The Life and times of a Jewish
New Testament Scholar
From Pope John XXIII to Pope Francis
By Caitlin Yoshiko KandilRewind to the summer of 1963: Future New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine was watching the broadcast of Pope John XXIII’s funeral on her parents’ TV set. The seven-year-old—who lived in a largely Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood in the town of North Dartmouth in southeastern Massachusetts—didn’t understand why she couldn’t just watch cartoons that morning, so her mother explained who the pope was, and that he had done good things for the Jews. Levine started paying closer attention, and soon announced that she would like to grow up to be Pope. After all, she reasoned, she would be able to eat lots of spaghetti, wear great accessories and help her own community. “You can’t be pope,” her mother told her, “you’re not Italian.” Levine chuckles at the memory of this 50-year-old exchange. “Clearly, for a variety of reasons,” she says, “I was in desperate need of instruction about the relationship between church and synagogue.”
Levine’s fascination with Catholicism didn’t go away. Although she attended a Conservative synagogue in nearby New Bedford—where she says she might have been “one of the only Jews who loved going to Hebrew school”—most of her friends were Catholic, and she often tagged along to mass. “I found it inspiring and a tad mysterious,” she says. “I was very attracted to some of the rituals. I always knew they weren’t mine, but I thought they were beautiful anyway.”
That innocence was swept away one afternoon when one of Levine’s classmates approached her on the school bus and said, “You killed our Lord. My priest said so.” Levine arrived home in tears, crying, “I killed God!” Her mother tried to calm her down, assuring her that God was doing just fine. Still, Levine couldn’t figure out why Catholics would say such a horrible thing about her and other Jews. While her mother called the local diocese to complain, Levine came up with her own plan. “I announced to my parents that I would go to catechism, Catholic religious education class, and I was going to find out where this hateful teaching came from, and I was going to stop it,” she says. “My parents—I was blessed in the parental department—said, ‘As long as you remember who you are, go learn.’”
Levine kept her word, and has spent the past half-century studying Christianity and Judaism, attempting to unravel the tangled relationship between the two religions. Today, the 57-year-old married mother of two is a member of an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville, Tennessee; University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University; and a leading figure in Jewish-Christian interfaith relations. Her 2007 book, The Misunderstood Jew, was a bestseller, reaching not just academics and clergy but the general public through media such as NPR, PBS and The New York Times. Throughout, her goal has remained the same: To clear up 2,000 years’ worth of misconceptions between Jews and Christians.
For centuries, the Catholic Church harbored the view that Jews had cut themselves off from God’s grace and were cursed as a result of their rejection of Jesus as the messiah. In particular, several passages in the New Testament were used to depict Jews as Christ-killers. “There was never a council of the Church that officially declared the Jews collectively guilty for the death of Jesus,” says Eugene Fisher, former associate director for the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “because everybody presumed it. It was never debated.” In 1964, around the time Levine herself was accused of deicide, the University of California and the Anti-Defamation League found that 61 percent of American Catholics named Jews “as the group most responsible for crucifying Christ,” and 46 percent agreed with or were unsure about the statement, “Jews can never be forgiven for what they did to Jesus until they accept him as the true savior.”
But all of that was about to change. In 1965, as part of the Second Vatican Council—a set of modernizing reforms set in motion in 1962 by Pope John XXIII—the Catholic Church issued Nostra Aetate, a document that revised the Church’s teachings on Judaism and other non-Christian religions. A response to the Holocaust and the Church’s complicity in it, Nostra Aetate affirmed God’s love for the Jews and invalidated the notion of Jews as Christ-killers by saying that Jesus’ death “cannot be charged against all the Jews” and that they should not be portrayed as “rejected or accursed by God.”
As Fisher sees it, “Nostra Aetate is saying, ‘Let’s start all over again.’ It’s a radical new beginning to say we’ll bracket this almost 2,000-year history of negative teaching and start from scratch.” Soon after Vatican II, Catholic theologians and Jewish leaders began engaging in regular, official interfaith dialogue, and the Church built the infrastructure to sustain these conversations, including the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs division at the U.S. Conference of Bishops. This was a welcome change in the United States, where—unlike in Europe—Jewish and Catholic immigrants lived side by side as minorities in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society.
Still, Jews had deeply rooted fears about Catholicism—and Christianity in general. So although most Jews applauded Vatican II—and Jewish organizations began creating their own departments of interreligious affairs to match those in the Christian world—many viewed the changes with skepticism. According to Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University, Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe opposed Nostra Aetate, “thinking it was an attempt to convert Jews,” while others, such as Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, were open to the prospect of interfaith relations but set strict parameters for how it could be done. Two millennia of persecution and mistrust could not immediately be overcome.
