SBL 2010, Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a rockstar. That’s my conclusion after hearing her speak for the first time.

It was a panel discussing whether faith is incompatible with “objective” historical research in the historical Jesus project. Several evangelical Christian panelists made their cases with a combination of worthy research and philosophical naivete (in my opinion). The evangelicals have bought into the dying paradigm of historical critical rationalism and are doing their work under a we’re-really-critical-but-we-still-believe kind of approach. I have read and much appreciate the work of the first two (Darrell Bock and Craig Keener), but I was not the only one thinking: problem!

Then Amy-Jill responded.

She is funny, intelligent, insightful, and a great speaker. Few scholars could match her podium presence. I’d love to see her and N.T. Wright (another commanding speaker) do a panel together (the entire SBL and AAR would come for that one!).

I don’t exactly agree with Amy-Jill’s positions much more than Bock and Keener’s, but I appreciate one thing: she knows that “objective” is bologna and that historical criticism is a defeated project from the beginning. I loved it when she said, “These evangelicals are buying into a paradigm just as it is dying” (my paraphrase — don’t blame her for the wording if I got it wrong).

The evangelical scholars say they want to use the tools of historical Jesus research including rigorous standards of proof to affirm any aspect of the gospel depictions of Jesus’ life. By the standards of historical Jesus research they can only affirm twelve out of more than a hundred incidents and sayings in Jesus’ life. What do they do with the ones they cannot affirm? They still believe them but would just say, “We can’t prove they are history.”

Amy-Jill’s stance is basically, who cares if we can prove history? We can examine the stories of history and find meaning for contemporary issues regardless of “proof” or “doubt.” Her book on Jesus is about overturning false images of Jesus that have led to Christian anti-Judaism, marginalization of females, and dubious notions of family morality.

My stance would be: history is not provable but is examinable, we can accept things without certainty, and after all, Jesus is alive, not dead, so our faith in his story is not merely about rationalism (see Luke Timothy Johnson in The Historical Jesus: Five Views). Historical criticism is the idea that the Bible is subject to human juridical investigation (it is guilty until proven innocent, by the way). It is a project which assumes one part of our being (reason) is supreme.

I don’t buy it. We are not walking brains, but whole persons. There is much more to our appraisal of the universe than our neural synapses. Spirit is real.

The good news is that even distorted research projects into Jesus’ life produce fruit. I need not share Craig Keener’s rationalism to appreciate his research into ancient biography or Amy-Jill’s political views to appreciate her Jesus-like voice for the marginalized.

I did, however, decide after this session not to attend any more historical Jesus sessions. I think the sessions on the gospels are time better spent than the “is the story of Jesus provable history” nonsense. At least that’s where I am on the subject.


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, Christian, Judaism, Judeo-Christian, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Yeshua, Yeshua In Context. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to SBL 2010, Amy-Jill Levine

  1. drschiffman says:

    I agree. I sat in on a seminar Dr. Levine taught here in Florida, and it was wonderful. We had a great discussion afterward and I was quite impressed with her.

  2. Ovadia says:


    I think it’s great to recognize the intrinsic limitations of historical criticism (and reason, in general) and move past it and on to other things, as everyone seems to be doing. It’s about damn time, because historical criticism doesn’t do actual communities of faith much or any good.

    I don’t think it’s wise to skip that step altogether, and go from pre-critical or non-critical approaches straight into post-critical. It’s one thing to say that HC has intrinsic limitations, it’s another thing to say that it was never worth pursuing in the first place.

  3. stevepurtell says:

    I agree Derek. AJL is really funny, insightful and on point. I also enjoy reading Amy Laura Hall’s articles for the same reasons.

    The only way that the historical Jesus movement is ever going to be fully satisfied is when they are able to get that Delorian up to 88 MPH. In turn generating enough Gigawatts of power to return to the Ancient Near East. Using Harry Potter’s Magic invisibility cloak and a Flip HD, they will stealthy document everyone of Yeshua’s moments. That is really the pinnacle of their research;-)

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