An Interview with Amy-Jill Levine
A self-described "Yankee Jewish feminist," Professor Amy-Jill Levine (Vanderbilt University) is a member of Congregation Sherith Israel, an Orthodox Synagogue, although her academic career has been decidedly unorthodox. Her recent books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperOne), The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us, co-authored with Douglas Knight (HarperOne), and the Jewish Annotated New Testament, co-edited with Marc Z. Brettler (Oxford). In this interview with Professor Adele Reinhartz (University of Ottawa), Levine describes her experiences as a person raised in the Jewish tradition who became fascinated by the varying popular and scholarly interpretations of the New Testament.
Adele Reinhartz: At what point in your life or in your studies did you decide to focus on New Testament studies or early Christianity? Was this a decision taken prior to entering the doctoral program at Duke or was it during the course of your program?
Amy-Jill Levine: My interests in "biblical studies"—although initially I thought more of "biblical stories"—developed early on. Excellent Hebrew school teachers who were thrilled to have a student who actually liked the material and even the language lessons, and a brilliant rabbi (Bernard Glassman, z'l) who encouraged me to ask questions and to develop my own interpretations fostered my initial interests in not only learning, but also analyzing, the biblical materials.
Catholic friends and teachers who shared with me stories from the New Testament as well as accounts of saints and martyrs enhanced this initial interest. I was fascinated with all things Christian, which in my neighborhood meant all things Portuguese Catholic. As I describe in Misunderstood Jew, one of my earliest career goals was to become Pope. My mother explained to me, when I asked about the television coverage of the death of Pope John XIII: this pope lived in Italy (that meant, to me, lots of spaghetti), taught people to be nice to each other, wore a special outfit (I knew I looked pretty in white), and was good for the Jews. I announced that when I grew up, I wanted to be Pope. "You can't," my mother explained: "You're not Italian."
I became increasingly interested in the New Testament when, that same year, a little girl on the school bus accused me of having killed her Lord. I remember responding, with no small degree of indignation, "No I did not." "Yes you did," she announced, "Our priest said so." I was under the impression that priests had to wear special collars to keep them from lying. Were they to lie, the collar would choke them. I therefore asked, "Is your priest dead?" Told that he was still alive, I could only conclude that I was responsible for the death of G-d.
By the time the bus dropped me off, I was crying hysterically. My mother, who met me at the bus stop, asked what was wrong. It took a while for her to piece together what had happened. When she did, she first assured me that G-d was doing just fine—which I found to be an enormous relief—and then she made a call to the local diocesan office; the priest was reprimanded. Shortly thereafter came the promulgation of Nostre Aetate ["In Our Time"; the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council].
Meanwhile, I could not understand how a tradition that I had come very much to admire, the tradition of my closest friends, could say such a hateful thing about Jews. I started to ask questions, and I have continued to do so.
When finally, in high school, I read the New Testament, I realized how that priest had reached his conclusion. Yet at the same time, I realized that one chooses how to read (had I the vocabulary at the time, I would have called this "hermeneutics"). My friends did not read their texts anti-Jewishly. One need no more read the New Testament and develop anti-Jewish feelings than when we Jews, reading each year about the horrors of slavery and then genocide in Egypt, develop anti-Egyptian views.
At Smith College, I double-majored in Religion and English (along with doing the honors program in Religion, which included a thesis, directed by Karl Donfried, on the Gospel of Mark, I also developed an expertise in Restoration "pornography"—I would have done a thesis on modern pornography, but as the chair of the English Dept. put it, "Young ladies at Smith do not work on such subjects"). I was interested in both the Bible as an historical document and in the art of reading, including how the text is interpreted over time and by people of various subject positions.
Having gained sufficient language training in Greek and Hebrew as an undergraduate, I was admitted directly into Duke's Ph.D. program; Duke was my first choice for graduate study: I wanted to work with W.D. Davies and remain grateful for that opportunity.
AR: At the time, it was not at all usual for Jews to study New Testament. How did your teachers, peers, family and friends react to this decision? Did they encourage you? Question your decision?
AJL: My mother, who graduated from college in 1933 with a degree in Mathematics and who was told by her family that she could not go on to Ph.D. work (her brothers both became medical doctors) but needed to come home and get a job, determined that her little girl would be supported in whatever academic interests she had. My father's idea of a great time in the evening was to put an opera on the stereo (never Wagner), have me pick out a volume from the old Jewish Encyclopedia, and then he would open the volume at random and say, "Tonight, let's learn about..."
A few relatives thought my interest in New Testament was unhealthy and did ask me why I wanted to study that "horrible text." When I asked them if they had ever read it, they replied, "No, why would I want to read that horrible text?" Ignorance never helped anyone.
In graduate school, the then-dean of Duke's Divinity school refused to allow me to serve as a teaching assistant in the New Testament classroom (I did suggest, through my faculty advisor, that the dean might want to check the christologies of the "Christians" on the faculty; my advisor, aptly, suggested that the question might be inappropriate). However, since my fellowship required teaching, I had to be placed somewhere. I wound up serving as a teaching assistant for several Old Testament courses, and to prepare to do this, I took as many courses as I could in the OT Ph.D. curriculum.
