Monday, 18 June 2007
Tonight I attended a public lecture at Auckland University given by New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, currently on a tour Down Under. Levine is a joy to listen to, and a highly distinctive voice in the field (and I don't just mean the New York accent!)
For a start, she is a member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. Most New Testament scholars are of course professing Christians, but invariably exude a dour Calvinism, a mixture of apologetics and thin-lipped worldly denial. Jewish teachers don't seem to have that problem. While Catholics and Protestants tend to wallow in the awful sinfulness of it all, the Jewish view is generally far more optimistic, mercifully lacking the concept of original sin. I swear that you could tell the Presbyterians in the audience: they were the ones who didn't get the humor!
In the fundagelical camp there are those (usually devotees of the arcane discipline of "systematic theology") who suffer under the illusion that only Christians (i.e. their kind of Christian) can have anything relevant to contribute to theological discussion. Levine gives the lie to that myth. The church was conceived within first-century Judaism, inspired by a Jewish prophet, spread abroad by a Jewish apostle. Levine, who works tirelessly to emphasise the essential Jewishness of Jesus and his message, asks the kind of questions that bring us closer to the "real Jesus" than most Christian scholars are capable of. Being outside the fold, so to speak, means she can afford to be honest and direct. The denominational hacks who dominate the field could learn a lot from people like Levine. Her recent book The Misunderstood Jew is not to be missed. It's a sensitive, respectful look at Jesus through Jewish eyes, minus the Christian schmaltz, which makes it a uniquely valuable contribution.