ask, “Isn’t everybody anti-something-they-are-not?”
If you are an traditional Jew, you may be unhappy with Levine’s sympathetic treatment of the New Testament. If you are a Christian or Messianic Jew, you may be unhappy with Levine’s critical treatment of the New Testament.
As I review and reflect on themes in her book, I am tempted to go in one of two directions:
1. I will bring up issues in which I agree with her and use them to argue against either my Christian friends who make no place for Jewish identity in the gospel or my Jewish friends who make no room for a Messiah like Yeshua in their belief, or
2. I will bring up issues in which I disagree with her and use them to argue against a sort of liberal reading of the Jewish-Christian dialogue.
I’ll probably be guilty of doing a little of both. But for today, I just want close with one more example of something I did not like in Levine’s argument. It is the way she handles one text in particular, but it is typical of other treatments as well.
The text is Galatians 3:16, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” Now, this is a great Pauline midrash (a kind of reading common in Judaism). Paul is applying Genesis 12:7 to his readers: “To your seed I will give this land.” The same phrase occurs numerous times as God repeats the promise.
Here is one way midrashic interpetation works: you find something unusual in a text and you go beyond the literal interpretation. No one thinks you are saying what the text literally means. You make an application that is legitimate from a fanciful reading of an anomaly in the text. The anomaly in Genesis 12:7 is simple: “seed” could be singular or plural since it is a collective noun. It is like our word “seed,” which can mean one seed or many (“I spread seed all over the yard.”).
Paul is not denying the literal meaning, that the blessing to Abraham will pass on through Abraham’s abundant seed, the people of Israel. In Romans 4:13 he uses it in this literal sense. Paul is rather adding to the literal sense a midrashic one. The promise is both to a plural (seeds) and a singular (seed). Who is this singular seed of Abraham who passes on the Abrahamic blessing? It is Yeshua.
Levine surely knows Midrash (better than I do, I presume). Yet she approaches Paul as a scholar not versed in Jewish thought would approach him. She simply looks for the literal meaning of Genesis 12:7 and says that Paul does not measure up: “The interpretation [by Paul in Galatians 3:16] is clever, but it does fly against the plain sense of the verse. . . . Paul would need better ammunition” (p.79).
Levine is a New Testament scholar and views these texts over and over again through the years. She is certainly not new to the interpretation of and literature about Galatians 3:16. She is well-versed in midrashic interpretation. I can only speculate why she overlooks, purposefully or not, the natural Jewish understanding of Paul’s midrash.