This initially unfortunate situation worked out splendidly (felix culpa): for my first job, at Swarthmore College—then a three-person Religion Department— I was responsible for the entire biblical tradition, the Ancient Near East, church history through Constantine, everything dealing with Judaism, and everything dealing with women, gender, and sexuality. My additional course work and teaching in graduate school served me very well.
The position at Swarthmore, where I spent a very happy nine years before moving to Vanderbilt, also surfaced some initial doubts about my agenda. The chair of the search committee actually asked my dissertation advisor, "How Jewish is she?" My advisor responded, correctly, "I suppose she's more Jewish than some and less Jewish than others."
When I was hired by Vanderbilt, the Divinity school dean, Joe Hough, received numerous complaints: some Christian community members were concerned that I would undermine the faith of the students; some Jewish community members were concerned that I might be a messianic Jew who would undermine the Jewish tradition by insisting it was incomplete without acceptance of Jesus as lord and savior. Dean Hough held a reception for the various nay-sayers, invited me to speak for about twenty minutes, and all fears were allayed.
AR: How would you describe your main research interests?
AJL: I am interested in depictions of Jewish life and thought in the primary sources, and in how those sources have been interpreted over time. I am also interested in the study of gender and sexuality, from literary representations to the (reconstruction) of social roles. When I started formal study—despite the fact that I was a Jew enrolled in a woman's college—I did not realize the extent to which the biblical tradition and its interpretations are implicated in processes of dehumanization, creating prejudice, and deforming society. Nor did I realize the extent to which the very same traditions contribute to social reform, personal growth, and multicultural understanding.
AR: Have you had experiences with students or others who have attempted to convert you to Christianity?
AJL: People frequently attempt to convert me, but more often they ask why, given my familiarity with the New Testament, I have not converted. I recognize that those who seek to bring me to the Christian faith are doing so out of love, not hate; in almost all cases, they have been respectful of my explanations as to why I am not intending to convert: I am completely at home in my own Judaism (I am a member of an Orthodox congregation, but I am not Orthodox in practice, let alone theology). Moreover, as I occasionally point out, belief is not something one can compel, and it is not something that can be gained based on rational argument. It is rather like love or, to use religious terminology, it is a gift based in grace. Whereas academic work can enhance one's belief (as counseling can enhance a relationship), the belief has to be in place first.
When in 2006 I came down with endocarditis and went into heart failure, a number of students and friends came to my bedside to ask if they could pray for me and with me, and whether in the face of death I wanted to dedicate my life to Jesus. They were often surprised to hear that while I welcomed their prayers (better for me than with me; I'd rather spend my time in conversation with friends than in prayer with them), I had no interest in converting, that I was not worried about the state of my immortal soul, and that I was not afraid of coming up short in a final judgment.
AR: How has your work been received by Jews outside the academy? Do you have a sense that there is a broad Jewish audience for books such as the Jewish Annotated New Testament?
AJL: I have led programs in over a hundred synagogues as well as at Limmud-UK, Limmud-Oz (Australia), Limmud-South Africa, and Limmud-Los Angeles; I hold a permanent appointment at the Woolf Institute, the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations at Cambridge; I have done talks for, among others, the national meetings of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hadassah, and the Reform Movement. The Jewish Annotated New Testament—representing fifty-one Jewish authors (including yourself!) from various movements within the Jewish community—has been positively reviewed in major Jewish journals and newspapers; my in-laws get nice comments from their friends when I show up in the "New York Times." On the whole, it looks like the reception is going pretty well.
AR: What are you working on currently?
AJL: At the moment, most of my time is absorbed with teaching the Intro. NT course for Vanderbilt Divinity School (cross-listed with Jewish Studies). Although I have four excellent teaching assistants, I nevertheless read and comment on all the examinations (there are 80+ in the class, and three exams during the course of the semester) and term-papers. I continue to do work to aid GLBTQI individuals who are seeking to find their place in their religious traditions and who have been harmed by religiously motivated homophobia; I work with both Jewish and Christian groups interested in promoting a two-state resolution to the crisis in Israel/Palestine, with a focus on making sure that legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, such as settlement expansion, does not bleed over into anti-Jewish invective. Finally, because the Association of Theological Schools rejected my request (made in 2006) to add explicit instruction in avoiding anti-Jewish preaching and teaching to a "best practices" curriculum for ministerial candidates, in my "spare time" I am running programs in the U.S., Canada, and the UK, for schools, clergy groups, and religious educators on this topic.
What I'd like to do is write, and for that I need more time. I am trying this spring and summer to finish three major projects: a book on parables for HarperOne, an introduction to the NT (co-authored with Warren Carter) for Abingdon, and a commentary on the Gospel of Luke (co-authored with Ben Witherington III) for Cambridge.