At Smith College in the mid-1970s, Levine immersed herself in coursework on the New Testament and early Christianity. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa with double honors in religion and English, she entered a doctoral program in New Testament Studies at Duke University in North Carolina. There she quickly discovered that studying the Gospels as a woman—and a Jew—was complicated.
It became evident immediately that would-be female New Testament scholars were not taken seriously. “The reason I go by A.J. rather than Amy-Jill is because when I first started graduate school, I realized I wasn’t getting the mail that my male colleagues were getting,” she says. “One of my faculty advisors said, ‘Why don’t you go by your initials and see what happens?’ And the gates opened. I would go to conferences and people would look at me and say, ‘Oh, I thought you were somebody’s wife,’ or I’d give a plenary and people would ask, ‘A.J.’s a woman?’”
That she was Jewish was even more unusual. Although Jews had engaged with the New Testament for millennia—particularly during the Middle Ages—it wasn’t until after the Holocaust and Vatican II that the idea of a Jew studying the New Testament started to gain more acceptance. One of the pioneers in the field was Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, an army chaplain in the Pacific during World War II, who earned his doctorate in New Testament Studies from Yale in 1949 and went on to write several landmark books: A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, We Jews and Jesus and We Jews and You Christians.
Although Sandmel opened the door for Jewish scholars, Levine—who had no intention of hiding her religion—found being Jewish to be a “bit of a problem” at Duke. As part of the doctoral program, she was required to teach at the Divinity School, but the dean refused to allow her to teach New Testament. “You go teach Old Testament,” Levine recalls him saying. “When I said, ‘I don’t do Old Testament,’ the response was, ‘You do now.’” She received her Ph.D. at Duke—where she met her future husband, Jay Geller, a scholar of modern Jewish culture—and then accepted a teaching job at Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia. There she again ran into concerns about a Jew teaching the New Testament. “One of the people on my search committee called my dissertation advisor and said, ‘Well, just how Jewish is she?’” she says. “And he responded, ‘She’s probably more Jewish than some and less Jewish than others.’”
A decade later, in 1994, Levine was hired by Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. Even though it wasn’t unheard of for a Jew to teach at a divinity school—Samuel Sandmel had become the chair of Jewish studies at University of Chicago’s in 1978—Levine says she faced significant “pushback.” “People within the Jewish community were concerned that I was a Messianic Jew,” she says, “and a number of Christians thought I would go out of my way to undermine Christian claims.” But unlike at Duke, Vanderbilt’s dean was encouraging. “He set up a reception for me, brought in all the nay-sayers and said, ‘Tell them what you do,’” she recalls. “Twenty minutes later, everything was okay.”
Levine, whom colleagues call “indefatigable,” “relentless” and a “dynamo,” flourished at the divinity school—which was founded as a Methodist-affiliated biblical department and, like most other divinity schools across the country, became ecumenical in the 20th century. She rose through the ranks, eventually becoming one of seven University Professors. She teaches courses such as “Jesus in the Early Christian Communities” and “Feminist Biblical Interpretation” to a primarily Christian student body—in the past decade, Vanderbilt Divinity School has never had more than three Jewish students at a time.
She has published extensively but perhaps her most important book to date is The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which she co-edited in 2011 with Marc Zvi Brettler, a professor of biblical studies at Brandeis University. The volume features more than 50 Jewish scholars commenting on the New Testament, explaining the Jewish context of the text and debunking anti-Jewish interpretations from previous generations. Brettler says the project was intended to give Jews a “safe way” to read the New Testament so they “don’t need to be concerned that they were being evangelized to,” and also for Christians who “wanted to know more about the Jewish background of the New Testament.” Both editors agree that the work is a testament to how much the field has changed since they entered it decades ago. “Twenty or 30 years ago, there were not enough Jews in the field,” Brettler says. “But it’s become more natural over the past few decades that part of what you do while studying rabbinics, in addition to studying Hebrew and Aramaic rabbinic texts, is to study the New Testament.”
Levine is one of the best-known Jewish New Testament scholars, in part because of her success in reaching popular audiences. “She has uncommon gifts in taking what’s arcane and esoteric scholarship that’s written for the guild, and translating it into terms that have real scholarly integrity but are accessible and therefore can change the viewpoint of a much broader public,” says Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland. Her distinctive speaking style, sprinkled with pop culture references and jokes that enliven her analyses of Jewish-Christian relations, make her a sought-after speaker.
Levine spends many of her evenings conducting adult education, and has visited more than 60 local churches around Nashville, which she calls “the buckle of the Bible belt.” Every Monday night, she teaches graduate-level courses to inmates at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. She also participates in a series of interfaith lectures at synagogues. Her home base is Sherith Israel, an Orthodox congregation that she happened upon because her son liked going to shul there. “So here I am, a non-kosher, non-Shabbas-observing member of an Orthodox congregation,” she says.
