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Preaching and Teaching the New Testament: Promoting Anti-Judaism?

Posted: November 1, 2007

Professor Amy-Jill Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus," spoke on the topic "Preaching and Teaching the New Testament: Promoting Anti-Judaism?" during the annual meeting of the ADL's National Commission on November 1 in New York City. The following is a synopsis of her remarks.

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Amy-Jill Levine is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, College of Arts and Science, and Graduate Department of Religion in Nashville, Tenn. 

She demonstrated how anti-Jewish New Testament interpretation continues to infect congregations and classrooms around the world.

"The problem is less the Christian right, who consider Jews the 'chosen people' and who have respect for what they call the 'Old Testament.' Rather, the problem is the Christian left: mainline churches; the World Council of Churches; liberation theologians; and usually well intended but naïve academics."

She said that much like Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" claimed to be presenting historically accurate information, New Testament sermons and lectures promote ahistorical stereotypes of Judaism as xenophobic, elitist, materialist, warlike, misogynistic and otherwise so ossified that it makes the Taliban looks progressive. "Such negative presentations neatly complement anti-Jewish stereotypes worshipers and students either picked up in Sunday school or developed from biased media coverage of the Middle East," she said.

Prof. Levine provided several graphic examples of how this new anti-Judaism operates both globally and locally, and explained the faulty history on which it is based.

She offered the example of John Bluck, an Anglican from New Zealand, who asserted that Jesus is crucified because his "ministry of hospitality and healing and teaching" was "very different from the official version being promoted by the culture and religion of the day."

In other words, Levine noted, Bluck was preaching that Jews found hospitality and healing offensive, and so killed Jesus. "But Jesus is not killed because of hospitality, and he is not killed by Jews; he is killed by the Roman state on charges of sedition," Levine said.

Levine said such anti-Jewish comments reach their nadir in an assertion by Reverend Louise Kumandjek Tappa, from the Union des eglises baptistes du Cameroun: "Jesus died as the result of the clash between his G-d (capital G) and the god (lower-case g) of Pharisaic Judaism. … Jesus' crucifixion marked the temporal triumph of the patriarchal god of Judaism." She noted that these quotes were published by the WCC press in Geneva.

"I am happy to report that the WCC, when presented with these and many other such quotations I gathered from their publications, admitted that it had published anti-Jewish material; they are taking corrective steps, including printing my original article in their journal. But, what is on library shelves in Lagos and Lima, Nairobi and Nashville, remains fodder for anti-Judaism. In the summer of 2004, when I was living in a Maryknoll convent in the Philippines, I found such material easily available, waiting to infect another generation."

Prof. Levine explained that such writings are frequently part of what is called "Liberation theology," a genre popular among Christians who stress social justice.

"The cause is excellent; the means are not. Liberation theology tends to map onto Jesus everything good and onto Jesus' Jewish context everything bad."

She cited, as an example, Mexican American Virgilio Elizondo who states that with the coming of Jesus, "religion will no longer be based on the law and constant ablutions (a sign of their uselessness) or on the observance of precepts followed under the fear of punishment and guilt. The presence of Jesus is the epiphany of this new and different God -- not a God of fear and punishment, distant from us and delighting in sacrifice."

Levine said that Elizondo apparently "missed the lecture that noted that the G-d of Jesus is the G-d of the synagogue. I wonder if he realizes Jesus' commands concerning love for G-d and love of neighbor come from, respectively, Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

"According to Palestinian liberation theology, especially the type associated with Rev. Naim Ateek, an Anglican clergyman who directs the Sabeel Center for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem, the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the crucified Jesus of Nazareth find modern analogies in the Palestinians. Inevitably in such analogies, we Jews are cast as modem Pharaohs and Christ-killers." For more on this type of anti-Jewish rhetoric, she cites the materials collected by Adam Gregerman, "Old Wine in New Bottles: Liberation Theology and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 41 (2004).

Levine noted that this anti-Jewish teaching finds its way from classroom to sermon because divinity school students and seminarians read liberation theology and have two thousand years of anti-Jewish biblical interpretation to overcome. She presented a recent church sermon as a prime example.

"The following sermon recently delivered at a large main-line church in Nashville summarizes the standard move," Levine said. "The sermon, still available on the church's website, is based on Luke 13:10-17, a story describing a "bent over" woman whom Jesus heals. The minister asserted that the woman was "not part of the mainline Jewish religious institution… she was an unclean outcast... [she faced] the oppressive weight of the ancient religious legalism and traditions [that] bent her over… it denied her community, it denied her any personal dignity at all." "Then, Jesus… lifted the tremendous weight of the institution off of her… the weight of exclusion was more than she or anyone should have to bear…."

The errors in this sermon, Levine explained, are too numerous to count. They include: the gospel says nothing about the woman's being unclean or an outcast (to the contrary, she's in the middle of a synagogue, and not in a balcony or behind a screen); it says nothing about "legalism"; and it says nothing about how such legalism deprives the woman of dignity (because Torah does do so). The woman is bent over not because of Judaism; according to the gospel text itself, Jesus states that she is bent over by Satan. Thus the sermon indirectly equates Judaism with Satanic possession.

"Sunday after Sunday, well-meaning pastors describe Judaism in these terms. Then, for icing on this toxic cake, the congregation may well sing 'Lord of the Dance,' which is found in most mainline hymnals. This hymn is according to Stainer and Bell Ltd (the copyright owners), "the fifth most sung copyright song in school assemblies in the U.K."

"To a bouncy Shaker tune, congregations and school children sing out:

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame

The holy people said it was a shame

They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high

And they left me there on a Cross to die."

Levine said she recently received an email from a gentleman in a Methodist Church who had read her book and became concerned that his minister is an anti-Semite. The e-mailer cited an incident from a Bible study the night before, where the pastor noted that, just as the Jews engaged in financial corruption in the Jerusalem Temple in Jesus' day, so they add charges when cashing traveler's checks in Israel. "The Jews are still doing it," the pastor said.

The gentleman who emailed Levine then noted, "I am sad to say that there was a time in my youth when I accepted these venomous stereotypes." "Of course he did," Levine said. "The minister is presenting what he was taught, and churches aren't getting the information they need to dismantle these stereotypes."

Levine concluded by offering a series of suggestions on how to eliminate this growing anti-Judaism, including developing curricula on Judaism and Jewish Christian relations as well as fund courses for Christian seminaries, setting up special seminars for New Testament Ph.D. candidates on Early Judaism, and working with the producers of Sunday School material to be sure both that Judaism is portrayed accurately and sensitively and that the Jewish identities and practices of Jesus and his followers are depicted rather than erased. 

"The problems of the new anti-Judaism are manifold, but they can be addressed, and the ADL is, I believe, in the position to be pro-active in addressing them," she said.

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