Sunday, July 27, 2008

Amy-Jill at the Gates

Amy-Jill Levine slips through the pearly gates with some humor and a challenge

One of the New Testament and historical-Jesus scholars I thoroughly enjoy reading is Amy-Jill Levine. She's the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

She describes herself as...
“a Yankee-Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible belt”.
She grew up not far from New Bedford, MA, near a neighborhood that was predominantly Portuguese-Catholic. She recalls seeing Pope John XXIII on television as a child, and asking her mother who he was. Her mother told her and added, "He was good for the Jews." Levine said,
I immediately decided I would be pope; it meant lots of spaghetti, great accessories, and the job was good for the Jews. "I want to be pope," I announced to my mother. "You can't," she replied. "You're not Italian." Clearly, for a variety of reasons, I was in desperate need of instruction regarding the relationship between church and synagogue.
Of course, growing up with a fascination with the Christianity of her friends eventually and inevitably exposed her to the anti-semitic overtones that could unfortunately still be found within it as well.

In bringing her Jewish education and influence, as well as excellent and readable scholarship to bear on New Testament studies, Levine certainly provides some challenging and thought-provoking insights. It is always done, however, in a spirit of irenicism, and she has a very good sense of humor, which always makes a person worth paying attention to.

Here, in her book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, she imagines herself in front of St. Peter at the pearly gates.

After a long and happy life, I find myself- at the pearly gates (a sight of great joy; the word for "pearl" in Greek is, by the way, margarita). Standing there is St. Peter. This truly is heaven, for finally my academic questions will receive answers. I immediately begin the questions that have been plaguing me for half a century: "Can you speak Greek? Where did you go when you wandered off in the middle of Acts? How was the incident between you and Paul in Antioch resolved? What happened to your wife?"

Peter looks at me with some bemusement and states, "Look, lady, I've got a whole line of saved people to process. Pick up your harp and slippers here, and get the wings and halo at the next table. We'll talk after dinner."

As I float off, I hear, behind me, a man trying to gain Peter's attention. He has located a "red letter Bible," which is a text in which the words of Jesus are printed in red letters. This is heaven, and all sorts of sacred art and Scriptures, from the Bhagavad Gita to the Qur'an, are easily available (missing, however, was the Reader's Digest Condensed Version). The fellow has his Bible open to John 14 and he is frenetically pointing at v 6: "Jesus says here, in red letters, that he is the way. I've seen this woman on television (actually, she's thinner in person). She's not Christian; she's not baptized-she shouldn't be here!"

"Oy" says Peter, "another one-wait here:"

He returns a few minutes later with a man about five foot three with dark hair and eyes. I notice immediately that he has holes in his wrists, for when the empire executes an individual, the circumstances of that death cannot be forgotten.

"What is it, my son?" he asks.

The man, obviously nonplussed, sputters, "I don't mean to be rude, but didn't you say that no one comes to the Father except through you?"

"Well," responds Jesus, "John does have me saying this:" (Waiting in line, a few other biblical scholars who overhear this conversation sigh at Jesus's phrasing; a number of them remain convinced that Jesus said no such thing. They'll have to make the inquiry on their own time.) "But if you flip back to the Gospel of Matthew, which does come first in the canon, you'll notice in chapter 25, at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, that I am not interested in those who say `Lord, Lord,' but in those who do their best to live a righteous life: feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison..."

Becoming almost apoplectic, the man interrupts, "But, but, that's works righteousness. You're saying she's earned her way into heaven?" "No," replies Jesus, "I am not saying that at all. I am saying that I am the way, not you, not your church, not your reading of John's Gospel, and not the claim of any individual Christian or any particular congregation. I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Do you want to argue?" The last thing I recall seeing, before picking up my heavenly accessories, is Jesus handing the poor man a Kleenex to help get the log out of his eye.


cowboyangel said...

Very interesting, Jeff. I've requested the book you mention. I really enjoyed the excerpt.

Yes, humor. I need to cling to that!

I see the library also has a set of DVDs with 12 hours of her lectures: "These twenty-four lectures offer an introduction to the history, literature, and religion of ancient Israel and early Judaism as it is presented in the collection of texts called the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and the Tanakh."

Wow. Maybe during the winter.

Liam said...

That's great. I'll have to look into her work as well, when I have some spare time.

crystal said...

Margarita-ville :) I like her take on heaven - she sounds like a universalist.

Jeff said...

Thanks guys, I think you'll enjoy reading her. I know I do, even though she takes some of my liberation theology guys to the woodshed in a chapter called "With Friends Like These...".