One of the goals of Levine’s work is to educate Christians about early Judaism—which is rarely taught in divinity schools and seminaries let alone adult education programs—as a way of combating anti-Jewish readings of the New Testament. “She delivers some hard-hitting insights that throw Christians back on their heels a bit,” says Leighton. “She offers new ways of interpreting the text that show that if Christians knew the Jewish tradition better, they would know and understand their own tradition more thoroughly.”
Lack of knowledge about Judaism has led many Christians, not just Catholics, to form a variety of negative stereotypes about Jews, says Levine: Jewish purity laws are oppressive, Jews are misogynist—“so that Judaism looks like the Taliban”—Jews are militaristic and reject Jesus’ peaceful message, and the Temple was a corrupt and exploitative system. “All of these are false,” she says. “They’re incorrect views of Judaism, but they’ve found their ways into Christian preaching and teaching.”
One key New Testament passage that Levine helps Christians decode is Matthew 27:25, the source of the deicide claim leveled at Jews throughout history. According to the Gospel of Matthew—one of the four books in the New Testament that recount the life of Jesus—the Roman governor Pontius Pilate brings Jesus in front of a crowd of Jews, who cries, “Let him be crucified!” Pilate washes his hands before them, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” The mob then responds, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
Levine has a number of strategies for teaching Christians about this passage—“because not all Christians think the same way, just as not all Jews think the same way,” she says. One is to refer to historical context. “When Matthew speaks of his blood be on us and on our children, he was likely thinking about the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE,” she says of the Gospel writer, who is thought to have composed his text between 80 and 90 CE. “The children of that Jerusalem crowd would be the ones to witness the destruction of the Temple. Matthew was not likely thinking about Jews 2,000 years down the line.”
Other Christians, Levine says, find it helpful to consider the role of rhetoric. “They might look at the New Testament material as Jews talking to other Jews. Throughout history, Jews have been issuing invective against other Jews—we’re argumentative. They might look at Jesus in the way they looked at Amos, Jeremiah or Ezekiel, and recognize that Jesus talking to fellow Jews in harsh terms might be normal.”
But her most important strategy, she says, may be helping people recognize that they have a choice in how to read their scripture. “Christians choose how to read in the same way that the Jewish tradition chooses how to read the Exodus narrative,” she says. “When we Jews celebrate Passover, we recognize how horrible it was in Egypt—centuries of slavery followed by the killing of Jewish baby boys—but it doesn’t make us come out hating Egyptians. It becomes the job of the New Testament professor, the Christian Bible study leader and Christian clergy to recognize that texts are open to multiple interpretations, and it’s their job to interpret their texts with love rather than hate.”
Levine is also on a mission to convince Jews to pay attention to the New Testament. Before this is possible, she insists, Jews, too, must move beyond their stereotypes. “A number of Jews think that a lot of Christian ideas are nonsense,” Levine explains. “‘How could somebody believe in a virginal conception? How could somebody come back from the dead?’ They think it’s a form of paganism, but when I point out that these Christian claims find root in a Second Temple Jewish context, they’re surprised.” Levine says that Jews frequently think that “all Christians deep down are anti-Semitic; all Christians believe that if you don’t worship Jesus, you’re going to Hell; and that if you’re Christian, all you have to do is believe in Jesus.” For Levine, the origins of these misunderstandings are simple: “Jews don’t formally ask questions about Christianity.”
There is a long-held “emotional obstacle” that prevents most Jews from engaging with Christians, says Yeshiva University’s Schiffman: “Jesus and what he signifies to our Christian neighbors conjures up 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and Jews being killed in very large numbers.” The New Testament also stirs up similar feelings. “If you go wandering around most of Brooklyn and ask if it’s okay for Jews to read the New Testament,” says Schiffman, “most of them will tell you, ‘No! You’re not allowed to!’” Adds Brandeis’s Brettler: “If you go into the average Jewish home, which has a lot of books, the New Testament is not going to be one. I think it is a reaction to the idea that this is a book that has hurt Jews over a long period of time.”
To convince Jews of the New Testament’s importance, Levine points out the historical relevance of the text. “If we want to fill in the gaps of our own history, it behooves us to know the New Testament,” she says. As Levine explains, there aren’t many Jewish sources from the first century, and the New Testament is one of the few available. Levine first noticed this as a girl in Hebrew school. “We were really good until the Maccabees, and suddenly, we were in the Mishneh, and I never quite understood what was happening in the first century,” she says, noting that she later found that the New Testament could unlock this past. “In studying the New Testament, I was recovering my own Jewish identity.” For instance, she says that it is because of the New Testament that we know that some first-century Jewish women owned their own homes, had control over their own money, had freedom of travel, went to synagogue—and overall, played a prominent role in the Jewish community.
Levine believes that it is precisely because of its history as a source of anti-Jewish teaching that Jews should engage with the New Testament—since this is the only way to correct and combat these interpretations. “I don’t think that ignorance ever helped anybody,” she says. “It behooves us to know what the text says so that if a Christian friend comes up with a misperception of Judaism or says, ‘My Bible says this,’ the Jew will be in a much better position to respond.” Plus, she says, knowing the New Testament is part of basic neighborly understanding. “Respect is reciprocal,” she says. “If I want my Christian neighbors to respect Judaism—which means knowing more about us than an episode of Seinfeld or Adam Sandler’s The Chanukah Song—then I need to respect them, and that means knowing something about them beyond Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I need to know what their texts say, and talk to them about how they understand those texts.”
There is yet another reason why Jews need to learn about Christianity. As Levine sees it, understanding Christianity is a way of strengthening one’s Jewish identity. “If we want to keep Jews Jews, we don’t tell lies about Christianity, and we don’t hide information—we educate ourselves,” she says. This view has become more mainstream as American Jews grapple with interfaith marriage. In October, Levine was the keynote speaker at the Conservative movement’s centennial. “We’re going to have to address Christianity in terms of our own knowledge, simply because we’re seeing the rise of intermarriage,” Levine says, “and we have to see what that means for us and for Jews who have Christian partners.”
Levine’s work is now widely accepted in the Jewish community. But not everyone is comfortable with her message. William Berkson, director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family in Northern Virginia, says that while he supports interfaith dialogue, he worries that Levine is too eager to “paper over the differences” between Jews and Christians, as if “identifying these differences is just going to cause trouble.” Others have continued the same line of attack she’s heard her entire life. “Please answer this,” reads a recent message posted on her Facebook wall from an Orthodox rabbi in Lakewood, “Does she believe the Gospels are divine? If yes, she is simply a Jew who converted to Christianity. If no, then they are man made, which means full of lies and mistakes, and therefore, why is she studying it?”
It wasn’t until 2000, 35 years after the Vatican put forth Nostra Aetate, that a group of preeminent Jewish scholars and rabbis released what might be considered a response that articulated a new Jewish position on Christianity. Called Dabru Emet (“speak truth”), it grew out of a conference at the Institute for Jewish and Christian Studies, and promulgated a set of principles that were published as a full-page ad in The New York Times including: “Jews and Christians worship the same God,” “Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book—the Bible,” “Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel,” “Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon” and “a new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.”
Levine, along with 200 other Jewish scholars and rabbis, signed the document, even though she disagreed with several points (she doesn’t think that Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book, and she thinks the phrasing on Israel could have been more precise). David Sandmel, Samuel Sandmel’s son and a professor of Jewish studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, was another signatory, and says Dabru Emet was meant to affirm the work of Christian scholars and theologians who have disavowed anti-Jewish teachings and to highlight these developments for the Jewish community—since many Jews are “still operating in a pre-1938 view of the way Christians viewed Jews.”
Although some Jewish scholars chose not to sign, Levine felt the good outweighed the bad, and that it was important to recognize the great strides made by Catholics since Nostra Aetate. Pope John Paul II, who was elected in 1978, was the first pontiff to visit Auschwitz and established full diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel. During a trip to the Jewish State, he visited the Western Wall, where he prayed for forgiveness for the sins committed against Jews throughout history.
The new pontiff, Pope Francis, elected March, caught the world’s attention in June when he said, “due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic.” This was not the prelate’s first overture to the Jewish community: As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he regularly visited synagogues, attended prayer services and held a series of interreligious talks with Argentine rabbi Abraham Skorka—which were later published as the book, Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra (On Heaven and Earth).
Watching from afar, Levine says she finds Pope Francis “remarkably open.” Although she has not met him, David Sandmel gave the pontiff a copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament when he met him as part of a June delegation from the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. “He was not aware of it, but seemed quite interested,” says Sandmel.
Sandmel also gave copies of the book to Olav Tveit, general secretary for the World Council of Churches and Metropolitan Emmanuel of the Greek Orthodox Church. Levine is pleased he did so because as Jewish-Catholic relations continue to improve, she believes the time is right for Jews to learn more about other Christian denominations. “In some sectors of the Jewish community, Roman Catholicism is the Christian default,” she says. “We need to think about liberal Protestants and evangelical Protestants. We need to talk to them about issues regarding peace in the Middle East. The conversations between Jews and Eastern Orthodoxy is in its infancy, and there’s much that needs to be done there.”